August 03, 2020
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'For Me Writing Is The Noble Calling. It Deals With Truth.'

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul speaks in a grave, sonorous voice, with great deliberation, concentrating hard to find the perfect phrase. The following are extracts from a long interview he gave to Tarun J. Tejpal over two extended sessions.

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'For Me Writing Is The Noble Calling. It Deals With Truth.'
'For Me Writing Is The Noble Calling. It Deals With Truth.'

Miguel Street was the first book you wrote, but The Mystic Masseur was the first book that was published. What happened?

My life was very hard, in 1955 the world was very hard for people like me. Can you imagine writing a book like Miguel Street? People wouldn’t even want to look at it. Today people are interested in writing from India or other former colonies. But at that time it was not considered writing. It was a very hard thing to have to write this material, to have copies made, to wonder about it being lost, and have that book with me in loose manuscript for four years, before it was published. It really upset me and it is still a great shadow over me.

So there was the inevitable period of waiting?

Yes. But you see, when you are young, two years is a long time to wait. When you are destitute as I very nearly was, two years of destitution is a very long time to wait. When you wish to make your presence in the world it is a very long time to wait. So I was made really to suffer. It all seems very easy now. The books coming out one after another, but they were created by great anxiety, great suffering. I could have been given a much easier ride but, I wasn’t, because of the time. It was very hard for me to get a job, very hard for me to find a place to live, very hard for me to find my own voice. It was very hard for me to have done all that. Having written those books, to get them published, and then it was very hard to get them adequately reviewed. A book like the Masseur, which caused me a lot of pain, was dismissed by my own paper. I was writing for the New Statesman at that time. It was dismissed as rubbish and another person, an Oxford Don, quite famous later, described it as a "savoury from a colonial island, a little savoury". It would be interesting to go back to these reviews and see the books that were considered real books by the reviewers at that time and my little savoury. It was a long fight. It was a hard fight, and it’s useless to tell me now, all right the books have been around for 40 years, they are still around and they are still printed, because I was damaged. I was wounded by this neglect. I think people today have it so much easier—that is why they complain. I never complained. I just had to go on.

What did they pay you for the first book?

Oh, 100 pounds.

There is a very black moment in these years—when you actually tried to commit suicide?

It was at Oxford. Yes, it was the sheer solitude and destitution. Very bad years. You see, actually I hate Oxford, I hate those degrees and I hate all those ideas of universities—I told you that I didn’t go to Oxford to be at Oxford. I went to Oxford to get free time. Oxford was wretched. I was far too well prepared for it. I was far more intelligent than most of the people in my college or in my course, but I am not boasting, you know well, I mean time has proved all these things. In a way I had prepared far too much for the outer world and there was a kind of solitude and despair at Oxford. I wouldn’t wish anyone to go through it again, really.

Why was writing always the central need of your life? Why was it always the way out of everything?

It was given to me as an ambition, that’s all, it was given to me. By my father, or he didn’t give it to me. I took his example. I took his example.

You’ve said in the past that you saw it as the only truly noble calling. Now 40 years into writing, 23 books later, is this still true for you?

Yes, it is true. For me, it is the only noble calling. It’s noble because it deals with the truth and I can’t bear the other kind of writing. I can’t read it. You know the commercial writing, the fraudulent, complaining colonial writing, the mimicry, I can’t do it.

You have done three books on India over the last 35 years—An Area of Darkness, A Wounded Civilisation and A Million Mutinies Now. Your responses to the country in these books seem to have varied. Can you tell us how these three books happened and how the responses have shifted each time?

Actually, these three books stand. Please understand that—I do not want any one to supercede the other. All the three books stand because I think they remain true. They are all in different modes, one is autobiographical, one is analytical and the other one is an account of the experiences of the people in the country. They are written at different times and like India, of course, people exist in different times, so you could say an Area of Darkness is still there. You could say that the analysis of the invasions, the defeats, the psychological wounds in India is still there. And then you could say the mutinies book, where everyone is discovering some little voice with which he can express his personality, speak his needs, that remains true. So the books have to be taken as a whole. I would like them to be read all at once. To be taken as still existing, still relevant, still important.

In all of this, you must remember that I am a writer. I am a man writing for the printed page. I am a man writing a paragraph, a chapter, a section, a book. It’s a craft. I am not just a man making statements. So the books represent different stages of my craft. An Area of Darkness is a very extraordinary mixture of travel and reading, mixture of anxiety and comedy. The second one represents another kind of craft, and the third book represents the later stage, the discovery that the people in the country are important. The craft changes all the time, I am trying to do new things all the time.

An Area of Darkness suggested a lot of anger. Now that is something which comes up whenever the book is discussed, or your journalism related to India. Do you think anger works better for a writer or understanding?

I think it isn’t strictly anger alone. It is deep emotion. Without that deep emotion, there’s almost no writing. Then you do journalism perhaps, if you don’t feel emotion, if you are not emotional, you go to Uruguay to cover elections, you are not involved. Then your company can fly you to Bogota to do something about the drugs, you are not involved. But when you are deeply churned up by something, first of all you know you cannot express this naked raw emotion, that is not writing. You have to come to some resolution about it. So it’s that refinement of emotion, that really makes the writing, what you call understanding. So the two things are not opposed to one another. They derive one from the other or the second one, understanding derives from what you called anger, but is, what I would call emotion, deep emotion. Emotion is necessary.

But the novel you are convinced is dead?

Literary forms come and go. The Shakespearean plays had their brief flaring, then it’s over. Restoration comedy faded away. The Dickensian novel lasted as long as Dickens. Things have to move, and once things have been done in any art form, they just can’t be repeated, that’s death. So it may well be, as I feel now, that in writing, the highest literary form is not fiction. That has been done, that was done in Russia, in England, in France and in other countries, in the last century for the most part, and there are other ways now of dealing with experience and emotion.

Do you think A Way in the World and The Enigma of Arrival are a hint of the new form of writing to come?

Well, I wouldn’t think like that, you know, because every writer has to find his own way, dealing with his material and experience. What they mustn’t do is copy one another and do mimic novels, mimic someone else’s form. That’s not interesting. That kind of form falsifies. If you pour your very special experience into a borrowed form, into somebody else’s form, something they teach at art school or night school or something then of course it’s falsified. My experience is like this. Let’s go just a little bit into A Way in the World. I began writing about that street in the first book, that was one view of the street, now that was one truth but I also knew even when I was a child in school that the land on which we were living, was the land on which 200 years before aboriginal people had lived and then been wiped out. They don’t exist. Not a single one of them. It was a terrible thing to understand, to come to terms with. Then I did some work about this going back into the papers. So that’s another way of seeing the same land. Then I travelled, Guyana, South America, other places, saw surviving Indians in their villages. That was another way. So when I went back to the documents, I saw the land I had travelled in in yet another way. So the same land, because I had to learn about it, appeared in different ways, right through my writing life as it were. To me it’s a perfectly simple thing to do, although I couldn’t express it at that time in the way I’ve expressed it now. That is the great beauty about writing in fact. The writer knows at one or two levels what he is attempting to do. But while writing there are many things happening in it of which a writer is not absolutely aware.

What sparked off the new book on Islam, your second book on the subject after 17 years?

Well, all my work has a kind of relationship, one book to the other, everything begins with my own background, I explore or try to explore all the facets of that background, New World History, Africa, England and a lot about India and then the Muslim world, the non-Arab Muslim world and this book is prompted by two things. One, a wish to update or to look at the countries of Among the Believers 16 or 17 years later. The other is to carry over something from India—a Wounded Civilisation, because the wound that is described in that book was about the wound of Muslim invasion, from which India has not really recovered I feel, and this led me in this book, during my travels to an understanding of the neurosis of conversion. Islam is in its origins essentially an Arab religion. People who are not Arabs, and who become Muslims are regarded by Arabs as converts and the special neurosis attached to it is that Islam is not a religion of a private conscience; it isn’t just a matter of meditation, it’s a religion of declaration, a religion of rules, of strict adherence to the Prophet who is considered Final, it’s unlike anything, shall we say, in India, in ancient Indian religions or the old Indian religions. When a person from outside the Arab world becomes a Muslim he is required by the faith to reject all his past. In a curious way then, it is quite opposed to the modern ideas of, shall we say, heritage, modern ideas of history and enquiry. The past has to be rejected and the convert’s eyes fixed on Mecca, that is all that concerns him. The ruins of the holy places of Mecca are his holy places; there are no holy places outside. This is a great neurosis, the rejection of all that one is, all that one stands for, it is a profound kind of colonialism one has to say, and profounder for having a religious sanction.

Is it unique unto Islam or is it the neurosis of all converts from one religion to another?

Well, I have only been able to look at two kinds of conversions. One is the most important conversion in the ancient world—which is the conversion of the world from the classical faiths, the classical deities of city and place and things like that to Christianity. I would say yes, that when the so-called pagans became Christians, they had to abandon their older beliefs and they did so quite easily, because the new beliefs, be it religions, Islam, Christianity, are full of social ideas which the old religions never had. The older religions are essentially about keeping the gods sweet, trying to ensure that things will move for you as they should if you make the correct sacrifices. The ideas of charity and brotherhood, generosity actually do not occur in a religion like Hinduism, nor do they occur in any other classical religions, the worship of Jupiter or Isis or things like that. So there is something radical about conversion, to reveal religion with its rules. It isn’t Islam alone. What I suppose is peculiar to Islam is this rejection of History, one’s own history; this insistence on the sacred language being Arabic, in Malaysia now you have this group of fanatics who would like Arabic to become the language of Malaysia, it’s a small group but they represent the way the converts can move.

This sort of disjunction, does it create all kinds of frictions in society?

Yes, I think once you start, once you think of being converted like that, you can never be good enough, you can never be pure enough, and what I found even in 1979, the people of Malaysia, in trying to rid themselves of their past, which is an impossible task because you cannot make yourself as empty as a bit of glass, they wanted to be pure, they wanted to be the only tellers of faith. The faith, everything that rooted them to the land of Malaysia, they wished to reject, the antiquated systems, some of which were Hindu customs like marriage customs, so the requirements are really quite awesome, also tyrannical. And I think if I had to think about, use a word for religious rule in a place like Pakistan, whenever the Word is used it is used in connection with power, it is also used as a form of threat. You cannot be good enough if you are a convert, you cannot simply be good enough if you are a convert from the non-Arab people.

I heard you once very interestingly say that Islam is now in need of a renaissance. In what way do you

think this can happen, if at all it is necessary, and why is it necessary?

This is where we get into all kinds of troubles immediately with fundamentalists, who believe that what was said by the Prophet or supposed to be said by him remains hard and fast for all time, regardless of the change. So to say that you need a renaissance now is to get you into a lot of trouble with people who say you are rejecting their religion but clearly we need to look at the position of women. Clearly, the idea of tolerance, the other faith has to become part of a revivified Islam. The brutal restatement of the faith, I think, is isolating the Islamic world more and more, and growth and intellectual life can only come if the mind opens up.As it is, all the answers are being given, there is no room for further discussion, which makes it unlike almost every other culture which is alive and living and constantly adapting this and that.

Do you anticipate any trouble from the prickliness of Islam’s defenders with this new book?

I don’t think so. I think people might criticise me but I am very careful never to criticise a faith or articles of faith, I am now just talking about the social and historical effects. There will be criticism. I mean all one’s books are criticised and that’s how it should be. This book, remember, is not a book of opinion. This goes back to the earlier point I made about all one’s works standing together. In the books of explorations I’ve been doing, I’ve been evolving or working towards a form, where instead of the traveller being more important than the people he travels among, the people are important. I write about the people I meet, I write about their experiences and I define the civilisation by their experiences. So this is a book of personal experience and it will be very hard to fault it. In that way, you can’t say it’s been maligning anything, I looked at personal experiences and made a pattern of personal experience. In one way, one might simply say this is a book of stories, a book of tales.

Much in the way of A Turn in the South and A Million Mutinies?

Absolutely, absolutely yes. This one is a different challenge, everything develops, I try to make it—I am very particular about not repeating a form and here, there were 30 narratives and I’ve tried to do them differently, each one differently, so that the reader would not quite understand the violation that was being done him. I didn’t want the story to read alike.

Some years ago you saw some merit in the resurgence of Hinduism in India, now it has raised this spectre of a fundamentalist party coming into power in India. What do you think of this trend now?

Well, Hindu resurgence, fundamentalism. My thoughts on this matter are very complicated, they can’t be simplified, must go back to the wounded civilisation. In the Wounded Civilisa -tion, the point is made, that old India was really rather destroyed by the Muslim invasions and what has happened now, since the coming of the British followed on by Independence, has been only a resurgence. And the renaissance is not really a renaissance due to Hinduism and its tenets. Renaissance has really come to us indirectly from Europe. We’re an aspect of the European renaissance, if only we can face it. The old world is dead. It doesn’t mean I have no regard for it. It means I want it studied, it means I want it approached with great awe, with great reverence. I think the idea of continuity is very dangerous in India, and it’s also false.

In your opinion is India still a wounded and decaying civilisation or is the renaissance on for real now?

I think it’s actually moving now, I think, all the anxiety about the election, all the problems, all the little revolts here and there, all the little small parties, all these little things speak of movement.

What do you think of the entire slew of Indian writers, Rushdie and post Rushdie.

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