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Why is Naipaul Being Honoured?: Girish Karnad

November 3, 2012

This is the text of GIRISH KARNAD‘s speech at the Mumbai Literature Festival, as compiled by from various sources.

On Friday afternoon at the Tata Literature Live! festival in Mumbai, playwright Girish Karnad surprised audiences with an unexpected and spirited critique of Nobel laureate Vidia Naipaul. Naipaul was awarded the Landmark and Literature Alive’s Lifetime Achievement Award on October 31. Karnad was originally supposed to talk about “his life in theatre” in his session, but instead launched into a scathing critique of Naipaul and the conferral of the award to him

This is what he said at the festival:

At the Mumbai Literature Festival this year, Landmark and Literature Alive have jointly given the  Lifetime’s Achievement Award to Sir Vidia Naipaul.

The award ceremony held on the 31st of October at the National Centre of the Performing Arts coyly failed to mention that Naipaul was not an Indian and has never claimed to be one. But at no point was the question raised.

The words Shashi Deshpande, the novelist, had used to describe the Neemrana Festival conducted by the ICCR in 2002 perfectly fitted the present event: “it was a celebration of a Nobel Laureate…whom  India, hopefully, even sycophantically, considered an Indian.”

Apart from his novels, only two of which take place in India and are abysmal,  Naipaul has written three books on India and the books are brilliantly written—he is certainly among the great  English writers of our generation.

They have been hailed as a continued exploration of India’s journey into modernity, but what strikes one from the very first book—A Wounded Civilization—is their rabid antipathy to the Indian Muslim.

The ‘wound’ in the title is the one inflicted on India by Babar’s invasion. Since then, Naipaul has never missed a chance to weigh in against the ‘invaders’, accusing them of having savaged India for five centuries, of having brought, among other dreadful things, poverty into it and destroyed the glorious ancient Hindu culture .

A point that strikes one immediately about these books is that there is not a single word in any of them on Indian music.

Given that music defines our daily existence… you find it in the streets, in the restaurants and so on… you would expect an exploration of India to comment on that. Now Mr Naipaul has written three books on India, three very big books… and not one of them contains any reference to music. He has gone through the whole of India without responding to Indian music.

Now I think this only means he is tone-deaf. That’s my reading of the situation but then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be tone-deaf. It is a constitutional right we all have. But what happens is that if you don’t understand music, if you don’t respond to music, you can’t respond to Indian history because the real development of Indian culture has been through music. This explains his insensitivity  to the intricate  interweaving of  Hindu and Muslim creativities, through the Bhakti and Sufi movements, that gave us this extraordinary  heritage, alive in the heart of every Indian  home.

What Naipaul’s virulence against Indian Islam conceals is that he has borrowed his model of the history of Indian culture from the British musicologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, like William Jones. These scholars were acquainted with many other ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptian, the Greek and the Roman. But they were mystified by the fact that while the musical traditions of these civilizations were entirely lost, the Indian musical tradition was alive and thriving.

They decided that this once pure-and-glorious music must have been, at some point during the course of its long history, corrupted and mauled—and they found the villain in the invading Muslim. So, according to them, once upon a time  there was a pristine Indian musical culture, which the  Muslims had disfigured. They therefore ignored the music that was being performed around them and went in search of the true Hindu music.

The foreigners come, they look at Indian culture, they see pristine Hindu culture, they see that it’s corrupted and it’s corrupted by Muslims. So you see, anyone who has read Naipaul’s book will immediately recognise this matrix, which actually he claims that he arrived at through himself but it is already there in any Indological study long before.

In his analysis of Indian culture Naipaul simply borrows this line of argument and reemploys it—as his original perception. And not for the first time.

Naipaul accuses R.K. Narayan of being indifferent to the destruction and death symbolized by the ruins of Vijayanagar, which to him was a bastion of Hindu culture destroyed by the marauding Muslims. But again he gets this interpretation of the history of Vijayanagar  readymade from a book by Robert Sewell called  A Forgotten Empire, published in 1900.

Naipaul, as always in awe  of his colonial sources, simply accepts this picture as the unadorned truth and recycles it wholesale as his own. That historians and archaeologists working on the site during the last century have proved the situation to be much more complex and have shown that religion had little role to play in the conflict is irrelevant to him.

Now again, what he says is predictable, which is that the Muslims destroyed Indian architecture, that everything went to pot. They were the raiders, they were the destroyers, and you have to look at any building to see what happened during the Muslim regime. And here is what he said about the Taj when people argued with him: “The Taj is so wasteful, so decadent and in the end so cruel that I found it painful to be there for very long. This is an extravagance that speaks about the blood of the people

None of us, if we were at the Taj, would think of the extravagance that speaks about the blood of the people! That’s why you get a Nobel Prize, you know.

He brushes off historian Romila Thapar’s argument that the Mughal era saw a rich efflorescence of the mixture of Hindu and Muslim styles, by attributing her judgment to her Marxist bias  and says, ‘The correct truth is the way the invaders look at their actions, They were conquering. They were subjugating.’

To Naipaul, the Indian Muslim remains an invader for ever, forever condemned to be condemned, because some of them had invaders as their ancestors. It is a usage would yield some strange results if applied to the USA.

As for Naipaul’s journalistic exploration of modern India,  mainly in the form of a series of interviews conducted  with Indians right across the board, one must confess they are supremely well written and that he is a master in drawing sharp and precise visuals of the people he talks to and of the places he visits.

What begins to bother one after a while however, is that he  invariably seems to meet brilliant interviewees whose answers to his questions are expressed with a wit and elegance that match his own mastery of the language. Even half-literate interviewees suffer from no diffidence in their expression.

How reliable are the conversations he records?

In a well-known essay Naipaul describes his visit to the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, where he stayed with his friend, Ashoke Chatterjee, the Director of the Institute.

In a recent email to me, Mr Chatterjee said, that Naipaul’s essay was “a scenario that could have been, but was not what he actually saw. Fragments of reality, selected and put together, into a collage of pure fantasy.”

Chatterjee’s friendship with Naipaul came to an abrupt end when Chatterjee told Naipaul that his book, A Wounded Civilization, should be classified as fiction.

In a recent book, Naipaul takes up for examination the autobiography of Munshi Rahman Khan, who emigrated to Suriname at the end of the nineteenth  century, and contrasts it with Gandhi’s.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the historian, has reviewed the essay in the London Review of Books and it doesn’t take him much effort to establish that Naipaul could only have read a third-hand, truncated translation of the text: “It is as if a reader in Gorakhpur was reading Naipaul in Maithili after the text had passed through a Japanese translation.”

That doesn’t prevent Naipaul from commenting even on the style and linguistic usage of Rahman Khan.

The question surely is by giving him the Lifetime Achievement Award, what statement is being made by the award-givers?

As a journalist what he writes about India is his business. No one can question his right to be ignorant or to prevaricate.

But the Nobel Prize has given him a sudden authority and his use of it needs to be looked at.

One of the first things Naipaul did on receiving the Nobel Prize was to visit the office of the BJP in Delhi. He who had earlier declared that he was not political, “that to have a political view is to be programmed”, now declared that he was happy to be politically “appropriated”.

It was then that he made his most infamous remark: “Ayodhya”, he said, “is a sort of passion. Any passion is creative. Passion leads to creativity.”

Salman Rushdie’s response was that Naipaul was behaving like “a fellow-traveller of Fascism and [that he] disgraces the Noble Prize.”

In the wake of Ayodhya close to 1500 Muslims were slaughtered in the streets of Bombay alone. I was attending a Film Festival in New Delhi when the riots broke out  and received anguished  calls from my friends in Bombay to say Muslims were being pulled out of their homes or stopped in the streets to be killed.

I rang my Muslim editor to say he and his family could use my flat, in a predominantly Parsi building, until the situation became safe.

The great Marathi actress, Fayyaz, whom I finally located after a week in a corner in Pune where she had fled in distress from Mumbai, described how Shiv Sainiks had thrown fire bombs into Muslim slums and how, when the inmates of the houses rushed out in terror, they were shot down by the police as trouble-makers.

Seven years later, in cold blood, Naipaul was glamorising  these  events as “passion”, as “a creative act”.

It is significant that this part of Naipaul’s sociologising was not mentioned in the citation of the Award, or by Farrukh Dhondy, who while  interviewing him, mentioned the book, Among the Believers and then quickly moved to a long-winded account of how he had helped Sir Vidia adopt a cat which thirteen years later was put to sleep lying on his lap—giving  Naipaul another chance to burst into sentimental tears.

Presumably Dhondy was trying to prove how ‘human’ Naipaul was.

But Landmark and Literature Alive who have announced this Award have a responsibility to explain to us where exactly they stand with regard to these remarks by Naipaul.

Naipaul is a foreigner and can make pronouncements as he wishes. But do they mean to valorise Naipaul’s stand that Indian Muslims are raiders and marauders? Are they supporting his continued insistence on  Muslim buildings in India being  monuments to rape and loot? Or are they by their silence suggesting  that these views do not matter?

The Award givers have much to answer for.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Melanie permalink
    November 3, 2012 8:22 PM

    Girish Karnad has raised very significant issues and it is clear that it was his frustration over the Award that may have had made him stray away from the topic that he was asked to speak on. Quite unlike Karnad, but I would still not term his speech a rant! I have always been troubled by Naipaul’s Muslim bias and more so of his reaching out to the BJP, after making claims about being an apolitical writer. Karnad’s detailed observations on Naipaul’s writings seem to give credence to the belief that the organisers of the Literary Festival in Mumbai could have done better than giving the Lifetime Achievement Award to Naipaul. He is undoubtedly a brilliant writer but there are so many more deserving Indian ones. What is it about our country folks that we want to celebrate achievers of Indian origin, even when they are inclined to disassociate themselves from their roots?

  2. Nandu Menon permalink
    November 3, 2012 8:44 PM


  3. November 3, 2012 10:23 PM

    It is indeed sad that such a person, with such restricted views, has not only been advocated to the heights of supremacy abroad but also in the very land that he refuses to be a part of!

    It begs the question: What were the organisers thinking?

    Kudos to Mr. Karnad to talk at length about this in public. It takes a lot of courage to do so. Especially when one is a public figure!

  4. November 4, 2012 12:02 AM


  5. malaydeb permalink
    November 4, 2012 1:03 AM

    “The Award givers have much to answer for.”

    I think it’s more apt to say, that Naipaul is biased against all Muslims, not just Indian Muslims alone, It’s testimony is in his writings.He is also a known mysoginist. I condone none of it.
    Just like I do not condone slaughter of Indians in the hands of early European migrants in America, demonising (only) Serbs of former Yugoslavia, US invasion in Iraq or, ruthless exploitation of India’s marginalised by the crony capitalists of modern India.
    But at the same time I respect Naipaul’s right to hold an opinion of his own, even if it’s a borrowed one, as has been allured. We all have our own biases, all of us are inclined this way or that way. The commonality however, lies in our belief that some biases are holier than others.
    That begs the question, ‘why one has to answer for exercising his right to hold an opinion
    about anybody, about anything or everything under the sun?’ as long as he doesn’t put some one’s life and/or property on line.
    They have done something I don’t agree with. Now I can sulk, I can rave and rant, I can write a critique, these are all within my rights. But I don’t have a right to demand an answer, because they don’t owe me any, simply because I haven’t in any way conntributed in or helped them, in holding the opinion they hold.
    Let’s express our views/opinions without fear or favour; let’s allow the same privilege to our detractors, but let the right to demand answer to the people, both of us are preaching to.

    • November 4, 2012 4:29 PM

      Those who defend the right of Naipaul to hold his opinions would do well to extend the same courtesy to Karnad. His “questioning” of the lifetime achievement award given to Naipaul might well be a rhetorical one. He is not “demanding” an explanation. And even if Karnad uses the word “demand”, he has the right to do so, just as the organisers have the right to not to respond.

  6. Inasu/poet-writer/Paris permalink
    November 4, 2012 3:03 AM

    Pity that Tata establishment has had the bad taste of selecting Naipaul for this award. Like
    many in the Indian diaspora, Naipaul too believes that before the arrival of the Moghuls, India was a paradise on earth and in the process he forgets that all wars end up in bloodbaths. The history of pre-Moghul India is full of killings, decimations and destructions.
    What did the Aryans do when they descended from the northwest? The trouble is that in the West he is commonly taken for an authentic Indian writer and he capitalizes on that.. The Nobel was a mistaken choice! Most of his fiction is second rate, and his journalistic
    writings, though vivid and powerful, are woefully biased. Kudos to Mr Girish Karnad for having questioned the raison d’etre of picking up such a wrter for this honour and for having put Naipaul in his place vis-a-vis India!

    • November 13, 2015 8:53 PM

      I agree with all those who objected to the acclamations for NAIPAUL. I love to read books written by Indian- English writers A few still si in my shelf unread, and unreadable( Like the Suitable Boy)
      This man was given the Noble,for reasons like a brown man, a part Indian ought to get one!
      His prose is ridiculous. I hard he has his works and papers, “donated” to U of Oklahoma,. I bet the prestigious colleges in India and UK did not care for his garbage.
      Racial hatred then and now are most reprehensible. Party affiliations should have nothing to do with morality and simple decency.

  7. November 4, 2012 12:42 PM

    अब आया ऊंट पहाड़ के नीचे! शुक्रिया कर्नाड साहब। मिस्टर नायपाल, अपना नोबल पुरस्कार अपने आकाओं के पास ही ले कर जाएँ, वहीं भाषण दें, वहीं रहें। हमें मुआफ़ करें, हम अपनी बात अपनी बोली-बानी मेन कह लेंगे, आपकी दलाली की हमें जरूरत नहीं।

  8. Avinash permalink
    November 4, 2012 1:09 PM

    >>>What did the Aryans do when they descended from the northwest?>>> Aryan invasion theory was a figment of Max Muller’s imagination and was discredited during his life time itself. Now only “secular” Historians like Ms. Romila Thapar consider the same as Gospel Truth.

    There are a handful of Jews still living in Cochin (Kerala) and a few lakh Parsis across India. Mr. Inasu, can you pl name at least five prominent “Aryans” in present day India?

    • noname permalink
      November 5, 2012 11:23 PM

      If you are north indian brahmin then most likely you are!!

  9. torontosara permalink
    November 4, 2012 1:22 PM

    The only aspect of this appropriate critique that I disagree with is its opening exclusion of Naipaul as ‘not Indian’.

    ‘Indians’ from the Caribbean have deep affiliations with India, in ongoing imaginative, religious, cultural, social and emotional ways, which must be appreciated – for their example of how cultural threads, precisely like music, can survive centuries of displacement to enter into the kind of syncretism that Karnad praises. How Karnad would be loved should he go to Trinidad!

    I do agree that digging up faded international luminaries for the purpose of claiming all greatness is Indian is ridiculous, but we should not critique this by labelling people of Indian origin as non-nationals.

    • noname permalink
      November 5, 2012 11:25 PM

      But Karnad also said that he never claimed to be one, his second abode is England!

  10. passerby permalink
    November 4, 2012 3:41 PM

    I am not familiar with his works or views. I understand that he has been chosen for the award for his contribution to literature. He may be ignorant on history and some of his views may be controversial. Does that mean that he should be denied an award solely on these grounds.
    If the argument is some others are more qualified than him to receive this award Karnad should have listed them and should have argued why they or one of them deserves it than Naipaul.

  11. Aditya Nigam permalink*
    November 4, 2012 4:10 PM

    Avinash, Your illteracy, cocksure certainty and anti-secular prejudices truly match each other. Please go and read some Romila Thapar before you open your loud mouth.

    • November 5, 2012 10:47 PM

      I think he is at least partly right. The Aryan “invasion” theory, at least as Inasu presents it above (with the “invading” Aryans engaging in bloodbath) does not seem to be based in evidence. While there is a lot of linguistic and literary evidence that the culture that wrote the Rigveda did come from outside India, there seems to be little or no evidence that they engaged in bloody large scale wars that destroyed the native cultures. Here, of course, I do not count as evidence the contention that the Ramayana provides evidence for such warfare, which I, frankly speaking, find hilarious.

  12. Ritambhara Shastri permalink
    November 4, 2012 6:01 PM

    Kudos to Karnad for taking on the egoistic warped persona of Naipul. High time he was put in his place . Admire Karnad for doing so.

  13. November 5, 2012 10:48 PM

    Now, I have my reservations about the Taj. I don’t think it is right the way it dominates discussions about Indian, or even Mughal, architecture, but then I have never seen it in life. Nevertheless, I have seen the Imambadas of Lucknow, and the caves of Ellora, and I imagine they deserves as much praise, if not more, as the Taj Mahal.

    But no matter what your opinion maybe on the aesthetics of the Taj, it seems hard to explain escape the conclusion that it is one of the masterpieces of truly cross-cultural fusion architecture, and has a style that cannot be called Hindu, cannot be called Mughal, but can only be called Indian. That Naipaul sees instead “an extravagance that speaks about the blood of the people” is quite puzzling.

  14. noname permalink
    November 5, 2012 11:34 PM

    Naipaul delved deeply into how the Indian civilization was captured and destroyed by invaders. But he should be the last person to talk about as the place he calls home (trinidad) is looted, destroyed and captured by colonizers. To set the record straight he and his family to start migrating back to India. At least invaders in India are assimilated into indian culture and now speak native Indian language what language Naipaul and his community spoke Hindustani or English why not language of indigenous Americans.

  15. passerby permalink
    November 6, 2012 12:02 AM

    Aryan invasion theory has been rejected by many historians including Romila Thapar. But it is still regarded as a gospel truth by many. Similarly Engels’s work on Origin of Family and State and the matriarchy hypothesis has been criticized and its major theoretical underpinnings have been rejected in the 1970s itself. Still it is popular and for many leftists even now it is the primary resource in explaining patriarchy.

  16. dark lord permalink
    November 9, 2012 8:26 PM

    An excellent response by Pratap Bhanu Mehta on Girish Karnad criticism of Naipaul pointing out the that very style of Naipaul’s writing is not one of empathy but one of antipathy. He has also highlight the reason for Karnad’s criticism as being one where Karnad’s idea of secularism is driven by history and hence his need for confluence of Hindu and Muslim cultures whereas Naipaul is driven more by our historical facts. Naipaul does not see that today’s Hindus and Muslims should fight just because their ancestors were antagonistic whereas Karnad sees that as our ancestors were friendly, we should continue the same.

  17. sanaah permalink
    September 10, 2013 8:33 PM

    This is not ‘courage’, this is the pandering to popular views.
    Courage was shown by Dhondy in his vociferous and informed rebuff of the diatribe – unlike everyone else in VS’ camp, poor man had no other vocal support at all, not even his loudmouth wife!


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