He was the writer who said that Africa would return to “the bush”. The man who had a love affair for 24 years with a woman who was not his wife. The bigot who declared that women are “unequal to me”.
He was also the writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. The man whom the Nobel Academy described as a “modern philosopher” and praised for “works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories”.
VS Naipaul died last week, aged 85. In death, he joins the art form at which he was so good: the novel, which he proclaimed is “dead”. But his works live on, and it is strange but true that Naipaul’s greatest novel, A House for Mr Biswas, has so much to say about landlessness, homelessness and striving for dignity.
Strange because Naipaul was said to be a racist like Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad, a neocolonialist who had contempt for his native land, Trinidad, and the so-called developing world.
Yet, in spite of that, Naipaul the writer overcame some of his own prejudices in A House for Mr Biswas (1961). Set in Trinidad, it shows old ways of life giving way to the new, and the lure of education and advancement abroad. In that aspect of its story, Biswas follows Naipaul’s own life: he won a government scholarship that allowed him to attend a commonwealth university of his choice. He went to Oxford, which helps explain his elitism.
Mohun Biswas is a struggling Trinidadian. The reader shares his life’s journey and his many attempts to make something of himself. Biswas tries his hand at many jobs, from pundit and signwriter to shopkeeper, estate manager, welfare official and journalist.
His work on the Trinidad Sentinel is hardly encouraging. One of his stories is headlined “White Baby Found on Rubbish Dump – In Brown Paper Parcel – Did Not Win Bonny Baby Competition”. Again, the personal is present: Mohun is to a degree modelled on Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian whose column was sassily bylined “The Pundit”.
(It’s worth noting that unlike Mohan, Seepersad was a respected journalist and a good writer too. His series of short stories, Gurudeva and other Indian tales is an early instance of Indian diasporic fiction.
Work aside, Mohun is weighed down by his personal situation. He is caught and reeled in by the Tulsis, a big and domineering clan inspired by Naipaul’s mother’s family, the Capildeos.
Mohun’s mother-in-law is an inescapable presence, stifling, and the authority figure of the family. Lurching from one job to another, under siege at home, Biswas somehow keeps alive hopes of achieving success, dignity and identity. He is a memorable figure of persevering optimism, heroically humorous.
Always employed by or used and abused by others, Biswas is not and cannot be his own man, his own person. What is he? Who is he? The answer, at last, seems to be in land, or at least property.
There’s a house for sale on Sikkim Street, a house for Mr Biswas. But even this is not easily done. In order to buy the house, Biswas must first borrow money from a relative. Even his independence is contingent on another’s discretion.
The money in hand, Biswas buys the house. It is very near the end of his life, and he reflects on this act of selfhood and ownership: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis … to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s own portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
It is a triumphant but devastating ending. And it is one filled with sympathy and empathy for all those in the world who do not have a place to call their own: the homeless, the landless, the countryless.
Whether those sentiments come from Naipaul the man or Naipaul the writer through Biswas does not matter much. They are universal hopes and fears and feelings, and they speak to the world of 2018 just as they did to that of 1961, when Biswas was first published.
What is remarkable and tragic in its own way is Naipaul’s steady moving away from sympathising with the rootlessness in Biswas. It was, after all, a condition from which he himself suffered.
Two decades later, this master of postcolonial literature came up with a picture of postcolonial gloom in Africa. The opening sentences of A Bend in the River (1979) say everything about his attitudes: “The world is what it is. Men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”
Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, later Sir Vidia, was not a nothing man. His epitaph might as well be the first lines of A Bend in the River.