V.S. Naipaul — The style was the man himself

Hat tilted rakishly, Naipaul looked at the monument and said, ‘It’s all wrong’

August 19, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 11:47 am IST

Don’t,’ V.S. Naipaul had beseeched me in his clipped Oxonian. Having first met him in 1988 and being drafted in to become a ‘voice’ in his book, India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990), 10 years later I was asking him a return favour — a sit down interview.

Ever apprehensive of giving interviews to people who might not have read him or, worse, who might have misread him, he warned me over the phone, even as he consented, ‘I must tell you what you must not ask me. Don’t ask me when or where I was born. Don’t ask me about my books on India. Don’t ask me about authors I like or dislike. Don’t, Sadanand, don’t.’

Obviously, I didn’t, and it turned out to be a fractious interview, which was carried in the Literary Review of this newspaper in 1998. He never contacted or spoke with me again.

Complex, crusty, cantankerous, choleric are all adjectives applicable to Naipaul for the manner he chose to describe India in his books. But, if asked to pick the best stylists in the English language, I would name — in chronological order — J. Swift (satire), C. Lamb (irony), M.K. Gandhi (economy) and V.S. Naipaul (detail). Significantly, two in this list are of Indian origin. Swift used to say ‘style is the right word in the right place’. None epitomised this more than Naipaul.

By the same token, if asked to name the most crotchety of authors/ artists I have met, Sir Vidia Surajprasad Naipaul would top the list, followed closely by painter Francis Newton Souza.

Yet, despite his crotchetiness and permanent attitude of impatience with people, Naipaul was the quintessential peoples’ man. Possessed of inordinate powers of observation and description — to the point of it becoming an adoration of the banal — his real oxygen came from meeting and talking with people. For all his cultivated act of being happy in his isolated singularity, his so-called creative solitude, he was really comfortable in company.

Eight-word judgements

This was a contradiction. Though not gregarious, he liked people around him, even if they were not the fawning types. And, most often, they were not. Even in my limited knowledge, it is remarkable how many people ticked him off, despite their being at the receiving end of his peculiarly sharp jibes. Naipaul liked to thrust and pierce and even draw blood, which he did consummately. But it was seldom he got away from it unscathed himself, as character after character from his menagerie of ‘sources’ returned him the favour with equally rapier sharp repartee. In hindsight, one imagines he even enjoyed this.

I chanced upon Naipaul on the pavement outside the Guindy suburban train station in Madras in 1968. The book was by then six years old, and I got it for ₹1. An Area of Darkness. Even as the teenager I was then, I remember bristling, yet being amused. I kept wondering, why is he reducing large ideas, large chunks of historical time, great political events, complex people and continents in ferment, to eight-word judgements?

Soon, that turned into a fascination. To realise that a writer’s prejudice can, in fact, be his style; that it could be seductive and convincing for many readers. That you could spin a book around one reductive idea. Like, India is one great open latrine and people love to defecate in the open ( An Area of Darkness ). Or Hindus have never gotten over their subjugation of over a thousand years by alien religions ( India: A Wounded Civilization ). Or, the incipient self-assertion of the lower and middle classes can unleash a centripetal force, splitting asunder the notion of the nation ( India: A Million Mutinies Now) .

Was there empathy? Hardly visible. Was there insight? Arguable. Was there analysis? Mostly opinionated. But was there style? Oh boy, what joyously snappy sentences. Infectious. Inspirational.

But was he the anti-Islamic bigot he’s being made out to be? That would be a shallow deduction. In fact, I was quite taken aback by his depth of information about Moghul monuments in Delhi. Standing with him outside Safdarjung’s tomb in 1998, it was a special experience to see him examine the structure with a critical eye and then, with his hat tilted at an angle, go: ‘No, no, no, no; this is all wrong’. And then he proceeded to deliver an erudite lecture on the plagiarised design of the building and how many of its specific details were cut and pasted from other architectural ideas and why, therefore, it was a structure unworthy of aesthetic attention. The cluster of guides standing around looked bemused. A couple of hours before that, he had gone into raptures over Humayun’s tomb and knew every micro-detail about it.

On the chin

After that long interview with him, spread across Chennai and Delhi, I wasn’t sure how to write it up. A few days after our last round of recordings in Delhi, I was at a party given in his honour by Penguin. He sauntered across and straightaway asked, ‘Have you listened to your tapes? How is it?’ I made a face. ‘Not very happy. We needed more time. Besides, we had a few skirmishes’.

Naipaul grimaced into his wine. ‘I’ll be very unhappy if you dump it. I thought it shaped up well. There were many good moments. Maybe I roughed you up a bit. But that is the piece. Write it the way it happened, Sadanand. You must not dump it’.

Of course, I didn’t. I wrote it the way it happened. And, once published, he perhaps realised he was the one that was roughed up a bit. But then, as he advised Paul Theroux when they met a long time after their famous public spat, ‘Take it on the chin man, and move on’.

One smiles now, imagining him fussing around behind the pearly gates, looking to write one final put-down of that country called Heaven. Perhaps, in his pithy style, he will title it, ‘Oh, Hell’.

Sadanand Menon has interviewed many personalities; but Naipaul was the only personality to interview him.

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