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Saturday, April 5, 2008

A meeting with V.S. Naipaul

By Vali Jamal

As I looked down from the famous upper lane under the Makerere tower, there was the sight of Mrs Naipaul hurriedly tucking her husband in the back seat of the car and ensconcing herself in the front like they didn’t wish for any further contact with the infies...

This is a personal account of the ‘Dialogue’ with V. S. Naipaul at Makerere on March 20. As a writer myself I have omitted his title at places. At the meeting it was obligatory. Strange: He was vehement he would never accept a knighthood. When he was criticised for accepting it, he defended that he wasn’t going to use it.

One goes to a function like that – billed as a ‘Dialogue’ – out of a vague feeling that one might learn something; or the famous man might say something memorable. Lady Naipaul, his second wife, saw to it that nothing of the sort happened, acting as his cheer-leader throughout the afternoon, and at points usurping to herself the role of the chairperson. In most cases her sense of the cheer-able did not accord with the audience’s and her chairship was dictatorial.

The two interlocutors were desultory. One asked him with a pregnant pause: “Why are you writing about…r e l i g i o n?” and Sir Vidiadhar, or simply Sir Vidia, didn’t know where to look. The questions from the floor were equally innocuous. When the very last questioner asked: “You are at the end of your life, why do you still write?” the lady bristled. She said, “My husband is here to work. He’s a compassionate man.”

I had asked the first question. I said I had met V. S. in 1966 at Makerere. To me, any account written now had to be based on the drastic changes in the meantime, like Amin’s expulsion of Asians. I gave some then-and-now statistics. Mrs Naipaul: “What is your question? What is your question?” I was completely nonplussed: “Ms…um…the lady, I mean Lady. Well, ok, my question was in what way will your treatment of Uganda be different, given the altogether different set of parameters you are writing under?” Mrs Naipaul: “It’s not relevant.” V. S. seemed totally at a loss what had transpired and kept smiling beatifically.

As questioning went on it seemed to me the knight was orfactorily-challenged and had to have the proceedings relayed into his ear by his wife. She began to play the role of not just a megaphone, nor just a filter but quite simply an earplug: her husband should hear whatever she thought was fit for him. And she would be his mouthpiece.

At the end of the proceedings the lady gave her husband a standing ovation. Alone. I went to bid them goodbye. I said: “Thank you Sir Vidia and thank you L…” She pointed at me, “He’s a pest, he’s a pest.” Sir Vidia had not the foggiest what was going on around him. I said, “Lady, I only wanted to say good-bye to your husband and I must tell you I know Theroux too!” The lady stiffened. Why the initial venom? Well, I had said benignly at the beginning of my intervention that such a meeting should come with a warning, like on medicine bottles: Anything you say here could appear in his books. All authors draw upon real life, so in a way it was an innocuous remark, except I knew that V. S. has been criticised for depicting people of the Third World as “Mimic Men.”

Paul Theroux. In 1966 Theroux too was at Makerere and I had met him too. The two (V.S. and P.T.) became fast friends. V.S. asked Theroux to write the obituary of his first wife of 30 years. Nadira, to use Lady Naipaul’s maiden name, whom Vidiadhar married within two months of his widowerhood, didn’t like it one bit. She sent him an ‘’abusive note.’’ Theroux could not help puzzling over Naipaul’s choice of a grammatically-challenged wife.

Theroux sets to write the ultimate bare-it-all tale of the jiltee. Naipaul’s bigotry oozes out. “Woggies,” “infies” (for inferior types – as compared to whom? The whites? Him?), “spear-throwers,” “bongo drums” (in relation to Uganda) abound in his discourse. The poet and fellow Caribbean Nobel laureate Derek Walcott said Naipaul would soon get his come-uppance were he to direct his oft-praised “frankness” to Jews. Naipaul’s attitudes come through clearly in his travel writings. India he first detests and then embraces enthusiastically seeing in the extremist Hindutva movement a resurgent civilization laid bare by Muslim conquests. His hatred of Islam increases in inverse proportion.

In Taj Mahal he sees “the blood of the people,” the destruction of the Babri mosque is an expression of “creative passion,” the invasion of India by Babur in the 16th century a “mortal wound.” A born-again Hindu extremist who sees nothing but extremism in Islam. Saudi Arabia is out to dominate the world - the very heart of the neo-con theory behind the clash of civilisations.

On the award of his Nobel Prize The Times (of London) wrote: “Naipaul’s every utterance on his ancestral homeland of India reeks with an intensely personal anti-Islamic sentiment.” Mrs Naipaul called in the Daily Telegraph to refute this view.
As I said the questioning for the most part was limp and we deserved what we got from the couple.

It could have been worse: In Trinidad and Tobago, his birth country that he revisited after 14 years, in one meeting Sir Vidia simply refused to answer admittedly inane questions from A-level students. He said they confirmed his belief that literature was for adults only, but still advising the ados (adolescents) to find their answers in his books. These books should preferably be newly bought: At another meeting as the throng came forward to get their paperbacks autographed, Mrs Naipaul boomed out over the microphone: “No old books. Only new books.’’ I shuddered for one inquisitor who to prove his fealty to VSN had come equipped with Uganda-dusty copies of Naipaul’s two early books.

As I looked down from the famous upper lane under the Makerere tower, there was the sight of Mrs Naipaul hurriedly tucking her husband in the back seat of the car and ensconcing herself in the front like they didn’t wish for any further contact with the infies.

I couldn’t help thinking a more appropriate gift (than the tie that was profusely applauded by Mrs Naipaul) would have been a token bongo drum filled up with natural Ugandan hair dye - for her.

Dr Jamal was the International Labour Organisation’s Senior Economist between 1976 and 2001. He is the author of several articles and books on the question of poverty and income distribution in sub-Saharan Africa.

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