Why Girish Karnad isn’t wrong about V.S. Naipaul


Karnad says honouring Naipaul, who justifies inter-generational transfer of guilt, is wrong
Salil Tripathi , livemint.com

First Published: Mon, Nov 05 2012. 11 05 AM IST

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A file photo of Girish Karnad. Photo: HT
Once the word got around that Girish Karnad had evisceratedVidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Trinidad-born British writer who had been given the lifetime achievement award at the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai, the battle-lines were drawn clearly. Karnad had to be wrong because Naipaul was great and his critics were insignificant (he is a lion and people like me are “rats”, as someone on Twitter described me, when I defended Karnad, although Naipaul would have shown off his wider vocabulary, and called his critics “pygmies” or something suitably outrageous); Karnad had insulted his hosts by misusing the stage he was given, since he was invited to speak about his theatre, and not about Naipaul’s failings (even though his session was called, ironically, “Straight Talk”; that Karnad’s own understanding of Indian history was selective and his contribution to Indian culture was puny; that criticizing an award to Naipaul was an attack on free speech; and that Naipaul was somehow a flawless literary lion.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. First, Karnad’s politics is irrelevant in evaluating Naipaul’s worth as a writer. Second, Karnad was invited to talk about his life in theatre. That life represents a certain world-view, certain values, of a syncretic, inclusive India. When he saw someone like Naipaul, who glorifies a worldview built on triumphalism, which justifies inter-generational transfer of guilt and who has supported vandalism (the Babri Masjid destruction) as a sign of “inevitable retribution,” Karnad uses the stage – he is an actor, after all – and tells a story of why honouring Naipaul is wrong. If you think Naipaul is right, you haven’t understood my theatre, my worldview – that’s Karnad’s underlying message. Third, one can of course challenge Karnad’s own reading of history and debate with him. But anyone who thinks “Hayavadana” and “Tughlaq” don’t matter in understanding modern India has the worldview shaped by growing up on a tiny island. Fourth, Karnad’s remarks do not attack Naipaul’s free speech; seeking to silence him attacks Karnad’s free speech. And nobody has suggested any lunatic idea, such as Naipaul’s books to be banned, that he be denied entry into India, or that his books be burned.
But what about the fifth part: Naipaul’s significance as a writer? Far too many critics have written eloquently about Naipaul’s prose – how good it is, how perspicacious and prescient he is, how uncanny his predictions have turned out to be, and, since the award is being given in India, to a writer of Indian origin, how deep his understanding of India is.
Karnad is right to challenge that. But it is worth noting that Karnad is not the first to point out that the emperor has no clothes. Think back and recall Nissim Ezekiel’s magnificent essay, “Naipaul’s India and Mine” which I read many years ago in Adil Jussawalla’s anthology, “New Writing in India” or William Dalrymple’s essay outlining the gaps in Naipaul’s retelling of India’s past. Naipaul’s fellow-Caribbean Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott once called him “Sir V.S. Nightfall.” His former friend Paul Theroux, (they have since been civil to one another) wrote an anecdote-rich, entertaining but ultimately bitter biography, “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” which showed many instances of Naipaul’s meanness. And Patrick French’s majestic biography “The World Is What It Is” revealed an emotionally-stunted man with a pathological dislike for most people except those who agreed with him.
Neemrana, 2002: soon after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Naipaul was being feted in India, the subject of three of the more than 30 books he has published. Those present portray a near-unanimous picture of an impertinent guest, unhappy with everything. During one of the sessions, when Nayantara Sahgal was making the rather sensible points about India’s failure in educating its children, how the country needed to do more to promote literature in Indian languages, and talked of the yoke of colonialism subjugating Indian languages, Naipaul interrupted her, saying he hadn’t come to listen to a political lecture. She held her ground; he raised his voice, and Ruchir Joshi stepped in, telling Naipaul he was being obnoxious and he should stop the inquisition.
Hardly the first time. A few years ago at the South Bank Centre in London, French, who was then working on his authorized biography, was interviewing Naipaul about his writing. Once the session opened for questions from the audience, a young American student asked Naipaul about his identity. Did he see himself as British, Indian, or Caribbean? Instead of answering, he called her ignorant, saying she had asked the question only because she liked listening to her voice. (This, apparently, is a recurring insult, usually directed at women: I know of at least two similar instances). Then a year ago at the Hay Festival, Naipaul said no woman, not even Jane Austen, was his literary match , and called the writing of Diana Athill, who edited Naipaul for years at Andre Deutsch, as “feminine tosh.”
Why the boorishness? French talks about a Caribbean trait, picong, which is supposed to be light comical banter deliberately said to provoke someone, but not the kind of verbal outrageousness that it becomes when Naipaul uses it.Good or bad, its origin is at least not Indian. Should one make a cultural consideration for Naipaul, when he does not offer the same courtesy to cultures he finds reprehensible? If Naipaul can give, surely he can take what Karnad offers?
These are not unknown secrets about Naipaul. He is his favourite subject. Throughout his life, scattered across continents,encompassing the colonial rule, the response to it, early hopes ofnationhood, and the inevitable disappointments that followed, he has carried a magisterial air, saying, “I told you so.”
But he was never the only one, nor the most original.
Should Naipaul’s meanness matter? Do we overlook the frailties of the painter Pablo Picasso, the film-maker Woody Allen, and the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, because of the haunting reality ofGuernica , the delightful charms of Annie Hall , and the sublime beauty of the 40th Symphony? Telling the man apart from his work is difficult in Naipaul’s case because so much of one influences the other. His life has its roots in resentment that displacement causes, a linear narrative begins with the arrival of Indian indentured labour in the Caribbean after British reforms ended the more blatant form of slavery from Africa, replacing it witha less crude form of slavery, this time from India. The nascent Indian community in the Caribbean included Naipaul’s ancestors; his father dreamt of becoming a writer, and Vidiadhar wanted to leave the small islands: his stage was meant to be bigger.
Carrying resentment on his sleeve, he despised the former colonized nations he encountered, calling them “half-made societies” in the post-colonial world, and grandly proclaiming, “Africa has no future,”unsympathetic to the humiliation of colonialism the society suffered. (David Hare mocks such a character brilliantly, naming him Victor Mehta, in his play, “A Map Of The World”.
There is an air of armchair intellectualism in the acuity of observations that he makes. What French describes in his biography about how he operates in India is not unlike how he has operated elsewhere, while observing other societies: “During his journey through India, Vidia would hone the technique he was to use in his subsequent non-fiction writing: he found experienced local journalists to guide him, took whatever assistance or hospitality was available, interviewed people in great detail, linked what he had discovered to his existing ideas about the country, and wrote up the results fast.”
In “A House for Mr Biswas,” Naipaul described his father as inadequate, lonely, but unassailable. Naipaul may not perhaps accept that he has certain inadequacies, but he believes himself to be unassailable. That explains his loneliness.

First Published: Mon, Nov 05 2012. 11 05 AM IST

 

After Girish Karnad, Taslima Nasreen rips into V S Naipaul


Krishna Kumar   |   MAIL TODAY  |   New Delhi, November 3, 2012 |

Taslima Nasreen, V S Naipaul and Girish Karnad
Taslima Nasreen, V S Naipaul and Girish Karnad
Reverberations in the literary world are still being felt a day after playwrightGirish Karnad slammed Nobel laureate V S Naipaulon Friday. Karnad attacked the organisers of the Mumbai Literature Fest, slamming them for honouring Naipaul as Karnad accused the novelist of being ‘anti-Muslim’.While Karnad has been criticised by the organisers of the literary festival for targetting Naipaul, the playwright has found unexpected support from Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen.

Nasreen on Saturday tweeted that Naipaul was an Islamophobe. “Girish Karnad is right, Naipaul is tone deaf, wrote nothing about Indian music in his big books on India. Naipaul is a mean Islamophobe writer,” the Bangladeshi writer posted on the micro-blogging website.

She also called Naipaul ‘a male chauvinistic pig’ for his earlier statement claiming that he found no woman worth his literary match. Responding to a tweet she claimed, while “Girish Karnad is neither a Hindu hater nor Muslim hater, Naipaul is definitely Muslim hater.” She added that Naipaul would not have been so famous if he had written his books in one of the regional languages of India. “If Naipaul wrote his books in one of the Indian regional languages, he would have been an unknown writer even in India,” she said.

Responding to some tweets from Naipaul’s fans after her tweet, Taslima said, “Literary giant? Because he got Nobel Prize? So many worthless dumbos got Nobel prize,” Taslima alleged.

How the whole tiff started:
On October 31, Mumbai Lit Fest organisers felicitated Naipaul with the Life Time achievement award.On October 2, Karnad who was supposed to talk in a sessions which focused on theatre and his life and work, however did not speak on the subject calling it ‘boring’ and instead went on target the organisers for felicitating Naipaul earlier.

Calling Naipaul ‘tone deaf’, Karnad said, “Now Mr Naipaul has written three books on India. If you read them, you find that not even one of them contains any reference to music. He has gone through the whole of India without responding to Indian music. I think that only means that he is tone deaf,”

He further claimed that Naipaul was anti-Muslim, “Now again, what he says is predictable, which is that the Muslims destroyed Indian architecture that everything went to pot. They were the raiders, they were the destroyers, and you have to look at any building to see what happened during the Muslim regime,” Karnad said.

In fact what could cause further controversy, she further ranted and also attacked Mother Teresa when she agreed with another tweeter who questioned Teresa getting a Nobel. “Teresa did everything to make her Jesus happy. She let patients suffer, didn’t give medicine,” Taslima said.

Taslima Nasreen’s comments are surely going to ensure that Karnad’s comments on Naipaul will be alive for a long while.

Meanwhile reacting to Karnad’s comments, festival director Anil Dharker released a statement slamming the playwright. “We were all taken aback by Girish Karnad’s attack on V S Naipaul. After all, we had invited him (Karnad) to speak about his journey in theatre, and Naipaul had nothing to do with that,” Dharker said.

Dharker refuted Karnad’s claim that Naipaul was anti-Muslim, “As for Naipaul being anti-Muslim, his wife Nadira is Muslim and her two children are being brought up as Muslims. Naipaul writes about how Muslim rulers and invaders of the past destroyed temples, monuments and so on. That’s historical fact, and who can argue against that? That does not make Naipaul anti-Muslim.”

“I also resent the implication that we, as organisers, are somehow not secular. I am a Trustee of Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) led by Teesta Setalvad, and we have been fighting over 200 cases in court against (Narendra) Modi and his government over the 2002 Gujarat violence,” Dharker said in his

 

IMMEDIATE RELEASE- Girish Karnad- Why is #Naipaul being Honoured ? #Mumbai Literature Festival


At the Mumbai Literature Festival this year, Landmark and Literature Alive have jointly given the Lifetime’s Achievement Award to Sir Vidia Naipaul. The award ceremony held on the 31st of October at the National Centre of the Performing Arts coyly failed to mention that Naipaul was not an Indian and has never claimed to be one.  But at no point was the question raised, and the words Shashi Deshpande,the novelist, had used to describe the Neemrana Festival conducted by the ICCR in 2002 perfectly fitted the present event: ‘it was a celebration of a Nobel Laureate …whom  India, hopefully, even sycophantically, considered an Indian.’

Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal,  Naipaul has written three books on India and  the books are brilliantly written—he is certainly among the great  English writers of our generation. They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book, A Wounded Civilization, is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim.The ‘wound’ in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babur’s invasion. Since then Naipaul has never missed a chance to weigh in against the ‘invaders’, accusing them of having savaged India for five centuries, of having brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it and  destroyed the glorious ancient Hindu culture .

A point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of them on Indian music. And I believe  that if you cannot respond to music, you cannot understand India. Music is the defining art form of the Indian identity. Naipaul’s silence on the subject  when he is exploring the whole of modern Indian culture suggests to me that he is tone deaf —which in turn explains his insensitivity to the intricate interweaving of  Hindu and Muslim creativities, through the Bhakti and Sufi movements, that gave us this extraordinary  heritage, alive in the heart of every Indian home.

What Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Islam conceals , however, is that he has borrowed his model of the history of Indian culture from the  British musicologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like William Jones. These scholars were acquainted with many other ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptian , the Greek and the Roman. But they were mystified by the fact that while the musical traditions of these civilizations were entirely lost, the Indian musical tradition was  alive and thriving. They decided that this once pure-and-glorious music must have been, at some point during the course of its long history, corrupted and mauled —-and they found the villain in the invading Muslim. So, according to them, once upon a time there was a pristine Indian musical culture, which the Muslims had disfigured. They therefore ignored the music that was being perfomed around them and went in search of the true Hindu music.

In his analysis of Indian culture Naipaul simply borrows this line of argument and reemploys it— as his original perception. And not for the first time.

Naipaul accuses R.K. Narayan of being indifferent to the  destruction and death symbolized by the ruins of Vijayanagar , which to him was a bastion of Hindu culture destroyed by the maurauding Muslims. But again he gets this interpretation of the history of Vijayanagar readymade from a book by Robert Sewell called, A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900. Naipaul, as always in awe of his colonial sources, simply accepts this picture as the unadorned truth and recycles it wholesale as his own. That historians and archaeologists working on the site during the last century have proved the situation to be much more complex and have shown that religion had little role to play in the conflict is irrelevant to him.

Of the Taj, probably the most beloved of the monuments  in  Indian, Naipaul writes, ‘The Taj is so wasteful so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people.’ He brushes off  historian Romila Thapar’s argument that the Mughal era saw a rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias  and says, ‘The correct truth is the way the invaders look at their actions, They were conquering. They were subjugating.’  To Naipaul , the Indian Muslim remains an invader for ever, forever condemned to be condemned, because some of them had invaders for their ancestors. It is a usage would yield some strange results if applied to the USA.

As for Naipaul’s journalistic exploration of modern India,  mainly in the form of a series of interviews conducted  with Indians right across the board, one must confess they are supremely well written and that he is a master in drawing sharp and precise visuals of the people he talks to and of the places he visits. What begins to bother one after a while  however is that he invariably seems to meet brilliant interviewees whose answers to his questions are expressed with a wit and elegance that  match his own mastery of the language . Even half-literate interviewees suffer from no diffidence in their expression.

How reliable are the conversations he records? In a well-known essay Naipaul describes his  visit to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad , where he stayed with his friend, Ashoke Chatterjee, the Director of the Institute. In a recent email to me, Mr Chatterjee said, that Naipaul’s essay was ‘ a scenario that could have been but was not what he actually saw. Fragments of reality, selected and put together, into a collage of pure fantasy.’ Chatterjee’s friendship with Naipaul came to an abrupt end when Chatterjee told Naipaul that his book, A Wounded Civilization, should be classified as fiction.

In a recent book, Naipaul takes up for examination the autobiography of Munshi Rahman Khan, who emigrated to Suriname at the end of the nineteenth  century, and contrasts it with Gandhi’s .  Sanjay Subramaniam, the historian, has reviewed the essay in the London Review of Books and it doesn’t take him much effort to establish that Naipaul could only have read a third-hand, truncated translation of the text. ‘It is as if a reader in Gorakhpur was reading Naipaul in Maithili after the text had passed through a Japanese translation.’ That doesn’t prevent Naipaul from commenting even on the style and linguistic usage of Rahman Khan.

The question surely is by giving him the Lifetime Achievement Award, what statement is being made by the Award-givers.  As a journalist what he writes about India is his business. No one can question his right to be ignorant or to prevaricate

But the Nobel Prize has given him a sudden authority and his use of it needs to be looked at.

One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, ‘that to have a political view is to be programmed’, now declared that he was happy to be politically ‘appropriated’. It was then that he made his most infamous remark: ‘Ayodhya’, he said,’ is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity.’

Salman Rushdie’s response was that Naipaul was behaving like ‘ a fellow-traveller of Fascism and [that he] disgraces the Noble Prize.’

In the wake of Ayodhya close to 1500 Muslims were slaughtered in the streets of Bombay alone. I was attending a Film Festival in New Delhi when the riots broke out and received anguished calls from my friends in Bombay to say Muslims were being pulled out of their homes or stopped in the streets to be killed. I rang my Muslim editor to say he and his family could use my flat, in a predominantly Parsee building, until the situation became safe. The great Marathi actress, Fayyaz, whom I finally located after a week in a corner in Pune where she had fled in distress from Mumbai, described how Shiv Sainiks had thrown fire bombs into Muslim slums and  how, when the inmates of the houses rushed out in terror, they were shot down by the Police as trouble-makers.

Seven years later, in cold blood, Naipaul was glamorizing  these events as ‘passion’, as ‘ a creative act’.

It is significant that this part of Naipaul’s sociologizing was not mentioned in the citation of the Award, or by Farouq Dhondy, who while interviewing him, mentioned the book, ‘Among the Believers’ and then quickly moved to a long-winded account of how he had helped Sir Vidia adopt a cat which thirteen years later was put to sleep lying on his lap—giving Naipaul another chance to burst into sentimental tears. Presumably Dhondy was trying to prove how ‘human’ Naipaul was.

But Landmark and Literature Alive who have announced this Award have a responsibility to explain to us where exactly they stand with regard to these Naipaul’s remarks. Naipaul is a foreigner and can make pronouncements as he wishes. But do they mean to valorize Naipaul’s stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued insistence on Muslim buildings in India being monuments to rape and loot? Or  are they by their silence suggesting that these views do not matter?

  The Award givers have much to answer for.     ——       Girish Karnad,   1 Nov 2012       Mumbai