Naipaul rues lost past, cultures

The Nation - Friday, April 09, 2004

Islamic fundamentalism in Southeast Asia is erasing the past and cultures of the peoples of the region, with Christianity and Islamic fundamentalism “at war with each other”, the 2001 Nobel Laureate for Literature Sir Vidia S Naipaul said in Bangkok yesterday.

Naipaul, who was speaking after reading from a work on Malaysia at Chulalongkorn University, said some people wanted to stamp out their own past and culture. This destruc­tion of people’s pasts is “very brutal”, he said.

The outspoken Trinidad-born, Oxford-educated writer is often accused of giving Islamic societies a less-than-glowing appraisal, and he did nothing to change that yesterday, saying countries that converted to Islam - such as Malaysia and Indonesia - had suppressed their pre-Islamic pasts, resulting in their people developing “troubled per­sonalities”.

Naipaul has written in several of his books about the dilemmas that have arisen as Malaysians pursue their faith. Reading from the book “Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples”, pub­lished in 1998, he described a fun­damentalist leader as “strong in his self-righteousness”. Naipaul also depicted a Malay member of the Muslim youth move­ment in Malaysia as hav­ing achieved his goals through “simple power and simple authority”.

Naipaul told another poignant story of an indi­vidual’s struggle with shifting iden­tity - a successful Chinese Malaysian banker who converted to Christianity at 15 but continued to wonder about his true identity.”

Who am I? Chinese, but not Chinese ... English, but not English. I’ve never been to England,” the author read in his slow and deliber­ate Queen’s English.

“The second generation of Chinese had to anguish over the fact: Who am I, beyond my shelter, my diploma, my degree? ... The first gen­eration was much too busy.

“For the Chinese there is inherit­ed wealth, inherited circumstances, but also the query: Am I only my father’s son?”

Naipaul’s lecture - the last in a series of lectures at the university entitled “Bridges: Dialogues Towards a Culture of Peace” organ­ised by the International Peace Foundation - said history was important to him as a writer as it enabled one not to get too excited or too agitated about current events.

Naipaul, who was born in 1938 to a journalist father and a third-gen­eration migrant from East India, struggled to rediscover his distant Indian heritage and identity as a child in Trinidad. The subject con­tinued to occupy his thoughts at Oxford in the early 1950s. He has since made England his home.

Pravit Rojanaphruk