I was probably fourteen, when rummaging through the bookshelf at home, I chanced upon a white Penguin paperback by a certain V. S. Naipaul. If it weren’t for its rather amusing name and a funny-looking cover, I would have kept A House for Mr Biswas back on the shelf. Biswas is regarded as Sir Vidia Naipaul’s first work to have achieved worldwide acclaim, and so it was for me — the first of Naipaul’s works that I read.
A few months ago, with a good number of years and several Naipaul’s books in between, I picked up Biswas again at a second-hand bookshop in Bengaluru. Naipaul did not fail to amuse me again. I knew he wouldn’t. In all my reading years, no author had conveyed to me the sense of rootlessness and darkness more strongly and more sublimely than he had using his finely crafted and utterly complicated characters.
But over the years, I’d realised how complicated a character Naipaul himself was. It was difficult to idolise a man whose views on cultural history I could not interpret as anything but heavily prejudiced, and whose criticism of women writers (and his treatment of the women in his own life) was evidently a reflection of his deeply ingrained misogyny.
But were these reasons to stop admiring Naipaul the novelist, and by extension, his numerous novels? I don’t believe so. Even if it were the case, I doubt I could have; I’d loved Mohun Biswas and Willie Chandran for what they were — grey and complex — how could I not adore the grey and complex man who created them?
It was Salman Rushdie’s tweet earlier today which broke the news of Naipaul’s passing away for me. Rushdie lamented the loss saying, “We disagreed all our lives, about politics, about literature, and I feel as sad as if I just lost a beloved older brother.” True, the loss is immensely disheartening for everyone who came across Naipaul and his works, for everyone who got to interact with Sir Vidia through his works that he has left for posterity.