VS Naipaul is often attacked for his ideas about India and the damage done to it by Islam. Most recently, the attacker has been Girish Karnad. The playwright says Naipaul regurgitates Orientalist ideas about Muslims and their engagement with India. This is not quite correct, but I’ll come to it later. Karnad says Naipaul’s work shows his “rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim.”
Let’s examine the charge.
Naipaul has written only one novel whose central character is Muslim: A Bend in the River.
I would say it contains the single most empathetical, unprejudiced treatment of a Muslim in any book by any writer, including Muslim writers.
Naipaul writes in Salim’s character as a man, an Indian man. At no point does his Muslim-ness show. No prayer break, no halal food, no political comment, no moral outlook. Nothing like that.
He indicates Salim is Gujarati, but even that comes through subtly. From the fact that he’s from East Africa and his family and friends run businesses.
I don’t think Naipaul is prejudiced against Muslims. Prejudice indicates judging without information, a charge that must be laid against Naipaul carefully. He has some views about Islam’s damage to native cultures, but his work there is based on field reportage, not regurgitation.
In any case, much of what he has articulated is visible and indisputable unless one is blind to what is around. This blindness of Indians, their inability to observe and their retreat from the physical world is known to us only through Naipaul’s penetration. The reason he deserves the Nobel Prize is this original work.
The fact is his theories have stood the test. Sensitive, de-racinated Indians will recognise the world around them through Naipaul’s lens.
Karnad says Naipaul doesn’t see the synthesis in India-Persian music. That Naipaul does not comprehend medieval India (assuming there is one correct way of comprehending medieval India) because he is tone-deaf. “This is one problem with Mr Naipaul’s analysis of Indian culture. He has no music and therefore no conception of what Muslims contributed to our history.” He also says: “If you don’t respond to music, then you can’t respond to Indian history because the real development of Indian culture has been through music.”
It is true that Naipaul thinks of music as the most primitive of the arts, because he considers hearing the most basic of senses. I agree with him. However, he is alert to the essence of Hindustani music. He knows what it is intended to communicate: Emotion.
He shows us this in a couple of remarkable paragraphs, also in A Bend in the River, when he expresses what Salim feels when listening to a girl singing.
The music that was being played came to an end, and in the wonderfully lit room, blurred circles of light thrown on to the ceiling from the lamps on the floor, people stopped dancing. What came next went to straight to my heart–sad guitars, words, a song, an American girl singing ‘Barbara Allen’.
That voice! It needed no music; it hardly needed words. By itself it created the line of the melody; by itself it created a whole world of feeling. It is what people of our background look for in music and singing–feeling. It is what makes us shout ‘Wah, wah!’… Listening to that voice, I felt the deepest part of myself awakening, the part that knew loss, homesickness, grief, and longed for love. And in that voice was the promise of a flowering for everyone who listened.
I said to Indar, ‘Who is that singer?’
He said, ‘Joan Baez. She’s very famous in the States’.
I would argue that Naipaul intellectually penetrates Indian music as few Indians do or can. He has a feel for it, even though it is unlikely to move him as much as it does us. But it cannot be said that he is ignorant of what it is, and what it represents.
For Naipaul, the Hindu is no different from the Muslim, as his merciless observations show. You could accuse him of bigotry (something different from prejudice), but this must be demonstrated in Naipaul’s person, not his work.