In a 2005 article in The New York Times, writer Rachel Donadio anoints VS Naipaul as ’The Irascible Prophet’. She goes on to prop her opinion with instances of how Naipaul saw through people and cultures, and how, consequently, he taught a generation to re-examine history or negotiate between the shadow areas of knowledge that lay between ‘belief and unbelief’.
To simplify, Donadio demonstrates the kind of giddy admiration that a sizable section of the West nurtures for Naipaul – the same which turns into too bitter a pill to swallow for those who consider the writer ‘incapable of restraining his loathing for the Islamic world and its people’. Wendy O’Shea-Meddour of the www.i-epistemology.net is probably one of them.
In an article on the site, she attempts explaining how Naipaul’s ‘Islamophobia’ is misread as ‘insight’ by smitten readers. She goes on to re-examine Naipaul’s rhetoric and the literary devices used by him in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People, a widely acclaimed piece of non-fiction that is hailed world over as the gritty truth about the religion and its practitioners. Wendy points out that despite his disclaimer in the foreward, where he calls himself ‘less of an inquirer’, Naipaul’s rebuilding of the Islam culture is overtly coloured with his knee-jerk hatred for everything associated with it. The writer points out a passage in the book, where being surrounded with Islamic paraphernalia seems to have a physical repercussion on him. She says:
Naipaul is safe while Imaduddin remains in the room. But when he answers the adhan (call to prayer) and deserts Naipaul, the very presence of what Naipaul suspects to be a set of “Islamic books” (he cannot read Arabic and is therefore forced to hazard a guess at the books’ contents) is enough to provoke serious health implications. We are informed that,
… without the man himself […] his missionary paraphernalia felt oppressive […]. It was only someone like Imaduddin who could give point and life to the electric-blue Egyptian paperbacks on the glass-topped desk.
While one is tempted to read the same as extreme antipathy, Pratap Bhanu Mehta in today’s column in The Indian Express, says it is exactly what we also need to achieve a closer-to-honest appropriation of cultural and political history. Unlike Girish Karnad, who in his allegations against the writer differentiated his art from his politics, Mehta suggests that one should not disassociate Naipaul’s politics from his literary interest. Mehta says:
Naipaul’s brilliance has always been built on a series of antipathies. Most of us assume that empathy is a prerequisite for understanding, that without the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, you cannot understand them. Naipaul’s starting point is almost always the opposite. Without a sense of hostile distance, you will not be able to get through to the deep passions that animate people.
Mehta observes how not a single work of Naipaul has been insulated against allegations of ‘prejudice’. And how probably the same extreme detachment from the subject helps him get closer to the complex workings of intertwined religious and cultural structures. He points out, that in his earlier works, Naipaul was also condemned for being ‘anti-Hindu’.
The truth, to repeat a cliche, is out there. The question is whether Naipaul’s approach gets you any closer to it than the restraints of empathy.
Read the complete IE article here.