The John Bull Brahmin

by Kenneth Champeon, Nov 24, 2003 | Destinations: India / New Delhi

"I'm Brahmin from all four sides," said the Indian, cheerfully, naturally. This was at the University of Chicago, roughly one-fifth of whose undergraduates were of Asian descent. I envied this pedigree. I vaguely suspect that my French ancestors were clerics; they might have been disguised Jews. But I was basically a middle-class American mutt, donning elitism to see if it would fit. My only claim to exotic or exalted roots was a Native American woman some generations back, and of course her existence was mildly suppressed.

This quadrilateral Brahmin had been tainted by the coarseness of American suburban culture, but she had retained the Brahmin's fastidiousness about food, the wariness of alcohol, the avoidance of premarital sex. And over the course of our relationship I slowly realized that I was outclassed, a pauper to her princess. I was not anything from all four sides; I was more like the foam from around the English Channel. I was just a parvenu, a former paper boy putting on airs to justify the expense and impracticality of my education, and to distance myself from a home that held no hope.

And so, similarly, was V. S. Naipaul, a boy from backward Trinidad suddenly transported to Oxford and eventually to become (according to some) the greatest living writer in English. The difference of course was that he was a Brahmin from all four sides, and thus his humiliation at being an Indian - a "Paki", as the British say - would funnel itself into a rage that was elitist by virtue of his Brahminism. He had a horror of uncleanliness. He was persnickety about food. He claimed to have developed a celibate relationship with his first wife, Pat. (But he continued to visit prostitutes, and have love affairs.) He spoke of his perceived inferiors as "infy"s, and during an otherwise admirable career he made disparaging remarks about Africans, Muslims, Trinidadians, Indians, Englishmen, Dutchmen. A victim of racism, he became a racist - "a dreary, boring thing to be" by his own admission. He was nasty toward Pat. He often made her cry.

So Naipaul was not a pleasant man but then great men seldom are. Yet there is something amusing about watching him, so sure of himself and so at odds with the world, as he slouches and scowls his way through Sir Vidia's Shadow, Paul Theroux's loving, candid and engrossing memoir. What Boswell concluded about Dr. Johnson - that he was good-natured but ill-tempered - could probably apply to Naipaul. In both cases the temper acts as a kind of shell for the nature within. And of course writers are often cranky and misanthropic and arrogant almost by definition. Humble writers can lack the will to succeed, and those too fond of humankind may find that they lack the time to write. Writers should be "invisible", says Naipaul, for it is the work that matters and not the man. And all the more so when the man snapped at the "asinine" questions of interviewers, stormed out of dinners in his honor, quoted from his works when a question needed settling. He gave the appearance of someone for whom every question was already settled. There was nothing more to write, nothing more to ask.

Theroux met Naipaul in Africa, where Theroux was then dividing his time between teaching, writing and womanizing. He was virtually unknown and unpublished, whereas Naipaul had already composed his masterpiece A House for Mr. Biswas. Though his desire to meet no new friends would later become an obsession with him, Naipaul took Theroux under his wing. Suddenly Theroux had connections, and moderate success was soon to follow. But he still had to continue teaching, by then at the University of Singapore. It was only with the publication of The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of a train trip across Asia, that Theroux's fame was secured. But for Naipaul, commercial success - and its close cousin, an American audience - continued to elude him, and eventually he was reduced to breaking one of his cardinal rules, that a writer should maintain perfect independence. But Vidia taught. And he hated it, as much as the students - grade-grubbing Americans - hated him.

Of the two writers, Naipaul was better, more conscientious and innovative. Yet he soon found himself looking up to Theroux. Naipaul found writing painful, laborious, draining. Theroux loved it. Their views on sex were similarly divergent. Naipaul found it shameful. Theroux loved it. And like many Americans Theroux was much more willing to treat the "bush men" - as Naipaul called all "backward" peoples - with something like respect. But Naipaul has an explanation as usual: an American, he implies, has the security to be kind; his so-called inferiors are not really a threat, whereas the less secure must constantly be vigilant. Several times he was almost ashamed by the generosity of "big, strong" America, and he vowed never to write a bad thing about it. But he did sometimes betray the usual British condescension toward Americans, all the while depending feebly on American wealth: Theroux bought his dinners. Naipaul's predicament was all too common.

If you had to summarize Naipaul's ethics in one clause, the clause is karmic: that people get what they deserve. He would insinuate that poor nations are poor because their inhabitants are "lazy", or "illiterate", or simply "bad". In some ways a victim himself - a descendant of Indian indentured servants from one of the most backward places on earth, the area of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar - he had no patience with the rhetoric of victimization. Then again, like a lot of self-styled self-made men, he was an inveterate moaner, obsessed with his "homelessness", the suffering implied by his profession, the undervaluation of his talents. He would ask that he be treated like famous lawyers, doctors, or astrophysicists, while knowing full well that novelists were becoming increasingly marginal in this commercial, technological age.

There is something at once comical and sad about Naipaul's efforts to become the English aristocrat he so derided. Scorning the "mimic men" - bush men acting Western for lack of any better ideas - he became one himself, except that he was mimicking an Englishman that no longer existed. He smoked a pipe, took snuff, wore tweed in tropical climates, enthused about flogging noisy natives and shelling unruly lands. He seemed blinded to the fact that the center of Western Civilization had arguably shifted from England to America, and that he might have felt less like a "Paki" in the latter. But he complained, and I think rightly, that American writing was unbearably egotistical. And though this is quite an accusation for an author of several thinly-veiled autobiographies to make, the culture of celebrity can be seen even in Theroux's book, which for all its merits is ultimately literary gossip. Despising prizes and aristocratic titles, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul became Sir Vidia, Nobel Laureate. Why? In part, it was that he wanted to become a millionaire. He wanted to get rich. And there's nothing more middle-class than that.

But don't get rich before forty, he told Theroux. Writers who get rich too early are ruined. (I think of Hemingway, Fitzgerald.) This is but one good piece of advice Naipaul offers on the writing profession. Of course he stresses economy of style and sincerity of intent. He shuns show-off virtuosos like Nabokov. On the other hand he shuns plain-spoken Orwell, perhaps because Orwell got bogged down in politics and neglected the human heart. One of the few books he praises is Thomas Mann's poignant Death in Venice, and he informs Theroux in one of their early meetings that he is reading the Roman epigrammatist Martial and the Bible. The only Indian work he regularly mentions is the Gita, whose emphasis on the necessity of action is sound advice for any beginning writer. "I've always wanted to write" is a common refrain, usually spoken in the dejected tones of Arjuna before Krishna shapes him up. Theroux has somewhat more homely advice: "never say no to a magazine assignment". This from a man who would eventually receive six figures for the film rights to the The Mosquito Coast.

But if, as Theroux suggests, Naipaul's writing style is almost wholly without obvious literary influences, Theroux scoffs at Naipaul's contention that he had somehow transcended his Indianness - that he was, in his own words, a "new man". For one thing, he seems to have chilled out since marrying his second wife, a Pakistani. His most recent novel Half a Life is probably his funniest and most gentle; its action begins in India; its main character is Indian. Caste prejudice rears its ugly head; Gandhi gets some copy. I don't think Naipaul can abandon his Indianness any more than I can abandon my Europeanness - probably less, in fact, because Indian civilization is so much older and has changed so little. It is telling indeed that Naipaul, an enemy of superstition in his writings, finds meaning in Theroux's palm lines and speaks of feeling mental "vibrations". He was, writes Theroux, "Indian to his core".

The "best living writer in English" is "Indian to his core": one should need little further proof of the resiliency, and indeed the ascendancy of Indian civilization. One could say that it is simply a matter of probability. After all, India has approximately 20 times the population of England. Yet how ironic that Britain's representative in letters should be just as bigoted, snobbish, self-seeking and mirthless as were the floggers of Indians, that he should have lost what I believe to be several "core" Indian traits: a casual indifference to punctuality, a love of music and children and animals. And tolerance, blessed tolerance.

- The End -

Review of Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow, Penguin, 1999.

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