Limits of Naipaulís antipathies

He is entitled to his stories about Ayodhya. But if that fiction is sold as history, some pushback is inevitable

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in his "intervention" in the matter of Karnad vs Naipaul ('Master of antipathies', IE, November 9) is brilliant when he writes: "Without a sense of hostile distance, you will not be able to get through to the deep passions that animate people. Empathy produces a superficial understanding. It rests on the presumption that some form of sympathy can make human beings intelligible. Antipathy, in this view, produces a deeper form of understanding, because it cuts through the self-justifications of agents to reveal the deep, often unconscious complexes that drive them." But also helpful? I'm not so sure. I firmly believe that contra-factual history writing can provide many insights, but would never suggest it is indubitably or totally helpful in every instance.

Concerning V.S. Naipaul ó my apologies to those in India who can only call him Sir Vidia ó it may be useful to remember the old Sherlock Holmesian insight about the dog that didn't bark at night. Certainly when it comes to championing his insightful antipathies, I well know how he feels about India, Africa and the Caribbean islands ó or rather the relatively darker people in those lands ó and have long benefited from his antipathetic insights concerning them. I have had trouble, however, of benefiting from the same when it comes to the fairer skinned folks, in particular those in his preferred domicile. Nor have I seen him lumbering up to wag a finger at those who misunderstand his antipathies and use them for their own not-so-helpful purposes.

It is true that the devil lies in the details, but it is also true that the divine is not far away either when it comes to details. Naipaul as a fictionist has the right to choose his moments of history when it comes to Ayodhya; he can be as selective as he wishes in order to craft his fiction to his satisfaction. But if his agent or publisher, not to say Naipaul himself, sells that fiction as history then some pushback has to come. For Naipaul and his admirers, Ayodhya begins and ends with two dates: 1526 and 1992. Nothing happened in between. Nothing else matters. A psychic wound was made in 1526; it miraculously healed ó well, not miraculously; a lot of nasty bits played some role ó in 1992. But for the local people, who, according to Naipaul, should be most deeply wounded, a few other dates did matter. For example 1855, when a Muslim nawab sent a Hindu general with a small army and many cannons to stop a fanatic Muslim from laying claim to parts of Hanumangadhi in Ayodhya. The general was successful, and properly rewarded. Or 1949, when Ram Lalla made his miraculous appearance in the sanctum of the "disputed structure". Naipaul wouldn't know, and antipathetically wouldn't care if he did, that there was then in Ayodhya someone named Swami Akshay Brahmachari who undertook a fast in order to heal the wound that his beloved Ayodhya had received. That the Brahmachari was deceived by the politicians in power is also something Naipaul wouldn't care to know, nor the little detail that, for a couple of decades after the "miracle", the Muslim appellant and the Hindu defendant used to travel from Faizabad to the high court in Lucknow and back in a shared taxi, and retained their friendly ties as long as they lived. I remembered these tiny details when I read the sad news about the most recent disturbances in Faizabad. To Naipaul, they would be just more proof how right he was about India's wounded psyche.

In any case, Girish Karnad's big question was: why was an Indian lit-fest honouring Naipaul? I have not seen any answer to it. My search on the internet has failed to turn up the citation that the festival people must have prepared and properly declaimed. Does it refer to his An Area of Darkness as an insightful study? Or, his The Middle Passage as the essential book on the Caribbean islands? Does it underscore his insights as the true fruit of his rare antipathies? I don't know, for it has not been published or quoted from, not even by Anil Dharker. We are simply told that Naipaul was eligible because he is of "Indian origin", and that he cannot be prejudiced against Islam or Muslims since he has a Muslim wife.

Now, if Naipaul has Indian origins, so do the hundreds of thousands who immigrated to Pakistan in 1947. But, for the life of me, I can't see the organisers of the lit-fest rushing to have all Pakistanis above age 65 granted a PIO status, which I saw in some paper, much to my amusement, being discussed concerning Naipaul. In case I have misjudged them, and that is a possibility I must allow, I apologise. Also, to help them in their selfless work, I suggest a name for next year's lifetime achievement award for a person of Indian origin: Intizar Hussain. He has surer claim, since it was he, and not his grandfather, who was born in UP, India.

As for the other explanation that drags in his Pakistani wife, I can only say that at one time there were many in these United States who only too quickly would claim that some of their best friends were Jews.

The writer is professor emeritus, University of Chicago

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