An analysis of the critical reception of a writer who has built a stellar career writing controversial books that speak for the West and against postcolonial Muslims
By Arif Azad
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul is loved and hated in equal measures. His admirers are mainly those who are influenced by the grace and craftsmanship of his writing, which indeed is elegant and sparse. This group can include young writers like Pankaj Mishra, who has written beautifully on V. S. Naipaul. Behind Pankaj's admiration lurks V. S. Naipaul's role, perhaps, as a model who rose to the height of prose writing in a language not his own. I can also sense similar admiration for Nirad Chaudhry in the writings of Pankaj Mishra (Mishra has written excellently on Nirad Chaudhry as well). It is well known now that Nirad Chaudhry was one of the most ardent Anglophile Indian that ever lived in India.
Of his detractors, there is an army: a motley crowd of black writers, anti-colonialists, anti-racists and die hard secularists. Let us take the camp of his detractors who come from anti-fundamentalist mindset. This group includes, mostly, South Asian secularists. Lately this group has been amplified by the intervention of William Dalrymple who has dubbed V. S. Naipaul's support for the BJP and his strident anti-Muslim position as historically ignorant. Dalrymple takes issue with Naipual's simplistic reading of Islam in India as a predatory presence wounding the psyche of the Hindu nation. In an article, Dalrymple showed V. S. Naipual's skimpy knowledge of history and selective manipulation of history contributory to the political project of the BJP. Whereas Naipaul shows the state of Vijayanagar as the quentessinal Hindu state, Dalrymple avers that state benefited hugely from the infusion of Islamic practices and rituals. As a result, a syncretic culture came into being which ultimately enriched the culture of India. Similarly on Ayodhya, Dalrymple counters Naipaul's claims, on the basis of recent scholarship, that desecration of scared places was far less than projected in the books of Naipaul. Moreover, according to Dalrymple, Naipaul in his single-minded pursuit of demonisation and belittling the role of Muslims in building a composite culture, does brush aside Sufi culture which is an indigenous religion. Naipaul, in his books, portrays Muslim as a disoriented people lacking roots as they are always harking back to Mecca. In Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, Naipaul depicts Muslims as a rootless people mentally tied to Arab regions. In both the books, surveying the same countries, Naipaul's judgments are remorselessly severe, lacking compassion. He pays no heed to the various forms of religions being practiced under the broader umbrella. For instance, one can detect various small differences in practices between Indonesian Islam and Pakistani Islam.
Nepal's left-wing critics slag him off for institutionalising postcolonial society as deformed by the exit of colonisers from the scene. Here, again, his limited knowledge of the variegated histories of anti-colonialism and how colonialism contributed to the subsequent deformation informs his writings. This built-in deterministic attitude towards postcolonial societies runs through his travel writings on Argentina, the Congo, Trinidad, India, and the Muslim world. His uninvolved hauteur and total ignorance of anti-colonial stirrings of decolonised people places Naipaul in the league of some of the European writers advancing the notion of benevolent imperialism. In slight mitigation one can cite his own insecure and rootless childhood position in Trinidad where his forefathers arrived as indentured labourers. This marginal position might have contributed to his search for epistemic security within the realm of imperialism.
Naipaul's uninvolved hauteur suffuses his writing on migration and the portrayal of migrants in his fiction. He remains a stern critic of multiculturalism and his fiction does not give a whiff of the enormous community struggles raging in Britain for the rights of migrants. Here, too, he is far removed from the blood and sweat of anti-racist struggles and movements for civil rights for ethnic minorities in the West. Not a single instance of positive coverage of anti-racism surfaces: wherever he discusses race politics it is in wholly negative terms. For instance Naipaul's essay on Michael X (with the exception of few deep and luminous insights) is thoroughly critical of the programme and aspiration of the black power movement and its various political permutations in Britain. A. Sivinandan, editor of prestigious Race and Class, and late Eqbal Ahmed, remain his severest critics on this aspect of his work.
Naipaul's fiction and writings have also riled a power influential voices form among the writers of black extraction Caryl Phillips, the most politically conscious black writer in diaspora, criticised Naipaul for not mentioning Trinidad, Naipaul's birthplace, as the major creative influence on his fictional fecundity. Derek Walcott, the ineffable poet of Caribbean lyricism, has gone so far as to describe V. S. Naipaul as V. S. Nightfall because of the unremitting bleakness of his fiction in relation to his homeland. This long-standing criticism was given a sharp new edge recently at a literary festival where Derek Walcott lampooned Naipaul in a poem.
Though Naipaul may be great craftsman of the language, his unsympathetic portrayal of the countries and the people populating his fiction has raised hackles among a whole host of his readers. On this score, Naipaul may remain a limited writer for propagating politically limited and unsympathetic vision in his fiction.
Not infrequently do we see the signboards saying 'Punchar done here' or 'Vegitable shop', amidst a plethora of advertising billboards hollering out messages in hybridrised English within a claustrophobic urbane commercial centre. And, how many of the reasonable well-educated persons attempt to set right the glaring gaffe in spelling and syntax? Why is it that there is no conscientious obligation on the part of the onlooker and itinerant observer to correct what they consider to be 'bad' language? This is all the more so with a language that gained "tremendous momentum" - English. While many an English scholar has taken every effort to point out the general decline in the 'quality' of the language in India, there are, regrettably, as many convent-type English educated members of the literati, who take pleasure in pinpointing the unnatural affection for English from Indians, going to the extent of even branding this gross fondness 'English Fetishism.' It would be reasonable to remember here the brutal beatings that the convent-educated student gives to his / her own mother tongue. So much for a language purist!
This will most likely be a very significant and fundamental issue that will strike a reader traversing Binoo K John's book that "hopes to capture the new grammar and the vocabulary, the essence, the unintended humour, and the way Indian-English has sallied forth in this country." After all, is there a moral commitment for everyone to use a language 'correctly'? Communication or correctness, which of the two is important for a language? Both, would be a typical answer, going by increasing 'concern' over the language in popular media. At the same time, it cannot be disputed that speaking with English words (not in English) peppered here and there, was an issue more than communication or correctness - it was simply 'confidence.'
Entry From Backside Only then, is, on reflection, not about the communication or correctness part of the English language; it is, rather, an easy-to-read narrative of how English is written and spoken by Indians, given their idiosyncratic love for Inglees, as well as how their natural bond to their mother language influenced the way English was spoken and written. At one point of time or other, we have all been privy to the ways English has been repeatedly mutilated and maimed, either in our own mouths, or in that of our friends' and relatives.' Binoo's book too carries with it the sense of being able to relate easily to events that he recounts - the visits to the centres specialising in teaching spoken English, the bilingual advertisements that pop out from newspapers and magazines, or even the syntactical blunders in government documents and hoardings. There is, without doubt, the unending rendezvous with Hindi cinema and its unremitting mauling of the English language that finds mention in the book.
Readers acquainted with Lyne Truss' Eats, Shoots and Leaves would find this book to perform a somewhat similar function - to bring to light what has hitherto been considered the 'right' way to use English. However, this is where the similarities end. While Eats, Shoots and Leaves is more of a reference guide (a zero tolerance approach to punctuation), Binoo's Fundas of Indian-English is predominantly a humorous account of how English language has struggled to find a place of respect with Indians using it. In this way, there is no 'teaching' or 'guiding' involved in the book. Ordinary issues like why there is linguistic misuse and why does English give one a higher status than other languages in India are raised, but have not been considerably explored.
To be sure, this reasonably-priced book does not seem to profit from the 'follies' of Indian usage of Queen's English, which is a relief in itself. However, can the act of documenting Indians' indulgence with English in the form of a book, serve a fair purpose for its publication? Does it not seem that the book relies more on a fault-finding mission to bring to light Indians' insouciant attitude for English? What's more, one remains clueless as to how the Indian, who takes to using 'Indian-English', would feel when he or she reads this book - would he / she cringe at coming to know of years of misuse of the language, or would he or she consider the writing with a pinch of salt, believing the book to an overdose of commonplace occurrences?
No matter what, one still cannot reconcile oneself to accepting English, spoken and written by Indians, as a "bastardised form of English," or even judge awkwardly the new category 'Indian-English' as an "illegitimate child." Using word like these does not serve the purpose of highlighting the problem that Indians are faced with, namely, an in-built complacence towards the language itself. An associated issue that comes up for discussion is why this "fascination for English" remains to be an enthrallment for using the language (no matter how), and not for its appropriate configuration (spelling, syntax, spelling and all)? Has the Indian education system failed to deliver its commitment? Or, do Indians find the communicative power of the language taking precedence over 'correctness', because one could always get away with speaking / writing English in a laid-back manner? Undeniably, it is time one goes back to George Barnard Shaw's exposition of 'good' English and 'correct' English. Undeniably, a small helping of 'bad' English can always make one fashionable and voguish, like the email assertions, 'Me doing good' and 'I is fine.' Evidently, Annie Sullivan's averment that language "grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences…" bewitches evens a linguistic stickler.
is an exclusive contribution to TNS)
In Antigone, the theme is the conflict between right and wrong. A woman is determined to perform proper funeral rites for her dead brother in defiance of the current law. She is led away to the family tomb to meet her punishment. It is a tense and dramatic moment.
O tomb! O nuptial chamber!
O house deep delved
In earth, safe, guarded ever!
To Thee I come
And to my kin in Thee who
may as one
Are with Persephone, dead
among the dead
And least of all most
miserably by far,
I thither am goin, ere my
life's term be done…"
And so Antigone walks to her rock tomb where she is
Women play an active part in Sophocles' plays. Characters like Electra and Antigone and Jocasta stand out most strongly. Sophocles also raised the number of the Chorus to fifteen and assigned a disciplined action to it.
Euripides, the third and last great writer of Greek tragedy, has always been regarded as a revolutionary. He lived from 485 until 406 BC and the span of the years of his life covered a period when, to borrow a Homeric phrase, "earth-shaking changes took place in the history of Greece." In 480 B.C Greece had fought the battles of Marathon and Salamis and thrown back the invaders. Athens from that moment rose to greatness. Her cities were rebuilt and embellished with the splendours of sculpture and architecture which are unforgettable even today. Her citizens became more worldly and more conscious of material things. One might say that they forgot the gods. Athens must have become rather arrogant and overweening because the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta broke out in 430 BC and lasted until the end of the century with disastrous results on both sides.
Euripides was a contemporary to all these events. He saw the surge to power and the worldliness that such success brought with it. He saw disaster and downfall as well. He was profoundly stirred by everything and, in the end, his views were held to be so advanced that he died in exile as a very old man.
Fortunately for us, nineteen of Euripides' works are extant in their entirety. He still used the old legends with which the Greeks were so familiar, but he was different from Sophocles and Aeschylus in that he aimed to take, as the object of his tragedy (and poetry), the actual, everyday life of his own world and time. In doing this he made the study of women a special feature of his work. He also, more or less, forgot the gods and sometimes made fun of them. To the Athenians, in spite of all their advancement, these things were shocking. Women were kept very much in the background and to see them portrayed on the stage, having feelings, and getting their own way, must have made audiences feel uneasy. Iphigenia is a competent young woman, too competent, in fact, till she comes to recognize her brother Orestes. Phaedra, the young queen, who falls in love with her son, is pathetic and arouses all our pity; the arch sorceress Medea, is a woman full of vengeance who tries to beat the inevitable.
In actual plot construction, Euripides also made changes for he used a prologue at the beginning of his plays. He certainly brought a 'new look' to tragedy as a whole.
Open mockery of the gods was something of a scandal. Euripides' play, The Bacchae, is a manifestation of this. Dionysus is the son of Zeus and is the god of wine, music and dancing, in short all those senses and emotions which are considered to be restless and wild. His worshippers, mostly women, celebrate his rites, at first, joyously, and then get out of control so much that the results are disastrous. Euripides was trying to show that while it was all right to worship, to pay tributes for certain joys of life, too much excess led to wickedness of every kind, violence, hatred and greater sins. Perhaps in the agonies of war, the Athenians had indulged in orgies of this kind and the play was a lesson to them, but to Euripides, Dionysus was not all powerful.
Euripides propounds great moral problems. He analyses human instincts, passions and motives. He voices the cry of the human soul against the tyranny of the
super-natural. He rails against the cruelty and selfishness of man and the crushing weight of customs and environment. He does not pose any answers to any of these things, but he questions, like his contemporary, Socrates, who was put to death for corrupting the youth and teaching them new ways.
More than a thousand years of reality lay behind the fables of Homer and Sophocles. It is also important to bear in mind that in the classic order, men and women had their assigned place. If they deviated or rebelled they were subjected to punishments clearly marked out. The playwright thus dealt with guilt and lust and the accompanying anguish and not with the existential loneliness of the individual: he gave to reality shape and order. Purgation had a positive meaning for the playwright as well as the playgoer.
The Athenians were in the rather unique position of knowing, when they entered the theatre, what the plot was going to be. (They, of course, had proper theatres built with seating and a decent stage with wings and other properties like masks). Imagine then, the sophisticated audiences of Athens waiting in their seats to see, how this or that poet-dramatist dealt with Hercules, Prometheus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Oedipus, Antigone and Ajax. They will reel with horror at each new interpretation of the story of the house of Thebes. Not only that: the chorus helped them in learning how to cope with certain aspects of man's behaviour like suffering. The Greek tragedy aimed at making an audience realize their own insignificance in proportion to the universe.
Some of their problems continue to plague us today. Take the last words of the Chorus in Oedipus Rex.
"Sons and daughters of Thebes, behold. This was Oedipus, greatest of men; was envied by all his fellow men for his great prosperity; behold what a full tide of misfortune swept over his head. Then learn that none can be called happy until that day when he carries his happiness down to the grave in peace."
Greek tragedy did not reflect the conflict between the virtuous poor and the evil rich. It showed heroes fouling up their lives. In a society that was divided between the bossed and the bosses, Greek tragedy was a little light, a little trembling flame in a darkness that was shrouded in the darkness of superstition. Who can say that we, in our part of the world, do not need such a flame, however flickering?