V. S. Naipaul had what is probably the briefest conversation of his life with me in a Bangalore bookshop about 10 years ago.
“Sir Naipaul, would you sign this book for me? My name is Zac.” I grabbed a copy of The Writer and the World (2002), a collection of his travel essays, from a shelf the moment I spotted him enter.
“This is a fantastic book,” gushed Lady Nadira Naipaul, before her husband had a chance to open his mouth. She added, lipstick-framed smile wide as the Cheshire cat’s, “However, we don’t usually sign the books with personal dedications.”
“But I am a travel writer too,” I blurted although that wasn’t perhaps entirely truthful; I had published a bunch of articles and wanted to go pro.
Through the dizzying flash of cameras in the bookshop, Naipaul glanced at his current wife, and there was a distinctly sardonic gleam in his eye as he turned back to me: “So what’s your name again?”
‘Since your name is so short, I am making an exception. How do you spell it? With a “k”?’
He scribbled in the book before I had a chance to correct him. I later thought of changing my name but in the end I accepted a misspelled dedication from a Nobel laureate as my fate. After all, despite my admiration for him, I had published essays critically examining his non-fiction.
Whatever we may think of his views on politics and women (topics that have come up in every other obituary), Naipaul had a truly outstanding career. Born in the remote colony of Trinidad, son of a small-time journalist and aspiring writer with roots in Uttar Pradesh, India, and Nepal (corrupted by colonial scribes to their family name “Naipaul”), Naipaul went to Britain as a cocky student bent on taking on the world. He published his first novel in his mid-twenties, The Mystic Masseur, followed a few years later by A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), which is now considered a masterpiece and on the strength of which he infiltrated the post-colonial world’s literary echelons, with a little help from the likes of Somerset Maugham. Outdoing the British at Britishness, he frequently, and audaciously, dismissed the greats including Graham Greene, whose superb books, combining awesome storytelling with global reportage, Naipaul must certainly have been inspired by. His thoroughness and consistency eventually won him an award that Greene (due to a reputation as a thriller writer) could have never got: a Nobel–in 2001. Naipaul probably won it as much for the quality of his writing as for breaking barriers in global culture. Throughout his career, he exponentially boosted what has come to be known as ‘the colonies write back’ movement. Since his 1950s’ debut, this has kicked open doors for seminal Indian voices ranging from Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, to writers from elsewhere in Asia, Africa and the southern Americas.
Other than novels, several of his thirty-plus books pioneered a new form of travel writing–a thoroughly pessimistic and cynical postcolonial voice which was a world apart from the white traveller’s gaze on exotic places prevalent prior to Naipaul. He wrote from the point of view of somebody who grew up outside privileged society, and took that vision to Latin America and Africa, as well as India, which his ancestors left as indentured labourers in the 19th century, but where the modern Oxford-educated lad felt an utterly anticlimactic sense of alienation. He went on to write three gut-churning books about India–the first of which, An Area of Darkness (1965), was banned here. I didn’t agree with his assessment of India as a gloomy, hopeless subcontinent. He seemed to have got off on the wrong foot, as his booze bottles were confiscated by the customs at a time when prohibition ruled in Maharashtra. Appearing grumpier by the day, he was clearly culture-shocked, coming here in search of ancestral roots and getting pulled down a peg by the mess he saw everywhere, literal and metaphorical, including historical ruins being used as toilets. In his critical essays, he also dismisses Indian writing as literary imitation.
However, with time his views matured and mellowed—though he continued to be extremely critical of the so-called ‘third world’ he eventually came to terms with the cosmic error involved in his coming from there, of being born in the wrong place, as he liked to put it. The second book in his grand India trilogy was the slightly more sympathetic India: A Wounded Civilization (1977) based on a visit during the Emergency, and there followed a further revised understanding in India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990) in which he constantly examines his reactions, and also interviews numerous notable Indians. He befriends Namdeo Dhasal, the Dalit Panther poet, in whom he perhaps sees a mirrored Indian version of himself, what he might have been had he been born in the country.
So his travelogues are not just stories from the road featuring that trademark superior Naipaulian from-above glance, but can also be read as a study of a travel writer’s psyche. Naipaul used whatever he found and whoever he encountered to explore himself. As he says in his foreword to Finding the Centre (1980), travelling widely “broadened my world view; it showed me a changing world and took me out of my colonial shell; it became the substitute for the mature social experience—the deepening knowledge of a society—which my background and the nature of my life denied me. My uncertainty about my role withered; a role was not necessary. I recognised my own instincts as a traveller, and was content to be myself, to be what I had always been, a looker. And I learned to look in my own way.”
In latter years, Naipaul was increasingly and noticeably sentimental when in India to give talks at festivals and launch his books, claiming that he wouldn’t write anymore, that the novel itself was dead, occasionally even crying on stage when he heard his own work being read out. He knew he had achieved literary immortality even as he grappled with physical decrepitude. But belonging is what matters, and he was a brilliant writer who belonged to world literature unto his last breath.
Zac O'Yeah is the author of the Bengaluru crime novel trilogy "Mr Majestic", "Hari, a Hero for Hire" and "Tropical Detective" (Pan Macmillan India) and his latest travel book is "A Walk Through Barygaza" (Amazon/Westland Books 2017).