8 Apr 2002
By Khalid Hasan
As was to be expected, V.S. Naipaul has held Muslims responsible for the carnage in Gujarat. If Lady Nadira Khanum Alvi Naipaul is still looking for a reason to leave him, this could be it. However, from all accounts, she is now more Naipaul than Naipaul, so on that one count, we can all take a rest.
In the past, Naipaul has defended the demolition of the Babri Mosque and expressed understanding for the building of the Ram temple on the site. He has called it a reassertion of "Hindu pride" humbled by a thousand years of alien Muslim rule. One Indian writer said of him, "Naipaul's ignorance of Islam is deep. What he says may shock many people here, but it comes as no surprise to those of us who have read his books. He is basically a Hindu nationalist who has a deep dislike of Muslims, so that is where he is coming from."
Naipaul calls Islam "an Arab religion" and all those Muslims who are not Arabs, which would include his wife, "converts". To quote him, "Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert's worldview alters. His holy places are Arab lands. His sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his." While it is true that there is an extra-territorial dimension to being a Muslim, only a man as arrogant and self-deluded as Naipaul would fail to see that Muslims in India and Pakistan have retained much of their history and culture which they do not see as clashing with their Islamic faith. And if non-Arab Muslims are "converts", then so are the Arabs. And what about Christians and Jews and Hindus themselves? They are also all "converts". Hinduism is not indigenous to India; it was brought in by Aryan invaders. Both Christianity and Judaism are Middle Eastern in origin. Naipaul is silent on this which is understandable since it knocks the bottom out of his theory.
Asked last October by New York Times reporter Adam Shatz about his what many see as his insensitivity and pandering to Western prejudices about Islam, he replied, "Well, that is the trouble with writing about Muslim people. There are people of the universities who want to run you out of town, and they're paid to, and so they pay attention to what you actually say." When reminded that he had described the Taliban as "vermin," he answered blithely, "No, that's my wife. She's a Pakistani journalist who for many years wrote a column. She writes from that kind of perspective."
As to whether he was surprised by Osama's support in countries like Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Iran, he replied, "No, because these are converted peoples of Islam. To put it brutally, these are people who are not Arabs. Part of the neurosis of the convert is that he always has to prove himself. He has to be more royalist than the king, as the French say."
Asked if he was right about Islam's "imperial drive to extend its reach and root out the unbeliever," then how did he explain why Islam's appeal was so potent, he replied that the idea of brotherhood was very powerful in Islam, which was what had "frightened" the king of Sindh (actually Raja Dahir). Naipaul said non-fundamentalist Islam was a "contradiction", adding that "the idea in Islam, the most important thing, is paradise. No one can be a moderate in wishing to go to paradise. The idea of a moderate (Islamic) state is something cooked up by politicians looking to get a few loans here and there."
And what did Naipaul think about September 11? According to him, it was caused by religious hate and the realisation that the world was getting more and more out of reach for the Muslims. He called Islam "calamitous", comparing it with colonialism. The big oil money once gave the Muslims the illusion that power had at last come to them but "they didn't understand that the goods that gave them power in the end were made by another civilisation." That being so, why blame poor Huntington! Naipaul is two steps ahead of the professor. Asked, since he describes himself as a "historian of Islam," which scholars of Islam he had relied on, he answered none. He said he travelled and met people and that was the "best way to go."
Meanwhile, Naipaul continues to be rude to people. In February this year, he stormed out of a writers' conference in Rajasthan, India. What led to the outburst were opening remarks by Jawaharlal Nehru's favourite niece and well-known author Nayantara Sehgal who talked about colonialism and an author's relationship with gender and oppression. "My life is short. I can't listen to banalities," the Nobel Laureate screamed at her.
The novelist Vikram Seth, in an effort to calm Naipaul, patted him gently on the back, "What are you doing?" Naipaul shouted at him. Sehgal fell silent. An Indian journalist who asked Naipaul if winning the Nobel had given him "larger acceptance" in Trinidad and India was told, "I never read the Trinidad newspapers so I have no idea ... It is not important whether I am loved or hated." The writer Robert Fulford has said of Naipaul, "Most people disappoint him. Entire continents, such as Africa, fail to meet his standards." In 1988, Naipaul said of his native land, "My books aren't read in Trinidad now - drum-beating is a higher activity." Trinidadians, he added, "live purely physical lives which I find contemptible ... It makes them interesting only to chaps in universities who want to do compassionate studies about brutes."
Indian novelist Githa Hariharan wrote in November last year, "Naipaul has been given the Nobel this year of all years in the midst of hawkish cacophony on the 'clash of civilisations'. Naipaul has been given the Nobel after he reacted to the September 11 tragedy, in myth-affirming terms, of Islam's calamitous effect on civilisation."
In an interview last year with Farrukh Dhondy, Naipaul said of Pakistan, "The Pakistani dream is one day that there'll be a Muslim resurgence and they will lead the prayers in the mosques in Delhi. You can hear that in Pakistan."
In a speech in London after a reading from his last book Half a Life, he said that Pakistan was living proof of the damage Islam could wreak. "The story of Pakistan is a terror story actually. It started with a poet who thought that Muslims were so highly evolved that they should have a special place in India for themselves. This wish to sift countries of unnecessary and irrelevant populations is terrible and this is exactly what happened in Pakistan."
The admirable Palestinian-American writer Edward Said has analysed Naipaul's problem best, "His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order."