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Dread and relief over Naipaul’s biography

Sunanda K Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author.
Published : Aug 14, 2018, 12:15 am IST
Updated : Aug 14, 2018, 12:15 am IST

Naipaul’s ardour for innovation became apparent when he wrote that “things are happening” in India.

Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932-2018)
 Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul (1932-2018)

Patrick French e-mailed from London saying he wanted to see me. He had been commissioned to write V.S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul’s “authorised biography” and Naipaul had instructed him to talk to me. He would be visiting Calcutta with an Indo-British group that included Sir David Goodall, a former British high commissioner to India, Lord Paul of Marylebone and sundry other dignitaries. That was about 12 years ago.

I was surprised, flattered and worried. I hadn’t ever met Patrick although we had corresponded after he was kind enough to say he had found my book, Smash and Grab: Annexation of Sikkim, useful when writing his own first book on Francis Younghusband. The greater surprise was that Vidia Naipaul should direct him to me. Our paths hadn’t crossed for many years. I had retired and settled down in Calcutta. He was a globally renowned writer who had earned every accolade that success brings, including a knighthood from the Queen. His life was a triumph of deracination that had left him with abundant, if justified, contempt for the racial identity he believed he had left far behind. “I have no tribal home” he boasted.

He had reacted with astonishment in the 1960s when, at Pran Chopra’s insistence, I asked if he would write for The Statesman.  Pran was The Statesman’s first Indian editor. Vidia was visiting Calcutta. People still talked of his essay “Jamshed into Jimmy” in the New Statesman satirising the cultural aftermath of colonialism.  His phrase “craze for phoren” (another crack at the new India) was soon to pass into the language if it hadn’t done so already. Pran felt after talking to him that Vidia wanted to write for us. I told him this was highly unlikely. He had clearly misunderstood Vidia. But Pran was adamant and he was the boss.

Vidia was incredulous when I told him. He probably didn’t rank The Statesman any higher than the Trinidad Guardian for which his father, Seepersad Naipaul, had worked. He explained he had merely suggested to Pran that our paper should devote space to young Indians who had achieved something, invented some useful gadget for instance. It was absurd to imagine he would fill that space. “Surely he didn’t think I wanted to write for The Statesman?” he asked.

Naipaul’s ardour for innovation became apparent when he wrote that “things are happening” in India. “To hear the sounds of hammer on metal in a small Punjab town, to visit a chemical plant in Hyderabad where much of the equipment is Indian-designed and manufactured, is to realise that one is in the middle of an industrial revolution, in which, perhaps because of faulty publicity, one had never really seriously believed. To see the new housing colonies in towns all over India was to realise that, separate from the talk of India’s ancient culture (which invariably has me reaching for my lathi), the Indian aesthetic sense has revived and is now capable of creating, out of materials which are international, something which is essentially Indian.” He thought an Indian paper like The Statesman should publicise this revival.

Looking back, I think those few days we spent together in Calcutta in the 1960s explained why he wanted his biographer to talk to me. Vidia and I walked on the Maidan and along the Strand. We sat in the Great Eastern Hotel where he was staying. I invited him to lunch with acquaintances who cashed in on his celebrity status with private invitations they concealed from me. He dropped in at my mother’s house unannounced. At his request, I took him to an astrologer. Above all, we talked. Or rather he did. He spoke of race and sex and money, of his sisters and — in passing –— of the Englishwoman he had married as an Oxford undergraduate. I gathered without anything being said that she had dwindled into insignificance in his thinking.

It was really one mammoth conversation, an intimate unburdening, even a confessional, spread over several days. I think Vidia wanted me to share those conversations with his biographer. He had a phenomenal memory. When he returned to Calcutta 25 years later with his Argentine-English girlfriend (I was editor of The Statesman by then and he was writing India: A Million Mutinies Now) he picked up some comment I had made in the 1960s about Raja Rahmohun Roy and demanded elaboration. Another characteristic was that his privacy was tailored to public purpose. He told Patrick he had battered a lover’s face so badly she couldn’t appear in public. He was quite open about the endless humiliation he heaped upon his first wife and his use of prostitutes.

Apparently, his Pakistani-origin second wife could also be quite candid. I have never met her but the Argentine-English girlfriend with whom my wife and I dined twice wasn’t reticent either. A British obituary writer’s observation, “Naipaul’s sheer naked honesty about his own unpleasant, sometimes violent behaviour was bracing, and threatened at times to overwhelm his purely literary reputation” probably applied to his entire circle.

Bearing all this in mind, Patrick’s e-mail filled me with dread. I am old and old-fashioned enough to believe private matters should remain private. I find any form of exhibitionism deeply embarrassing. In the event, Patrick caused me no awkwardness when he came to tea. Others had eagerly provided all the muck he needed. He probably had his story all written out already in his mind. For whatever reason, he asked me no questions about personal matters. I told no lies.

Vidia would probably have been disappointed. Patrick’s highly and widely acclaimed The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul owed nothing to me.

Tags: vs naipaul, patrick french