Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was a very misunderstood character and the interesting part is that he never made any effort to erase that misunderstanding wither through his writings or his personal life. He could be disarmingly charming, but for that to happen, the other person would have to make an effort to see what was beneath the mask. He was a bundle of contradictions to a casual acquaintance. He could appear Islamophobic but that would be belied by his marriage to a Muslim lady – and by all accounts a very happy marriage, which would conclusively establish that the initial impressions were faulty. Prof. Ashoka recalls his interactions with the Nobel laureate. Here’s a tribute from the author and Different Truths. An exclusive.
How clearly I recall my very first encounter with Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul! It was accidental but fortuitous. One of my mentors, Professor Merton Sandler, had very kindly invited me to join him for an evening with him at the Athaeneum. For those who may not be familiar, Athaeneum is one of the most exclusive clubs located in Pall Mall, London, with a very limited membership confined to those who have made a notable contribution to academics.
After a sumptuous meal, we retired to the coffee room for conversation. Not very far from us was a gentleman with distinctly Indian features and a familiar profile. It was Vidia. I had read a few of his books (including A House for Mr. Biswas) and had seen him a couple of times on the television. Moreover, only a few weeks earlier, I recalled having read an obituary of his younger brother Shiva, a poet of some repute.
The Club has a healthy tradition of not imposing oneself on the others irrespective of the level of acquaintance, therefore, we settled with our post-meal liqueurs. In those days, it was still very uncommon to spot a person of colour in the very exclusive settings such as Athaeneum and I suppose it was curiosity on his part that made him walk up to Merton whom he had known and exchange greetings. That gesture on his part lead us getting introduced. He decided to join us for a tête-à-tête.
The first interrogatory that he did pose to me was which part of India I came from. On learning that my late father’s family came from Gorakhpur, he declared that his family had its origins from the same part of the world and that he had himself visited Gorakhpur. I was, of course, familiar that a very large section of the Indian diaspora in Trinidad had its origin in the Purvanchal region and had figured out that he must have been from the same stock. But it did come as a surprise that he had taken the trouble to visit the village of his ancestors – not very distant from my own family farm.
We did not get around to discussing his impressions of the country, in general, and Purvanchal, in particular. Instead, my mentor extended his condolences on Shiva’s death. Although the brothers were not known to be close, I did witness Vidia getting very emotional. He declared that Shiva was the brightest of all the siblings and it was so very sad that such a promising life had been cut short so young. I learned that one of his sisters had studied at the Benares Hindu University and could converse in fluent Hindi; Vidia could not, although he did come up with some very endearing Purvanchal expressions like‘baklol’. On learning of my Oxford connection, he expressed delight and indicated that we must meet up again for a longer conversation. As I have stated, I had read Vidia’s works and while I was appreciative of his flowing prose, he was nowhere close to the celebrity he was to become decades later. An opportunity to interact with him on a one to one basis was too good to miss.
We next met in the dining room of the Royal Society of Medicine, where I had invited him. And that was one when I began to identify his countless quirks and idiosyncrasies, which effortlessly came to the fore and which many with good reason found very offputting. His gruff exterior and tactless twattle made a very poor first impression to almost everyone, who interacted with him on an individual level. He was an unashamed practitioner of exeleutherostomisation!
Luckily, I had noticed that trait in one of my first mentors Professor Max Hamilton and had realised that people who presented themselves in this manner needed prodding and very often revealed a different facet of their personality, which was amazingly positive and charming.
That is how I came to realise that the general impression that he generated was only a small facet of his personality. A typical instance was his perceived anti-Indianism which frequently brought the wrath of many. It emerged that he cared very deeply for the land of his forebears but was deeply frustrated over the self-defeating customs, which did not permit India to attain its full and rightful potential. I remember him remarking that an India inevitably succeeded in every sphere when he was out of India even in the most difficult vocations but more often than not flopped within India. This was in direct contrast to the British, who always needed the protection of British ambiance either within Britain or elsewhere. His remark to the best of my recollection was – “A British would not be able to succeed outside Britain one-tenth as much as an Indian would outside.” This he attributed entirely to the commitment to uphold the self-defeating customs. He identified caste system as one of the prime evils that bedevil the world today and just could not understand why Indians with all the exposure in the West and the very best education were not able to shake off this unhealthy practice. He always maintained that if Indians could succeed in this, its success would be truly stratospheric. He always believed that the Indian commitment to dynastic hierarchy was a direct consequence of the evil caste system. He pointed out the struggle he had to put up with his views in his native Trinidad as his family itself being priests were beneficiaries of the caste system.
Vidia, in my view, was a very misunderstood character and the interesting part is that he never made any effort to erase that misunderstanding wither through his writings or his personal life. He could be disarmingly charming, but for that to happen, the other person would have to make an effort to see what was beneath the mask. He was a bundle of contradictions to a casual acquaintance. He could appear Islamophobic but that would be belied by his marriage to a Muslim lady – and by all accounts a very happy marriage, which would conclusively establish that the initial impressions were faulty.
I feel as a person he was just too complex to be bracketed into any category. But even his fiercest critics would take a bow to his literary merit. He was a rare individual with whom you could disagree on everything yet find him intellectually stimulating. I had wished him on winning the Nobel not expecting a response; we had not been in touch for almost ten years. To my surprise, I did receive a note of thanks.
Vidia has cemented his position as a towering literary figure. He, I suspect, enjoyed being controversial! And that is how he will be remembered!
©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
Photos from the Internet
Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad is a physician /psychiatrist holding doctorates in pharmacology, history and philosophy plus a higher doctorate. He is also a qualified barrister and geneticist. He is a regular columnist in several newspapers, has published over 100 books and has been described by the Cambridge News as the ‘most educationally qualified in the world’.