Naipaul Interviews
selected by Rakesh Rampertab

VS Naipaul talks to BBC World Service about threat to Britain from "council house culture

VS Naipaul today talks to the BBC World Service about his new book, Magic Seeds, in which Willie Chandran - the main character of Naipaul's previous book Half a Life - joins a revolutionary underground movement in India. And also, about the threat to Britain from "council estate culture" and why writing has become harder with age.

Interviewed by Harriett Gilbert for BBC World Service's The Word, V S Naipaul criticises "vain" middle-class revolutionaries; British council estates, "a slave growth, they're parasitic growths on the main body" and council estate culture, "it's a threat".

VS Naipaul: "They (guerrilla groups in India) believe revolution is the answer. They have no idea what would follow revolution, and in fact where they liberate these areas they become centres of tyranny. They blow up the bridges, they cut the telephone wires to the world outside. So the peasants who should have been liberated are really imprisoned as in the old feudal days. It is an intellectual folly these guerrilla movements, they have nothing to offer."

Harriett Gilbert: "What was it that people told you about these guerrilla movements that made you think, 'I would like to bring Willie Chandran together with one such movement' as you have in this novel?"

VS Naipaul: "I met some of the middle class people who'd gone out to join the revolution and I wasn't impressed by them at all. I thought they were vain, I thought they were intellectually not a quarter as bright as they thought they were. That was my lead into this and then I actually went myself. Not to the guerrilla area but to a town in an area. And I really thought at that stage after about three visits, this is so shallow, these people are so dull, there's no grandeur here, nothing that can support a book. Then as I was thinking about things, I saw how the very shallowness and the very triviality could be part of the narrative."

Harriett Gilbert: "One of the nice ironies in this book is that Willie Chandran, who has been throughout his life, worried that he isn't authentic, that he's not living his own life – when his sister persuades him that he ought to go out and fight with the guerrillas - he feels as though he's finally become a whole man that he's entered history, that he's taken control of his destiny and of course he hasn't at all has he?"

VS Naipaul: "It's a calamity, it's a great period of boredom and nothing happening and life being eaten away and mind being eaten away. And probably people like Willy are always in that position because they have no idea of history - very few Indians have an idea of history, the history of India."

Harriett Gilbert: "What you said just now is implying that Willie's inability to write the story of his life to simply be a passive actor who kind of drifts from one play to another is a particularly Indian condition. Do you not think it is in fact the human condition, I mean most of us when we look back at old diaries or a photograph of ourselves think who on earth was that person how did I get to be the person I am now?"

VS Naipaul: "I don't feel I can speak with authority for many other people. I was limiting it to what I know of India and making what some people would consider a provocative point about India. But you see one gets so tired here, in London and elsewhere, of meeting people from the subcontinent who've completely remade themselves, who've manufactured stories for themselves to keep their end up. It's like a national illness actually. And I think that India will not have full mental health – and that means full political health – unless people truly possess their history."

Harriett Gilbert: "In some ways you do parallel India and England. In the sense that through the lawyer friend of Willie, Roger – you present this vision of an England that is suffering a kind of informal guerrilla warfare by the lower classes, not the lower castes, who he refers to as the council estate people. And in his eyes these people are uniformly semi-criminal, violent, prone to violent sex, dishonest, deceiving the government and so on. This is a pretty gloomy, and many would say rather exaggerated picture of the poor in England, Do you share Roger's view to any extent or are you satirising him in some way?"

VS Naipaul: "No I'm not satirising him. It's actually based on observation that idea, council estate culture. The ancillary aspect of every British city now is the council estate. Something said in the book that ancilla, means a maid, means a slave girl, and so these ancillary housing estates are a slave growth, they're parasitic growths on the main body, the active body. I am willing to defend that I think. That's what I've seen."

Harriett Gilbert: "Clearly council estates have a fair share of violence of drug dealing and violence and so on. But it's absolutely not the case that it's uniformly so that people who live on council estates are criminal. In fact the majority undoubtedly aren't and don't beat their women up at night or beat their blokes up."

VS Naipaul: "Well not everybody would, but let's say one has to notice the council estate life, one has to pay attention to it, one can't just ignore it. It is taking up more and more of the country's wealth, it will take up more and more and more and there is nothing coming back in return."

Harriett Gilbert: "You do indeed present it in this novel as a threat to Britain."

VS Naipaul: "It's a threat, yes."

Harriett Gilbert: "You've spoken recently about how, as you get older and you're now over 70, writing becomes harder for you and that's in some way counter-intuitive because you're more skilled, you're more practiced, you've had more life to write about. Could you describe what it is that becomes harder as you get older?"

VS Naipaul: "To be a writer you have to be out in the world, you have to risk yourself in the world, you have to be immersed in the world, you have to go out looking for it. This becomes harder as you get older because there's less energy, the days are shorter for older people and it's not so easy to go out and immerse oneself in the world outside. One depends more and more then on observation and remoteness. I suppose I mean that, just that. Even Tolstoy, when he was doing Resurrection, I think he was probably about my age, or might have been even a little younger, he didn't go out and walk the prisoners' route to Siberia. What he did, he had people, officials who delighted to come to Yasnya and chat to him about it. And he would have lawyers come and talk about legal process. So he did his research like that, staying at home and having the world come to you. But not all of us can do that."

Harriett Gilbert: "Last time we spoke about your previous novel, Half a Life. We were talking about whether Willie Chandran was in some way a kind of horror version of yourself, what you didn't want to become, and you were talking about your lifelong terror of failure. Now that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the highest award that a writer can get, has this finally put to rest your fear of failure?"

VS Naipaul: "The fear of failure went a little while ago, a little while ago. The thing is it's an act of weakness to say, 'I'm 72, I've gained recognition, I don't have to do any more'. It's rather terrible, it's rather terrible, very hard to live with that terror, that idea. But you know you can't simply write beautifully if there's nothing to write about. You know you can't just exercise a discipline, or technique. There is a relationship between the material and the way you deal with it. Material becomes thin, then I think probably you wouldn't write about it. Because you, I mean I, I wouldn't finish anything unless I felt its great importance."

Credit: BBC, September 23, 2004.

An area of awakening: Naipaul Interviewed by Dilip Padgaonkar

Padgaonkar (P): The collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent rise of Islamic nations in Central Asia, the Salman Rushdie affair, similar harassment by fundamentalists of liberal Muslim intellectuals in India: all these factors taken together persuaded some forces to argue that a divided Hindu society cannot counteract Islamic fundamentalism.

Naipaul (N): I don’t see it quite in that way. The things you mentioned are quite superficial. What is happening in India is a new, historical awakening. Gandhi used religion in a way as to marshal people for the independence cause People who entered the independence movement did it because they felt they would earn individual merit.

Today, it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history. Romila Thapar’s book on Indian history is a Marxist attitude to history, which in substance says: there is a higher truth behind the invasions, feudalism and all that. The correct truth is the way the invaders looked at their actions. They were conquering, they were subjugating. And they were in a country where people never understood this.

Only now are the people beginning to understand that there has been a great vandalizing of India. Because of the nature of the conquest and the nature of Hindu society such understanding had eluded Indians before.What is happening in India is a mighty creative process. Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on, especially if these intellectuals happen to be in the United States. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

However, we are aware of one of the more cynical forms of liberalism: it admits that one fundamentalism is all right in the world. This is the fundamentalism they are really frightened of: Islamic fundamentalism. Its source is Arab money. It is not intellectually to be taken seriously etc. I don’t see the Hindu reaction purely in terms of one fundamentalism pitted against another. The reaction is a much larger response…. Mohammedan fundamentalism is essentially negative, a protection against a world it desperately wishes to join. It is a last ditch fight against the world.

But the sense of history that the Hindus are now developing is a new thing. Some Indians speak about a synthetic culture: this is what a defeated people always speak about. The synthesis may be culturally true. But to stress it could also be a form of response to intense persecution.

(P): How did you react to the Ayodhya incident?

(N): Not as badly, as the others did, I am afraid. The people who say that there was no temple there are missing the point. Babar, you must understand, had contempt for the country (that) he had conquered. And his building of that mosque was an act of contempt for the country. In Turkey, they turned the Church of Santa Sophia into a mosque. In Nicosia churches were converted into mosques too. The Spaniards spent many centuries re-conquering their land from Muslim invaders. So these things have happened before and elsewhere.

In Ayodhya the construction of a mosque on a spot regarded as sacred by the conquered population was meant as an insult. It was meant as an insult to an ancient idea, the idea of Rama, which was two or three thousand years old.

(P): The people who climbed on top of these domes and broke them were not bearded people wearing saffron robes and with ash on their foreheads. They were young people clad in jeans and tee shirts.

(N): One needs to understand the passion that took them on top of the domes. The jeans and the tee shirts are superficial. The passion alone is real. You can’t dismiss it. You have to try to harness it.

Hitherto in India the thinking has come from the top. I spoke earlier about the state of the country: destitute, trampled upon, crushed. You then had the Bengali renaissance, the thinkers of the nineteenth century. But all this came from the top. What is happening now is different. The movement is now from below.

(P): My colleague, the cartoonist, Mr. R K Laxman, and I recently traveled thousands of miles in Maharashtra. In many places we found that noses and breasts had been chopped off from the statues of female deities. Quite evidently this was a sign of conquest. The Hindutva forces point to this too to stir up emotions. The problem is how do you prevent these stirred-up emotions from spilling over and creating fresh tensions?

(N): I understand. But it is not enough to abuse them or to use that fashionable word from Europe: fascism. There is a big, historical development going on in India. Wise men should understand it and ensure that it does not remain in the hands of fanatics. Rather they should use it for the intellectual transformation of India.

Credit: From The Times of India, 18 July 1993.

Naipaul Interviewd by Rahul Singh

(R): You gave an interview to the Times of India, which was interpreted by the BJP as supporting them in the destruction (of the Babri structure). Do you think you were misunderstood?

(N): I can see how what I said then could be misinterpreted. I was talking about history; I was talking about a historical process that had to come. I think India has lived with one major extended event that began about AD 1000 the Muslim invasion. It meant the cracking open and partial wrecking of what was a complete cultural, religious world until that invasion. I don’t think the people of India have been able to come to terms with that wrecking. I don’t think they understand what really happened. It’s too painful.

And I think this BJP movement and that Masjid business is part of a new sense of history, a new idea of what happened. It might be misguided, it might be wrong to misuse it politically, but I think it is part of a historical process. And to simply abuse it as Fascist is to fail to understand why it finds an answer in so many hearts in India.

Credit: From The Times of India, 23 January 1998.

© 2001