Above: Photo courtesy www.bollywoodlife.com
~By Dilip Bobb
Well before the encounter actually took place, meeting Vidia Naipaul seemed a daunting prospect. That was mainly because of the interviews he had given or remarks he had made where he came across as cantankerous old man with inherent biases and complexes. He had also showed, on innumerable occasions, a dislike for journalists who asked him awkward questions about women, other writers, his love/hate relationship with India and his dark, unsparing view of the world around him. Naipaul, or ‘Sir Vidia’ as he liked to be called, was no stranger to India—his India trilogy was proof enough – but I met him face to face when he was passing through Delhi en route to Goa to be the star attraction at Tarun Tejpal’s Thinkfest in Goa. Naipaul had proved a major benefactor to Tejpal’s Tehelka magazine and he had agreed for a quiet dinner with a small group of invitees, which included me. The dinner took place in a reserved area at the Park Hotel in central Delhi and when I arrived, according to Delhi Time, I was clearly late – Sir Vidia was already ensconced in a corner table with his wife Nadira hovering protectively over him. Tarun, an old friend and former colleague, took me over and introductions were made but it was obvious that it was Nadira, his second wife and 20 years his younger, would act as his mouthpiece and steer us away from conversations he was averse to. I had spoken to her earlier, on the telephone during a visit to London where I wanted to interview him, and she had made it clear that she controlled access to him and decided whom he should and should not meet.
At the Park hotel, she was playing that role effectively, and the much awaited meeting with Naipaul was turning into a farce, till she got up from her chair to bring dinner for her celebrated husband from the buffet table. I quickly slipped into her seat and asked the Man how he was enjoying Delhi. “I have not stepped out of the hotel,” he said gruffly, going into a rather descriptive account of a stomach ailment and Delhi’s ‘poisonous air’ and ‘unhygienic habits’ which reminded me of his Indian trilogy, starting with An Area of Darkness, his deeply pessimistic work which was almost banned for its excessively negative portrayal of India. In fact, when an attractive young hostess from the restaurant approached him to inquire if he wanted a refill of his glass of red wine, he brusquely brushed her away. It reminded me of his famous, or infamous, remark that ‘Indian women wear a coloured dot on their foreheads to say “my head is empty”’. His misogyny was well known so it was no surprise, but when I asked him his views on Indian writers his self-centered disdain was again in evidence, saying he had read very few of them, but did grudgingly, acknowledge individual works by Vikram Seth and the late R.K.Narayan. Tarun had joined us by now and I ventured to ask Naipaul if he was looking forward to Goa. “It sounds very exhausting,’ he said, looking up at Tarun. “I am getting too old for this kind of caper.” He had just celebrated his 80th birthday and looked quite fed up, literally and figuratively, barely an hour into our private dinner. I got up before Fearless or Fearsome Nadira returned to boss over him, and left with no feeling at all of having met the literary genius who wrote A House for Mr Biswas, The Enigma of Arrival and In a Free State. As a writer, he was a giant. As a person, he was far less than the sum of his fame. Looking back on that evening, a day after his passing, I was immediately drawn to a passage in the obituary on him in the New York Times. “Naipaul was a difficult man. He cultivated an air of superciliousness. He treated interviewers the way cats treat mice, condescending to them and pouncing on their, in his view, naïve and ridiculous questions.” Quite.