Leaving the Naipaul Myth Alone: On Sanjay Krishnan’s V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys

Postcard, 1903, with a picture of the Langham Hotel, London, where, in 1955, Naipaul wrote the first story of Miguel Street in the BBC freelancers’ room. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Leaving the Naipaul Myth Alone: On Sanjay Krishnan’s V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys

Vineet Gill

V.S. Naipaul was fond of repeating himself. We have heard him speak in his characteristic way, in recordings or at live events: the long pauses and the multiple stabs for emphasis at the same word or phrase. ‘Yes, yes, yes . . . yes.’ ‘Splendid, splendid,’ he says at the end of a poetry recitation at a university in Uganda, as recorded in Paul Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow. And then, a little later, he reveals his true feelings about the poems directly to Theroux: ‘Dreadful, dreadful.’

More than just a mannerism of speech, Naipaul’s penchant for repetition informed much of his writing. His books are concerned with the same set of lifelong preoccupations: unlikely journeys, unachievable ambitions, personal and collective failures, half-formed and broken societies. The people, situations, and settings of old books are revisited in new ones, old memories are relived. Such recurrences shaped everything he wrote. And connected to these, indeed at their very centre, is his persistent inquiry, of necessity autobiographical, into how a writer is formed.

No other writer has dramatised the writing process, its struggles and epiphanies, with more fertile self-reflexivity than Naipaul: the subject of his writing is often writing itself. The freelancers’ room in a BBC building in London, the ‘non-rustle’ script paper, the hopeless dreamer doubled up over the typewriter in a ‘monkey crouch’, the many false starts on the page and the writer’s true voice presenting itself as ‘my first publishable sentence’, like a divine revelation—such details have also become part of the Naipaul mythology. And the drama of this creative coming-of-age is repeated multiple times, retaining its freshness in every iteration, in books spread out over several decades: Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival, A Writer’s People, to name three.

Naipaul understood that the difficulties and failures inherent to writing are not meant to be overcome; they are to be accepted, as one accepts a chronic health condition. But Naipaul was all too aware that the fate that awaited most writers was that of unmitigated failure, unaccompanied even by minor achievements, and it was this kind of absolute failure that captured his imagination. He portrayed the failed writer as a romantic hero with comic overtones. This figure appears often in Naipaul’s books. Consider, for instance, the protagonist of A House for Mr Biswas (based on the author’s father, Seeparsad Naipaul), who, shortly before his death, writes, in a letter to his son: ‘I am beginning to feel that I could have been a writer.’

Another literary failure appears in the late novel Half a Life: Willie Chandran, who looks at a couple of negative notices of his first, and last, book of stories and says to himself, ‘I will write no more.’ Then there is the almost-failure of Naipaul himself, who tells us that he survived as a writer only because of random good luck and supportive publishers: ‘Without them I would have languished; perhaps never got started.’ While his father died with the regret that he could have been a writer, V.S. Naipaul was always haunted by the feeling that he could have been a failure.

In his days of innocence in Port of Spain and 1950s England, Naipaul wanted to be a particular kind of English metropolitan writer—someone like, say, Somerset Maugham—a self-assured inheritor of the whole of the Western literary tradition. It took him a lot of time and labour to figure out that he would never be able to realise that dream, tied as he was to his own unique experiences and limitations. So his future success was determined by his early acceptance of this definitive failure, which enabled him to uncover basic truths about himself. It enabled him, most of all, to end the double deceit he had created for himself in his apprentice years, defined in The Enigma of Arrival thus:‘I was hiding my experience from myself; hiding myself from my experience.’

Learning to write was a project of self-rediscovery for Naipaul. In fact, learning and writing were indistinguishable from each other. ‘To write was to learn,’ he says in ‘A Prologue to an Autobiography’. One thing he had to learn was that his ‘material’ (as he referred to it) was inside him, and that he had to honestly engage with his memories and experiences to get to it. Yet mere engagement wasn’t enough for Naipaul. He set himself the daunting and radically original task of re-evaluating that material in book after book, by holding up to scrutiny not just his past but also the complicated history it had emerged from. The past was not a foreign country for Naipaul; it was a whole world, a multitude of interconnected worlds, and it became his task as a writer to inhabit these worlds, to try and make sense of them and, most importantly, to keep returning to them. ‘I defined myself,’ Naipaul says in Enigma, ‘and saw that my subject was not my sensibility, my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the worlds I lived in.’ (This word, ‘world’, was important to Naipaul. It appears often in his books, sometimes in their titles. ‘The world is what it is . . .’ begins the opening sentence of A Bend in the River.)

In Sanjay Krishnan’s excellent study of Naipaul’s work, V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys, we follow two parallel but counter-directional trajectories: that of the writer’s life—‘from periphery to centre’, as the book’s subtitle has it—and that of the work—which took the writer back from the imperial centre of the world to the peripheral societies that he was perpetually drawn to. ‘To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave,’ Naipaul wrote in Finding the Centre. ‘Actually to write it was necessary to go back.’

Krishnan’s book gives us a sense of what that going-back actually entailed and how it shaped the writer’s imagination. ‘Naipaul was one of the first postcolonial writers to think about global parallels between different groups of unprotected and exploited peoples,’ Krishnan writes. The term ‘global’ has a very different ring in this context, and in a sense it undermines the simplifying and homogenising tendency of globalisation, which aims to reconfigure the world as one big marketplace teeming with insatiable citizen-consumers who all look alike and have the same desires. The underclass we encounter in Naipaul’s books—the Indian indentured labourers in the Caribbean (Naipaul’s ancestors), the migrant workers in England, the rebellious tribals in Mozambique—comprises a diverse set unified by one overarching predicament: they are all victims of the global forces that threaten to uproot or even eradicate them. It’s them against the world.

The writer has to deal in particularities. Not for him the sociologist’s privileges of looking at the big picture and making useful generalisations. Regardless of the scope of his project, Naipaul’s focus was always on the individual, to the extent that in some of his late non-fiction the author himself seems to retreat to the background, allowing his characters to take over the narrative through reams of long quotations. These individual stories were of such great interest to Naipaul that he often returned to them years later. For instance, he first met, and wrote about, a man named Imaduddin in Indonesia in 1979, for his book Among the Believers; and then, in the 1990s, while working on its sequel, Beyond Belief, he sought out Imaduddin once again, to see in what ways he had, or hadn’t, changed. ‘Such an investment in individuals and how they have developed,’ Krishnan writes, ‘constitutes an important part of Naipaul’s effort to make visible how his own evolving understanding of his formation can be brought into conversation with the way others reflect on their pasts.’ He undertook a similar journey to a different country in the 1980s, with the objective of once again meeting a man who went by the nickname Bogart. Naipaul had known Bogart in his childhood and had written about him in the 1950s, sitting in that freelancers’ room in London. His ‘first publishable sentence’ was part of a story entitled ‘Bogart’.

Kierkegaard called repetition the only source of beauty in life and art. And Naipaul’s writing, with its musical tendency to revive old themes, may be the closest corroboration we have in literature of that aesthetic idea. But this is not to say that Naipaul didn’t value or care about newness. He was obsessed with questions of form, and the greater part of his struggle as a writer had to do with finding the right form for a work-in-progress. The critic James Wood once interviewed him for a piece, and this was Naipaul’s condescending yet valuable advice to him: ‘If you want to write serious books, you must be ready to break the forms, break the forms.’ Naipaul’s anxieties about form, and his deep understanding of it, took him away from the novel in the late 1960s, at a time when the novel was establishing its dominance over the literary cultures of the West. When gifted essayists like Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were getting increasingly disaffected with non-fiction and dreaming of producing the Great American Novel, Naipaul was beginning to lose faith in the artifice and one-dimensionality of fiction, and inventing his own brand of ‘high journalism’ (this was before the term ‘New Journalism’ became a buzzword in America).

In any case, the realist European novel was of little use to Naipaul. He believed that he didn’t possess the ‘larger self-knowledge’ that was expected of the novelist. What he ended up doing, then, was to break the form, by pushing the limits of the conventional novel, and allowing it to become an engagement with other kinds of writing: memoir, history, journalism. Another important mode of departure from the novel for him was travel writing, which he regarded as an end in itself as well as a means to revitalise his fictional imagination. In his search ‘for a new kind of book . . . a new way of travelling’, Naipaul took up the task of educating himself better about the places and lives he felt a connection with. Which was why he felt the need to write sequels to his books about the Islamic world, and why he ended up writing not one but three books about India. Repetition again.

Krishnan calls India: A Million Mutinies Now—the last of the India triptych—Naipaul’s ‘biggest and most ambitious work of travel writing’. The polemical fierceness of his first India book, An Area of Darkness, gives way here to a more sympathetic tone. This is the sympathy, the negative capability, of the novelist—an openness to views and opinions contrary to one’s own. ‘Naipaul is interested in the complex selves he encounters,’ Krishnan writes, ‘treating them with the eye of a novelist who is interested in telling stories that are irreducibly “heteroglossic,” where the individual is not simply made to stand in for one ideological standpoint.’

This was a far cry from his first travel book, The Middle Passage (1962), which earned him the notoriety that dogged him throughout his life. His hard-edged portrayals of Trinidadian Blacks in that book were noted and criticised for their casual racism. Krishnan quotes one of the offending passages at length, about ‘a very tall and ill-made Negro’ spitting from a train window. ‘His face was grotesque,’ Naipaul writes. ‘It seemed to have been smashed in from one cheek.’ And when his eyes meet the author’s, there’s no human contact between the two men—only trepidation on one side and what Naipaul perceives to be ‘malevolence’ on the other. ‘This man, whose appearance suggests that he may well have been a victim of violence, is transformed into a placeholder for the mob,’ Krishnan writes.

If the passage quoted above fails to move us or even make us laugh—which might have been the intention of the author—it is not only because its disgust fails to excite us in any way, but also because it fails to meet the standards of subtlety and attentiveness Naipaul has achieved elsewhere in what’s loosely termed ‘description’. Krishnan blames Naipaul’s ‘racialised’ upbringing in the Caribbean for this and other blind spots. Naipaul grew up in an Indian ghetto in Trinidad, in a tradition of jokes and stereotypes and ‘mutually belittling talk’, in Krishnan’s words, and he brought those influences into his writing, for better or worse. Krishnan writes:

[What] is uniquely compelling about Naipaul’s work is its refusal to falsify the historicity by which it is produced. Naipaul does not uncritically accept the cultural prejudices or reflexive assumptions of his past, but seeks, by making that past visible through aesthetic staging, to present it as an objective condition that needs to be worked through.

Naipaul’s realism was about making the writer’s present, and the writer’s past, fully visible to the reader, through a kind of plain speaking and unflinching attention to detail that might be disconcerting for some. Krishnan quotes a passage from An Area of Darkness, about sweepers in a Delhi café, which at once defamiliarises a mundane reality—‘they will squat and move like crabs between the feet of the customers’—and offers a powerful bit of social commentary on the Indian class system. It gives us a sickening insight into the choreographed, performative nature of social oppression: ‘They are not required to clean,’ Naipaul writes.‘That is a subsidiary part of their function, which is to be sweepers, degraded beings, to go through the motions of degradation.’

An Area of Darkness was attacked by many, especially in India, as a superficial, temperamental, and dismissive take by a traveller who was looking at the country through a Westerner’s eye. In his review of the book, the poet Nissim Ezekiel took issue with Naipaul’s ‘aloof, sullen, aggressive manner’ of exploring his subject. Ezekiel wrote that Naipaul was seeing the India he wanted to see—a place characterised by its surplus of filth and poverty, a doomed postcolonial society riven by corruption and anomie. Ezekiel was right to an extent: the author’s ‘self-chosen situations of extreme anguish’ provided him with the meat of the narrative. But this was far from the anti-India book it came to be regarded as. Krishnan draws our attention to the ‘style of critical thinking’ that Area encapsulates and the tone it employs. He says that the book is ‘focused less on expressions of solidarity and sympathy . . . than on establishing a standpoint from which to articulate resistance to an unsatisfactory state of affairs’.

One is tempted to read V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys as an apologia of sorts, even though Krishnan makes it clear right at the outset that he does not intend to mount a defence for the great but misunderstood writer. He distances himself from the discourse of defence/attack in the context of literature, because such a discourse can’t look beyond reputations, to be demolished or restored. There’s no room in it for any real critical engagement with the only legacy a writer can leave behind: a textual record, a body of work. Krishnan says that both Naipaul’s detractors and admirers have been influenced, in one way or another, by the ‘Naipaul myth’: shaped as much by the writer’s own provocative public statements as by the various misreadings of his books. And as Naipaul himself reminds us in his essay on Conrad, writers’ myths invariably end up superseding and undermining the work.

Krishnan aims to go beyond that myth through ‘contextualised close readings’ of Naipaul’s books. He divides the oeuvre into three main segments: ‘Early Writings’, ‘The Middle Period’ and ‘Late Works’. Each chapter of V.S. Naipaul’s Journeys is devoted to two or three books, and each work is read not in isolation but in the light of what preceded and followed it. One of Krishan’s critical objectives is to understand how Naipaul changed as a writer from one book to the next. Krishan’s comparative analysis is fascinating, painting for us a portrait of a very different Naipaul, someone who was always reviewing his stand and trying to correct it. For example, Krishnan says that ‘An Area of Darkness is a more internally divided work than A Middle Passage’. He notes the ‘shift in tone and sensibility’ looking at a relatively uptight essay from 1974 and comparing it to the ‘disarmingly intimate’ Finding the Centre, published in 1984. He contrasts the flawed comedy of A Middle Passage with the ‘feeling of quiet solidarity’ with marginal lives expressed in The Enigma of Arrival.

For all the careful attention given to the work, there aren’t many clues in Krishnan’s book about Naipaul’s literary education. And Naipaul is more to blame here than Krishnan. We are once again face to face with the Naipaul myth. Was he really the ex nihilo genius that he wanted us to think of him as, someone who had transcended the question of influence? Or was he simply good at covering his tracks as a reader and critic? Naipaul regularly wrote critical essays and reviews. He was well acquainted with the works of writers as varied as R.K. Narayan, U.R. Ananathamurthy, Anthony Powell, Conrad, Proust and Montaigne. He read constantly and carefully, with the perceptiveness of a writer on the lookout for inspiration. He has been compared to Dickens and Orwell, both very different writers, and both publicly ridiculed by Naipaul. (‘Dickens died from self-parody,’ he once said.) So where was he learning from? We know that the ancients were dear to him: Martial, Marcus Aurelius (Mr Biswas’s favourite writer). Krishnan tells us that Naipaul translated a sixteenth-century Spanish novel, Lazarillo De Tormes, into English when he was a student at Oxford, and that Miguel Street was modelled on this episodic narrative. The detail offers a rare insight into the working of a complex literary imagination that was also multilingual, a term we don’t usually associate with Naipaul for some reason.

Throughout his survey of Naipaul’s work, Krishnan manages to keep the details of his subject’s life at arm’s length, except when these details have a direct bearing on the writing. He refers the biographically inclined reader to Patrick French’s The World Is What It Is, a warts-and-all portrait that added a new dash of scandal to the Naipaul myth. But it’s wrong to regard French’s biography merely as evidence for the prosecution. French was well aware of Naipaul’s worth as a writer, as Krishnan reminds us here, and wanted the work to be assessed ‘on its own terms’.

The kind of level-headed, disinterested reading that Patrick French was appealing for, and Krishnan demonstrates in his book, has become rare these days. In December 2022, the New York Review of Books published an essay on ABend in the River. It is by Howard W. French, a professor at Columbia University, and it levels the old charge of racism against Naipaul. At one point, Howard French says that the novel’s protagonist, Salim, was only a medium used by Naipaul to ventriloquise his own prejudices and resentments against Africans. Krishnan wrote a letter to the NYRB in response to the essay, pointing out ‘French’s inattention to the novel’s use of irony’ and ‘the crucial fact that Salim is an unreliable narrator whose moral and practical failings are cruelly exposed in the concluding chapters’. Howard French countered Krishnan with a dismissive letter, offering this absurd justification for his stand against the novel: ‘. . . I have read the novel many times over . . . I have read everything in Naipaul’s oeuvre that touches upon Africa.’

The obduracy and outrage that Howard French expresses, both in his essay and in his letter to Krishnan, have become common cultural currency in our time, from media to academe. The postcolonial and feminist endeavours to expand the Western canon are being replaced, alas, by the project of sanitising it. And so, the critical consensus about Naipaul’s contribution to literature can be legitimately challenged not on literary but on moral grounds. Indeed, literature itself is of little relevance here, since we have once again lapsed into the kind of discourse where there’s no room for books, but always enough for writers, to be defended or attacked, celebrated or ‘cancelled’.

In the second paragraph of his introduction to the book, Krishnan tells us that Naipaul is the only ‘Nobel laureate of non-European origin whose work is excluded from the most recent edition of the widely used Norton Anthology of World Literature’. It’s possible that, in the next few years, Naipaul will be further marginalised on the literary landscape—once again coming full circle, pushed from the centre to the periphery of culture. He may turn into an oddball curiosity in the hall of fame of Nobel laureates, to be encountered only in museums or on Internet quizzes—a literary eminence without a readership. If such a scenario were to come to pass, what do we stand to lose? Krishnan’s book can be read as an attempt to answer that question. And the answer seems to be linked to all those ‘worlds’ that Naipaul contained within himself, and that he captured and recreated in his books—the worlds that are surely too valuable to be allowed to disappear if we wish to better understand the world we inhabit.

Vineet Gill is the copy lead at Penguin Random House India and the author of Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature.


By Way of Introduction: Thoughts on World Literature and Nirmal Verma

Shabd aur Smriti by Nirmal Verma. (Courtesy: Wkimedia Commons)

By Way of Introduction: Thoughts on World Literature and Nirmal Verma

Vineet Gill

It’s often said that great art is universal, above
and beyond the limits of any country or society. I
find this idea as unsatisfactory as the idea of
finding the eternal in art.

— Nirmal Verma

. . . literature is inimicable to all

— John Berger

World literature. It is a weighty little term that has evolved with the times, outgrowing old meanings and acquiring new, contentious ones. When the German writer Goethe coined it in the seventeenth century, he had a utopian ideal in mind, of literature as a universal enterprise that subverted national boundaries. ‘National literature is now a rather unmeaning term,’ Goethe said in 1827. ‘The epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.’ He had recently read a Chinese novel in translation—most likely the anonymously published Haoqiu zhuan—and it was this experience of engaging with, and identifying with, the foreign (‘the Chinese think, act, and feel almost exactly like us . . .’) that made Goethe think about literature in global terms.

Notice how odd that word ‘global’ sounds in this ancient, and literary, context. Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur is similarly out of place in contemporary parlance. Today, the term ‘world literature’ carries a political as well as a generic meaning—serving as a social representation category on the one hand (a literary vehicle for ethnic diversity), while, on the other hand, it has become a publishing genre, with books labelled as ‘world lit’ and a select set of writers marketed as its emissaries. There are well-known strategies and formulae for writing this kind of made-to-order world literature: keep the prose plain and readable, the imagery simple and translatable, the setting metropolitan and identifiable . . . It shouldn’t be hard to find authors who fit this mould: they are mostly novelists, and they are greatly invested in the ethos of globalisation.

It is an ethos that makes us think of the literary space as a marketplace with the author at its centre, in search of the reader- consumer. And this was where Goethe’s conception of world literature was fundamentally different: it was reader-centric. It had to do with literary transactions between cultures—carried out by the readers of the world, who were beginning to look at literature not merely as a mirror reflecting their own lives but also as a window into other realities. They were facilitated in this by the translators, of course, but then, the act of translating a text is only a more socially useful form of reading. (I am inspired here by George Steiner’s radical idea that every time we are interpreting language—by listening or reading—we are essentially moving it from the domain of text to the domain of meaning and are thereby ‘translating’ it.)

The reason this now-discredited model of world literature appeals to me is that it was predicated on the concept of cultural difference (in contrast to the facile humanism, the imposed uniformity, of globalisation). So when Goethe said that he could identify with the characters in that Chinese novel he had read, he wasn’t so much acting out the Socratic ‘I am the citizen of the world’ fantasy, as making an imaginative journey from nineteenth-century Germany to seventeenth-century China, and bridging the gulf between these two very dissimilar social and literary contexts through the act of immersive, empathetic reading.

The new world literature has no room for such journeys, as it has no room for differences. Or, rather, it advances a narrow, ethnological notion of difference, as the scholar Emily Apter points out in her polemic Against World Literature. In her book, Apter’s central argument is focused on what she interprets as ‘tendencies in World Literature toward reflexive endorsement of cultural equivalence and substitutability’. And what she aims to reaffirm is the value of the untranslatable in literature—the specificities of life and language that not only get lost in translation but are deemed worthless in our globalised age.

Apter traces the beginnings of World Literature—she tellingly capitalises the first letters—to the mid-’90s, when the West began to set serious store by simplistic ideas having to do with the free market, the flattening of the world and the end of history. So in many respects, world literature was a genre of its time, conducive to quick transactions across borders and concerned with themes on the planetary scale.

Whether world literature is of any value has been a matter of much debate among critics and scholars. A readable riposte to Apter’s denunciation of world literature is The Global Novel by the American critic Adam Kirsch. In his analysis of a handful of novels—by Orhan Pamuk, Haruki Murakami and Elena Ferrante, among others—Kirsch finds that the detractors of world literature (with the global novel being its principal form) have been blind to the fruitful energies of this mode of writing, in which, he tells us, ‘the local and the global exist in a relationship, not of opposition, but of dialectical tension’.

It is an interesting argument, and both sides—for and against world literature—have something to teach us about how literature engages, or ought to engage, with the world. Yet there is a lacuna to be filled on both sides of the divide, and it has to do with literary history. Both Apter and Kirsch seem, in their respective analyses, to begin with the premise that literature became a truly international force only recently, when the world suddenly opened up, sometime in the ’90s (Kirsch, too, chooses for his study, writers who came of age in that decade). The problem with this view is that it disregards the fact that most national and local literatures of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a Goethean internationalism built into them.

This world literature avant la lettre thrived on readerly connections made across cultures—connections that sometimes led to literary projects. One can cite any number of examples, from Pushkin’s admiration for Byron (which resulted in Eugene Onegin), to Baudelaire’s sustained engagement with Edgar Allan Poe, to Goethe’s own enthusiasm for the poetry of Hafiz (which he translated), and so on. It is a pity that we have relegated the memories of those eclectically cosmopolitan and unclassifiable traditions to research papers and library shelves. We are too busy arguing over the question ‘What is world literature?’ when we should be asking an altogether different question: ‘What has happened to world literature?’

If we look at the various strains of vernacular literatures in India—and it is unfair to equate the term ‘vernacular’ with ‘provincial’ as most people today would tend to do—we find that we are routinely exposed to what the writer Amit Chaudhuri has called their ‘many-sided cosmopolitanism’. This is particularly true of Hindi literature, which lacks a classical tradition—a fact that forced many of its conservative exponents in the nineteenth century to retreat to Sanskrit in search of some sort of canonical validation.

It is an essentially modern literature, not least because the language itself, in its written form, is not more than 200 years old. And multiculturalism has been inherent to this tradition ever since its beginning. Bharatendu Harishchandra, one of the pioneers of Hindi writing, translated, among other texts, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice into Hindi.

Premchand brought all sorts of influences—from Tagore to Ruskin—into his writing. The Chhayavaad poets were indebted, in both direct and subliminal ways, to the British Romantics. This is to say that the ethos of give-and-take—crucial to all paradigms of modern thought—is the sine qua non of the Hindi tradition. Yet most would hesitate to call it world literature.


It was in the English language that I was initiated into the literary life—through my school and college, and later through my half-hearted peregrinations into reading and writing. I went at the English language with the objective of mastering it—with a purist’s regard for grammar and syntax. And for some reason or the other, I came to the conclusion that in order to do so, I needed nothing short of a mental rewiring. I was convinced that knowing the language wasn’t enough; I had to somehow absorb it; I had to start thinking in English, inasmuch as it is possible to think in languages.

Thus began my marriage with English, in my early twenties. That was when I resolved to subject myself to a language detox, with a view to purging my mind of the influence of my mother tongue. I stopped speaking in Hindi, resorting to it only when it was absolutely necessary (and also when I was with my parents). When friends said something to me in Hindi, I would respond in English, and often have whole conversations in this bilingual mode, like some babu in colonial India. (For the record, my wife and I still talk to each other in this way, across languages—she in Hindi and I in English.)

One mind, one language. Such was the dictatorial model of monolingualism that I aspired to. Because I wanted to be a writer, and in that time, in that particular culture where I was growing up, the language of writing was, for a variety of historical and bureaucratic reasons, English.

Naturally, then, I felt—and still feel—like an outsider in Hindi. I say this not without a sense of irony, since I was born into Hindi and formed the first verbal connections with the world through this language. Indeed, there are certain linguistic theories of innatism that give me, as it were, ownership of Hindi, telling me that I carry this language inside me, somewhere in the genetic mix.

And yet, my distance from Hindi had been well established when I, hesitantly, began my journey of rediscovering it—but this time with full awareness of being an outsider in this language. And as it turned out, it was with a work of literature that this journey began. The book, picked up at a roadside stall in Delhi, was Nirmal Verma’s Shabd Aur Smriti, a collection of essays on literature—rather, on world literature, in that now-forgotten sense of the term. As I slowly made my way through it, astonished by how quickly I had fallen under the spell of Verma’s dreamy, lucid, long-sentenced prose, I realised that I was at a point that marked a momentous turn in my reading life. Such moments are experienced by most serious readers. John Keats compared it to the excitement of ‘some watcher of the skies / when a new planet swims into his ken’. It’s the moment of discovering something new—a form, a writer, a tradition—that we know we are going to spend the rest of our life with. During that encounter with Verma, I was, of course, discovering Hindi, as though for the first time ever. But there was another discovery being made, and it had to do with a particular kind of literary imagination that was at home in the world.


Shabd Aur Smriti is the slimmest of Verma’s books, but its size is no indication of the impact it had on its readers at the time of its publication, to say nothing of the impact it has had on me. My experience of reading it was rather strange—and strangeness, as the critic Harold Bloom tells us, is the hallmark of the work of literary genius. I was fascinated, impressed, confused and disoriented, all at the same time. For starters, Verma was addressing the ‘Big Questions’ of life and literature. ‘The Crisis of Communication’, ‘The Decline of Prose’, ‘Creative Process and Value Judgement’—the chapter titles would have been enough to put off the casual reader, especially one trained in the stoutly empirical, somewhat anti-intellectual Anglo-American literary tradition. I had been taught to scoff at such grandstanding. Yet, here was a writer who seemed to be saying, against the spirit of the age, that ideas matter.

Verma’s unembarrassed commitment to the life of the mind was as much a gift he’d received through his immersion in European culture—the book’s epigraph is by the French philosopher Simone Weil—as it was a part of his legacy as a Hindi writer, as I was to later understand. But it took me no time to understand that Verma was opening two separate routes for me—one towards Hindi and another towards a Europe whose memories have long vanished, supplanted by the progressive dreams of a globalised, commercialised, Americanised Europe.

Verma’s own discovery of Europe—in the eventful ’60s— had been a turning point in his writing career. It freed him from the intellectual monopoly of the anglophone West (there are political overtones here as well; Verma was a colonial child, born in the British summer capital, Shimla). And Europe brought him into contact with a variety of literary traditions that were contiguous yet dissimilar, provincial yet international at the same time. Europe and India were similar in this respect. But to only notice similarities, as Nabokov reminded us, is the sign of an inferior mind. So Verma was equally, if not more so, interested in grasping the differences between India and Europe, differences that he would explore and expound time and again over the course of his career.

I believe that Europe’s appeal for Verma had much to do with the undefinability of European culture. ‘Europe’ is a meaningless term inasmuch as it aims to define a set of shared affinities and lineages. It isn’t so much a tradition as a concept, an idea. And it is in this context that Borges’s identification with the ‘whole of Europe’ begins to make sense to us; as does John Berger’s aspiration to one day ‘become a European writer’. These writers were not talking about Europe as an inheritance; for them, Europe was equally an invention—it was a utopia that denoted openness, cultural convergence, modernity and individuality.

Traces of the Europe Verma invented can be found in all his books. But it was with Shabd Aur Smriti that I first encountered this imaginary continent, and suddenly a whole new world seemed accessible to me: the world of European thought. Strangely enough, connecting me to it was the Hindi language, making me feel like Verma’s early readers must have felt, when they read the Hindi translations of Czech fiction that he had been doing in the ’60s, or the countless indirect translations he did of passages by the likes of Walter Benjamin, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Proust and Pasternak. It wasn’t just a matter of discovering these writers through Verma—I had read, or read about, many of them before coming to him. Rather, I was learning to look at them in a new way, to connect them in a new way, despite the obvious incompatibilities. And I was learning how a writer could create a literary tradition through writing. The names mentioned above were as central to Verma’s imagination as those of his forebears and contemporaries writing in Hindi. They were all part of the same tradition—and it was this tradition that I always find myself conversing with when I am reading Verma.


The poet and critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra is fond of quoting a passage from an interview with Arun Kolatkar. It is nothing but a litany of names, offered in response to the rather unanswerable question writers are often asked: Who is your favourite? Who has influenced you?

‘You want me to give you a list?’ Kolatkar asked the interviewer, and proceeded to rattle off the names, one after the other:

Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kaf ka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Dnyaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Ramjoshi, Honaji, Mandelshtam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras, Joseph Heller … John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Jon Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Andre Vajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy.

These are not all the names Kolatkar cited in that interview, but they give us an idea of the range at which his imagination operated. The response must have baffled his interviewer. What could a writer learn from the songs of Muddy Waters and from Kurosawa’s films, such that they become influences to be cited at interviews? The answer is not easy, which is precisely the point Kolatkar was trying to drive home.

Unsurprisingly, Verma too was often asked this question by interviewers. He tried in his own way to dodge it or to come up with an interesting response that could shed light on the nature of literary influence rather than, as such namechecking is supposed to do, merely on authorial reputations. But what Verma never offered, at interviews or elsewhere, was a list of names, which I think is a pity.

I often wonder if Verma were to prepare his own Kolatkar- inspired list—his haphazard map of influences—how long it would run and which names would figure on it. Indeed, I often find myself preparing such a list on Verma’s behalf. On the blank pages at the back of his books, I keep scribbling the names—of writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians—that I have encountered in their pages. Borges, Balzac, Gandhi, Henry James, Hemingway, Baudelaire, Proust, Lévi-Strauss, Tarkovsky, Premchand, Nietzsche, Kabir, Camus, Renu, Brecht, Mozart, Van Gogh, Marx, T.S. Eliot, Anna Akhmatova, Karl Kraus, Bergman, Matisse, Wittgenstein, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann, Malayaj . . . This, of course, covers only a few strands of Verma’s intellectual DNA, but we can note and appreciate its world-spanning spirit.

In one of his lectures, Borges said that all that he had read in his life was much more important to him than all that he had written. It was the reader in him that set his imagination in the writerly mould. It’s difficult to find many writers saying this in our time, when writing has become this elevated, sought-after pursuit—every prime minister wants to moonlight as a poet—whereas reading is widely regarded as a waste of time, and particularly by writers. Borges surely would have stood out as an anomaly if he were alive today. So would Verma, who, in my view, was a reader before he was a writer. (I extend the verb reading to the worlds of visual art, music and cinema, as Barthes had done with the word ‘text’; so we can ‘read’ a film or a painting as much as a novel.)


This is a book about reading, written from the standpoint of a reader. It is also mostly focused on the life of a reader. I say ‘mostly’ because the focus shifts every once in a while—to others whom Verma had been reading; to those who have read Verma more discerningly than I ever can; and, sometimes to my own life as an amateur reader. I am not writing from any position of authority, and it is certainly not my intention to create the illusion of objectivity for the reader.

I have little interest in the facts of Verma’s life. I don’t know what colour his eyes were or what distinguishing mark he specified in his passport form. I have tried to keep my gaze away, as much as possible, from his personal life—his two marriages and all their attendant complexities, his relationship with his daughter, and his seven brothers and sisters—I don’t wish to subject any of this to a voyeuristic enquiry, the staple of conventional biographies. Nor am I willing to establish simplistic links between the raw matter of his life and the finished, self-contained world of his work. I don’t know to what extent I have succeeded in doing that. I don’t know whether I have been able to ignore Verma’s own statement to an interviewer, ‘My work is my autobiography.’ I might have lapsed in my resolve to keep clear of the formulae of life-writing. But these lapses should not be confused for any real intent on my part to wear the biographer’s hat.

If this book must be labelled a ‘literary biography’—meaningless like most genre terms, as if there is such a thing as a ‘non-literary biography’—I would want to place the emphasis on the term literary. The writing life is what I have attempted to keep in the foreground, though not in that generic sense popularised over the years by magazines like The Paris Review, whose interviewers make it a point to get the craft of writing down to the nitty-gritty of how many words a writer does in a day, how many drafts, and so on. I haven’t quite looked into the pens Verma used for writing and the kind of paper he preferred for his first drafts. (Purely with the intention of getting this out of the way once and for all, I should mention here that he wrote on ruled notebooks—a detail I chanced upon in a short essay by Krishna Sobti.)

My principal aim here has been to provide a brief account of how a writer is formed. Yes, through labour, commitment, perseverance, grit and all those things that we keep hearing about. But also through the workings of a particular kind of sensibility. It is this writerly sensibility that I wish to find glimpses of in Verma’s life, however tenuously it may be connected to his work. And I aim to establish that on the level of the sensibility, the personal (the biographical) and the literary become inseparable. I have looked at the scattered elements of Verma’s life as nothing more than ingredients that went into the making of his sensibility. The places he had lived in, the people he had known, the books he had read—all playing a teleological role in the writer’s mind and all reflected, often namelessly, in his stories and novels. This is the flawed logic of my study, but it has simplified my task and kept me, I hope, shielded from the anecdotal and the gossipy.

And maybe that’s why I feel the need to reiterate here: this is not a biography.

This is an excerpt from Here and Hereafter, which will be published by Penguin Random House in India in September 2022.

Vineet Gill works as a senior copy editor at Penguin Random House India. Here and Hereafter: Nirmal Verma’s Life in Literature, is his first book.