By Asghar Ali Engineer
November 16-30, 2012
In a literary festival organized by Times of India Group in Mumbai Girish Karnad, a theatre celebrity and a secular activist attacked, in his speech the committee which decided to give award to Naipaul on the grounds that Naipaul had communal attitude and did not deserve this award. Some people objected to Karnad attacking Naipaul on this occasion. He could have spared his remarks for some other occasion.
But Girish Karnad defended himself by saying that my conscience did not accept this and there could not have been a better occasion that this when award is being given to him. Being a Nobel awardee Naipaul does have celebrity status but that does not mean he is beyond any criticism, literary or otherwise. And as a secular activist myself I agree with Girish that iron must be struck when hot and he chose right moment to attack the views of Naipaul.
Though Naipaul grew with Muslims around him in Trinidad and was rationalist to start with, he had very distorted view of Islam on one hand and, of medieval Indian history on the other. It seems he has swallowed RSS version of Islam and Indian history uncritically and his journey began with rationalism but ended with Hindutva ideology. In early seventies he had written a book on India called An Area of Darkness and had severely criticized superstitious beliefs and practices in India. This book was burnt by Jansangh (now BJP) at Flora Fountain in Mumbai. They must have burnt in other parts of India. I was in Mumbai and so I read about it in Mumbai Newspapers.
However, I was surprised when I read his full page interview in Timers of India justifying the Ramjanambhoomi movement on grounds that it was question of national pride and that Muslim rulers had demolished many temples and so it was symbolic redressal of grievance Hindus have against Muslims in this country. If I remember correctly the interview was conducted by another icon of Hindutva Mr. Arun Shourie.
As a young littérateur Naipaul was rationalist and was critical of various superstitions prevailing in Indian society but when he acquired status as a writer and began to get prizes, he craved for recognition by those who projected themselves as champions of Hindu religion and hence began to take pride in what Hindutva forces justified. He failed to distinguish between Hindu religion and philosophy as found in high tradition of Hindu religion represented by Vedanta and Upanishad and its vulgarization by Hindutva to serve their own political ambitions. And Naipaul began to display what Girish Karnad calls “Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Islam”.
Now the question arises can we call Naipaul with such jaundiced view of Indian Islam and Muslims a great thinker and writer? Of course there cannot be a simple answer. I think it is a grey area for a writer like Naipaul. No doubt he is gifted with literary talent and Karnad himself recognizes this when he says, “he is certainly among the great English writers of our generation.” But such gifted and talented writers can and do go astray when dealing with subjects which involve other religions, races and ethnicities. Especially when there is sense of rivalry between two of them.
And Naipaul is not above such prejudices. That is why it is important to distinguish between good and talented writer and a great writer. It is only a great writer who rises above all prejudices and assesses even his/her opponent very fairly and does not write to fulfill his/her ambition. Naipaul certainly fails in this criteria and his ambition overrides his greatness, if any. He proves to be a man of clay.
His understanding of Indian history, particularly of the period when Muslim dynasties ruled, is highly distorted and stigmatized. Of course, he is not a historian but one does not have to be a qualified historian, particularly for a writer like Naipaul, to represent certain historical events, if only he is fair and unprejudiced. A great writer has to even rise above ideological prejudices and take critical view of his/her own inclinations but certainly Naipaul fails in this criterion.
In Urdu literature poets and writers like Ghalib, Iqbal and Manto came to be accepted as great poets and writers precisely because they boldly took very critical view of their own religious, social and historical traditions and rose above all prejudices. Similarly Raja Rammohan Roy, Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and others were unhesitantly accepted as great thinkers and writers for the same reason. Their inherited prejudices did not sweep them off their feet.
Sometimes a person evolves and corrects himself/herself if he/she had gone wrong in earlier phase of his/her life. But in case of Naipaul, as pointed out above, his journey as writer and thinker, was more of a regression than evolution. He began to write as a rationalist and, like Rajaram Mohan Rai, Tagore etc. was highly critical of inherited traditions but then, after having established himself, began to aspire for status and recognition as a conservative Hindu and displayed his prejudices in his book The Wounded Civilization. The very title of the book The Wounded Civilization shows that the Hindu Civilization was hurt and insulted and destroyed by Muslims.
Naipaul takes great pride in Vijaynagar Culture as bastion of Hindu culture which was destroyed by marauding Muslims, as Girish puts it. But then he gets this interpretation of Vijaynagar, in the words of Karnad “read made from a book by Robert Sewell called A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900.” Girish further comments and rightly so, “Naipaul, as always in awe of his colonial sources, simply accepts this picture as the unadorned truth and recycles it as his own.”
When I was visiting Vijaynagram ruins a Brahmin friend (who was committed to secularism) a guide was taking around some tourists and pointed out to them some broken idols (hands, noses, eyes etc.) saying all this was done by Muslims who destroyed Vijaynagram empire. When my friend heard this he gave a piece of his mind to the guide for misguiding tourists and explained the causes of damaged idols.
The British masters had distorted our history to divide us and if Naipaul; accepts such version as truth one can understand poverty of his thought. Any communal ideology not only lacks depth but also lacks truth. It is based more on falsehood and distortion of facts and a creative writer and much more a great writer engages himself in quest for truth. Thus Naipaul not only does not engage in quest for truth but his false equation with Hindu communal ideology forces him to accept falsehood. How can such a writer be accepted as a great writer.
Surprisingly some people began to argue that he married a Pakistani Muslim woman then how can he be a Hindu communalist. This is a strange argument indeed. In our patriarchal society even a common man without any achievements dominates his wife and so a writer with achievements like Naipaul including knighthood and prize of Nobel Laureate, how can he be in awe of his wife? His wife will be in awe of her husband and accept whatever he thinks.
And then there are many Muslim women in Pakistan – and I know some of them – oppressed by Muslim society, they begin to curse Islam and everything Islamic. So his wife being a Pakistani Muslim can hardly prove anything. At best it is a simplistic argument. One has to judge Sir Vidya’s arguments or contents of his writings on their own merit, not on the religion of his wife.
Moreover a great writer has a vision of future. He not only portrays the society as it exists but also portrays a society as it ought to be, more humane and causing no suffering to humanity whereas a communal ideology is based on distorted values and hatred of others. A creative writer’s main spiritual asset is love and a communalist dispenses nothing but hatred.
Sir Vidya sought personal greatness whereas a great thinker seeks society’s greatness and at his own cost, if necessary. All great thinkers and visionaries are much ahead of their time – they value future more than past though they accept from past what is great in it. Greatness is not sought through false notion of history but it is history which confers greatness on a real thinker and writer.
How unfortunate that Sir Vidya went to the BJP office to seek blessings of Shri. L.K.Advani after he was conferred Nobel. Whether Naipaul deserved Nobel or not it was for Nobel peace awarding committee to decide. However mere conferment of Nobel should not be criteria for someone’s greatness. At best it may indicate his talents for creative writing. Even otherwise Nobel is given for many reasons including political ones. Tagore was given Nobel whereas Mahatma Gandhi was ignored. Does Mahatma become lesser person? He was anytime greater than Tagore for his contribution to India in its anti-imperialist struggle.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.
Source: Secular Perspective, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism