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VS Naipaul: The shock of the new

  • Published at 12:14 pm November 5th, 2016
  • Last updated at 11:54 am November 6th, 2016
VS Naipaul: The shock of the new
I first encountered VS Naipaul in 1972, sometime in March as I recall. The timing could not have been better. We were then living in Karachi, in a housing colony on Garden Road. We were Bengalis who were no longer citizens, trapped in Pakistan and waiting to get out of there to Bangladesh. Waiting, with our lives on hold. As the days passed, quite unexpectedly, I discovered that I was free in a way I had never been before. None of the old things – exams, classes, textbooks, schedules – mattered a hoot anymore. My parents couldn’t care less. In that void, I took to reading. I scoured for books, piling them up in a corner of my room. I read them, one by one, in a dreamlike state – it was reading at its purest. Even now, those books are vividly with me. Around us, Pakistan was reeling from being cut down to size, with half its vaunted army in Indian POW camps, with Bhutto ranting and workers rioting in the streets. But I sat in the still eye of this storm and kept reading, the boy in the bubble. When, quite unexpectedly, Naipaul came calling.
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Shampoo was a few years older than me, the source of his nickname a perpetual mystery. That mid-morning in March I found him standing in the middle of his drawing room, eyes closed, arms waving in the air as he conducted the orchestra playing on the Grundig radiogram – yes, that’s what they were called back then. Burt Baccharach, who I had never heard of. But then Shampoo had always sprung new things on me – the proper way to leg glance, books by AJ Cronin and James Michener when I didn’t know them, even Sherlock Holmes, or later, steering me to The Ipcress File running at the Rex by saying that only a dunce would miss checking out Michael Caine. As Burt gave way to James Last, I saw a paperback on the sofa and picked it up. An Area of Darkness. The author’s name made me sit up in surprise. Indian. And Hindu, one of those unpronounceable ones, though not a Bengali Hindu since it was “suraj’’ and not “surja’’ in the name. Who was this? Could I borrow it? Yes, Shampoo said, since he was in the middle of another book. So was I, but didn’t let on. I trotted off home but put it aside while I finished The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Only then did I turn to the paperback – crinkled and worn – thinking, right-ho, Mister Suraj, who you, man, and whatcho saying, men-men, no. But then, as I got past the beginning pages, something clicked. Audibly. I was in. I had locked on to the book’s grid of heat, sweat, cobbler and chase for a liquor license among Indian clerkdom – to a world instantly recognisable outside my windows. There was no going back now, and I read it in one go.
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The shock of the new, the shock of the truly original, is that rarest of experiences. That is what An Area of Darkness delivered to me on that distant day in that far-off city. It is hard to put into words, to write in an unmediated way the raw feeling of it as I read it in that context, at that time, at barely 19 years of age. It is hard to keep it to that frame because a lifetime of later reading of Naipaul’s books, the differing judgements arrived at over time, keeps threatening to intrude into this write-up and ruin it, warp it to some blended knitwear of high-brow, fatuous nonsense about the author and his work. And it is doubly hard to tell it like it was – that shock of the new – without subsiding into the worst of cliches – “opened up a new world,” or “took me on a journey” or that supreme horror that has both “journey” and “discovery” in it, along with “spiritual”… Christ, no!
In English books, India came via a filter, face scrubbed and hair neatly parted. But Naipaul couldn’t give a toss about that, he was the ungodly opposite, sparing nothing and nobody in a searingly personal engagement with every kind of shit that crossed his path that would have had a Left Bank existentialist wiped out and panting over his authentic shot of absinthe.
So what I can say – what I should only say – is how I felt as Naipaul ripped up the old templates for me. In English books, India came via a filter, face scrubbed and hair neatly parted. But Naipaul couldn’t give a toss about that, he was the ungodly opposite, sparing nothing and nobody in a searingly personal engagement with every kind of shit that crossed his path that would have had a Left Bank existentialist wiped out and panting over his authentic shot of absinthe. That was dynamite. And the English he wrote, the non-fiction travelogue form he had marshalled into the service of that English – that too was pure dynamite, sticks of it. And Naipaul was so on edge so much of the time, teeth gritted, despairing, seething like the streets of Karachi outside the colony, ready to blow up at the oddest things – to put all that in his elegantly-phrased bender, now that was real expletive-deleted dynamite! It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware – instinctively, I was – of the faultlines running along the spine of the tale. How could Vidyadhar, growing up in a Hindu family in Trinidad, be so shocked by India? How could he rage at taboos – the dirty Brahmin cook fit to cook for the Brahmins but never the spotless Dalit – yet not see it full-blown in himself? Taboos about food were a primal thing with him. On the last leg of his trip to England, on the launch to Southampton, tormented by fear of “unclean” food, he ate only “sweets,” i.e., ice-cream, downing it, to the astonishment of the English purser, by the bucketload. But these were overriden for me by the book’s stiff-backed refusal to please and wanting to be liked. Naipaul would only write the difficult book, and let the chips fall where they may.
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I grew up in a Pakistan where India was officially a caricature, a repellent thing of sticks and glue. Even as I read the book in Karachi, Pakistanis wore shoes with tiny stickers on them saying “Crush India.” But Naipaul drove a truck through all that garbage, gave me a sense of the real McCoy – the middle section is unsurpassed writing on Kashmir in the early '60s. Later that same year, we escaped from Pakistan to Bangladesh. Passing through India, I caught glimpses of the things that had filled Naipaul with dread. But India was also marvelous and light and lovely, so unlike the horrid images nurtured in Pakistan. It had a singular beauty which I perhaps might have missed had I not read An Area of Darkness so well, so recently, perhaps would not have stopped to see the flickering pyramid of lights in a huge temple at night had I not gained that knife-blade edge of awareness of the land. Now, happily, shortly, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul will be in Dhaka. It’s been a long time since that day at Shampoo’s. It’s been a long time coming.
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