Why Congress is Jittery about VS Naipaul

If you are familiar with VS Naipaul’s stature as a writer you would have got a little surprised by the indifference of Congress guys on Twitter to his passing away recently.

And when I say Congress guys I mean the entire pro Congress brigade from editors through average sympathizers to Cong MPs. I can understand the tepid response from the average Cong sympathizers and even those who formally represent the party.

They mayn’t know much about Naipaul – because Naipaul is not Rushdie nor was he a very popular commercial writer like, say, Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham. Before he won the Noble Prize for Literature, he was hardly known outside the group of people with genuine interest in English literature. After he won there was a sudden eruption of interest in Naipaul.

That’s when many who didn’t know him would have read him the first time (this includes me). And many would have restricted their knowledge about him and his work to what the media had to say about him, that he was an anti-Muslim bigot, a misogynist etc. But what about the pro Congress editors?

I didn’t see too many posts from them beyond the customary ‘great writer bad human being RIP VSN’ ones. Did you?

Many of them would have read Naipaul, at least his nonfiction books. Many of them would have interacted with Naipaul when he came to India to research for his last book on India, The Million Mutinies Now. On record Naipaul had met Vinod Mehta (who is no more with us), Vir Sanghvi and Shekhar Gupta.

Only an article by Vir Sanghvi was an expection to the rule. In the article, Vir Sanghvi claimed he knew Naipaul rather closely having met him several times while Sanghvi worked in Calcutta and Naipaul was visiting the city.

Sanghvi admitted his greatness as a writer but little bit tarnished it by calling Naipaul’s contemporary relevance into question. “Will his novels stand the test of time? Does anybody still read say, A House for Mr. Biswas? Will they read it ten years from now?”

Most of his books are celebrated and no discussion on post 2nd World War great books is complete without a mention of A House for Mr. Biswas.

This ‘tell as little as you must, then shove him inside the carpet’ approach of Congress online image managers towards VS Naipaul is not strange. VS Naipaul’s nonfiction work on India – mainly An Area of Darkness, which was written in the mid-60s and was scathingly critical of India – almost of everything you can think of.

The India that Naipaul criticized so strongly in his first two books An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization was actually Nehru’s India. And Naipaul never changed his views until Million Mutinies Now, many years after An Area of Darkness, published in 1990.

This was two years before liberalization and many years before liberalization made its effect on India felt, but Nehru by then was firmly placed in India’s past separated by several subsequent leaderships of Congress.

And if you think a little deeply, the India that Naipaul rejected – the Nehru constructed India – is the main bone of contention between BJP and Congress. BJP says Nehru’s socialist model, which Congress followed until Rajiv Gandhi started tinkering with things in the mid-80s, denied India its share of development, made it poor, and deepened corruption even as it strengthened the grip of the Gandhi Nehru parivar on power.

Congress says the path shown by the first prime minister of India is the right path for the country, and moving away from the Nehruvian way is where India’s doom lies.

But Congress knows it stands on a very shaky ground when it comes to Nehru. Economically India has moved beyond Nehru. His contributions to nation building may be immense but sadly obscured by the subsequent years of Congress rule when Nehru’s economic legacy degenerated into license raj which held back India until it was dismantled in the early 90s, his institutions were subverted as his own daughter strengthened her grip on power – Emergency was an extreme manifestation of which – and the Congress became the fiefdom of one family.

So if you found the response of the online Cong image managers to Naipaul’s death underwhelming it’s because there is no point paying too much attention to a writer who held inconvenient views about a period when Congress was in power especially when the tempo for 2019 general elections is building up.

Enyd Blyton in Chikmagalur

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enyd Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction – picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of books.)

I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation, whether someone was a commercial or literary writer, his/her position in the world of literature etc. I developed these pretentions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enyd Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years back why I didn’t try out Enyd Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I wasn’t class conscious but age conscious back then. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s author wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was out of the question. But my indifference to writers like Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with Blyton.

In my early reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enyd Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enyd Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English – where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society as it existed at a particular point of time…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree on which the aircraft was, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

There is a moral and social justice angle to Three Cheers, Secret Seven. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for a lot derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and since they don’t go beyond 100 to 120 pages, most of them over weekends.

TOI Lit Fest and the Rally

I have been visiting the TOI literature festival in Bangalore every year since it started but this time the experience was a little different. Frankly speaking, there is another lit fest that happens in Bangalore end of every year – Bangalore Literature Festival – and I have always found that to be a little better than the TOI one in terms of quality of discussions, but this time a coincidence made the TOI lit fest special.

The TOI fest happened at Jayamahal Palace on 3rd and 4th Jan the last day coinciding with a BJP rally to be addressed by none other than the PM himself at Palace Grounds. And how can the two mutually opposed worlds come close to each other without producing some fireworks?

Chidanand Rajghatta, a US correspondent of Times of India, was discussing his upcoming book – Illiberal India – on Gauri Lankesh, his former wife – on his times with Gauri and erosion of liberal values in India.

When the floor was opened for questions someone from the audience asked Rajghatta if by Illiberal India he meant India has become illiberal already or it is on the way of becoming so, eliciting a long response from Rajghatta saying the society may still be liberal but the attacks on liberalism are too obvious to be overlooked.

On day two, Kiran Nagarkar the Cuckold, Eddie writer, while wrapping up his session, found himself at the receiving end of ire from someone in the audience apparently upset with nothing in particular but Nagarkar’s general potshots at the government several times.

The drones and planes flying overhead were constantly disrupting the ongoing discussions bringing them to a halt each time they flew over our head.

Towards the end of the festival, William Dalrymple and Vidya Shah’s brilliant histro-musical performance on Deccan poets based on his White Mughals theme was disrupted by rolling of drums. After sometime, Dalrymple raised his hand and shouted: Let’s shut out the noise.