In defence of VS Naipaul

Published: November 11, 2012
The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar

The writer is a columnist. He is also a former editor of the Mumbai-based English newspaper Mid Day and the Gujarati paper Divya Bhaskar

VS Naipaul is often attacked for his ideas about India and the damage done to it by Islam. Most recently, the attacker has been Girish Karnad.

The playwright says Naipaul regurgitates Orientalist ideas about Muslims and their engagement with India. This is not quite correct, but I’ll come to it later. Karnad says Naipaul’s work shows his “rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim”.

Let’s examine the charge.

Naipaul has written only one novel whose central character is Muslim, A Bend in the River.

I would say it contains the single most empathetical, unprejudiced treatment of a Muslim in any book by any writer, including Muslim writers.

Naipaul writes in Salim’s character as a man, an Indian man. At no point does his Muslim-ness show. No prayer break, no halal food, no political comment, no moral outlook. Nothing like that.

He indicates Salim is Gujarati, but even that comes through subtly. From the fact that he’s from East Africa and his family and friends run businesses.

I don’t think Naipaul is prejudiced against Muslims. Prejudice indicates judging without information, a charge that must be laid against Naipaul carefully. He has some views about the religion’s damage to native cultures, but his work there is based on field reportage, not regurgitation.

In any case, much of what he has articulated is visible and indisputable unless one is blind to what is around. This blindness of Indians, their inability to observe and their retreat from the physical world is known to us only through Naipaul’s penetration.

The reason he deserves the Nobel Prize is this original work.

The fact is his theories have stood the test. Sensitive, deracinated Indians will recognise the world around them through Naipaul’s lens.

Karnad says Naipaul doesn’t see the synthesis in India-Persian music. That Naipaul does not comprehend medieval India (assuming there is one correct way of comprehending medieval India) because he is tone-deaf. “This is one problem with Mr Naipaul’s analysis of Indian culture. He has no music and, therefore, no conception of what Muslims contributed to our history.” He also says: “If you don’t respond to music, then you can’t respond to Indian history because the real development of Indian culture has been through music.”

It is true that Naipaul thinks of music as the most primitive of the arts because he considers hearing the most basic of senses. I agree with him. However, he is alert to the essence of Hindustani music. He knows what it is intended to communicate: emotion.

He shows us this in a couple of remarkable paragraphs, also in A Bend in the River, when he expresses what Salim feels when listening to a girl singing.

“The music that was being played came to an end, and in the wonderfully lit room, blurred circles of light thrown on to the ceiling from the lamps on the floor, people stopped dancing. What came next went straight to my heart — sad guitars, words, a song, an American girl singing ‘Barbara Allen’.

That voice! It needed no music; it hardly needed words. By itself it created the line of the melody; by itself it created a whole world of feeling. It is what people of our background look for in music and singing — feeling. It is what makes us shout  “Wah, wah!” … Listening to that voice, I felt the deepest part of myself awakening, the part that knew loss, homesickness, grief, and longed for love. And in that voice was the promise of a flowering for everyone who listened.

I said to Indar, “Who is that singer?”

He said, “Joan Baez. She’s very famous in the States.”

I would argue that Naipaul intellectually penetrates Indian music as few Indians do or can. He has a feel for it, even though it is unlikely to move him as much as it does us. But it cannot be said that he is ignorant of what it is and what it represents.

For Naipaul, the Hindu is no different from the Muslim, as his merciless observations show. You could accuse him of bigotry (something different from prejudice), but this must be demonstrated in Naipaul’s person, not his work.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (15)

  • BlackJack
    Nov 11, 2012 - 12:51AM

    I don’t know what Naipaul’s feelings are on the muslim community, and would be hesitant to make an argument for or against him in this matter. At least in my case, I find his novels on Africa (even with Indian characters) like a Bend in the River or sections of In a Free State are easier to enjoy, than say a House for Mr. Biswas, because the Indians in the West Indies, despite (or possibly because of) their similar names and common elements of culture somehow seem more difficult to relate to – it sounds like India but doesn’t feel like it. To reverse this argument, I believe that Naipaul sees India from an outside-in perspective (A Million Mutinies now and others) and is just as much the outsider as other writers who have written on the subcontinent; Girish Karnad should accord him the same courtesy that he would a William Dalrymple or a Mark Tully – just because he has an Indian name, you cannot apply your prejudices more freely. Further, Karnad appears to be on a roll, as he has chosen to attack Tagore shortly after his tirade against Naipaul, so this issue speaks much more about Karnad than Naipaul.


  • Khan Jr
    Nov 11, 2012 - 1:03AM

    I don’t really care if V.S. Naipaul likes or dislikes Muslims, Indians or Hottentots. I have read, over the years, most of his books both fiction and non-fiction. From the non-fiction books the picture that emerges, to me at least, is that Naipaul is basically a sad and bitter man who has taken up cudgels simply for the sake of expressing his private rage against the world.


  • Nov 11, 2012 - 3:06AM

    Sir, I have great respect for Mr Girish Karnad, but off late he has been making some very out of place comments. after Sir Vidia, he later launched a tirade against Guru Rabinadra Nath Tagore, calling him a below par playwright. Of course, Mt Karnad is entitled to his own observations but all his comments and tirades have come at very inopportune moments, say at International Literature festivals or in case of Guruji long after he cannot defend himself.


  • anand
    Nov 11, 2012 - 4:59AM

    “At no point does his Muslim-ness show. No prayer break, no halal food, no political comment, no moral outlook. Nothing like that.”

    i think you are confused or not sure why naipaul was blamed communal or anti- islam He talked about the animist religion and culture of south asia which majority of indian follows
    the thing is, in this country or i say in south asia, every or any symbol even remotely associated with the majority animist religion is communal. here the intellectuals like girish karnad and we dear author are at odds with nature.


  • Ravinder Kaushik
    Nov 11, 2012 - 5:22AM

    “When the Muslims invaded India they took the emotion out of Hindustani music because devotion is the basis of it”
    – Kishori Amonkar
    Search Art Talk with Kishori Amonkar in youtube for the full interview.


  • Nitish
    Nov 11, 2012 - 6:22AM

    Great job,Aakar.As usual,you exactly spot on.


  • upkamath aka prashanth
    Nov 11, 2012 - 9:06AM

    Girish Karnad says Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore is third rate playwright. This just after attacking another Nobel laureate VS Naipaul.
    – I nominate Girish Karnad for Nobel prize (category – envy)


  • x
    Nov 11, 2012 - 5:19PM

    “At no point does his Muslim-ness show. No prayer break, no halal food, no political comment, no moral outlook. Nothing like that.”
    showing “Muslim-ness” is not a bad thing. that does not denote prejudice or bias.


  • Cynical
    Nov 11, 2012 - 7:51PM

    Girish Karnad, on that occasion was plain cantankerous.

    I’m a bit curious to know, if Karnad had the courtesy to tell the organisers that he is going to talk about the worthiness (or lack of it) of the awardee.
    As a civilised person (which I believe he is) he should have told the organisers that he was going to talk about something, they may not agree with and might even be embarrassed. You don’t embarrass your host! (Indian tradition that Karnad was vaunting and flaunting about)
    Mere holding of a view, however noble, is not a license to be un-courteous.


  • Pir Bulleh Shah
    Nov 11, 2012 - 10:01PM

    The Nobel Prize is a sham. It was not awarded to Allama Iqbal – the greatest philosopher and intellectual the East has produced. Now Hindus themselves are realizing that Tagore was just a third-rate writer. Well-done Karnad for your honesty.


  • Aries
    Nov 12, 2012 - 12:51AM

    If he wasn’t such a Muslim – basher why is he an ideologue for the Bharitiya Janta Party. People like him give credence and respectability to the murderous pogroms of Narendar Modi.
    Next you’ll be defending him as well.


  • Nov 12, 2012 - 3:13AM

    @Pir Bulleh shah – FYI, Tagore’s finest work “Geetanjali” is on the Times likst of top 100 books of all time. So I dont agree with you or Girish Karnard


  • gp65
    Nov 12, 2012 - 5:56AM

    @Pir Bulleh Shah: “The Nobel Prize is a sham. It was not awarded to Allama Iqbal – the greatest philosopher and intellectual the East has produced. Now Hindus themselves are realizing that Tagore was just a third-rate writer.”

    There is no Nobel Prize for Philiosphy or intellectualism. Perhaps that is why even though Iqbal is the greatest philosopher and intellectual the world has produced , he did not get a prize.
    But if we are discussing poetry and comparing Iqbal’s with Tagore – I just have one fact for you to consider : Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry is the national anthem of 2 separate countries. Allama Iqbal’s poetry is not the national anthem of a single country.

  • Maula Jut
    Nov 12, 2012 - 9:46PM

    Of course, Naipaul was such a naughty boy but then he married Nadira from Bahawalpur. So we can be a little indulgent if you don’t mind. My vote therefore goes to the author of this interesting piece. Besides, Nadira’ daughter now carries the surname Naipaul. Can anyone confirm if V.S. and Nadira are still together?


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