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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  • Anonymous

    Well a literary fest deserves a good controversy. Good they got it.

    However I do feel that Naipul is the last of the authors who can take on Islam. After what happened to Salman Rushdie. most writers — outside USA–feel secure in avoiding any comment critical of Islam. In case a comment is made, it would only be about Islamophobia.

    And for that reason alone, Muslims have a feigned injury complex. even when terrorists in the name of Islam are attacking all other religions.


    Neha Reply:

    And for that same reason, pseudo-secularists like Vir Sanghvi continue to attack people like VS Naipaul, while defending freedom of expression in various other cases – Student of The Year religious sentiments controversy.

    Vir Sanghvi’s impartiality was always in question. His remaining credibility was lost after Radia tapes became public.


    rao Reply:

    naipaul is brhmn who passes his life in eating mating and cheating.vedics did not provide right to education to indians during their 3000 years of occupation.entire india remained under darkness of illetracy.only bhagwans were achievement in all field.


    H.Mani Reply:

    No hindu will mis spell ,Brahmin as brhmn,that was a give away,& no Hindu in 2012,ask for looting of temple as civic service to dalit,not even Sp,BSP and Lalu not even Satalwad will have nerve to say.You are b**U**M. bar none.I never use bad language,so I refrain,but I know hateful Mullahs would,they do worse,put bullets in 13 year Mahala in Pakistan,,check it,no Raw or RSS did it..That is why VS Naipaul spoke the truth.Your days in world is numbered,Obama got re-elected,Drone is on the way,find a rat hole.


    Raja Reply:

    Engrich to rao! Stinkign bearded mullah! Your community is simply stinking sty of sw1nes! Nobody wants to have any kind of relationship with you animals. Fear is not respect!


  • H.Mani

    Why Islam or any religion can not be critisized,?If you do you can not be honored.A strange rule,never heard before?.Why VS NAIPAUL can not express his view.?Are we in Islamic Republic of India already?I was told it will be in next 50 years,but it is only 2012.We are now patrified by Islam,but why Naipaul a citizen of England abide by that rule?.Are we under Sharia already?,did I miss anything when I was gone for only one year to Mars.?Naipaul need no defence .Girish karnad now thinks R.N.Tagore is not good writer either.Who is next Shakespear or Tolstoi or Newton.?Who is this third rate has been from bollywood?What nerve to abuse once invitation?He would have been boed unmercifully in any civilized land,sorry was he in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia?No! He was in India,oh,I did not know,it the law of the land now under Sharia you can not give life time award to some one who does write like invasion of Islam harmed India?But it is historical fact,who says so?Girish Karnad and IR of India,that’s who?We have just awarded postmously Bharat Ratna to Auranzeb,Gori,Gajnavi and Nadhir Shah but Bharat is Hindu name,oh,it won’t be for long,some Arabic Nishan,we are thinking of like Pakistan,you know,,but those were bad guys.Says who?VS Naipaul,that’s who.So no award,he should be thankful we let him go in one piece,because Islam means peace.Thanks Singhvi,for your infomation,I was away to Mars,so much changes in one year?Allah was kind to us,Indians were rewarded because i.2 billion more Believer now.We just wait for China to turn Green and then USA is on barrowed time.


    rao Reply:

    We have just awarded postmously Bharat Ratna to Auranzeb,Gori,Gajnavi and Nadhir Shah but Bharat is Hindu name
    aurangzeb ……..he was great secular honest ruler who kept his own son in jail on graft charges.he 1480 top hindu hindu officers in his army.had 36% hindu ministers.muslim rulers were first who gave land ownership to backwards and is only during his time that our economy was bigger than chinese economy and level of literacy was 93%.ALL GLITTERING TEMPLES OF CHITRAKOOT WERE BUILT ON HIS INSTRUCTION.during wars some small temples were demolished,but reason was military or political not during wars in iraq and afghanista thousands of mosques are demolished.
    ,Gori,Gajnavi should be given bharat ratna,yes.temples hide the wealth in their lockers,hence increases poverty and unemployment.gori and ghazni looted (not destroyed)one or two temples .with that wealth they made their city best of world proving employment to millions of hungry indian workers and engineers.


    h.mani Reply:

    rao,it was, sarcasam, really brought out you rao,how much of Hindu you are?,so why do you not loot Tripathi?Get Naik the new Gujnavi to organise some goondas & go to 7 hill temple in Triputi,you moron Rao,or Rahim Ali.You Muslims will go to any limit to pervert & rewrite history,did he murder Tej Bahadur in Chandni chowk,or was some new theory to help the Sikh not ask for Khalistan in 1670?Did he murder his brothers Dara Sekoh and Murad Bux,?& rode them back word sitting on human fesesis,donkey,it all history,check it out.You are dealing with a guy who knows history inside out.And sent the severed head of Dara to his old father imprisoned in Agra fort,check it out.Stop the bull Sh**T.You are dealing with a history buff,not some ideotic Taliban from mosque .


    h.mani Reply:

    If you do not believe what have writen,ask Singhvi himself,he will confirm every word of it,I challenge you,just write your full name,not some fake Indian name,no hindu will recommand looting of temple as favor to poor people of Dalit,even mayavati and Mullah Yadav will not approve,check it out.You are fraud as they come.


    rao Reply:

    read context why u are interested in name.TUM BRHMNON NE 3OOO YERAS INDIA KO JAHIL RAKHA AUR 33 CRORES DEVTA BECH KE UNKI JEB KHALEE KARAEE.PESHWAS OF POONA ALWAYS LOOTED SHANKARACHARYA TEMPLES WHEEVER IN NEED OF MONEY.shivajee always looted banians of surat when robbed by thugs of benaras.

    in cult fights temples of one cult were looted by followers of other cult.

    parusram a voilent brhmn god came on earth to kill all the khatris of india.kerala is called parusram shruti.he killed his own mother on instruction of his father.

    muslims were most tolerant rulers who built india like buhddhists.u people always looted india.doing same now.

    hate is a duty and lie a staple food.

  • Mujeeb Abdul

    WHY No-paul did not defend himself come to tv station have a debate with girish


    Sinchan Mitra Reply:

    Naipaul having a debate with Girish – which world do you live in my friend?! In terms of intellectual stature, Naipual is thought of widely (in the English speaking world) as the greatest writer in the English language in the last 50 years. (along with Rushdie and a few others). Who has even heard of Karnad apart from a few people from Karnataka? (or at most India).

    Lets say I start criticizing Amartya Sen – then can I ask why doesn’t Amartya Sen come and defend his views in a tv station! That wouldn’t make sense, right?! The idea of debating with a intellectual pygmy like Karnad would seem laughable to Naipaul and rightly so.


  • pg

    Vir Sanghvi – the stooge of CONs.


  • engrich

    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
    naipaul is worst than both.he is rascist.,totally ignorant about indian history and society.a living monument of british debauchery of india.brhmn in him killed the genius in him.for most like him hate is duty and lie a staple food.everything good in india was built during muslim rule.
    during vedic period for 3 thousands year education was banned for indians and vedic were using ingonarance to sell bhagwans and rob innocent indians.


    Rahul Vincci Reply:

    Stop lieing You Muslim thug. What infrastructure Muslim ruler did during their 1000 years of barbaric rule. A Taj Mahal(controversial) a gift to his wife for giving birth few more Muslim thugs, then the poor workers hands were chopped off. Hundreds of thousands of Temples were destroyed. First University of the world Nalanda University, was burnt to ashes by the Turkish Muslim thug 1137. Millions of manuscripts of ancient India was destroyed which is itself a crime UN-imaginable., Somnath temple was looted 17 times by the Muslim thug is an example to imagine how rich the India was. The genius of Vedas and Upanishads now studies under ancient civilisation in Harvard is the most prestigious chair.V.S Nai Paul is brilliant writer he portrayed the historic truth of Islamic barbarity which megalomaniac Karnard and like it’s eel can not tolerate because his Gyanpeet award will be snatched out by this UPA govt. corrupted with support of the illegal Muslims. Islam permits “taqqia” like your are doing it self a immoral act should be condemned and punished. To be a Nobel laureate itself Calssify nai Paul and Tagore altogather in different class of genius which Karnard would never reach even his 1000 iyears of reicarnated birth from his present pity self. Besides, let us talk about hindu Gene, recent studies in US shows a dramatic findings that less than 2 mil Indians of which 99% are Hindus, has the highest percapita income of $90,000, highest bachelors digree 67% and highest PHD about 13 % of the national average. Unfortunately all the immigrants from Islamic countries which is 6-7 mil has the most poorest record in every category. Which shows the ancient India, all his endeavour for seeking knowledge and to built a harmonious society was right. It has been diluted by the most un-scientific , savage, derogatory,intolerant culture of foreign Islamic rule.And V.S Nai Paul is absolutely correct on that.


    rao Reply:

    then the poor workers hands were chopped off. Hundreds of thousands of
    Temples were destroyed. First University of the world Nalanda

    where temples were destroyed give me the name of place.mathura ayodjya and kashi were budhhdist cities after extermination of budhhdists berhmns occupied the places and converted budhhdist temples into shive temples.BUDHHDIST NUNS WERE CONVERTED INTO DEVDAASIS(TEMPLE PROSTITUTES).few jaines temples are still there.

    aadi shankarachra,a dwarf from kerala used to mascare budhdhists with the help of local kings.brhmns took the help of khilji rulers to finish this great seat of learning.barhmin temples of same time are still standing there.war and violence is like oxygen.from last hundred years u are killing muslims with the help of backwards and dalit.

    u barred the education to 98%of indian that is why u could never develop civilization.

    ur love for urself creates extreme hatred for others.ur spiritual fascism and intellectual goondaism are two gignatic octopuses eating the very vtals of our society.


    Raja Reply:

    SIMI and Im thugs proliferate in India! Muslims and meaningful contribution? Are you hallucinating , mullah? I have never seen a community like yours which imagines all the best things on earth about yourselves while doing exactly the opposite! Your Hindu hatred turns into Brahmin hatred. So typical of your lies and taqiyaas. If you call Naipaul a brahmin what do you call SL Bhairappa? Islam means destruction. You brabarians have no education other than muggign up that medieval terror manual called Koran. Get out of tha tcult and save yourself!


  • Sinchan Mitra

    Usually Vir is very balanced, but today I have to disagree with him. Naipual may not be fond of Islam, but his non-fiction tackles different themes- they cannot be seen through the prism of his views on Islam. His books on India contain many extremely critical statements on India – should we now say he is anti-india and shouldn’t be given any award. His books also contain lots of statements extremely critical of his country of birth Trinidad. Should that also be a ground for refusing to honour a great writer who is also provocative (as great writers should be?). Indian intellectuals are so committed to “groupthink” – that they hardly deserve to be called intellectuals – they should learn to tolerate, debate and discuss other views instead of launching into a diatribe every time someone steps outside the party line.


  • rao

    india needs 100 ghoris to take out trillions of dollars hidden in temples and ashrams(money laundering centres)and use them to devlop infrasture and invest in education.investment in education is investment on our future prosperity.


    Anonymous Reply:

    The last ghori who came was pretty gory in the treatment of you gr8 gr8 gr8 grandmother. he beheaded her husband and had fun with her so your clan caem out…


  • kk raja


    In this season of public castigations and exposures of the high and mighty ones, we have had to witness the phenomenon from an unexpected arena-Mumbai literature festival .In the shoes of the activist was an unusual character-Girish Karnad. At the receiving end, the redoubtable noble
    laurite V S Naipaul. Nothing spectacularly amiss so far, until we learn the
    content of castigation. Girish Karnad, a leading play writer, theatrist and
    actor, turned from his usual calm demeanour into his vitriolic worst by
    castigating Naipaul as a ‘tone-dumb, anti- Muslim’ fundamentalist who did not
    deserve his noble prize or the life-time achievement award in the festival. The
    forum that Karnad chose to run down sir Vidya could not have been more ironic, symbolically-A felicitation ceremony of a literature festival whose very epicenter is inhabited by such heavy weights of literature as Naipual. More shockingly, Karnad pulled it off as an act of a coup, using the podium offered by the organisers topresent his theatre field, instead to,present his diatribe to an unsuspecting audience.
    Karnad’s canards could have been dismissed off as an irrelevant utterances of a man desperately seeking revival of his lost public space, but for the streaks of his pretension as an outraged secularist hurt by the works of Naipaul. It is this “hurt”, which as per him remained suppressed for a decade until he found this opportune moment, that needs a closer evaluation to realise how hollow andmisplaced they are. His hurt also has a larger implication to review how we have come to understand the concept of secularism in India. Karnad’s grievance against Naipul can be summarised
    thus:VS naipual through his many literary works has displayed a strong
    anti-Islamic stance. By recalling our great Islamic rulers as invaders and
    marauders that destroyed the pristine Hindu Vedic culture, especially in north
    India,Naipaul has berated the contemporary muslims with whom Karnad closely identify.Also,since Naipual did not mention about the all pervading Indian music (that has Islamic contribution), he is obviously tone-dumb. For this partisan, non- secular portrayal of Indian history,Naipaul forfeits all moral or literary claims for any recognition of his works,including his nobel prize.
    Now,if it was Karnard’s emotional outpour characteristic of theatre artists, one could have taken it in good jest and moved over. But, by positioning himself as a learned scholar of history attempting to right a wrong perspective, he would now be subjected to pin pricks from those who think otherwise.
    For a non-resident Indian, sir Vidya naipualhas no doubt been too harsh on India. In his trilogy on India(AN AREA OFDARKNESS , INDIA: A WOUNDED CIVILISATION and INDIA : A MILLION MUTINIES NOW ) his representation of India has incisively been critical, sharp and largely negative .But no literary critic has faulted his broad historical perspective where he traces the death and destructions in the wake of various invasions by Muslim warlords, from
    Ghouri to Babur and the subsequent Moghul dynasty. Certainly they were
    not the figment of his imaginations and are taken from well documented history. When chronicling India through such elaborate trilogy, he could not have evaded these facts. Even his worst critics adore his forthrightness and fortitude to see through a bloodied historical chronology that forms both, the backdrop as well as the source of contemporary India.
    Thus, attributing him with tendencies that are inimical to the virtues of
    secularism, branding him communal or agent of Hindu fundamentalism are nothing but hogwash and a brazen display of intellectual vacuum.

    An advocate of true secularism can and will never seek an exclusivity of any
    religious community over other, however marginalised one may claim.
    Poverty or exploitation has no religion.There are sections within each religion that remain depraved in each society.To give it a religious colour is nothing but Clearly, in Karnad’s version of Indian history, the marauders and raiders were glorious gladiators who transformed the Indian landscape ushering in an era of peace and prosperity. If Naipual chose not to include music to portray India, that is his choice and does in no way make him dumb.

    This brings to the larger point about the grammar of Indian secularism that is practiced and preached these days. For Girish Karnad and his ilk, secularism means an emotional outpour, display of sympathy and an unquestioned submission to the demands espoused for the welfare of Indian Muslims, however outrageous such demands may be for rest of the nation. The ‘minority status’ is a sufficient rationale to empathise under all circumstances, and to seek an all pervading moral sanction to dole out even unconstitutional special favours. While Karnad may represent the fringe elements who advocate this distorted version of secularism, the real hard core flag bearers of the “ism” would not hesitate to walk that extra mile to demonise
    someone who may exhibit an innocuous genuine pride of Hinduism, even
    though with no prejudice to Islam. rational ones of the 21st
    century. Economically. we aspire to be among the break-out nations. Yet,
    ironically we are still stuck on Such has been the abuse of the term
    “secularism” in the Indian context that any display of fervour or espousing the
    genuine causes of other communities will automatically become “communal”. Slowly, but surely, these pseudo secularists have managed to align such appeasements with the national policies, creating de-facto a polarised society, deeply fissured from within. The constitutional imperative of “Equality of allirrespective of religion” has been decimated by legitimising a “minority
    welfare commission”-as if other communities have no rights for welfare.

    An advocate of true secularism can and will never seek an exclusivity of any religious community over other, however marginalised one may claim. Poverty or exploitation has no religion. There are sections within each religion that remain depraved in each society. To give it a religious colour is nothing but mischievous in intent and divisive in practice. It happens only in India. Elsewhere, in civilised societies of the world, focus is on individual rights irrespective of religious identity. The rights of a Muslim should as fiercely be defended as that of a Hindu, Sikh or Christian, as long we operate under the common banner of Indian constitution.It is when the Shariat law dismissed even by the apex court in the famous Shah bano case is given a legitimate approval by constitutional amendments that we loose the essence of secularism. As a society and a nation we stand at the threshold of being counted among the civilised the crossroads of medieval mindsets where we glorify empathy for depravity ,largely of own making, in order to appear virtuous and end up embittered socially. Indian version of
    secularism is the embedded evil of this distortion.



  • balaji

    1) less production of gold in domestic goldmining results in increase of gold imports,

    2)low export or less production of exportable goods results in huge trade deficit……..


  • SS

    Interesting contentions, thank you very much for posting them. What jars with me though is your description of Dhondy (the same adjective three or four times in one piece! How lazy of you!), as ‘faithful’ towards Naipaul. Dhondy is a much respected writer here in the UK and to hear him being described in the same words as one might describe a much loved dog is, quite frankly offensive – and does much to reinforce our suspicions that you have some sort of argument with Dhondy as well as with Naipaul.