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."
"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.