A man of infinite curiosity who remembered everything

The voice on the phone was distinctive. “Naipaul here,” he said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a famous author to call up a sports journalist in his 20s. “Can we meet?” It remains the most startling call I have received.

Over the next few days we met on and off, spending time with former Naxalites and other marginalised people. In the evening he would read from his red notebook and ask, “Have I got that right?” It was all there – the descriptions, the conversations, the opinions that would later appear in A Million Mutinies Now. He came home for dinner. It was a tiny apartment in Chennai, made tinier by the front room that was filled with my wife Dimpy’s half-finished sculptures and materials.

Naipaul was accompanied by his companion whom he introduced as “Margaret”. He wore a three-piece suit and a red tie. The night was hot and sultry as only Chennai nights can be, yet he kept his suit on, and wanted to have the ceiling fan switched off. In the other room, our son, not yet a year old, was expressing himself loudly, perhaps complaining about the heat. Naipaul affected not to notice.

He was a man of infinite curiosity. He knew the lost wax process for bronze casting, but wanted to clarify something; he knew about the food we were having, his favourite fish and idlis among the fare. He wanted to know about Robin Singh, the cricketer from Trinidad who had moved to Chennai and would play for India. Margaret was cheerful – the stories of Naipaul’s cruelty to her would emerge later – and involved.

What did Naipaul think of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. It seemed almost rude to ask. Naipaul’s reply was simply “Assassination is an extreme form of literary criticism.” Sadly, we didn’t have a camera. But Naipaul signed a photograph, with the date and the occasion (“dinner at their flat”) on it.

We could write to him, he said, he lived in England. His comment on travelling to the West Indies – I was preparing to report the cricket team’s tour then – was startling. “It’s a terrible place. You won’t enjoy it.”

In the event, I never wrote to him and the West Indies trip was called off. But we did meet again some 15 years later. This time at a reading in Bengaluru. “I don’t expect you to remember me,” I said diffidently. But Naipaul – despite his wife Lady Nadira’s efforts to tear him away – was forthcoming. “We met in Chennai,” he recalled, “You are the sportswriter, your wife is an artist. We had fish for dinner and spoke of Robin Singh among other things.” It was quite startling. Years later, his biographer Patrick French told me Naipaul had a remarkable memory for people and events. I am not sure if he used the word “eidetic”.

Most writers form their opinions through the sieve of their experiences. With Naipaul it was different. In the end, however, only the writing mattered.

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:03:24 PM |

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