“If the world was all virtue
Heaven would be crammed!
I’m told there’s plenty of space —
Thank heaven for the damned.”
From The Sindh Saga of Tanni Ravani by Bachchoo
Some years ago, at a literary festival where many great, good and gifted (well, some of them) were gathered I am sitting at a table on a hill terrace — the location of the fest — with Sir Vidia Naipaul and several writers from Britain. A little distance away, under the same glorious blue sky and with the same deep view of the dusty valley, are other gatherings of distinguished participants.
“Where’s Vicky?” Vidia asks me.
“He’s just there, “I say.
“Can you get him here, I want to ask him something,” Vidia says.
I am used to fetching and carrying for Vidia in, as Nadira, Lady Naipaul says, a Hanumanic way.
I go down to where Vikram Seth is sitting and talking to several very distinguished writers.
“Vikram, Vidia wants you to join the A team,” I say.
Vikram looks up and says “yeah yeah!” and comes with me.
I intended borrowing the phrase from sporting jargon as an innocent joke. Of course, it wasn’t an assessment. There may have been many in Vikram’s company the hem of whose garments I would be privileged to kiss (or maybe, on objective critical assessment, not?).
My provocative phrase became the subject of petty discussion at the festival. Nadira, characteristically, picked on the phrase and ever since the circle of friends around Vidia has been known in her vocabulary as “the A team”.
And so it was that when Vidia died, with Nadira and Geordie Greig, the distinguished editor of the Mail newspapers of the UK, at his bedside, I received the news of his end in India.
“He’s gone.” Nadira texted, even as it happened, and much later we spoke.
I asked what arrangements she was contemplating. She was adamant that the funeral would be a very private affair — “only family and the A team” she said. There would be a memorial at a later date in a public place.
The funeral took place at the crematorium at Kensal Green. The family and the A team, 80 of us, attended.
The heatwave blessing Europe had passed and the day was grey and bearable. The chapel was filled with the sounds of Doris Day singing Dream a Little Dream of me. I remember it as a chart-hit for the Californian group The Mamas & the Papas — dissension between Ram and Hanuman?
There followed tributes and readings from one of Vidia’s editors and from Nancy Sladek, the editor of the Literary Review and the most deserving member of the A team.
Maleeha, Nadira’s natural daughter and Vidia’s adopted one followed with moving recollections of how VS embraced this late, surrogate fatherhood with gusto, parental anxiety and love.
There were tributes from Vidia’s literary agent and from his friend Geordie Greig.
For some reason, though Nadira had told me there would be no religious aspect to the ceremony, we were induced to sing All things bright and beautiful/ all creatures great and small. Though it does go on to say that the Lord God made it all, I expect it can be considered a hymn to creation, which may have come about by a double helix emerging from the sludge of elements created by the Big Bang.
Vidia was not religious. He has written about being brought up in a Hindu household in Trinidad and being introduced to the rituals and ceremonials of those of the faith and the caste.
Having known him for several decades and talked to him about religion over these decades, I know that Vidia was a rational atheist. He asked me several times if I knew what theological or eschatological truths were behind the ritual he had grown up with. We talked about the Bhagavad Gita being the distilled essence of the faith.
We talked about Mahatma Gandhi’s understanding of the Gita to be essentially a Christian ethos in which a kindly light leads the human soul through the remote and distancing darkness of consciousness.
When I professed my defiant atheistic socialism as a teenager, my father would say: “If you don’t think like that when you’re young, something’s wrong, but as you get old you’ll change your mind and give up all this Communist nonsense.”
My reply, perhaps with a suspension of respectful deference, was: “So Lenin and Mao never grew up?”
Vidia was the opposite of anything socialist. He regarded the whole doctrine of the equality of human beings in intellect, character and culture as foolishness. He would use the words “socialist” and “socialism” for behaviour he disapproved of.
He always voted Conservative but wasn’t piously so. And yet, as my father had predicted for me, Vidia as he grew old and the weaknesses that flesh is heir to set in, talked about death and spoke to me about what I believed. We spoke about the confluence of certain interpretations of the Gita and contemporary physics and cosmology.
He even became curious about Marxism and wanted to discuss why I thought Lenin, Stalin and Mao may have been steeped in it, but were essentially leaders of revolutions in predominantly peasant, even feudal countries.
He was curious about what Einstein had contributed to understanding and, with something of a scientific background (a couple of Physics degrees) I would try and explain special and general relativity and the ideas of dimensions and the curvature of space. He was curious and enquiring but, perhaps owing to the inadequacy of my pedagogy, ultimately unimpressed.
I got the impression that he was resolved to leave certain aspects of understanding alone. He was confident that his writing was unique, that he had cultivated a vast knowledge of history, of classical Greek and Roman writing, of literatures around the world, of art and architecture and even a fine palate for wine. Does a life and consciousness need more?