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'Hindu Revivalists Are Mimicking Islamic Fundamentalists'

V.S. Naipaul and Khushwant Singh in Conversation

'Hindu Revivalists Are Mimicking Islamic Fundamentalists'

I had this idea of moderating a discussion between two of my favourite writers. One of them, V.S. Naipaul, or to give his full name, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, is ethnically Indian but Trinidad born. He has won almost every major literary award and has reportedly been considered for the Nobel Prize several times. He was in India recently with his charming wife, Nadira, to pick up another award, this time from the Maharana Mewar Foundation. This was Sir Vidia’s ninth trip to India. He has written 25 books, three of them on India. The Editorial Board of Modern Library has considered A House for Mr Biswas one of the best novels of the 20th century. In both fiction and non-fiction, Sir Vidia has explored the emotional and political geography of what he calls half-made societies. His unforgiving prose has won him many admirers but there are also many in the liberal establishment who see him as a force of reaction for not holding a more optimistic view of the developing countries. I first met him when he had come to New York in November 1980 to collect the prestigious Bennett Award given by the Hudson Review in recognition of "his outstanding accomplishments as a novelist and man of letters".

The other writer, Khushwant Singh, is the doyen of India’s writing fraternity and the author of the First Great Indian Novel of post-Independence India, A Train to Pakistan. Lawyer, diplomat, editor, broadcaster, parliamentarian, novelist and columnist, Khushwant is now in his eighties and still going strong. He won the Grove Press Award in 1954 for the best work of fiction. The two-volume History of the Sikhs received rave reviews when it was first published 35 years ago and is still in print. He is probably the most widely-read Indian writer. I have been a friend of the family for many years except for a six-month period in the 1960s when he wouldn’t talk to me due to a youthful indiscretion on my part.

The three of us met on a hot Saturday morning in Delhi with photographers and lights in tow. I am sorry to relate I was largely redundant. It was a love fest between the two writers. My role was to hold the tape recorder, interjecting occasionally, naam ke vaaste.

Bhaichand Patel: How long have you two known each other?

Khushwant Singh: We first met in 1962 when he had come to research the first of his three books on India, An Area of Darkness. Even then, almost 40 years ago, I was completely overawed by his stature in the literary world. I was surprised to find him such a gentle, soft person.

V.S. Naipaul: I was 29 years old and you were 20 years my senior. Yet you greeted me as if we were of the same age. It was extremely generous of you.

Singh: I remember taking you to a party hosted by some industrialist at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay. We were the first to arrive and lo and behold there were half a dozen whores lined up at the party. I tried to engage them in conversation but found them totally illiterate. Only then it occurred to me who they were. They had been provided by the host for the benefit of any guests so inclined!

Naipaul (laughs): I don’t remember that at all.

Singh: I also took you to a mela at Surajkund on the outskirts of Delhi. The view of the valley at sunset was spectacular. You stood there silently for a long time. I thought you were moved by it and would write a lyrical description. But when I read the book I found that you were more moved by the village children in rags with flies hovering around them.

Naipaul: I was not in a position to appreciate what you were showing me. Earlier you had taken me to the Qutab and showed me the pillars taken from a Hindu temple for its construction. You told me that Surajkund was one of the few Hindu structures still standing in that area. I was just beginning to comprehend, in an historical sense, the Indian calamity.

Singh: The New Yorker magazine recently carried an exchange of letters between your father and you while you were at Oxford. Writing seems to run in your family. Your late brother, Shiva, wrote a number of books, including that very fine novel, The Chip Chip Gatherers. Your father worked on a newspaper and had writing ambitions of his own. But you seem to have written letters only to your father, none to your mother or your brother.

Naipaul: Shiva would have been too young. He was only eight when my father died. My relationship with my father was very close, unusually close. My mother may have read some of the letters I wrote to my father but she wouldn’t have known what to make of them. My mother was not a reading woman. I don’t think my mother read a line of what I have written or a word of the newspaper pieces my father wrote.

Singh: Which part of India does your family come from?

Naipaul: We are now several generations away. It is very hard after a hundred years to pinpoint the ancestral homeland. There would be eight great-grandparents from different parts of India. I know my mother’s father came from eastern Uttar Pradesh, a village near Gorakhpur. I went there in 1962. That was one firm address we used to have. Now we have lost even that connection.

Singh: Did you speak Hindi in your family?

Naipaul: Hindi faded away as a house language in Trinidad in the forties when I was a child. English overcame Hindi.

Singh: I found A House for Mr Biswas amazing. Good writing, humorous and evocative. Is it based on your father?

Naipaul: There is a great difference between real life and fiction. Real life is often very messy and does not lend itself to neat episodes. My father was a very serious man. Mr Biswas, on the other hand, is more of a comic figure. I took a family structure and elaborated on it. The novel was an exercise in imagination. Much of it takes place in the twenties. I was born in 1932.

Singh: It received a rare full-page review in The Observer of London.

Naipaul: It was a big gesture on the part of the critic Colin MacInness. He asked the editor for a full page. It was largely due to him that my career took off. I suppose writers need a bit of luck like that.

Patel: Do you think English is becoming more and more part of the large group of Indian languages?

Naipaul: It certainly is much better spoken and written in this country these days.

Singh: There is no question about it. The new Indian writers are much more at ease with the English language. The Jhumpa Lahiris and the Arundhati Roys are much better writers than the R.K. Narayans and the Raja Raos of the past. They handle the language much better.

Singh: In a Free State won the Booker Prize. Would you consider it your best book?

Naipaul: Yes, I suppose that one and A House for Mr Biswas. The Booker Prize judges wanted to give me a prize and they used In a Free State to hang it on. Prizes are a new innovation. In the old days there used to be end of the year round-ups of worthy books. Some books faded and some stayed afloat. Publishing has changed so much over the years. The novel has become a kind of a commercial product.

Singh: You were obviously very disappointed with India when you first came in 1962. That disappointment was reflected in your book, An Area of Darkness.

Naipaul: I was wounded. It wasn’t disappointment. It was a great wound. You must remember we were a very depressed community in Trinidad. There were no stories about India. We assumed that our ancestors must have left some rather awful place to come to a place like Trinidad. Our idea of India was a grim one. It was a country never physically described to us and therefore never real. I was not equipped to deal with India when I first came here.

Singh: I thought there was a sense of disenchantment. You came here with a notion of a great civilisation and culture and you didn’t find it.

Naipaul: No. It was India’s poverty that laid me low.

Patel: In Beyond Belief, your last book, you differentiate between Arab Muslims and non-Arab Muslims.

Naipaul: It was a later discovery on my part. In its origins, Islam is an Arab religion. Everyone who is not an Arab is a convert. Islam is a demanding religion. A convert to Islam changes his view of the world. His holy places are in another country, his sacred language is Arabic. He rejects his own history and turns away from his own historical background. In a profound way the converted Muslims are a colonised people.

Singh: Can you explain your disenchantment with Islam?

Naipaul: I have been misinterpreted. It is not disenchantment. I am being realistic. I have been trying to penetrate and understand Islam. The fundamentalists in places like Malaysia and Indonesia want to get rid of everything that reminds them of their non-Muslim past. This is also true of Iran. Persia was a great country. It rivalled the Roman Empire. It challenged classical Greece. Now they are saying that the pre-Islamic period is not important. Ayatollah Khalkhalli, Khomeini’s hanging judge, tried to destroy the ruins of Persepolis and the remnants of Cyrus’ palace built 2,500 years ago. This is madness. This is the direction fanaticism will take people. One has to compare that with other societies where the past is cherished and endlessly explored.

Singh: You see that more sharply in a country like Egypt. Islamic Egypt is totally different from the Egypt of the pharaohs. They will exploit their rich cultural heritage for tourism and at the same time disown it as idol worship. You see this dichotomy also in Pakistan. The fact that once they were Hindus and were once ruled by the Sikhs has been wiped out from their memories.

Patel: Any opinion on the new Hindu nationalism that is creeping into the mainstream of Indian politics?

Naipaul: I haven’t gone into it in any great detail: Khushwant, tell me about it.

Singh: It distresses me. There has been an uprise of intolerance towards everything that is not Hindu and it is gaining momentum. A good example of this is the action taken against M.F. Husain when he painted a Hindu goddess in the nude. They destroyed his paintings and ransacked his house. I am pretty certain such vandalism wouldn’t have occurred if he were a Hindu. You can walk into any antique stop and pick up a carving of Shiva and Parvati coupling. There are many paintings of Radha and Krishna making love in the most graphic manner.

Naipaul: Surely there is an element of mimicry in this. The Hindu revivalists are mimicking the Islamic fundamentalists.

Singh: I think they feed on each other. The Hindu fundamentalists are reacting to the constant calls by their Muslim counterparts in Afghanistan and Pakistan for jehad against the non-Muslims in India.

Naipaul: But these are minor eruptions.

Singh: Like destroying the Babri mosque in Ayodhya? You can’t call that a minor eruption.

Naipaul: I would call it an act of historical balancing. The mosque built by Babar in Ayodhya was meant as an act of contempt. Babar was no lover of India. I think it is universally accepted that Babar despised India, the Indian people and their faith.

Singh: One had always imagined that we had made a new beginning in 1947. The past would be left to the past. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened. The Hindu fundamentalists are asserting themselves and are targeting the adherents of the two religions that have come from outside, Islam and Christianity.

Naipaul: Christianity and Islam have been so intolerant themselves. Their history has been a history of intolerance. Christianity too has a dark history. Christianity that was brought here by the Portuguese was very dark intellectually and very, very cruel. The twentieth century Christianity is much more humane.

Singh: Still, I wish the venom would go out of Vishwa Hindu Parishad. They have 300 mosques on their list for destruction. Two of them have been accepted for destruction even by the BJP, those in Mathura and Varanasi. This kind of insanity will spell disaster for the country.

Patel: Vidia, I hear you are writing a new novel and this time it’s about love.

Naipaul (laughs): I am not even going to deny it. There are all sorts of rumours. I am doing a piece of work. I am afraid that if I talk about it I will lose it. Khushwant, tell me about love. What aspect of love interests you?

Singh: The earthy aspect, the physical aspect, the lusty aspect, all aspects of love. But I find the whole concept so elusive that I never try to define it, either to myself or in anything I write. I do understand lust but, as hard as I try, I can’t understand the concept of love.

Naipaul: I think people who are not sexually fulfilled are hard people and extraordinarily damaged. They are terribly unhappy and unreliable. Lots of sexual repression comes out in the form of violence. A lot of religious intolerance is a product of sexual frustration.

Singh: I said to L.K. Advani once, "You are a good and an honest man. But you don’t drink, you don’t smoke and you don’t womanise. Such men are dangerous!"

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