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Naipaul, Karnad And Rushdie A Heady Cocktail

Updated: January 19, 2013 1:26 pm

Eminent playwright and author Girish Karnad set the cat among the pigeons at the “Literature Live” festival in Mumbai recently by stating that Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul was “tone-deaf” to the musical contribution of the Islamic community in India, and was thus an “unreliable” writer as far as India is concerned. This was said in context of Naipaul’s receiving the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the same festival. While Karnad is well within his rights to air his views, it is time for those in the literary world to ponder whether this author-bashing is of much relevance in the context of which the comments are made or is it just a case of sensationalism or attempts of a personality to stay in the news, for shortly after holding forth on Naipaul, Karnad gave a critical view of the quality of Tagore’s poetry.

It has taken Karnad quite a while, to say the least, to wake up to Naipaul’s anti-Muslim rhetoric in his works. His book India: An Area of Darkness came out in the mid-sixties and his subsequent works, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now came out in the seventies and eighties respectively. Naipaul in his rebuttal to Karnad’s comments has said the problem with Indian secularism and secularists are that they tend to be too “Muslim centric” in their approach and everything is judged on that touchstone.

The tendency to be in the news nowadays seems to be an overriding passion with those in political, literary or cultural fields and Karnad seems to be no exception. People want to hit the headlines or the news lines, as the case may be, at all costs. Naipaul’s present wife Nadira is a Muslim and her two children are being brought up as Muslims. His views on the Muslim period of Indian history, the Ayodhya issue and the Bharatiya Janata Party are not new and it does seem rather absurd to rake it up now.

In an interview with Sagarika Ghosh on CNN-IBN Girish Karnad goes on to say that Naipaul in his works has remained focused on the Muslim period, whereas religious conflicts have been recorded from periods of Indian history

of pre-historic times and distinguished historiographers like Romilla Thapar have made note of this in their works. However, a certain thing mystifies one, and that is given the high stature Karnad holds in the world of art and literature being Jnanpith Award winner, a Padma Bhushan and a person who wrote his first play at the tender age of 23, as well as winning the President’s Golden Lotus award on his debut film in 1970, should he indulge in this fairly low-level mud-slinging which will in no way promote the cause of art and literature?

“Literature Live” director Anil Dharker who is also an avowed supporter of secularism was sharply critical of Karnad’s remarks stating: “I am all for free speech, but free speech presupposes a dialogue, not a diatribe.”

In the run up to the controversy another Naipaul-baiter Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton contains critical comments on the Nobel laureate, to the effect that he (Rushdie) does not read Sir Vidya’s work. In a conversation with Robert Gottlieb who was the head of publishing at Alfred A Knopf, he records that after the publication of Midnight’s Children Gottlieb mentioned that he had not read the work as after reading Naipaul’s Among the Believers he felt he would not like anyone with a Muslim background. To which Rushdie observed that he would “certainly like to read this book” the flip side to this implying that he has never read Sir Vidya. Naipaul had also told a British interviewer that he did not know who Rushdie was. That Rushdie and Naipaul have not been the best of friends for quite a while is well known in literary circles. As far back as March 15, 1989, Naipaul castigated those literary worthies whom he sarcastically referred to as “good people” who had at the time come out in favour of Rushdie in the wake of Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against the author in the February of that year, on the publication of the Satanic Verses. Naipaul’s bone of contention in this context being that the very same good people did not come in the slightest bit to his defence when he was castigated for his critical work on Islam Among the Believers which was published some years previous to this. A contemporary critic described Among the Believers in the New York Times as “a display of all Naipaul’s major themes, his great vision as a writer and his increasing limitation of vision”.

Naipaul and Rushdie, though poles apart in their style of writing apart from being penmen of different eras, have their Indian origin as a matter of commonality. Both have been controversial on theological issues, although Naipaul has escaped the fundamentalist fatwa kind of treatment that Rushdie has had to suffer. Naipaul knighted in 1990 and conferred the Nobel in 2001 has conceived and composed some rather momentous works of modern literature he has been a genius, sexual obsessive, snob, provocateur, profoundly influential and controversial thinker on subjects like colonialism and belief and unbelief. His marriage to the aspiring young actress Patrica Hale lasted till her death in 1996. His decade-long affair with Margaret Murray and his visiting prostitutes with a good deal regularity provided grist for the gossip mill. Upon the death of Patrica he married his current wife Nadira, a socialite of Pakistani origin.

Rushdie also has had more than his brush with glamour with his celebrated fourth marriage to model and TV personality Padma Lakshmi (who had also once starred in bollywood film Boom which was Katrina Kaif’s debut into the tinsel world as well). “Her moodiness…..and not infrequent coldness” as he mentions in Joseph Anton caused him enough or more tension that he could cope with. The couple subsequently split in 2007. In 2010 Padma gave birth to a daughter, born as a “love child” from American computer magnet Adam Dell.

Naipaul said in 2001, at Oslo while delivering the Nobel lecture, “I am glad to have done what I have done, glad creatively to have pushed myself as far as I could go. Because of the intuitive way in which I have written, and also because of the baffling nature of my material, every book has come as a blessing. Every book has amazed me, upto the moment of writing I never knew it was there. But the greatest miracle for me was getting started. I feel—and the anxiety is still vivid to me—that I might have easily failed before I began.” The world of the written word will remember him in this spirit despite the rather below par attempt of some new found critics like Karnad.

By Arvindar Singh

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