(Published in the Business Standard, June 7, 2011)
1. The fact that I possess a womb should disqualify me from commenting on V S Naipaul’s latest broadside. A writer who believes that no woman is his equal as a writer, that women suffer from a “sentimentality, a narrow vision of the world” and that women writers are “quite different” is not going to take the criticism of women readers seriously.
2. Which isn’t going to stop me or other owners of wombs anyway.
3. Not that Mr Naipaul’s criticisms should shock anyone, after all these years. A list of Sir Vidia’s targets over the decades includes Africans, Muslim invaders in India, infies (inferior people) of all colours and races, Indian women writers, his wives, his lovers, his friends, his editors, including the nonagenarian Diana Athill, the issuers of worthless degrees (Oxbridge), foolish people, people who do not serve him his vegetables in separate dishes, people who have not read his writings, people who have read but not understood his writings, people who have read and understood his writings but have also read writers he disapproves of, which is most writers, regardless of whether they own wombs or not.
4. So the best way to approach this fracas is to repeat the apocryphal line Ved Mehta is supposed to have said after Mr Naipaul had a spat with the German ambassador’s wife in Neemrana: “You’ll never guess what that terrible old man has gone and done now.” The spat, now forgotten, was over Mr Naipaul’s dismissal of a certain woman intellectual, to which the German ambassador’s wife is supposed to have said: “We all know what your views on women are, Sir Vidia, we don’t have to take them seriously,” which put the Nobel laureate in a towering rage.
5. There’s a very old pattern at work here; the wide, and widening, gap between Mr Naipaul the public figure and Naipaul the writer. The bulk of the pronouncements made by Mr Naipaul the public figure are rubbish — cantankerous, peevish statements meant to provoke anger and irritation. Some commentators suggested that this was a version of the West Indian tradition of picong — the swift trading of insults and banter as a kind of conversational game — but the truth is that it’s just spleen. The few interviews given by Mr Naipaul the writer, most notably his Paris Review interview, in 1998, are illuminated with insight and wisdom, despite all the bigotry and the petulance of the public man.
6. Read this sentence by Mr Naipaul: “I think the world is what you enter when you think – when you become educated, when you question – because you can be in the big world and be utterly provincial.” And then this sentence by Jane Austen, whom he slammed for her “sentimental ambitions”: “The literary world is inspiring, but it is not all there is. I let my daily life be my raw material, even if paintings, fiction and sonatas are the fire in my forge.” They led such different lives; Mr Naipaul wrested for himself the freedom to travel, to learn and to explore. Ms Austen, trammelled by the twin lack of independence and income, wrote her novels from the observation of the limited world around here, but she shares with Mr Naipaul several things: the sense of humour, the detached accuracy and the lack of sentimentality. They had a similar, excoriating wit, though Ms Austen’s was caustic, Mr Naipaul’s splenetic.
7. There is little need to address Mr Naipaul’s central grouse, with its implication that women cannot write, or that women writers are by definition sentimental. It displays his lack of reading — could anyone who had read Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver, Marilyne Robinson, Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelley, Susan Sontag and company actually believe this? You could, of course, if you were a fossil, a relic from another age.
8. I could go back to Mr Naipaul’s work — not the disappointing late novels that show the waning vigour and drooping powers of a played-out novelist, or the feeble African travelogue, but the humour and sharp acuity that marked books like A House for Mr Biswas, or The Mimic Men, or A Bend in the River. Books from the time when Mr Naipaul’s ability to see things clearly had not been overtaken by his arrogance and his choler. But instead, I find myself reaching for Pride and Prejudice. The novel’s comedy is restorative, and nothing could be more appropriate to the present situation than the title.