V.S. Naipaul, who towered over the landscape of post-colonial literature, died yesterday. He was my friend, my mentor, my teacher. I learned about his death from a one-line email from his widow, Nadira: “Vidia has gone gently into the night.”
Vidia, as Naipaul was known to his friends, was born in 1932 in Trinidad to a family of Indian origin who had come as indentured labor after the abolition of slavery. Over a 50-year career, he gave young writers like myself — in India, in Africa, in the Islamic world and in South America — a searing glimpse of our own societies. At a time when the West was full of apology, and the non-West a sense of grievance, his great theme was the harm countries like mine would do themselves if they did not take responsibility for their histories. Through a quality of vision that was tantamount to cruelty, he showed the West how many of its assumptions were a celebration of its safety, while forcing us in the East to look hard at our places. There were many, including his contemporary and fellow Nobel laureate, Derek Walcott, who believed his concern was a form of contempt; Edward Said described him as an “intellectual catastrophe.” I adored him. His honesty set me free.