Few would dispute Naipaul's status as probably the greatest living writer of Indian origin; indeed some would go further and argue that he is the greatest living writer of English prose. For good reason his views are taken very seriously. He is a writer whose fiction and non-fiction written over half a century forms a body of work of great brilliance, something the Nobel committee recognised in 2001 when it awarded him literature's highest honour, and singled out his analysis of the Islamic world in his prize citation .
Naipaul's credentials as a historian are, however, less secure.
There is a celebrated opening sequence to Naipaul's masterpiece, India: A Wounded Civilization . It is 1975 - a full quarter century before he won the Nobel - and Naipaul is surveying the shattered ruins of the great medieval Hindu capital of Vijayanagar, the City of Victory.
Naipaul leads the reader through the remains of the once mighty city, its 24 miles of walls winding through the "brown plateau of rock and gigantic boulders". These days, he explains, this part of south India is just "a peasant wilderness", but look carefully and you can see scattered everywhere the crumbling wreck age of former greatness: "Palaces and stables, a royal bath . . . the leaning granite pillars of what must have been a bridge across the river." Over the bridge, there is more: "A long and very wide avenue, with a great statue of the bull of Shiva at one end, and at the other end a miracle: a temple that for some reason was spared destruction, and is still used for worship."
Naipaul goes on to lament the fall of this "great centre of Hindu civilisation", "then one of the greatest (cities) in the world". It was pillaged in 1565 "by an alliance of Muslim principalities - and the work of destruction took five months; some people say a year." It fell, according to Naipaul, because already the Hindu world it embodied had become backward looking and stagnant: it had failed to develop, and in particular had failed to develop the military means to challenge the aggressive Muslim sultanates that surrounded it. Instead, Vijayanagar was "committed from the start to the preservation of a Hinduism that had already been violated, and culturally and artistically it (only) preserved and repeated; it hardly innovated . . . The Hinduism Vijayanagar proclaimed had already reached a dead end."
For Naipaul, the fall of Vijayanagar is a paradigmatic wound on the psyche of India, part of a long series of failures that he believes still bruises the country's self-confidence. The wound was created by a fatal combination of Islamic aggression and Hindu weakness - the tendency to "retreat", to withdraw in the face of defeat.....
The Muslim invasions of India tended to be seen by historians of the Raj as a long, brutal sequence of pillage, in stark contrast - so 19th-century British historians liked to believe - to the law and order selflessly brought by their own "civilising mission". In this context, the fall of Vijayanagar was written up in elegiac terms by Robert Sewell, whose 1900 book Vijayanagar: A Forgotten Empire , first characterised the kingdom as "a Hindu bulwark against Muhammadan conquests", a single brave but doomed attempt at resistance to Islamic aggression. This idea was eagerly elaborated by Hindu nationalists, who wrote of Vijayanagar as a Hindu state dedicated to the preservation of the traditional, peaceful and "pure" Hindu culture of southern India.
It is a simple and seductive vision, and one that at first sight looks plausible. The problem is that such ideas rest on a set of mistaken and Islamophobic assumptions that recent scholarship has done much to undermine....
A brilliant essay published in 1996 by the respected American Sanskrit scholar, Philip B Wagoner, was an important landmark in this process. Entitled "A Sultan Among Hindu Kings" - a reference to the title by which the kings of Vijayanagar referred to themselves - pointed out the degree to which the elite culture of Vijayanagar was heavily Islamicised by the 16th century, its civilisation "deeply transformed through nearly two centuries of intense and creative interaction with the Islamic world".
By this period, for example, the Hindu kings of Vijayanagar appeared in public audience, not bare-chested, as had been the tradition in Hindu India, but dressed in quasi-Islamic court costume - the Islamic inspired kabayi , a long-sleeved tunic derived from the Arabic qaba , symbolic, according to Wagoner, of "their participation in the more universal culture of Islam".
Far from being the stagnant, backward-looking bastion of Hindu resistance imagined by Naipaul, Vijayanagar had in fact developed in all sorts of unexpected ways, adapting many of the administrative, tax collecting and military methods of the Muslim sultanates that surrounded it - notably stirrups, horse-shoes, horse armour and a new type of saddle, all of which allowed Vijayanagar to put into the field an army of horse archers who could hold at bay the Delhi Sultanate, then the most powerful force in India.