VS Naipaul was Gifted writer, all-round cynic

Aug 13, 2018, 08:01 IST | HV Nathan

HV Nathan: Naipaul had a subdued revulsion and disgust for everything Indian, says the man who observed the observer

VS Naipaul was Gifted writer, all-round cynic

HV Nathan The passing of Sir Vidiadhar Naipaul has taken away a giant from the world of English literature. Like all else, writing too has undergone a sea-change and so have reading trends. So it may not be wrong to say the future may not see quite the likes of him, viewing the genre he belonged to; he remains in a class by himself. I have just published my book Omnium Gatherum, an omnibus of my writings. I had dedicated it to Naipaul whose quip, 'Writing for others is your job, I see. Why not write for yourself?' became the greatest source of my confidence and my temptation to be a writer.

In the words of Naipaul's official biographer Patrick French, I was "for many years the right hand of Murli Deora, Congress strongman in Bombay". I am now retired after four decades with Deora, and settled in a modest Borivali home. I had the privilege of crossing paths, and spending time, with the noted writer during his visits to India that resulted in two out of the three books that make Naipaul's most celebrated tomes on India. Naipaul, with an ancestry of indentured labour shipped to the Caribbean by colonial masters, devoted many of his writings to India and Indians but set foot in India first in 1962. That was when I ran into him. I was introduced to him by Chidananda Dasgupta, father of actor-turned director Aparna Sen (and grandfather of Konkona Sen) who had invited Naipaul to the Calcutta Film Society. I was delighted to meet him since I had just finished reading his first book, A House for Mr Biswas. He, on the other hand, was surprisingly modest and expressed genuine surprise on learning that I had indeed read his book. I asked him whether his visit was going to end in a book. He said he wasn't sure. And he wrote the first book of his trilogy on India, An Area of Darkness, two years later.

I met him again 27 years later, in 1989 in Bombay. This time, too, it was at the introduction of a journalist friend, Nikhil Lakshman, who brought him to my office. After Lakshman had told the writer that there was at least one person in Bombay who had met him and his then wife Patricia in Calcutta during his first ever visit to India, Naipaul expressed keenness to meet me although he could not recall the event where we met. Naipaul got talking and related his idea of a new book that would make the trilogy — it looked like he was tracing Indian history through its people, his second book being India, a Wounded Civilization. He had figured out my contribution to the book and had even tentatively titled it A Chapter of Accidents.

VS Naipaul

British author V.S. Naipaul in Salisbury, England. Pic/AP/PTI

Meetings at different locations over a whole week resulted in "A Secretary's Tale, an entire chapter devoted to me — being a first person account of my life, painstakingly chronicled in Naipaul's own hand in a pocket book that he carried, and found a prominent place as Chapter 2 in his final book on India, 'India, A Million Mutinies Now'.
When I told him that my grandfather was displaced from his home in South India by the British and had made Calcutta his home, Naipaul probably drew parallels to his own forefathers' story who were shipped off to Trinidad, displaced from their homes in India and sentenced to an endless search for identity.

I was among those who had always wondered why the Nobel Prize eluded Naipaul. So, when he did get it, I was most delighted that it was better late than never. There looked to be a love-hate relationship between him and the land of his origin, considering the undisguised condemnation and criticisms that characterised his bitter, yet honest, views of realities in India. He did display that there were in the distinguished writer, not only a subdued revulsion and disgust about everything Indian, but on top of all, an all-round cynicism, easy to discern when one was interacting with him. I am able to say these having spent an entire week in his company in my own environs. Nevertheless, he was gifted with remarkable powers of observation and sensibility that evidently combined to make him the great writer he was and, true to his own words, "everything of value about me is in my books".

The writer was the late Murli Deora's aide for more than four decades and recently released a collection of his writings, Omnium Gatherum

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