• Sir Vs Naipaul •
By Tabish Khair
IT SURELY says something about writers like me — English-medium school education, though in a small town, and then an ordinary government college and university — that my initial formative influences were not British, or Indian. Apart from Hardy and Dickens, the writers who moved me in school and early college were Russian, French, German or American: Gorky, Gogol, Twain, Kafka, Dumas, Hugo, and in particular, Dostoevsky, whose The Brothers Karamazov is my earliest recollection of a book that haunted me for weeks. Other (current) favourites – Shakespeare, Emily Brontë, Stendhal, Chughtai, Manto, Ghalib, Svevo, George Eliot, Conrad, not to mention authors like Roberto Bolaño or Mahasweta Devi — were to come in senior college, or much later.
It was early in college that I realised how impoverished I was as a writer. Indian writers in Hindi or in translation, such as Premchand or Tagore, were so nationally canonised and annotated that they seldom appealed to me. With the exception of RK Narayan and the occasional novel like Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan, the very few ‘Indian English’ writers I could access in a small town Bihar in 1980s were strangely removed from my experience of India, which was ‘minoritarian’. It was not just that I could not write like Jane Austen; I could not even write like Raja Rao, or Mulk Raj Anand, or late in my college days, Salman Rushdie, even when I appreciated their books.
Given this sharp precipice of literary creativity, which allowed me little toehold, largely because my difference could not be countenanced in standard class or post/colonial terms, I latched on to the odd book that I could relate to. The most enabling was VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. I picked up a second-hand copy from a roadside stall. I was doing my Inter at the local college in Gaya. I doubt I had heard about Naipaul. Even if I had it must have been fleetingly. What struck me was the context — provincial and seemingly unstructured — in which Mr Biswas struggles to live and write. I could identify with it; identify much more with that Caribbean space than even with RK Narayan’s Malgudi, which exuded a suggestion of structure and calm that was often missing in my small town space.
Looking back, I realise that A House for Mr Biswas was a misleading introduction to Naipaul: it is arguably the ‘warmest’ of his novels. While the Caribbean space of its enactment is never forgiven, ‘father’-figure Biswas — narrated with more empathy than Naipaul musters for most of his Caribbean characters — bestows on it a mellow contextuality that is partly redeeming. I went looking for other books by Naipaul. There was no Internet then. Perhaps there wasn’t even any TV in Gaya. Or maybe it had just arrived, in its singular Doordarshan avatar.
I finally found another book during a rare visit to Ranchi: The Mimic Men. It was a harsher novel. But I was also stuck in a small town with no prospect of ever being able to leave it: it seemed to be a harsh destiny for a writer condemned to English by education and socio-historical accident. I was not in the mood to be overly forgiving of the place. And, in any case, The Mimic Men— unlike novels like Guerrillas, which I was to read much later — cuts both ways. I could laugh at ‘particular’ Caribbean elements — translatable to my small town experience of Bihar — but I could also laugh at ‘universal’ Colonial elements, in which I read not just traces of my own postcolonial inheritance but also the brashness of metropolitan India.
‘I decided I’d not let my speech become a burden of silence on the people I’d left behind’
When I spent four years or so in Delhi, working as a staff reporter, I picked up another book or two by Naipaul. But staff reportage, I soon realised, was good to the extent that it exposed me to worlds that were foreign to my provincial middle class upbringing; it was bad in that it left me no time to read freely. I also realised that people from my background did not become literary editors of colour supplements in places like Delhi. For that, unless one was extraordinarily lucky, one had to come from a different — metropolitan — background. People like me rose slowly and usually retired, if very good, as overworked news editors. I decided to move abroad, for personal reasons and to educate myself.
It took me two years of mostly immigrant-type work — dish-washing, floor-cleaning, house-painting — before I could really start doing a PhD. In those two years, the one writer I looked up to, and read almost everything by, was Naipaul. As I read on, I was both strengthened and saddened. Here was a brilliant writer, who had come from a kind of provincial space that, though on the other side of the globe, I could so easily imagine. His climb up a literary precipice that offered him few toeholds was familiar too. I learnt as much from his struggle as I did from his majestic style. But I was increasingly saddened by his repudiation of vital aspects of that provincial background; his almost maniacal drive to express himself to the ‘larger’ world sometimes by effectively silencing voices from that small place he’d left behind. I started discerning the logic by which his ideas, always containing the diamond of perception, finally accommodated themselves to the clasp of imperial jewel-makers.
It was then I made myself a promise that has shaped, for better or worse, my own writing: I would not let my speech become another burden of silence on the various people I had left behind. I could not claim representativeness, but I would seek a different contextuality. If that meant not being read in some brash quarters, then, so be it.
Tabish Khair is the author of The Thing about Thugs (2010), shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Man Asian Literary Prize, and How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position (2012). He teaches at the University of Aarhus, Denmark