Sir Vidia's shadow

V.S. Naipaul at the reading at Crossword: `Good writing requires attention." — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

YOU REQUEST Naipaul for a few minutes. He smiles and nods his head. Not sure it registered, you ask again. He smiles again. And gets on with autographs. You muster all your courage. "I am a bit tired. I have spoken for quite some time already." Then you ask Nadira whether she can get him to speak to you. "No. He is tired." You want to try one last time. It would mean risking his infamous temper. You ask Nadira again. "Ar� beta, uski kithaben pado. Kithab me sab kuch hai." Meanwhile, he is again jostled by fans. Then, for a moment, he is alone. He seems relaxed. You catch him then. "A few minutes, sir?" He smiles, and pats you on your shoulder. "You have just had such a big event. There is much to cover from that." He puts on his hat, smiles, and slowly wends his way to the car.

You had expected him to snap. He did not. If he had, it would have been a Nobel laureate's privilege. He did seem tired. And he had said a number of things.

This is celebratory all right, but you cannot put Naipaul away: he has range, depth, he can relate different knowledge from different times, knows his history, and he can remember well. What he creates from this, you could differ, but you won't go away unprovoked. The Tehelka Lecture last week was testimony to that. But Naipaul did not lecture. "I don't do lectures. I don't have a lecture. I told the Nobel Committee the same thing at Stockholm. Whatever I think of and whatever is of value, is in my books. And they are open to all."

He read the Mahatma. From India: A Wounded Civilization. Why Gandhi? "Because, it's nice and easy in the first place. It also makes (for) a little unity."

As he slipped into serious reading, the photographers did not stop. His consternation showed. He looked at the cameras hard. Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka, tense, got rid of them soon enough. Naipaul commenced reading again. The woman then moved right across him. He stopped reading. "I can't do this. I can't do this, you know. I am not a recorder. Good writing requires attention. It is something you can't pick up." Nadira placated him: "It's OK. Go on." And then something fell, loudly. He paused, regained his composure, and read to an overflowing hall. You had seen the Naipaul people thought he was.

Sir Vidia's shadow

Naipaul likes the Mahatma. He doesn't agree with his economics, but does with his politics. South Africa, he felt, made the Mahatma. "He was shocked at what he saw there (racism). That had to do with what he did in India."

What were the Mahatma's achievements, someone asked. Naipaul paused for long. The person pressed. "I have to think, you know. I have to think," Naipaul remarked. "He did everything intuitively. He used religion intuitively. He created a mass movement out of it. No one else could have done it. He used the spinning wheel intuitively. The Salt March moved me... A tragic figure, I am affected by him."

He took umbrage at the Mahatma's followers who celebrated his loincloth and half-nakedness. "You know what I mean by vanity? The greatness of poverty." He recalled a conversation in Kensington with an Englishwoman who remarked that Gandhi's dream (of people staying in the villages) was not seeing light. "There she was, telling me about Gandhi in Kensington. I asked her, `Do you realise where you stand?' (She had reached the comfort of the city and it seemed she'd like others to stay where they were.) I don't think she saw the point, you know," he laughed.

Was Gandhi still relevant, someone then asked. "As a subject of study, yes."

"I cannot agree with your views on Gandhi," a young lady said. "In case you disagreed, you should have kept quiet. You should have left the room quietly." "Don't we have a right to dissent here?"

"You do. But you have to be able to explain why you disagree."

Colonialism, Naipaul thought, did good to India. "We should be grateful for having been a province of the British. We have universities, hospitals, rights, even law... We would have been a Mexico or a Bolivia — nations witness to naked personal power..."

Naipaul seemed inclined more towards Gandhi than Nehru. In response to a gentleman's lengthy and serious query on why Nehru could not relate to India's past and with the East where Hinduism had taken root, he said Nehru was caught up with poverty all the time. "It makes you think poverty was a precious possession of India!"

He seemed momentarily an apologist for the pain of invasion. "...You can see it in the chain from (the writings of) Al-Baruni to Ibn Batuta... But the last thing we need is passion, for heaven's sake, political passion...," he qualified .

He did think India was Shining. "You just have to look at the photographs of 1930s Bombay and now. We are better educated, better dressed, and better fed... " An elderly gentleman wondered whether India, a big country, would ever live in peace.

The Nobel Laureate smiled. "When you are a big country, you can't have peace. Big countries always have little troubles. Asking for peace may actually mean asking for the peace of death. You know, I think we should not ask for peace at all!"

Everybody laughed. More so when a reader asked: "Why did you write A House For Mr. Biswas, Mr. Naipaul?"

"We've been asked this several times," Nadira remarked.

"The need to write another book," Naipaul riposted.

Everybody laughed again. And rushed for the autographs.