Tabish Khair on Naipaul and his other early influences

Given this sharp precipice of literary creativity, which allowed me little toehold, largely because my difference could not be countenanced in standard class or post/colonial terms, I latched on to the odd book that I could relate to. The most enabling was VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas. I picked up a second-hand copy from a roadside stall. I was doing my Inter at the local college in Gaya. I doubt I had heard about Naipaul. Even if I had it must have been fleetingly. What struck me was the context — provincial and seemingly unstructured — in which Mr Biswas struggles to live and write. I could identify with it; identify much more with that Caribbean space than even with RK Narayan’s Malgudi, which exuded a suggestion of structure and calm that was often missing in my small town space.

Looking back, I realise that A House for Mr Biswas was a misleading introduction to Naipaul: it is arguably the ‘warmest’ of his novels. While the Caribbean space of its enactment is never forgiven, ‘father’-figure Biswas — narrated with more empathy than Naipaul musters for most of his Caribbean characters — bestows on it a mellow contextuality that is partly redeeming. I went looking for other books by Naipaul. There was no Internet then. Perhaps there wasn’t even any TV in Gaya. Or maybe it had just arrived, in its singular Doordarshan avatar.

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