Naipaul vs Karnad: the wrong and write of it

Unlike many of those who have written about the subject or appeared on TV lately, I’m entirely in favour of literary controversies. I think that literary festivals should be about an exchange of ideas. And if that exchange gets stormy or controversial, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

I refer, of course, to the controversy around Girish Karnad and VS Naipaul’s appearances at the Mumbai Literary festival. (Declaration of interest: I was part of two sessions at the Festival but left before the fireworks).

In case you’ve missed the drama, here’s what happened. VS Naipaul, accompanied by Lady Naipaul and the faithful Farrukh Dhondy, a writer from London, arrived at the Festival. He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award and also took part in a discussion in what one of the Bombay papers bitchily described as “a darkened, half-empty” hall with Farrukh Dhondy. I imagine the discussion was about serious issues but the papers focused mainly on the fact that the great man was overcome with emotion on two separate occasions during the conversation, one of which had to do with the passing of his cat, Augustus.

That should have been that – for Naipaul, the Festival and poor Augustus – except that Girish Karnad who spoke later dedicated most of his talk to a diatribe about Naipaul. Girish is one of India’s leading literary figures so the audience listened closely as he made his two points. The first was that not only did Naipaul not understand India, about which he has written three books, but that his books were anti-Muslim because they focused on the so-called damage that India had suffered because of Muslim invaders without acknowledging Islam’s contribution to Indian society. In keeping with his attitude, Naipaul had accepted the Sangh Parivar’s praise and endorsement.

The second point followed from the first. Given that Naipaul was not just ignorant about India but also anti-Muslim how did the Festival’s organizers justify giving him a Lifetime Achievement Award?

It is a measure how disliked Naipaul is by many Indian liberals that Karnad’s attack made bigger news than the award itself. For several days after he made his speech, Karnad was on TV channels defending his position with Anil Dharker, the Festival’s Director, offering his side of the story and the faithful Dhondy appearing to defend Naipaul who he said had been unfairly maligned.

Now that we have gone over the background, let’s look at the issues raised by this controversy. There are two minor ones. The first, raised by the Festival’s organizers’ is that Karnad had been invited to give a master class in theatre. Instead, he unleashed a diatribe against Naipaul. Karnad says, in his defence, that he had been given an hour to speak and he did what he liked with it.

On this issue, at least, I’m on Karnad’s side. You do not invite a figure of Karnad’s eminence and then expect him to stick to your script. He has earned the right to say what he likes – and as this controversy demonstrates – the country wants to listen to him.

The second criticism is that when Dhondy and Dharker got up from the audience to defend Naipaul, Karnad did not let them speak. Clearly, he was being discourteous but his defence is that Dharker and Dhondy had been given an opportunity to sing Naipaul’s praises when the great man got his Lifetime Achievement Award. So, this was Karnad’s hour, his chance to set the record straight at the very festival where Naipaul had been honoured. Nobody could or would prevent Dharker and Dhondy from saying their pieces afterwards – as indeed they have, on TV channels and in the press. So, he was not censoring them; he was merely using his hour to offer a riposte to the praise of Naipaul.

Once again, I find myself agreeing with Karnad – at least, on balance.

That takes us to the two substantive issues in this debate. One: is Naipaul anti-Muslim? And two: was the Festival right to give him a lifetime achievement award?

Let’s take the first. The faithful Dhondy says, in Naipaul’s defence, that when the great man went to address the VHP, he said nothing that was communal or constituted an endorsement. Clearly the Sangh Parivar thought differently because Naipaul is something of a pin-up within the Hindu right. But that’s hardly Naipaul’s fault: a public figure has little control over what the public think of him.

So, what about Naipaul’s writing? If you read his books, starting with Among the Believers, it is clear that Naipaul has little respect for Islam. He regards it as the sort of religion that requires people to divorce themselves from their own cultures and heritages to adopt Arab–derived identities. This may or not be fair – you could construct a similar case against Christianity – but it is, for better or for worse, an intellectual position. I don’t think it derives from any prejudice or hatred of Muslims as people. His approval of the Ayodhya movement (if he does approve of it; one is never sure) must be seen in the context of his view that people must reclaim their own heritages, rather than as a straightforward Hindu fascist agenda.

If you read Patrick French’s authorized biography of Naipaul, it is obvious that the great man is no stranger to prejudices. But whatever disdain Naipaul feels towards black people (or ‘Negroes’ as he insists on calling them), does not necessarily seem to extend to Muslims. Yes, his own view of Indian history is probably wrong. Yes, he fails to recognize Islam’s contribution to India’s culture. But these are intellectual misjudgements, not racist or communalist positions.

So these positions should be contested – as Karnad did at the Festival – but they do not automatically turn Naipaul into a bigot or a communalist.

Which brings us to the second, and most crucial issue: was the Festival right to give him a Lifetime Achievement Award?

On TV, the other day, I heard panellists drawing parallels with Ezra Pound who was a hardcore fascist anti-Semite. But the worst that can be said about Naipaul (though I would not necessarily accept that view) is that he is more like T.S. Eliot who was a borderline anti-Semite. And certainly, we make a distinction between Eliot’s prejudices and his poetry.

But, as far as I can see the issue sub-divides into two parts. Do we give an award to a bigot if the literary work is outstanding? There is no easy answer but I suspect most of us would say no, we do not. If Eliot was alive today, his every public appearance would lead to protests and pickets.

The second part of the question is the important one though: do we give an award to Naipaul who misunderstands India and its culture and who gets Islam wrong?

My answer is: perhaps we do; perhaps we don’t. It depends on the jury.

Some of us may think that a man who is now best known in this country for his non-fiction, should not get an award because his non-fiction about India is so flawed. And some of us may argue that his fiction is outstanding and that his non-fiction is not flawed, just controversial.

So there are no clear conclusions to be drawn. It depends on each awards jury and its view.

Which brings us to the big one: whose side am I on? Well, finally, I’m on the Festival’s side not on Girish’s. He is right to challenge Naipaul on the issues but wrong to say that the festival should not honour Naipaul. That decision must be left to the award’s jury and certainly Naipaul is no Godse or Goebbels to be treated as being beyond the pale.

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