It’s Time We Acknowledged VS Naipaul’s Toxic, Chauvinistic Legacy


It’s Time We Acknowledged VS Naipaul’s Toxic, Chauvinistic Legacy

Illustration: Ahmed Sikander

British author John Berger wrote in the seminal 1972 book, Ways of Seeing, that “Men act and women appear,” men and women in the space of art in particular. If life itself were the act, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s was peppered with disappearances – of women the world knows hardly anything of other than their temporariness in his life.

A couple of years ago, Naipaul’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival was regarded as the festival’s greatest moment, and his accompanying wife, Nadira Naipaul, perhaps the greatest convenience. From holding his microphone to wiping tears off his cheeks, Nadira Naipaul did it all, reaffirming that genius must always be loved, especially the genius of a man, no matter what the cost. And oh, what a price VS Naipaul’s genius extracted from the women in his life. Women, who under the shadow of his towering genius, existed as reflections seamlessly transitioning across the aisle of his life, each mirroring the other.

For his countless admirers Naipaul was a literary giant, the Goliath of prose, a writer who changed travel writing, and a novelist who indentured identity to the novel. To many others, he bore a variety of unflattering “ist”s – chauvinist, misogynist, apologist (for Western imperialism).

Born to parents of Indian descent in Trinidad and Tobago, Naipaul was thoroughly British (his eventual home). The rootlessness of his identity has often been championed as a virtue. But for all that was scattered in his heritage and inheritance, Naipaul’s eye was steadily perched on the tip of Western civilisation, acutely unaware of the margins, or the boundaries that Western imperialism not only saw, but had created.

For all that Naipaul was, a brilliant writer, a pithy observer and an unsentimental observer, he was never prophetic.

Unfortunately, these were margins Naipaul failed to touch, both professionally and personally.

Naipaul wrote his magnum opus, the novel, A House for Mr Biswas, as early as 1961. But it was his travelogues, his view of the Third World that earned him the billing as the unofficial guide of white men through Asia and Africa. Through books like An Area of Darkness (1964) and Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (1981), Naipaul attempted to declassify the exotic, but not without having ascertained the preposterousness of the exercise. His were the kind of journeys that repeatedly showered disdain on the fact that such journeys could be made. At best, he was the ideal pair of eyes a self-serving Western civilisation would have wanted, a man unshakably in love with the idea of his own authenticity, of his ability to write off, that which he thought was alien in comparison.

As I see a slew of Naipaul obituaries spilling out of newsprint, I am struck by one thing. For all that Naipaul was, a brilliant writer, a pithy and an unsentimental observer, he was never prophetic. In his later works, he became largely autobiographical, the kind of surgical writing tool that only pens obituaries, be it of people or civilisations. His declaration of the Middle-East and its Islamic countries as a land of “medieval cultural awakening” was regarded by the post-colonial critic Edward Said as “idiotic and insulting”. He wrote of India as “a country of nonsense,” a land so filled with distress that had its people been able to see inward it “would drive them mad.” To the average Western reader, this must have been music to the ears and eyewash to the historical blunders they made.

That said, perhaps the greatest irony lies in the fact that for all that Naipaul claimed was missing from the nucleus of the Third World, namely liberalism and equality, his own life was evidence of anything but. Naipaul married early, but cheated on his first wife even during her years of suffering from cancer. The toll it exacted, he jauntily admitted to in an interview later when he said “he might have killed her”. From admitting to beating his wife and his mistresses, to soliciting sex workers, Naipaul eviscerated the notion that male morality might be able to coexist alongside male genius. In interviews he claimed that no woman writer in history, not even Jane Austen, was his literary match and that the bindi Indian women wore symbolised “having an empty head”.

And yet, the florid tributes flow, written by the very people he chastised in his writings. Why is there a reluctance to point fingers at him, to call out the misogyny and reckless apologism for colonialism? Especially given the awakening so many of us have experienced in the post-#MeToo, post-Wakanda world? In the last year, as reputations of several actors, directors, and artists have been shredded, we’ve learnt that championing a terrible person’s work, only emboldens and helps perpetuate their terribleness. Why won’t we extend the same attitude to Naipaul?  

From writing people and entire civilisations off, to torturing and wasting away the lives of women, many of them still unknown, Naipaul lived across from the same crumbling house that he so slyly wrote about from a distance. For all the ghoulish barbarity he ascribed to Indians, Arabs, and Africans, Naipaul was no better in personal life. As a man of the earth in a world where women and minorities have begun to speak against the toxicity of men in art, Naipaul’s legend should be held up to the same scrutiny.

Could he sit through Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, seeing how he and men like him wrote the rulebook Gadsby has been tearing apart? Probably not. That should serve as our cue to reevaluate our idolisation of men in art – all men in art. Even when they leave us.