Politics of Dispossession

A Reading of V.S. Naipaul’s Half a Life - Dr. Gagan Bihari Purohit

Dept of English, R.N. college, Dura, Berhampur, Odisha
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Complex and cantankerous personality, Naipaul has thrown more challenges to his life than any other writer of acclaimed accomplishment. Both banal and serious issues of life have been depicted with consummate ease and aplomb. Although accused of running away from people, he is always ahead of his time in unraveling inherent contradictions in human life. He is in search of ecstasy amidst agony. The present essay argues about how Naipaul finds out meaning from half lifes. In other words, he tries to stitch up all incomplete holes of life to find meaning out of it. Like his protagonist Willie Chandaran, Naipaul has undergone many initiations of life in search of completeness. It appears like a utopia, an ideal state from which human beings are always at unreachable distance. One inherent conclusion of life is laid bare; the eternal search for composure and completeness of life is like a mirage, but the search is on even when the going is squarely difficult. Key words: Dispossession, utopia, exile, incompleteness, dilemma of life, identity.
The unexamined life is not worth living.
- Socrates
V.S. Naipaul or Sir Vidia, the name he acquired after receiving Knjghthood, winner of Nobel Prize in 2001, is a self-made man, not deterred by compliment or criticism that came in his way. That he reacted to his detractors in an ingenuous way speaks about his greatness as a writer; he preferred not to be moved by any derogatory remark, his writing does the trick for him. His multicultural lineage, born in Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago to a family of Indian origin, Naipaul achieved stupendous success what his father had struggled for achieving throughout his life. What stood out is his one-point pursuit of success. Tobias Khair’s obituary   on Naipaul in the Hindu on Aug 13, 2018 where he cites W.H. Auden’s remark about W.B. Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry” aptly corroborates the predicament of dispossession that Naipaul exhibits in a brilliant fashion in his fiction and memoirs. Khair goes on to argue that “The madness of the world is also essential to Naipaul’s oeuvre. But while Yeats, the poet influenced by a Romantic sensibility, wore his hurt on literary sleeve, Naipaul kept it deeply hidden. That is why Yeats’s hurt translates into beautiful lyrical poetry with little humour in it, and Naipaul’s hurt translates into humourous, ironic or satirical fiction at its best”.
The Dilemma of Dispossession
            An underlying sense of dispossession seems to be at the heart of Naipaul’s controversial career, the readymade recluse being writing to cast a shadow on all consuming time. Being in the periphery for so long a time, assuming a commanding position in intellectual circles is not at all an easy go. But Naipaul does it superbly both in his fiction and non-fiction. Like Edward Said, who exploits politics of dispossession brilliantly, Naipaul is also fontal in his attack on Left ideology of economic equality. Assuming economic and political power cannot stop abuse of power as there is no certainty that after assuming power the poor will stop abusing it. One cannot safely conclude that the deprived lot will behave in the same manner after getting to a position of strength. Here is what Khair observes about Naipaul’s power equation: “Naipaul knew that our house is not perfect and that it is ludicrously incomplete, but he preferred living ironically in it to pulling it down.”
            Like Said, Naipaul has also undergone a nightmarish exilic consciousness of dispossession in his formative years. The former recalls his split consciousness in an interview to Imre Salusinszky:
My background is a series of displacements and expatriations which cannot be recuperated. The sense being between cultures has been very, very strong for me. I would say that’s the single strongest strand running through my life. The fact that I’m always in and out of things, and never really of anything for long (Said, Power, Politics and Culture 70; Singh 101)
Said speaks his troubled heart out in Out of Place and Politics of Dispossession; the failure in reclaiming his roots and past glory becomes his issue of concern in these works. The former exclusively deals with the subject matter of dispossession. It simply records Said’s lost ground on Palestinian front:
The underlying motifs for me have been the emergence of a second self buried for a long time beneath the surface of often expertly acquired and wielded social characteristics belonging to the self my parents tried to construct, the ‘Edward” I speak of intermittently, and how extraordinarily increasing number of departures unsettled my life from its earliest belongings. To me, nothing more painful and paradoxically sought after characterizes my life than many displacements from countries, cities, abodes languages, environments that have kept me in motion all these years. (Said 217; Singh 102) 
Homelessness being the most acute among the dispossessions, Said has been reduced to a rootless realm, increasingly distancing him of his strong cultural affiliations. The social space is squeezed, making it all the more difficult for an individual to identity establishment in a foreign land.
 Naipaul has also undergone the same kind of exilic consciousness in the many countries he has either lived or visited for purposes, subsistence and otherwise. Naipaul’s Indian lineage, West Indian origin and London settlement do not enjoy a hand and glove relationship among them. He is alienated from both the places at the expense of his troubled self from which he hardly recovered. Living in London, away from his origin and Brahminical roots, has never been easy for Naipaul all these years. Speaking about his exilic consciousness in London, he makes a forthright comment:
London is my metropolitan centre, it is my commercial centre; and yet I know that it is a kind of limbo and that I am a refugee in the sense that I am always peripheral. One’s concerns are not the concerns of the local people (Joshi 10; Khan 113).
Naipaul keeps him abreast of the world through his literary world- fiction and non-fiction and travelogues- no wonder that every conceivable literary award under this sun has followed his creative pursuit. The artist, more than the writer, is central to his writing. His imploring attempt to understand definitive position in the world as a writer; writing is the means of survival for Naipaul, is key to his troubled world of dispossession.  The connection he draws upon from three different roots helps him resituate his artistic world but his personal loss of homelessness and a perforated anchorage contributes to shaping up his writing sensibility. Dispossession, migration, exile, banal belonging, unsafe anchorage, and a disruptive and disillusioned vision in a vibrant postcolonial world of globalization- become his vintage point of relishing creativity.
Salman Rushdie also writes about this fluid situation in his epoch making book Imaginary Homelands. He writes:
In my own case, I have constantly been asked whether I am British or Indian. The formulation ‘Indian-born British writer’ has been invented to explain me. But as I said last night, my new book deals with Pakistan. So what now? ‘British-resident Indo-Pakistan writer’?

You see the folly of trying to contain writers inside passports. (67) As for myself, I don’t. Is it always necessary to take up the anticolonial—or is it post-colonial?—cudgels against English. What seems to me to be happening is that those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it—assisted by the English language’s enormous flexibility and size, they are carving out large territories for themselves within its frontiers. (64)
For Rushdie it is impossible to return to home because it is “a lost home in a lost city in the midst of lost time”(9). He makes his position clear a little later when he says :

It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties–that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind. (10)

Ramanujan’s view goes one step further when he uses English language to good effect to get mastery over the native culture staying abroad. He has done great service to his native culture by staying in America. He admits it in a nonchalant way:

I don’t even call myself an expatriate, because I’ve done a lot of work on India since coming to this country. I’ve done more comfortably here than I could even have done it in India. For instance, in the Chicago Regenstein Library, there are books in Kannada and Tamil which probably only I will read. It’s great library that is more or less only for a couple of people like me. When I went to Delhi—I was working on some classical Tamil poems—I had to go for miles to find a classical Tamil book.

Another interesting thing is that one can be an internal alien in India, as one goes from the one province to another. I have not lived in my own language region since my 20th year. If you go a hundred miles away, you are in a language that you cannot read or speak (Daniels– Ramanujan and Harrison 52-53).

Any writer who has opted out of India has done so with pleasure and profit without forgetting his or her own roots. That is the best thing about it. But dispossession and rootlessness become a dominant discourse of operation through which a Naipaul protagonist perceives and projects his fictional world view. Every writer we have considered here is great in his own right. But the in-between-zone, where he can neither belong nor withdraw from his rearguard roots, amounts to an intense agony of apathy, from which there seems to be hardly any respite. The more intense the suffering, the more varied is the trajectory of creative oeuvre. Naipaul does discover this dilemma very well in his numerous writings. For him, like Rushdie, home serves as a metaphor for incomplete assignments and agendas derived from memory counting upon an indelible past. The discontinuity between past and present becomes acute; subtle complexities of self, society and cultural void characterize Naipaul’s fictional world. The writer travels extensively to cope with the loss of identity from which he along with fellow travelers suffers. A visit to India spurs him intellectually and creatively to reclaim his lost roots if not in actual terms, at least in fiction. His apt observation proves our point:

I had learned my separateness from India and content to be a colonial without a past, without ancestors … India is not my home and cannot be my home, yet I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it: I cannot travel only for the sights. I am at once too close and too far (Naipaul 85).

Such a long-standing dilemma becomes representative of all diasporic writers who consider ‘home’ as myth of utopia; an ideal that looks all right from a distance but a closer experience reminds one of distrust and disappointment. Geographical proximity can never fulfill the psychological void. India remains a perforated locale in time and space for Naipaul. A detached attachment is what explains Naipaul’s ambivalent response to India. In a sense, he becomes cosmopolitan without allegiance to either a fixed root or ‘home’. A man with no home has a number of homes away from home. The psychology of dispossession and many lives he experiences through his travels and writings help him to depict human predicament in a poignant way. This is what Federer observes about his vibrant creative world; Naipaul moulds “autobiographical material into poignant fiction and his neuroses onto his narrators and characters” (1).

Cosmic dispossession of Half a Life

Dispossession and homelessness is a leit-motif that one encounters frequently in the writings of Naipaul. The internationally acclaimed and autobiographically enriched novel Half a Life (2001) is just a vindication of it. His poignant past, vibrant present and unclaimed future- are projected into this eponymous write up. The problem of belonging, multicultural plight, and multilingual inadequacy find expression with a profound sense of loss in respect of “being and belonging” (Khan 117). The novel unravels multiple layers of accountability as a scintillating travel account, an engrossing autobiographical unmasking, as a recurrent cultural matrix, as a subtle and complex text and above all as a persistent and invigorating search for identity. The world of half-completed culture and society is destined to remain unchanged for ever. Identity crisis is at the centre of the novel, a recurrent theme in all Naipaul write ups; small town people failing to cope with the demands of a larger cosmopolitan culture - draws readers’ attention.
A tale of dispossession and dilemma of three generations relating to an immigrant Brahmin family is portrayed with vigour and poignancy in the novel. Estrangement and psychological vagueness are being projected as underlying motifs, the novel projects fictional requirement onto autobiographical tenacity. Three different locales, rather three different continents –India, England (Europe), and Africa—are chosen as the locales of the novel. The politically correct court of the Maharaja belonging to a princely state and unfazed by the colonial agitation is the locale of the first part, “A Visit from Somerset Maugham”. The suave second section, “the First Chapter” takes place in the aftermath of world war in London. The final section, “A Second Translation” is presented in a province of Portuguese Africa, reminiscent of modern-day Mozambique, on the sidelines of the shadow of colonialism, before finally making the region free.  The ordeals of childhood of the protagonist Willie Somerset Chandaran passes in India before leaving for London at a brisk pace and then goes to Africa in quest of discovering himself. With him, the narrative also moves squarely. The first part deals with the father’s lasting impression on the protagonist; the writers dilemma and inquisitiveness to cope with demands of a writer in making forms the crux of the second section. And the third part in Portuguese Africa depicts the colonial plight.

Naipaul dives deep into unraveling the life of dispossession, question of identity, delinking with the original ancestry, distortion of history and constant attempts to restore it, which is, more often than not, an exercise in futility, the ‘hurt’ sentiment arising out of being a nowhere-man. The Trisanku myth vindicates the plight of Wille Chandaran on account of being an Indian by origin (Khan 118). Again, the London of his dreams and reality concerning the disgusted life of the hero is few and far between. The neither here nor there zone (plight of Trisanku) that Chandaran experienced in India owing to dalit origin of his mother and his father’s “misplaced idealism”, continues haunt him in London as well; he is caught between appearance and reality. The novel, like The Mimic Men and an Enigma of Arrival, depicts in detail, life of a man dispossessed from his origin and ancestry, his Sisyphean futility in making meaning out of a frustrated life; the change the protagonist encounters in life does not contribute, in any way, to any positive move in reality.
His father’s existential crisis has made a profound impact on the psyche of the protagonist. Poor financial background has made it difficult for his grandfather to make his ends meet. He survived on ‘Prasad’ and consecrated food meant for God for days on end before his tryst with destiny begins with job of a letter writer, before finally getting a somewhat respected job of a clerk at Maharaja’s court. However, Willie’s father learnt English and was appointed as one of the secretaries of the Maharaja. His ambitions were dealt a fatal blow when his plan to complete B.A. degree and marry the daughter of the principal of the Maharaja College failed miserably which reminded him of his ancestry of  “… the foolish, foreign-ruled starveling priests” ( Half a Life 10). He then turns to an idealistic plane propagated by Gandhiji to make life worth the salt. It is “… not an empty sacrifice, the act of a moment – any fool can jump off a bridge or throw himself in front of a train – but a more lasting kind of sacrifice, something the Mahatma would have approved of” (10).

Thus, he marries a Dalit woman, unwilling though, out of this choice of circumstance, Willie and his sister Sarojine were born. Willie’s identity was subject to scrutiny out of the half position in the society; instead of respect for his father, he is all contempt for his father. He finds himself in a fix for being half Brahmin and half Dalit, deprived of Brahminical identity and not accepting Dalit ideology completely, in confirmation with his neither – nor zone status in society. Any attempt to cover up the ghost of past only results in further agonizing complications, a sort of an impasse from which he can hardly come out.

Inferiority complex – resulting out of his Dalit mother and not financially well-off father -consumes him from within. A scholarship from London comes as a godsend. But dilemma of a wanderer with no set destination,  “… with no idea of what he wanted to do, except to get away from what he knew” (51) follows him everywhere. He becomes a victim of disillusionment in London too. The London of his mind and the London that he actually encounters disappoints him:

The only two places he knew in the city were Buckingham Palace and Speaker’s Corner. He was disappointed by Buckingham Palace. He thought the Maharaja’s palace in his own state was far grander, more like a palace, and this made him feel, in a small part of his heart, that kings and queens of England were imposters, and the country a bit of sham (52).

His disillusionment has no sign of receding spree whatsoever: “He was unanchored, with no idea of the scale of things, no idea of historical time or even of distance” (58). Even his college lessons are contributing to addition of his agony:

The learning he was given was like the food he was eating, without savour. The two were inseparable in his mind. And just as he ate without pleasure, so, with a kind of blindness, he did what the lectures and tutors asked him, read the books and articles and did the essays (58)

Willie becomes the spokesperson for Naipaul to expose maladies of London life. He resorts to hypocritical standards relating to himself and his agonizing past for which he feels ashamed. He becomes a pseudo gentle man to raise his standards in London metropolis:
He could within reason, re-make himself and his past and his ancestry…he spoke of his mother as belonging to an ancient Christian community of the subcontinent, a community almost as old as Christianity itself. He kept his father as a Brahmin. He made his father’s father a ‘courtier’. So playing with words, he began to remake himself. It excited him and began to give him a feeling of power (60-61).

In this new avatar, Willie befriends a Jamaican, Percy Cato and acquaints himself with the ‘fast’ London life. He falls to the lure of life of pleasure as a “sexual athlete” in his various encounters with English girls. However, all these sexual promiscuities probe deep into his mind proving to be an exercise in futility in the long run, more so when his friend Percy leaves for Panama.

His deep psychological void as a result of hectic and increasingly pervasive life in London reminds him about the past ghost of failure in India. Unknowingly he is being dragged towards life of failure and meaninglessness his father has once been subjected to. Willie’s access to imaginative writing with lucid style becomes his temporary recluse now, helps him to be correspondence in BBC and a budding short story writer. In the process he writes a book ‘Sacrifice’ with no real recognition. Just when he is contemplating on relinquishing his writing career, it is Anna from Africa who comes to his rescue with fulsome praise and appreciation for his creativity as she found resemblances relating to her own life.
In the company of Ana, Willie rediscovers a spurious sense of completeness which has been eluding since beginning. He resolves to leave for an unknown destination in Africa in the company of Ana. But before leaving, he receives a letter from his sister Sarojini accusing him of being a namesake of his father, reminding him of his typical past. Her assertion that, “you are like your father, holding onto old ideas till the end” (131) gives a derogatory account of Willie’s character. The myth of his unsuccessful origin haunts him again in the wake of the frustrated London life. This also prompts Willie’s resolve to accompany Ana to Africa.
His African safari is also not a successful one. The thought of not being adaptable to the place makes him return from Africa as soon as possible. Ironically, he stays there for eighteen years as Ana’s life partner, although under strange circumstances. His sexual encounters trap him as a disillusioned individual. Recounting his utter failure and frustration in a poignant moment Willie admits thus: “I am forty-one, in the middle life … I have been hiding from myself. I have risked nothing. And now the best part of my life is over” (136). Underlying pessimism is the order of the day for rookie Chandaran and Naipaul himself. Half a Life leaves a lasting impression on the readers’ mind as incomplete account of an aspiring individual. Even its writer is in a guessing mode about the uncertain future of the human life.
Naipaul refutes the linear time by ending the novel abruptly in the middle. The protagonist in his mid-forties is in disarray unable to decide his future course of action. Roger, the journalist becomes the mouthpiece for Naipaul as to what would be the right form of writing as well as life. By way of opening up Roger gives this essential knowledge about life and art to Willie:
I know your great namesake and family friend says that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But actually, if you think about it, life isn’t like that. Life doesn’t have a neat beginning and a tidy end. Life is always going on. You should begin in the middle and end in the middle and it should all be there (83)   


Such an enigma of life and cultural dispossession is what stands out for Naipaul as a great and representative writer of colonial plight. The rootlessness of dispossessed contemporary diasporic life has been displayed superbly in the novel. What has been clear over a long writing career, however, is that Naipaul’s greatness lies in his dissent in accepting the established standards. He has learned the art of dissent, disagreeing with society to achieve a remarkable turnaround of sorts, achieving success and winning every coveted literary award in the world as no other writer has achieved. His greatness lies in the simple fact that Naipaul has presented a worldview which best suits and merges with the agenda of a postcolonial project. Whether alive, or (now) dead, he will be always remembered for creating a new world order by finding flaws with his illustrated peers, and breaking boundaries set by an old-world order.

Works Cited
Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identies, London: Routledge.1997. Print.
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Joshi, Chandra B. V.S. Naipaul: The Voice of Exile, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1994. Print.
Naipaul, V.S. Half a Life, London:Picadoor, 202. Print.
-----------        An Area of Darkness. New Delhi: Penguin books, 1987. Print.
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Ramanujan, A.K., Interview with A.L. Becker and Keith Taylor, “The Poet
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Rushdie Salman: Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, London: Granta, 1991. Print.
Said, Edward. W and Gauri Viwanathan, Power, Politics and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said. New York: Pantheon Books, 2001. Print.
Said, Edward W. Out of Place: A Memoir, New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.
----------------   Reflections on Exile and Other Essays, London: Granta, 2012. Print.
---------------- The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestine Self- Determination,1969-1994. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994. Print.
----------------  The Question Of Palestine: New York: Vintage Books, 1992. Print.
Singh, Bipin Pal. “Edward Said’s Discourse of Dispossession”, Journal Of Contemporary Thought, 39 (Winter 2013). pp-99-107. Print

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