The Not-so-noble side of Nobel

By M. Zeyaul Haque

Over the decades, the Swedish Academy that awards Nobel has acquired the reputation of an institution that is bothered more about bolstering the current Western policy line than rewarding talent

When Boris Pasternek, famous Russian poet and celebrated author of Dr Zhivago, got the Nobel Prize in the 50s, Soviet authorities questioned the author’s patriotism and the Swedish Academy’s motives. The Soviets alleged that the Swedes had been working as the propaganda arm of the Western Cold Warriors. Some Russians went a step further and denounced Pasternek as "a pig that fouls its own sty".

To most of the non-Russian world, Pasternek’s literary talent was not in question, yet the intentions of the Swedish Academy were never beyond suspicion. Most people suspected that the Nobel Prize to Pasternek was covert Western encouragement to dissension in Russian society. No wonder, Russians did not allow Pasternek to go to Stockholm and receive the prize in person.

In the seventies the Nobel Prize for literature went to another Russian, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, by then famous for his Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward, novels which bitterly attacked the Soviet system in a thinly veiled manner. These books were rarely available in the USSR but sold very well in the West (and other English-knowing countries like India) in English translation. This again was a case of the Swedish Academy throwing its weight behind the West’s Cold War against Russia. The Swedish Academy was clearly encouraging internal dissension in the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn was just another writer in Russia, barely eking out a middle class existence. However, the sales of his books in the west and the Nobel money had made him a millionaire within years. He got access to his dollars only after Gorbachev declared his famous glasnost (openness) and perestroika (political restructuring) that finally led to the end of the Soviet system.

Yet another recipient of the Nobel (for peace) of those days was Andrei Sakharov, "father" of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Russian counterpart of America’s Edward Teller. Sakharov had become a dissident against Marxist totalitarianism, and his prize too was a reward for his consistent opposition to the Soviet system. There was no doubt about that.

This is why when VS Naipaul got his Nobel many people wondered whether he had been rewarded for his relentless ideological assault on Islam, the foe the West had of late identified as a replacement for the vanquished "Evil Empire" of the USSR, as Reagan used to describe it theatrically. Newspersons went as far as asking the head of the award committee himself whether the honour had been conferred on Naipaul for his anti-Islamic crusade. He said Naipaul was not against Islam alone, but against all religions. Which is only a half truth. The Hindustan Times, to its credit, wrote a couple of edits and carried another couple of articles on its edit page showing how rabidly anti-Muslim and anti-Islam this man is.

Unfortunately, the announcement of the prize coincided with the beginning of the US military campaign against Afghanistan. The Newsweek of October 22 said that for Naipaul, Islam was "beneath contempt". That, however, did not distract from his formidable writing capabilities. Time too sang paeans to his way with words. Everybody joined this chorus of praise, which by implication was a chorus of condemnation of Islam. All kinds of buffoons had their fill of anti-Muslim vitriol. But there were some saner voices too in this season of anti-Muslim mass hysteria.

One of the saner voices was that of Amulya Ganguli in his well-argued, "A prize for bigotry" (The Hindustan Times, Oct 29). The shoulder said, "Naipaul is eminently qualified to be an honorary member of the RSS". Ganguly went on to say that Naipaul had always been a vicious casteist and communalist. He quoted from his An Area of Darkness an episode about his school days in which Naipaul says: "A beaker and length of tube were passed from boy to boy so that we might suck and observe the effects. I let the beaker pass me. I thought that I hadn’t been seen, but an Indian boy in the row behind… whispered ‘real Brahmin’. His tone was approving." He did not suck the tube because he feared he would be contaminated by non-Brahmins.

Ganguli quotes another passage from the same book showing Naipaul’s deep-seated prejudice against Muslims: "At an early age I understood that Muslims are somewhat different from others. They were not to be trusted; they would always do you down." Ganguly rightly remarked that "he is a true Sanghi –– born for the RSS, so to say". No wonder, RSS mouthpiece Organiser went ga ga over the Nobel. One wonders what values the Swedish Academy has been promoting.

Naipaul is an ingrate, a vile trait towards which Akbar S. Ahmad points out in his Sociology of Islam. Ahmad, himself a sociologist of considerable repute, wonders as to what kind of sociology Naipaul intended to do with his books like Among Believers. The conclusions seem to have been drawn even before Naipaul left on his "Islamic journey". The conclusions were in fact, drawn decades before that when Naipaul was an adoloscent who believed that Muslims "…were not to be trusted; they would always do you down".

Ahmed wonders at the sheer discourtesy of Naipaul who is the recipient of Muslim hospitality in his "Islamic journey" through Muslim lands and, instead of showing some warmth or goodwill he maligns and slanders them with abandon. On the other hand, those Muslims who shower their hospitality on him would never dream of turning up at his home in Britain.

Look at his pictures: he looks like the sour puss that he actually is. Quite a few people have drawn attention to his ingrained ingratitude evident from his first response to the Nobel announcement. He said it was good for India, the land of his ancestors, and Britain, his adopted home. Not a word for Trinidad where he was born and grew up, and where his parents were born and lived. He does not have the courtesy to say a kind word for the land from which his parents and he rose. Why? Because he openly detests Trinidad. A mean-spirited man like that can never be expected to be kindly disposed to Islam which says, "the love of one’s motherland is part of his faith". Here is a faithless man.

Now, coming back to the institution of Nobel Prize. Irwing Wallace recounts a few episodes in his The Prize which shows the mind of the people associated with the institution. The Academy boss told him that Einstein got his Nobel in physics because of Europe’s guilt over the Holocaust. (In any case, he deserved it.) He complains that Pearl S. Buck’s husband had refused to publish his novel although he had got her the Nobel Prize. That shows the smallness of the mind of some of the important people behind the Nobel.


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