Only a moron would question his greatness. V.S. Naipaul is, of course, one of the greatest and arguably the best English writers of his era. Generations have grown up admiring his voluminous works of literature, including some that are set in India. No Indian student of English literature, at least, can consider his education complete unless having pored through in detail the various nuances of the myriad of his characters and by corollary his characterization of the Indian history and polity.
Quite naturally, therefore, what happened in Mumbai last week at the Tata Literature Live! Festival— has kicked up a dust that is fast enveloping the conscience collective of a very large number of people: literati, literature aficionados, and even hard-core politicos.
The elaborate, and, as what is being iterated on the various news channels, "the rather unexpected and uncalled for" criticism of Sir Vidia by playwright-actor Girish Karnad has already been touted as a controversy of Himalayan heights. Only, thus far, we haven't heard from Sir Vidia himself. We know not if he too feels offended the same way as the countless others who have already jumped to the chorus even before he may say a thing or two about the episode.
One doubts if the main contention of Karnad's arguments (I shall definitely not term it as 'vitriolic') against Sir Vidia —his worldview of Indian Muslims, as indicated by his widely quoted remarks— would now, or ever, be disputed by the author himself.
Those who have read him, especially his early work A Wounded Civilization, would discern fully well Sir Vidia's views about the Medieval India. Now, herein lies the bigger issue. One stream of thought considers this period as the 'Dark Phase' of Indian history; they will go to any length to meticulously explain how this phase indeed ushered in bad tidings and how it "wounded" the civilization, a view, many believe not much different with Sir Vidia's.
Now, coming back to Karnad's arguments on Sir Vidia (or vitriol, whichever way you look at it!), it becomes increasingly difficult for one to stand on the fence, to be objective. Nay! One has to take a stand this way or the other way. And that precisely is the tragedy of the subject that goes by the name of 'history', which is de facto not about some enlightened or bigoted individual's opinion. On the contrary, history is about empirical evidence, it's about collection and collating of verifiable facts and sources, it's about using the best possible methodologies that curtail subjectivity and bring it to the minimum possible of course 100 % objectivity in social sciences is considered unattainable— and coming out with a narrative that is substantially verifiable through the maze of materials available to the historian.
One can say with reasonable assurance that any attempt at arriving at sweeping generalizations about a community through the prism of history must be backed with arguments or logic that can stand the scrutiny of the methods of science —it has to be valid for the realm of social sciences. Otherwise, what one is theorizing or sociolizing is all about one's own worldview, albeit it's perfectly legitimate for one and all to have one's own worldview. Why not? Sir Vidia is fully entitled to his own views about Indian Muslims (or others) and their place in history or their 'rightful' or 'wrongful' place in the modern context. To that end, none can strike a discordant note. After all, we all are entitled to our views. Aren't we?
But there is one facet to it that needs to be discussed threadbare. The subjective views of an eminent personality, especially a great like Sir Vidia, are likely to be misconstrued and suitably embellished by 'interested parties' to suit their own political or other agendas.
And it is on this count that one is tempted to rather agree with at least some of the flak (again, one is not calling it a 'vitriol' because one can always present one's viewpoint in a democracy and criticize the one with the other worldview, just as Sir Vidia does) that Girish Karnad had so specifically reserved for one of the greatest writer of our times.
For example, in the times of what one believes growing intolerance of various hues and shades (and not just along the communal lines), does an eminent writer's (not necessarily Sir Vidia) unapologetic branding of an entire community as belonging to the 'invader's race' serve to further the cause of integration and coexistence? Does such a view inspire more and more people to be proud of their holistic traditions? And, does it not negate the basic ethos of 'unity in diversity' in a multicultural and plural society?
And now the bigger question: If Sir Vidia makes himself available to be "politically appropriated" by adherents of one particular ideology that is not fully backed by all sections of the society, and is seen as 'divisive' by many (one of the points raised by Karnad), where does such a worldview stand? And, more importantly, will others (one is talking about those who don't adhere to this ideology) not be tempted to see such a stand as equally, and perhaps needlessly, divisive?
The reason one is asking these questions is that the personal views of an eminent person like Sir Vidia matter a lot to all of us, as we all are equally proud of his accomplishments and his unique place in the history of English literature as a writer of Indian origin.
It was not without reason why Karnad quoted Sir Vidia's views on Taj Mahal, a monument that the countrymen look at with great pride and consider as a symbol of the syncretic Indian culture: "The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that it is painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks of the blood of the people."
Again, Karnad, one would argue, is not off the mark in quoting Sir Vidia on 'Ayodhya', which he said, "is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity."
One can agree or disagree with Karnad and it's not the objective here to argue in favour of his remarks on Sir Vidia. It's also not the case to question Sir Vidia's views about Indian Muslims. The contention of this article is this: History will judge Sir Vidia's views on Indian Muslims —after he's gone— as either having contributed positively to, or having negatively influenced, the great Indian tradition of unity in diversity. And therein the crux lies.
The author is the News Editor of Times of Oman