Editor’s Note: Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of a novel “Immigrant, Montana” (Knopf). He teaches English at Vassar College. The views expressed here are solely the author’s. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On October 10, 1953, V.S. Naipaul sent a telegram home to his family in Trinidad. At that time, Naipaul was an indigent student at University College, Oxford; he had arrived in England on a scholarship and had begun writing brief pieces for the BBC’s Caribbean Voices program. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, died Saturday in London at the age of 85.
On that day in October 1953, Naipaul was only 21 years old and he had just received the news of his father’s death. His telegram read:
= HE WAS THE BEST MAN I KNEW STOP EVERYTHING I OWE TO HIM BE BRAVE MY LOVES TRUST ME = VIDO
Naipaul didn’t go home; he wouldn’t, in fact, return until several more years had passed. But he paid homage to his father by making him the central character of his fourth novel, “A House for Mr Biswas,” which is regarded by many as one of the greatest novels written in English. Like Mr Biswas in the novel, Naipaul’s father had been born poor. He struggled to discover a vocation and, for a while, succeeded as a journalist.
The elder Naipaul dreamed of becoming a writer, and didn’t quite see his ambition fulfilled. The achievement of putting words down on the page, the ambition and also the anxiety, was a central theme in the novel. (Every time he puts a sheet in the typewriter, Mr. Biswas types out the following: “At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children….” The half-finished sentence lights up a whole dark universe of desire and futility.)
And it can be said that this preoccupation with the written word, the centrality of the writing life, was a gift that V.S. Naipaul gave to younger writers like me in places like India. If I were to speak only for myself, although I know this includes many others, I owe everything to him.
I was in a restaurant this evening with my wife when I received a message from a writer-friend saying that V.S. Naipaul had died. My mood slipped. My wife asked what had happened. We tried to talk of other things and then I stopped and admitted to my wife that I was sad. If I were being honest I would have said that I felt I needed to dwell inside the feeling of loss. My wife’s response was unambiguous. “He was a bigot,” she said quickly.
I’m telling you this because I think my wife’s answer reflects a response that many people, including those who have a profound respect for Naipaul’s achievements as a writer, will share. The list is familiar: in one baffling interview after another, the scorn he showed for many women writers; his representation of Islam as a medieval religion full of violence, which I always thought had its origins in his being raised as a diasporic Hindu; his swift, often ahistorical, dismissal of formerly colonized nations as inferior.
Was I being over-dramatic, or defensive, when I said to my wife: “But suppose one’s father has bigoted views. When he dies, will you still not mourn him?”
Reading him as a young man in a provincial town in India, I found Naipaul’s writing gave a solidity to my surroundings. In a language that was as clear as the dawn, he appeared to be giving our streets a name and a recognizable air. In books like “India: A Million Mutinies Now,” his 1990 book recounting travels in his ancestral home in India, he was also giving the ordinary person a voice.
Later, when I came to the West and began to live here, I took great pleasure in his books like the autobiographical 1987 work, “The Enigma of Arrival.” In that strange book in particular, neither simply a novel nor a work of non-fiction, I saw an immigrant writer’s tremendous act of invention. Through the sheer power of perception, noting details in the landscape and the people he saw at a distance, Naipaul was staking a claim to England, where he had come as an outsider.
I didn’t know V.S. Naipaul very well and to a large extent my acquaintance with him was limited to meetings at literary festivals. Once I sent him a piece I had written for the New Statesman about a visit to Kashmir. On my last day there, I had gone looking for the hotel named Leeward where Naipaul had stayed in the sixties and written about in one of his earlier India books. The hotel was now a military bunker. Soon I received a fax from Naipaul. His letter began: “The Leeward was a doghouse, really. Better for it to be turned into the bunker you describe.”
Naipaul then proceeded to offer me a brief history lesson about the ruins in Kashmir. He was merciless, but also wrong, and perhaps more than a bit bigoted. But the real thing I want to tell you is that I lost the fax. And yet, until I found it many months later, I could recall each word of it. That is the real importance of Naipaul’s talent as a writer: to find in deceptively simple prose, an arresting syntactic rhythm that fixed for his reader an image of the world as it was.