Naipaul’s Kashmir

Trinidad born Indian origin Nobel Laureate Sir V S Naipaul, who died on August 11, 2018, in London was one of the greatest English writers who visited Kashmir four times and wrote gripping prose about the changes that he detected first in 1962 and later in 1988. Masood Hussain revisits his Kashmir prose and sets his characters in the new situation that Naipaul foresaw but could not write about till his death    

V S Naipual and Lady Nadira Naipaul

Year 1962 was a landmark in Kashmir history because for the first time the Election Commission of India conducted the assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir. The results returned Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad to power. A renegade, Bakhshi was Delhi’s man who was quickly installed after Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah was humiliatingly deposed and arrested as the Prime Minister in August 1953. With Delhi’s blessings, he continued managing Kashmir with terror, intrigue, liberal public spending and corruption.

But the season’s electoral outcome had embarrassed Pandit Nehru, India’s Prime Minister because Bakhshi “won” 41 of 43 assembly berths in Kashmir – 32 of them unopposed. This was third election in a row when the Delhi’s client leadership avoided permitting a contest. Delhi was already aware of the reign of terror that their man had let loose in Kashmir. They wanted to ease him out and it was publicly known. But the man had Kashmir’s pulse in the grip of his police’s iron hand.

By the end of that year, the Trinidadian writer Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul drives to Srinagar, looking for some cheap, cool space where he could sit, rest, think and write. It was Abdul Aziz Bhat, an agent of a new hotel that his uncle, Mohammad Sidiq Bhat, a small-time contractor, had set up just behind the Nehru Park, who took him to Leeward Hotel. For the next four and a half months, it became the home for Naipaul, the knighted author, who later won the 2001 Nobel Prize for literature. Naipaul died on August 11, 2018, at the age of 85. He had authored nearly 50 books, both novels and non-fiction and dominated the literary scene for almost half a century.

The Leeward Hotel in Srinagar’s Dal lake where Sir V S Naipaul stayed for many months and wrote his chapter for a book named Area of Darkness, in 1962. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

It was in Leeward, then called Liward, that Naipaul penned his Mr Stone and the Knights Companions, one of his “little read and underrated” novels. But his memorable visit to Kashmir became a full-fledged section of his Area of Darkness, a long narrative about India in 1962. One of the impressive descriptions of the life that existed in that era, the Doll’s House on the Dal lake is an unmatched narration of the struggle of a hotel owner in keeping the show going on, using guests to manage regulators and occasionally as, brand ambassadors too. Nobody in the hotel could properly talk in English with their guest, still, they created a great combination to the extent that Naipaul started writing formal applications to bureaucracy seeking registration of Mr Butt’s hotel, or later, helping him improve the brand image of it before other guests.

The biggest flaw in Naipaul’s Kashmir narrative is that he started believing Kashmir was what he saw in the lake, the picturesque mountains and the beauty of the Vale apart. Seemingly, the great writer avoided considering the writings of the earlier visitors and skipped looking at Kashmir’s complex past, its new-found rights to its land and agriculture and serious quick attempts by Delhi to reign in a population that had barely started sleeping without empty stomachs. But what does not make his narrative different is that Naipaul continued judging Kashmir by what he saw in the lake, a tradition set much early by the British travellers.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad addressing a gathering in Kulgam in December 1954.

According to Patrick French, the author of The World is What it Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul, he wrote to his sisters, Mira and Savi, telling them, Kashmiris are “possibly the dirtiest people in the world”, who “seldom wash”, wore clean clothes “only on religious days” but still are charming, “perhaps they have this charm because of all their faults”. These accusations have been there against Kashmiris’ for many centuries, especially after the Afghans’ rose from the ruins of Mughal era in Kashmir. People, who lived the Bakhshi era, especially in Srinagar, may have clear ideas about how different it was from the early 1900 Kashmir.

Naipaul weaved his narrative around what Mr Butt suggested but the author visited around as well. The Medieval City, his description about Srinagar is a telling account. “It was a town, damp or dusty, of smells: of bodies and picturesque costumes disclosure and acrid with grime, of black, open drains, of exposed fried food and exposed filth; a town of prolific pariah dogs of disregarded beauty below shop platforms, of starved puppies, shivering in the damp caked blackness below butchers stalls hung with bleeding flush; a town of narrow lanes and dark shops and choked courtyards, of full, ankle-length skirts and the innumerable brittle, scarred legs of boys,” Naipaul describes Srinagar in a long passage.

During his sojourn, Naipaul met the drunkard “poet” Kadir, an engineer and many others who became his ill-clad, uneducated and crude characters to describe Kashmir. He visited the display of relics of Hazratbal, was shocked to see people perpetually busy in similar festivals (the shrine Urses), watched Muharram mourning in Hasanabad, undertook the ardours pilgrimage to the Amarnath on the invitation of Karan Singh, the failed Maharaja who became Delhi’s main agent days after his father was banished. All these events and individuals gave the great writer a ‘great plot’. He ridiculed Kashmir’s lack of wisdom and knowledge.

“The analyses of the Kashmir situation which I had been reading endlessly in newspapers had no relation to the problem as the Kashmir saw it,” Naipaul wrote, as one of his many observations where he detected things wrongly. “The most anti-India people in the valley were Punjabi Muslim settlers, often in high positions; to them, Kashmiris were ‘cowardly’, ‘greedy’; and they came to the hotel with rumours, of troop’s movements, mutinies, and disasters on the frontiers.” He goes on to add: “without newspapers and radio, it was possible to be in Kashmir for weeks without realising that there was a Kashmir problem.” He saw the white jeeps and station wagons of the UN carrying afternoon picnic parties of women and children in straw hats and referred to them as “anachronistic as in the clock of Julius Caesar”.

Nazir Ahmad Butt, the owner of the Leeward Hotel who knew Naipaul personally. In the background is his hotel that is now a Garrison. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Naipaul exposed himself by asserting: “From Kashmiris, I could get no more; I could get no glimpse of the leader’s achievements, personality or appeal.” The leader he is referring to was Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah. The author ridiculed Sheikh for suggesting people eat potatoes, in the absence of rice because of crop failure. Sheikh led a successful rebellion against the Dogra despots who owned Kashmir on basis of a lease-deed of 1846. Later, he did historic land to the tiller that gave people the right to the principle resource technically for the first time after the fall of Mughals.

“The complex part of Kashmir interested Naipaul less than the natural beauty of the valley unlike other places of India where he is more interested in past rather than beauty,” Himachal University scholar Poonam Chandel concluded in her PhD thesis. She goes on to comment about his Amarnath yatra, which he insisted had been converted into a typical Indian bazaar. “This was one of the few places where physical India corresponded to the India of Naipaul’s dreams. This is the one place for which he has a different eye, where he does not give much response to dark, peripheral situations unlike he had on his first visit to India.”

Shashank Gupta, another scholar, from Pandit Ravishankar Shukla University in Raipur, whose PhD was also on Naipaul, pointed out that the author insisted the people in Kashmir had forgotten their history and were surviving on legend and the religion was the “life and the law”.

Explaining the Naipaul analysis that the “medieval mind” could easily forget the last three to four hundred years of its past, the scholar quotes the author: “And it was because it was without a sense of history that it was capable of so complete a conversion. Many Kashmiri clan names like that of Mr Butt himself-were often still purely Hindu; but of their Hindu past, the Kashmiris retained no memory.”

But he concluded well. “It had not developed a sense of history, which is a sense of loss; it has developed no true sense of beauty, which is a gift of assessment,” Naipaul wrote. “While it was enclosed, this made it secure. Exposed its world became a fairyland, exceedingly fragile.”

Sir V S Naipaul

Naipaul visited Kashmir at least four times. His last visit was when he was researching to write India: A Million Mutinies Now. It was 1988, and the cash-rich author stayed in the Palace Hotel, one of the many palaces that the Dogra Maharaja’s had left while fleeing from their possession in October 1947. One of these palaces was converted into a hotel, perhaps the only luxury address in Srinagar. Then, it was known as Oberoi Hotel. In 1962, Dr Karan Singh had invited him for three dinners and a tea.

Doll’s House was still in his mind. By now the Butts’ had corrected the spelling from Liward to Leeward and it was a 45-room structure. He went to the hotel, met Butt, and Aziz. He heard from them the observations made by the Tourism Department about Leeward on basis of the details the book had given. There, he discovered his new aide, Nazir, Aziz’s educated son who was bubbling with life, talked English, desperate to study commerce and marry an ‘experienced’ foreigner. During his stay, Nazir would take charge of his tours within and outside Srinagar. This time Naipaul saw Kashmir through Nazir’s eyes. The author revisited his areas of interest and bias, the faith, the Shia Muslims, the population explosion, and wealth. He recorded his concern over the fragile ecology of the lake. It was unfit for human use.

Barring the “many big new houses” on the airport road indicating the “kind of private wealth” that he had not seen in 1962, Naipaul sees not many changes in the city. “The city centre was as mud-coloured and medieval-looking as I had remembered: as though all the colours of Kashmir, by themselves as vivid as the colours in a paint-box, had run together and created the effect of mess and mud,” he wrote. “The brick and timber of old buildings – or buildings that looked old – were both the colour of mud. Mud was also the colour of the streets, the colour-effect of the variegated clothes of the people; and mud – with here and there a green algae patch or crust – was the colour of the turgid, steep-banked river that ran through the town.”

But he saw the place changed and its people too. “Much money had come to the valley; many people had risen; there was a whole new educated generation,” Naipaul wrote. “But a good deal of that improvement had been swallowed up by the growth in the population.”

Both his erstwhile hosts talked to him about their travel to Mecca, one of them had actually gone twice. That explained the prosperity.

The year 1988, was different and the author picked it from the airport itself. “There was security at Srinagar: the Kashmir valley was restless. It had been restless in 1962 as well,” Naipaul wrote. Later, in the hotel, he could feel the change in the environment: “A secessionist Muslim group had been setting off bombs in public places in the city. The group had also made a number of demands. It wanted no alcohol in the state; it wanted Friday and not Sunday to be the day of rest, and it wanted non-Kashmiri residents expelled. The hotel people, while they waited for the authorities to take action, had met among themselves and decided to avoid trouble. That was why the Harlequin Bar of the Palace served no alcohol, and why – until some Japanese visitors insisted – not even beer was served at dinner in the dining-room.”

Write Khushwant Singh

Kashmir changed quickly after Naipaul’s last visit. The dreams he had seen in the eyes of generation next Kashmir moved away from their priority. Nazir, his last guide in the Valley, neither married a foreigner nor completed his degree in commerce.

“The hotel was running smoothly till 1989 till Tahreek took over and then our only job was how to prevent the occupation of the hotel by the CRPF,” Nazir said, just outside the Leeward Hotel, days after Naipaul’s demise. “As and when there were rumours that the army will come and occupy it, we will get our family in.”

This cat-and-mouse game came to a halt in 1996 when the CRPF sought a room for an overnight stay to oversee the elections. “Since then, they did not permit us to get in,” Nazir said. “They occupied all the hotel. Though the rates are very low the government is paying us at all.”

“Once I sent him a piece I had written for the New Statesman about a visit to Kashmir,” author Amitava Kumar wrote in a commentary after Naipaul’s death for the CNN. “On my last day there, I had gone looking for the hotel named Leeward where Naipaul had stayed in the sixties and written about in one of his earlier India books. The hotel was now a military bunker.” Kumar received a response by fax and it began with: “The Leeward was a doghouse, really. Better for it to be turned into the bunker you describe.”

But that was just part of the long story. The Leeward garrison came under a fierce attack later. It was on July 27, 2004, when two Fidayeen belonging to shadowy al-Mansourain outfit barged into the hotel. It was a late evening and they managed to get into it with firing and grenades.

The hotel, then, was housing personnel from CRPF 65 Bn. A fierce gun-battle took place within the hotel involving most of the hotel, perhaps including that exclusive area where Naipaul got Butt and Aziz to create a writing table for him. By midnight, the operation was over: Fidayeen duo apart, five CRPF personnel including a sub-inspector, a head constable and three constables, were killed in the operation. A CRPF man and another from BSF, who was part of the reinforcement, survived injured. It was one of the rare gun battles that were fought in water.

“Since then (2004), they (CRPF) are touchy,” Nazir said. “It takes an effort to get in.” Though his hotel has a proper septic tank, he is now mulling to replace it with a mini-STP (sewage treatment plant). “Part of the material has arrived and it would take some effort to get in and install.”

It was not Leeward alone that changed. Even Palace Hotel changed, at least the hands. It was “purchased” by a non-state subject and rebranded the Lalit Grand Palace. The deal was surreptitiously and under-valued to save tax money and incidentally, this all happened with the top executive of the state knowing it all!

Amitava Kumar

As Kashmir changed, people close to Naipaul saw an impact. In November 2008, Major General Amir Faisal, the head of Pakistan’s commando force Special Services Group (SSG) was killed along with his driver. Brother of Naipaul’s second wife, Nadira Alvi, the police told the court, a year later, that the officer was killed by Lashkar-e-Toiba for his relentless anti-terror operations in South Waziristan in 2004. Illiyas Kashmiri had ordered the killing, according to the charge sheet.

It was Nadira who, according to Khushwant Singh “mellowed” Naipaul. In January 2003, she told author Basharat Peer, then a struggling reporter that she was a half Kashmiri.

“She asked where I came from. Kashmir, I replied,” Peer wrote in a small piece about his struggle to get the “the greatest living writer in the English language” write a line for him. The lady responded: “I am half-Kashmiri,” giving him “a hug, and a peck on my cheek”.

“When I was in college I had boasted of reading his books, not once but thrice. I even claimed to have understood his take on writing and life. And when he wrote about his journeys in the Islamic world, I marvelled with admiration at his descriptive powers. His books made me dream of becoming a writer,” recorded Peer, who finally got his copy of A House for Mr Biswas signed by the Nobel laureate.

Writer Basharat Peer

But Naipaul’s brutal assessments of the Muslim world – especially in his Among The Believers, and his love for the Hindu nationalism was something that would always get him into controversy. He was a writer who would support the demolition of the Babri Masjid and term it “a balancing of history”. Once, he visited the BJP office in Delhi too.

Though he was apolitical in his impressive and unmatched prose, his characters would tell tales of crisis and tensions, which were political in nature. Even in Kashmir, he attempted using the Dal dwellers to tell the larger story about Kashmir, a mix of truths and half-truths and in certain cases blatant lies.

“It was the same about his visit to Kashmir. He visited Pamposh on a moonlit night. He had less to say about the autumn crocus (saffron) scent pervading the atmosphere and more about Kashmiri women lifting their pherans and squatting to defecate,” Khushwant Singh commented. “Squalor and stench attracted his attention more than scenic beauty and fragrance.”

When Amitava Kumar sent him his piece on Kashmir, Naipaul responded with a brief history lesson about the ruins in Kashmir. “He was merciless, but also wrong, and perhaps more than a bit bigoted,” Kumar commented. “But the real thing I want to tell you is that I lost the fax. And yet, until I found it many months later, I could recall each word of it. That is the real importance of Naipaul’s talent as a writer: to find in deceptively simple prose, an arresting syntactic rhythm that fixed for his reader an image of the world as it was.”

With Sir Naipaul not around, the debate will continue, as one of his critics wrote as early as 2002: “whether the quality of his books could excuse the hurt of his disdain.” But the show will go on.


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