VS Naipaul talks
to BBC World Service about threat to Britain from "council
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
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
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
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
Credit: BBC, September 23, 2004.
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
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
(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.