Sir V.S.Naipaul... The name can trigger a flurry of reaction from people who have read him or heard of him. Me too, had already formed an opinion about the person behind this name from various articles, books and news reports , that is of an intelligent, provocative, arrogant, rude, womanizing, chain smoking, selfish writer of brilliant , unmatched quality of prose.
Having completed reading this mammoth book ( of 555 pages to be precise), none of them have changed. Patrick French's attempt to look into the person behind all those images through his outstanding book on the life of V.S.Naipaul was not to make any effort to change that perception. However, it is an attempt to look at those traits and the elements of place, people and environment in moulding up the character called V.S.Naipaul.
French has done a good job in starting the book with the early sets of people who sailed out of Calcutta port, hoping for better fortune and living from the poverty, caste injustice, and widespread famine , setting forth to the world of sugar cane. Many of them were tricked and forced into this groups and was sold to the land owners to work in the fields weathering harsh conditions. It is the future generations of these immigrants, getting out of the slavery, trying to build a new life in the land they are now belong. There are people of all sections of erstwhile Indian diaspora. Brahmins, the untouchables, people of various native languages. The Brahmin upper cast people, had to disengage from the rest and have to show their differentiation and superiority to the other common people. Some of the enterprising members of them have started their 'family occupation', of conducting poojas, running temples, and the fortune telling. It is from this ancestry ( still unconfirmed) Vidya was born. The 'I am better than the rest' was deep rooted to the culture and this Brahmin up-manship is what many people attribute to Naipaul.
His family also had to fight many extreme conditions. Living in poverty , managing many kids , living with the extended family where one has to suffer many instances of humiliation ( both physical and mental). The life outside home was also not any different. The Native black people were richer and stronger. It is among them one has to excel and make his way. Like many Vidya was also determined to win the government scholarship and travel abroad for study. The hate for Trinidad and its people grew in him gradually, and he believed that the only way of escape is to get away with the scholarship. His contempt towards the West Indies in general and Black people in particular was so strong for ages, was from these tough upbringing.
The study in Oxford was also not all that great. He was now under a bigger identity crisis. For the whites, he was Indian. For Indians he was an Islander. He was also been treated to racial discrimination and have suffered from depression. His attempts with writing bloomed with his stint at oxford. He was part of the BBC West Indies based programs. It is here that he made contacts with various writers and other intellects.
This book also looks at his life as a writer in detail. His inspiration from own father, the early struggles to establish himself as a writer, lack of money to keep the family running and the critical acclaim for his initial works. His ability with the language, the rare insight and intellect in writing non-fiction works are also been noted. It follows him on his journey to various parts of the world for collecting data and experience. His multiple sojourns in India, Africa, Latin America and other places and the reflections by those associated with him during these stays. There is a commonality in these reflections. Most of them recall him as a brilliant , intelligent human being, but one difficult to be friendly with. He is also known for his reluctant to spend money.
V.S.Naipual is not known to have any long lasting friends. As he himself admits "I have had admirers but not friends" ( about his school days), there aren't many friends in his life. He had been using his contacts to his personal and literary needs, but never beyond that. His relationship with his family was also quite fragile, to an extend where his mother made a statement as 'I have no such son'. He maintained a love-hate relation with his closed ones. He had been a difficult person to deal with, even to his own siblings.
The other interesting aspect of his life is his relationship with women. The strained relationship with his wife, who was in awe with his talent, and was a constant inspiration and the first reader of all his works. She was the one he ill-treated the maximum. Even though she is from a white family in England, to me she behaved more like an obedient Indian wife. His confessed visits to prostitute for pleasure, the long relationship with a married Anglo-Argentine lady from Buenos Aires, the second wife from Pakistan, whom he brought in to his house the next day of the cremation of his first wife.
On his side, Vidya did not heed to any of the comments. He was hard at everything he witnessed. His remarks were often harsh and insulting. He did not try pleasing people. He wrote what he saw, and what his intelligence guided him to. This did make him unpopular with vast segment of people. His multiple books on India, his take on Islam and his writing on Argentine where all controversial but was truthful account of the status. French, attributes his arrogance to his elite Brahmin background and his provocative views to the Trinidadian mischief (called picong).
"He was a spectator, free of the emancipatory fire, who had no wish to reform human race. He was the man without loyalties, whether to India, the West Indies or to anywhere else, who would write the truth as he saw it."
Overall, you will not close the book with a high personal opinion of the man in discussion. The author does not hide his admiration to the Nobel laureate's skills and talent as a writer. He does follow his course in the creation of most of his major works. His creative ability, his knack of gathering information and the ability to remember minute details, the meticulous preparation, his genius.
Very well written biography of one of the most controversial figures of twentieth century literature. This book was also selected as the best biographies of the year 2008 by book critics award. Very disturbing , while absorbing read.
The World is What it is - An authorized biography of V.S.Naipaul
Patrick French555 Pages
Further Read : NYTimes, NY Book Review , Literary review , Telegraph,