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V.S. Naipaul: Immigrant, Philosopher and Rebel Extraordinaire
Sreeram Chaulia

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From 1998 to 2000, I attended University College, Oxford and became automatically associated in the tradition of the place with the old boy network. Among the portraits of famous alumni that lit and bejeweled 'Univ.'s tenebrous high-ceilinged 425-year-old dining hall', there was no trace of Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1950-4) and I interpreted it as another manifestation of Oxford's lionization of 'men of public office', politicians and heads of government in contrast to Cambridge's deification of men of letters and science. As the saying went, 'we' produced the leaders and 'they' the scholars!

Benignly posing and blessing us when we broke our daily bread were Thomas More (1492-4), the Lord Chancellor who disagreed with Henry VIII's religious convictions and was executed with the testament -- 'the King's good servant, but God's first'; Francis Rawdon Hastings (1769-71), the militarist Governor General of Bengal who extended the banner of the East India Company in India; Clement Attlee (1903-6), British Prime Minister who invested in the NHS and disinvested in India; Harold Wilson (Fellow, 1937-9), twice Labour Prime Minister best remembered for taking steps to integrate Britain into the European Community; and Bill Clinton (1968-70), twice American President who demonstrated against US involvement in the Vietnam War on Oxford's High Street. Of course, Univ. had on its rolls litterateurs and academics like William Jones (1764-7), Percy Shelley (1810-1), Monier Monier Williams (Professor, 1860-99), William Beveridge (Master, 1937-44), Stephen Spender (1926-30) and Stephen Hawking (1959-62). But they never got the billing the 'leaders' received in prospectuses and college publicity, not to mention the dining hall 'parade of legends'. Naipaul, for one, was rarely mentioned and I met several current students who hadn't even heard of his name.

Part of the step-motherly acknowledgement and cognizance of Naipaul's links to Univ. may also have to do with his irreverent character that conservative Oxford never digested. In Letters Between a Father and a Son (1999), he recounted how loneliness and penury while at Univ. drove him to a nervous breakdown lasting eighteen months and encompassing an aborted suicide attempt (thwarted when the gas meter ran out). Having condemned his native Trinidad and Tobago as 'unimportant, uncreative, cynical and a dot on the map', Naipaul found it equally hard to adjust to Oxford's costly living with a meagre scholarship from the Port-of-Spain government. "There were a lot of working-class people who'd been given special grants... They were not all fine. Some were; most were not," he said placing himself in the latter category.

Besides, as his tutor Peter Bayley recalled years later, "Naipaul had not quite forgiven us for giving him a second-class degree." The animus he had for those years was very sharply betrayed in a recent interview when Naipaul minced no words to declare, "intense boredom... intellectually, Oxford was a disappointment to me." I cannot recall another Oxonian with a more acerbic assessment of his alma mater! My tutor and unofficial historian-general of Univ., Leslie Mitchell, confided that Naipaul's grudge with college was so intense that he never replied to courtesy contact invitations sent out by the Alumni Office and numerous Masters. The opinion of dons in the Senior Common Room to which I was occasionally privy to, was always that Naipaul had been a 'bit of a pest' who got on the nerves of the college with his impious nature.

Yet, in 1999, commemorating Univ.'s 750th foundational anniversary, Naipaul came to lecture at the college he may have at one point wished to disown. Dressed immaculately in tweed suit and bowler hat and aided by a finely carved walking cane, he finally stepped onto the turf of the main quadrangle lawns with a flashing grin as if burying a senseless hatchet. Poetic justice, literally, seemed to have been done at last with Naipaul reading out of his new publication in the same 'Builders of the New Millennium' series of talks that had been inaugurated by sitting Prime Minister Tony Blair. Reading and Writing: A Personal Account was his twenty-sixth widely acclaimed publication in a prolific writing career of more than four decades, and he gave a gracious rendering before a packed house from this literary autobiography on his early days as a confused little third-generation immigrant of Indian origin in the Caribbean, whose devout caste Hindu mother refused to sever ties with unforgotten rituals of 'our island, India'. Later, he answered audience questions to the effect that there was a correlation between his personal upbringing and the historical experience that drew him to writing two sequential books on 'our remembered India'.

Having perused both India: A Wounded Civilisation and India: A Million Mutinies Now (in reverse order!), this linkage idea appeared most apposite to me, for Naipaul's oeuvre floridly brings out the traumas of India under its various conquerors and the painful sense of dereliction and loss that shadows émigré writers' attempts to capture in prose this ancient yet modern land and its people. True to his reputation for unconventional insights, Naipaul's Million Mutinies enters into an astonishing juxtaposition of Gandhi and 'Periyar' Ramaswamy Naicker and through them, of the various regional similarities and divergences of Indian ethos and culture. I once sat beside an Australian tourist on a plane to Delhi and found him immersed in this very book, furiously annotating just as I did when I first read it. I asked him why he wasn't consulting a typical holidaymaker's guide of India instead. He replied: "I like philosophy." Naipaul is unquestionably a seer who tests the boundaries between the mundane and the ethereal and intermeshes the factual with the subliminal. I liken him to a Salman Rushdie of non-fiction (the vice-versa applies too -- Rushdie can be termed the V.S.Naipaul of fiction).

The 2001 Nobel Prize for Literature, arriving at long last after being tipped to be Naipaul's for a number of years now, is a tribute to this towering intellectual and prophet of the immigrant experience. The Swedish Academy's citation that his works "compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories" cannot be more befitting, for he has always lent meditative and heuristic touches to a plethora of landscapes, from Trinidad to India to Equatorial Congo to Indonesia to Argentina to Iran and so forth. It is one thing to possess an unquenchable wanderlust, natural to highly conscious expatriates and global nomads, and another to record these travels into cerebrated reflections as Naipaul does. Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (1998), for instance, explores the differences between 'earth religions' and 'revealed religions' and accuses the latter (Islam) of taking believers away from their local geographical and cultural habitats to distant Arabia. Rebel that Naipaul has always been, it takes serious conviction and gumption to come up with stunning one-liners like: "to believe in Islam means to reject one's history." One may agree or disagree, but Naipaul will never fail to entertain by challenging existing notions on every subject under the sun and in every part of the globe.

Univ. should be embellishing its worldwide alumni profile with a new portrait in its hallowed dining hall, that of an original universal mind -- V.S. Naipaul.