By Dr. Vishnu Bisram
Indo-Trinidadian Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul has written extensively commenting on societies in his travelogues. His scholarship has touched every corner of the globe. He is a legend, world renown, perhaps the best writer in the English language with his writings prescribed for literature in virtually every university.
There is hardly a “schooled” person in the Indian diaspora who has not read his works or heard of him. And unlike most other writers, his writings covered many subjects and regions including the Indian diaspora. In fact, he wrote several books on India and on the Indian diaspora – India and Indians in Malaysia, East Africa, Trinidad, Guyana, etc. He writes courageously, with supporting facts, critiquing third world societies, especially their leaders for mimicking the former empires and colonial rulers they condemned during colonial rule.
The great Naipaul was often criticized for not making good company. I found V.S Naipaul very peasant and engaging in my brief exchanges. I encountered Naipaul in January 2003 at the Sheraton Hotel in New Delhi where we both were staying and attending the Pravasi Baharatiya Divas convention organized by the government of India. Naipaul was a keynote speaker (and an honoree of the Samman Award) of India’s government and I was invited as a reporter. He and his wife, Nadira (Pakistan born) were very pleasant in their exchanges. They both expressed their gratitude to the government for honoring him. Sir Shridath Ramphal was also there as an honoree.
Naipaul’s thirty books and countless stories, essays, commentaries, and interviews touched many societies and subjects. It touched, besides literature, several subjects in the social sciences and humanities like politics, history, sociology, anthropology, fine arts, among others. And not surprisingly, his writings are used in colleges in several of these subjects.
Several of Naipaul’s books are prescribed for use not only in literature but also in history and other subjects. Most writers tend to focus on only one field of specialization and one geographic area on which to write. V.S Naipual is perhaps the only writer who has written on virtually every major region or continent and his literary works aptly described life – making him a global icon. On the subject of literature, although Naipaul wrote in English, his works are used in literature on the Middle East, India, Africa, Latin America, Caribbean, USA, and U.K for he wrote about all of these societies. And there is perhaps no university in the world, where Naipaul’s works are not read in the field of literature.
When I first entered university as a youngster at age 17 to study the medical sciences, I was a required to take a course outside my major. I opted for Africana Literature; V.S Naipaul’s works were required reading. And when I did History in graduate school, my late Professor Arthur Schlesinger (advisor to President Kennedy who approved the plan to overthrow the Dr. Cheddi Jagan government in Guyana in the 1960s) required a couple of Naipaul’s books on the course “The Novel as History”. Prof Schlesinger did same on the course on “Imperialism”.
As someone who holds post-graduate degrees in several social science subjects and Educational Administration, Naipual’s books were also used in my Political Science and Sociology courses and referenced in education courses. In seminars, students would often characterize several scholars’ works as “Naipaulian” – complex, verbose, classic, etc. When I took seminars in Economics, Naipaul was often referenced on the subject of political, social and economic development. On the subject of migration and the Indian diaspora, last January at a conference at Gujarat University in Gandhinagar, India, I chaired a session in which two papers were on V.S Naipaul’s literary works. The Literature department of every university in India uses Naipual’s books. And there is hardly a person I met in India or an Indian in the US who has not known about or read Naipaul’s works. His early works were critical of India but later praiseworthy applauding India’s civilization and recent development feats.
His writings were prescribed for secondary schools. When I first became a teacher, my supervisor asked me to teach two classes in English Literature. Naipaul’s Miguel Street was a prescribed work in addition to novels on India, Africa, and USA.
Naipaul’s legacy as a writer and scholar is assured. Dozens if not hundreds of books and countless articles were written on him. And every English or Literature major is required to read him. He is widely regarded as the great writer in the English language. At a lecture followed by a question and answer period at Queens College (Queens, NY) around 1979, his audience was held in awe on his use of the English language. He spoke brilliantly on writing style and the use of language to describe events and societies. The New York Times reporter, who also interviewed him, described Naipaul as the best writer in the English language.
Naipaul’s nearly seven decades of prose (and social science commentaries) is unmatched by writers of his generation. Every piece of writing by or on him or every interview of him won international claim and fans everywhere. He was a courageous writer and no subject (including practices in several belief systems) was taboo to him. His early writings were simple and comical but later ones were written in complex prose and considered more serious on issues about society. Although some of the novels may be considered as fictional, they described real life experiences that Naipaul encountered. This helped his writings to be recommended for use in several subjects and to attract million of readers.
Naipaul has a lot of admiration for India which he visited several times. His ancestral homeland and the country of his birth Trinidad had a special place in his heart. He also visited several times and was the keynote speaker at the First Global Conference on Overseas Indians held in Trinidad in 1976; he has several books on Trinidad. At the 2003 PBD, he spoke glowingly of India. He interacted with Deputy Prime Minister L.K Advani who himself was at one time an opinion writer. Naipaul and his wife were also interviewed by the Indian and international media, and he gave several talks in Delhi. He subsequently attended another PBD showing his interest in the India. He visited India many times producing three books and several essays.
The world will miss Naipaul’s sharp tongued, witty commentaries on society. But what he described yesterday about many societies and subjects are still apt today for those societies and the lifestyle he critiqued have not changed much.
His death is an incalculable loss for the world for there are few writers of his caliber around. there are few writers of his caliber around.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.