Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mr Mukerjee

If you search for V.S. Naipaul on Google, you get 436,000 results. But if you search for Shiva Naipaul, you get only 19,400. It isn't surprising at all, but at the same time tragic.

But then, tragedy was the middle name of Shiva Naipaul: he died of a heart attack at the young age of 40, leaving five books behind and taking away many, many more along with him. He is remembered annually by a handful of people, when the Spectator magazine invites entries for the literary award it instituted in his name after his death. Otherwise, not many seem to know or remember or care to look for Shiva Naipaul, the younger brother of the world's most famous Naipaul.

I did not study literature; and there are not too many books that I have read cover to cover. I usually dip into them, read a few pages here and a few there, reread the passages that I like -- all with the purpose of self-education, to learn a trick or two about the craft of writing. So it may look foolish on my part to talk about or compare two literary figures. I mean, who am I to judge them?

But as a lay reader, who spends enormous mounts of money on acquiring books, I have every right to speak my mind, don't I?

As a reader aspiring to be a writer, V.S. Naipaul is the man I want to be, not just because of the fame and the Nobel, but because it takes an extraordinary human being to write a book like A House For Mr Biswas. In the book, to explain in Bollywood terms, there is tragedy in comedy and comedy in tragedy. And come to think of it, the book merely tells the story of an uninteresting man growing up in Trinidad.

It was only after reading this book, about 10 years ago, that I understood why the world distinguishes between 'writers' and 'literary figures'. Jeffrey Archer maybe a writer, but he will never be considerd a literary figure, even though his income from writing is likely to be a lot more than that of Naipaul and Salman Rushdie put together. The distinction has been best explained by none other than Anthony Burgess, in an essay called Success:

"The trouble with fiction is that there are two ways of looking at it: as a business and as an art. Just up the coast from me at Cannes, sitting glumly but royally on his yatch, is a man who succeeded indubitably with the novel as a business. His name is Harold Robbins. He is, however, not satisfied with having sold a great number of copies of books about sex and violence: he wants to be regarded, on the strength of his evident popularity, as the greatest writer alive. Nobody will so consider him and this makes him sour. It does, of course, sometimes happen that the most popular novelist is also the best -- Dickens, for instance; perhaps even Hemingway -- but the one does not follow from the other. We expect great fiction to be too subtle or complex for popular acceptance."

I, however, think it is more about simplicity than complexity or subtlety. A writer merely tells you a story, while a literary figure sucks you into the story and makes you toss and turn in the bed and spend sleepless nights. A House For Mr Biswas may be the story of Naipaul's father, but it is also the story of each one of us. We all find ourselves in the book, described in accurate detail, in some chapter or the other.

I also admire V.S. Naipaul immensely for his comic writing. For readers of Ganga Mail who haven't read Naipaul yet, I would especially recommend the story One out of Many from the Booker-winning In a Free State, and The Perfect Tenants from the book A Flag On The Island.

But when it comes to travel writing, I would like to be Shiva Naipaul anyday. Thanks to Flipkart, I was fortunate enough to buy North of South, a description of his journeys through parts of Africa. All other books of his are 'out of stock.' Shiva Naipaul is a far more amiable travel companion than his elder brother, who is far too cynical and philosophical to let you enjoy the travel. When you are travelling with Sir Vidia, it does not matter whether you are in India or Indonesia: you are always in a nation that is dirty and rotting and where people are perenially complaining and whining.

Not so in the case of Shiva Naipaul. He is good-natured, humorous and loves to take things in his stride when he travels. Ever since North of South was couriered to my home about six weeks ago, I have managed to read it thrice, cover to cover. His skills to observe and describe people and places are far more superior than those of his elder brother, and I can vouch for this because in the book Shiva Naipaul has accurately described a Bengali gentleman, a certain Mr Mukherjee living in the heart of Africa. I am taking the liberty of reproducing some relevant passages:

The Goans of Arusha had organised an expedition to the Ngorongoro Crater. However, it was the not the Goans but Mr Mukerjee, himself neither a Goan not a member of the Club that was organising the outing, who invited me to come along.

Mr Mukerjee's influence over the Goans stemmed from the fact that it was he who had arranged for the charter of a bus at a special concessionary rate: Mr Mukherjee prided himself on having strange friends in strage places. I was a little reluctant to accept, having heard that there was some anxiety about the Club's being able to accommodate all its bona fide members who wanted to go.

But Mr Mukerjee was insistent. "If I say you can come, then you can come. You mustn't let these spineless colonials frighten you off. Nobody is going to argue with me if I say that I am bringing you along as my guest."

His belligerence confirmed what I had heard about him -- that Mr Mukerjee thrived on "confrontations." I began to feel that his invitation was motivated less by a desire to do me a favour than by a compulsion to exercise and test the limits of his power over the Goan Club."

And then:

"That night there was a discotheque, the music played on a scratchy, battery-operated record player supplied by the manager of the lodge. The poor reproduction did not dampen the ardor of the Goan girls (they outnumbered the boys), who danced dedicatedly with each other, "bumping" and "grinding." The German tourists who, at the beginning of the evening, were gathered in a circle in front of the log fire were driven out. Mr Mukerjee, seeking a confrontation, complained to the manager about the noise. The manager -- a big, bearded but unturbaned Sikh -- stood his ground.

"You can always go to your room if you do not like," he replied, politely obdurate.

"I have no desire to go to my room. My family and I have every right to stay here if we wish to."

"So have they."

"But do they have a right to kick up such a racket? It is disgraceful behaviour. I have not come all this way to watch a bunch of colonials making fools of themselves -- and disturbing the peace of the night into the bargain."

The manager shrugged, "If you don't care for it, you know what you can do." He turned his massive back on Mr Mukerjee.

This was more than Mr Mukerjee could bear. He chased around his adversary so that they were facing each other again. "Look here -- do you know who you are talking to?"

"I don't care who you are." The manager stared insolently. "It is I who am boss here, and what I say goes."

Mr Mukerjee's bulbous eyes started out of his head.

Mrs Mukerjee tried to restrain her husband. "Please, Dilip. It is no good arguing with him. Let us go to our room."

Mr Mukerjee pushed her aside. "I'd have you know, sir, that you are not talking to a spineless Asian colonial. You are talking, sir, to an Indian national, a citizen born and bred, of the Republic of India. I won't be treated in this way."

The manager remained unimpressed.

"Calm down, Dilip." Mrs Mukerjee took hold of her husband's arm. "Let's go to our room." She looked reproachfully at the manager. "You have no right to speak to him in that rude way."

Although still protesting, Mr Mukerjee allowed himself to be led away. The two Mukerjee boys followed their parents.

5 comments:

Janani Sampath said...

A house for Mr Biswas is one of my favourite books too. You are cent percent right when you say all writers cannot be literary figures.

I stopped reading Archer just a few years ago because I began to feel he had nothing new to offer. Be it his language or his plot.

I have to now lay my hands on Shiva Naipaul.

Soumya said...

'A house for Mr.Biswas' is well written, but, the story is a little depressing...like most of Hemingway stories.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Ghosh, I am quite touched by the compliments. The fact that you had a blog post dedicated to my response makes me feel like I am amongst friends, close and otherwise.

I have a few books of my own, but if I name those, you will probably find out who I am, and this precious bit of anonymity would disappear, like the glass of my Sundowner did along with the Sun last evening. But then, I have another evening to look forward to. It's amazing how no one is anonymous any more with Google and the internet. Every time someone googles me, I get the same feeling that I get during my annual visit to the proctologist. Since your visits will start when you hit the other side of forty, I can tell you that it is nothing to look forward to.

I don't think Hemingway is depressing. If you can master the art of brevity, you have mastered the art of writing. Hemingway is the ultimate example of that. I had a German friend called Ernst, as Earnest as Hemingway himself. You could barely get a monosyllabic response out of the poor Bavarian, and when he died, his last wish was that his friends would not say more than a few words at the memorial service. I am sure when St. Peter confronted him at the pearly gates, Ernst got away with just a grunt.

On the other hand, if you like someone, who waltzes with the words and weaves a web of a story that spans across millennia, I recommend James Michener. When I read the Caribbean for the first time, I could not at first understand how another American, living in the same chain of islands could write something as short and direct as The old man and the sea. The only time in my life I have actually listened to a Mariachi band without the band being there, was when I read Michener's Mexico; if you read it, you will feel like getting up and serenading your lady love with the Mariachis playing in the background, and your bottle of Tequila waiting for you at the table. Ah, Mejico!

Since you have called me the Malibu man, I think it is my responsibility to sign off with that handle. But remember, while you may Waltz with the Whiskey, and do the Macarena with Malibu, you must always tango with Tequila, because that is what really matters at the end.

In Veritas with Vino
The Malibu Man

Sudeep Chowdhuri said...

Dear BG,
Mr. Annon’s style of writing, the temperament, and the flow of thoughts is so different from your writing, that the very fact that people think it could be you is enough to show that you have arrived as a writer – so what if you never write another book (though I hope you do, and get back to the Chennai book). Whether it is really you or not, is beside the point.

(The style of writing seems so masculine I am sure that we are talking about Mr. Annon here).

I have never been able to like V. S. Naipaul. Our world is so imperfect, that is easy to be harsh and critical about almost anything in this world. That is why I ‘intensely’ dislike authors (or people) who go on and on being harsh and abrasive, even if it is done using beautiful prose, and in impeccable style.

The difference between 'writers' and 'literary figures' is something difficult for me to grasp. Don’t many tread on both sides? We all know what Kushwant Singh is famous for, but how about his “I shall not hear the nightingale?”

Of what use is brilliant prose that does not give joy? While Jeffrey Archer may be past his ‘sell by’ date, I am sure that to millions he is more of a 'literary figure' than Dickens could ever be.

I strongly suspect that many 'literary figures' owe their fame and longevity to the fear of people to call out that ‘the Emperor is naked’.

I always read my books cover to cover, and do expect it to give me something more than ‘writing style, no matter how brilliant that style is. If good style can combine with good philosophy, and a gripping story, then that is bliss. To me, that is exemplified by the ‘Seven pillars of wisdom’ by T. E. Lawrence.

These are just my thoughts, and the intention is not to get into a ‘literary’ debate, or to prove anyone wrong.

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