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Sunday, Nov 27, 2022
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'Pissing From A Great Height'

Sir Vidia never fails to deliver. At the opening of Cheltenham literature festival, our newest Nobel laureate (sorry, he's British, actually) was heard saying that he believed he had helped to educate India's people...

'Pissing From A Great Height'
'Pissing From A Great Height'
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

"The trouble with people like me writing about societies where there is no intellectual life is that if you write about it, people are angry.

"If they read the book, which in most cases they don't, they want approval. Now India has improved, the books have been accepted.

"Forty years ago in India people were living in ritual. This is one of the things I have helped India with," the 69-year-old novelist said during his first public appearance since winning the Nobel prize.

Barely had the sniggers died after his last utterance on the "calamitous effect" of Islam that the literary and liberal mailing lists are full of outraged laments. But such bon mots are only to be expected from Sir Vidia (Sirji, in short). Sri Thomas Babington Macaulay must certainly be chuckling in his grave. Though Sir Vidia may well have a point that the "chuntering" classes may not have read his books.

"I'm not a detective-story writer. I'm not Agatha Christie, who ends as she begins, in the same limited view of the world. Nor Graham Greene, or P.G, Wodehouse - their world doesn't change. I'm quite different: my world changes as I write." Indeed, he is, and it does.

What I am interested to know is whether Sir Vidia has since revised his opinion of the Nobel Prize Committee which, when he was last heard on the subject on the occasion of Wole Soyinka being given the prize ('Has he written anything?') according to him was apparently 'pissing on literature, as they do every year. Pissing from a great height. On books.'

My favourite Naipaulism? Difficult to choose from the interviews on the side, but it is obvious Sir Vidia remembers his own and perhaps has a great blast using and reusing them. I recall the Hindu interview with Sadanand Menon in 1998, when asked to comment on Shiv Sena vandalisation of a Delhi art gallery (remember that painting of Sita by Hussain?):

"How can I comment on that?" Sir Vidia had countered. "I haven't seen the Hussain painting. I do not like Hussain as a painter. I think he is obvious and shallow. Of course you must allow me to repeat what I said when I was asked about a writer being under threat for a book written and some Imam had spoken against it. I said, "It's an extreme form of criticism," and it should be accepted in that spirit."

So that's Sir Vidia for you. Never mind the not-much-lamented Ayatollah, but what does that 'writer' have to say? Paul Theroux recounts this incident from Hay-on-Wye

"As I passed Salman, he was smiling and shaking his head. He said, 'I have never met him before.'

" 'What did he say?'

" 'He said, "Are you all right?" I told him yes, I am all right. He said, "Good, good, good."' Salman began to laugh"

Laughter comes easy. A decade or so earlier, when asked by Elizabeth Hardwick what the dot on a Hindu woman's forehead meant, he replied, "It means, 'My head is empty.' "

In a 1998 interview, Sir Vidia had elaborated his views on universities: "I have no regard for universities, you know. I think they are great enemies of civilisation at the moment. Please quote me on that" and had gone on to suggest that "anything that comes out of the universities in America, especially the Arts departments, must be treated with amusement -- and distance. Yes, distance. Please quote me on that, "amusement and distance". The great works of history, the things that altered our knowledge of history and altered our ways of looking have not been done in universities. I cannot sufficiently express my disregard for "academic history.""

He may well have been reacting to Edward Said's devastatingly delicious ad hominem attack in a review of Beyond Belief, which had concluded with these words:

"Somewhere along the way Naipaul, in my opinion, himself suffered a serious intellectual accident. His obsession with Islam caused him somehow to stop thinking, to become instead a kind of mental suicide compelled to repeat the same formula over and over. This is what I would call an intellectual catastrophe of the first order.

"The pity of it is that so much is now lost on Naipaul. His writing has become repetitive and uninteresting. His gifts have been squandered. He can no longer make sense. He lives on his great reputation which has gulled his reviewers into thinking that they are still dealing with a great writer, whereas he has become a ghost. The greater pity is that Naipaul's latest book on Islam will be considered a major interpretation of a great religion, and more Muslims will suffer and be insulted. And the gap between them and the West will increase and deepen. No one will benefit except the publishers who will probably sell a lot of books, and Naipaul, who will make a lot of money."

I am not sure Sir Vidia would agree. Maybe he would laugh dismissively and hope that the books would get read too, apart from being sold.

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