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January 27, 2000
Beyond an autobiography
V S Naipaul was reading to a sold-out crowd at Manhattan's Upper Eastside. The author of more than 20 books of fiction and non-fiction, including An Area of Darkness and India: A Million Mutinies Now, is in the news now because of Between Father and Son: Family Letters (published by Alfred A Knopf).
But this night he was not reading from Family Letters.
The passage he selected, The Bomoh's Son, appears towards the end of his 1998 book, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People.
In the passage, Rashid, the eighth son of a bomoh (a healer or a magic man), of mixed Chinese and Indonesian parentage, denounces his father's beliefs and "religion" and becomes a Muslim, without actually converting to Islam. After several years, Rashid, now a policeman, returns home to find his 88-year-old father in ill-health, wasted and bed-ridden.
As the audience sat mesmerized, the 67-year-old Naipaul read in a quivering voice:
"Rashid said, 'Father, you have grown so thin.'
The bomoh said, 'Everything is OK. I am fine.' But there were tears in his eyes."
Suddenly Naipaul stopped. There was what appears to be a long, awkward silence. He started to read again, and then once again paused. There were tears in Naipaul's eyes too.
Somehow Naipaul managed to finish the reading and then he hurriedly left the stage, waving his hand at the audience with a quick "Thank you very much."
Five minutes later, having composed himself, he returned to answer a couple of questions in his characteristic self -- the confident, slightly abrasive style that readers (especially those who have read Paul Theroux's recent book In Vidia's Shadow) have come to expect from Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul.
Naipaul was in New York to promote Between Father and Son: Family Letters.
Technically, Naipaul has not written the book: Gillion Aitken, the Trinidadian author's literary agent since 1979, had edited the letters. More important, in what must be a first, Naipaul has not read the book, nor does he plan to in the near future.
"It is too emotional, too personal, too painful," he told the rapt audience at the January 24 reading at the 92nd Street Y's Kaufman Concert Hall.
At the book-signing, Naipaul was asked whether he is touring the US to promote the new book.
"In a way," he says, signing copies of the book. He found it 'easier' to read 'The Bomoh's Son' -- a story with a strong parallel to his own life.
Between Father and Son covers correspondence between Naipaul and his father Seepersad (or Pa in the letters) for a little more than three years. There are also a few letters, between Naipaul and his older sister, Kamla, a student at the Benares Hindu University.
The book starts in late 1949, when Naipaul, then 17 years old, is set to leave his home in Trinidad, on a Trinidad government scholarship, for the University College, Oxford. The book ends in 1953 with the unexpected death of Seepersad and finally the publishing of his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957). (A December 8, 1955 telegram by Naipaul says it in four words: " = NOVEL ACCEPTED LOVE = VIDO.")
Seepersad's life later became the source for Naipaul's fourth novel, The House of Mr Biswas ("Judge a book as a book," Naipaul said, suggesting to the audience not to entirely draw parallels between letters and personal details and a work of fiction).
In the letters, Pa is a man obsessed with his son's health, well-being and future, while balancing his own career as a journalist in Trinidad, living with his unfulfilled ambitions, and barely managing to keep his large family above poverty level. The financial concerns affect both the father and the son.
Naipaul writes from London:
"I am thinking about all our problems. They hardly seem to exist here. One has to think hard before one realizes that one's parents are in distress... Kamla tells me she is sending something like 18 dollars a month. I will see what I can send when I return to Oxford in a fortnight. I will send at least 10 dollars."
To this Pa responds in an assuring way:
"I am sorry I gave you the impression that we are desperately hard up. Nothing of the kind. Of course, I no longer make the extras I used to make from freelancing and traveling. It is all desk work. But all this does not add up to our being in any great distress, and there is no urgency for you to send us money. As far as I am concerned, you should not work out during your vacation, but relax and study a little."
Seepersad has his own desires to become writer of substance, but goes through periods of doubts.
"...I have had bad luck with 'The Mohun' story," Pa writes. "They've sent it back! ...Really, I am in no mood to write another and this 'reject' has dampened me quite a bit."
Naipaul coaxes his father to continue his creative writing in a letter partially written in all caps:
"YOU HAVE ENOUGH MATERIAL FOR A HUNDRED STORIES. FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE, START WRITING THEM. YOU CAN WRITE AND YOU KNOW IT. STOP MAKING EXCUSES."
Early on, in 1950, Pa, with a sense of premonition of what was to eventually happen 50 years later, suggests the idea of compiling a book of their letters:
"You letters are charming in their spontaneity. If you could write me letters about things and people -- especially people -- at Oxford, I could compile them in a book: Letters Between a Father and Son or My Oxford Letters."
The family's hopes, aspirations and expectations from the son in England are plentiful and there is a visible concern of losing Naipaul. In September 1953, a month before his sudden death, Seepersad writes:
"...(I)t is felt by everybody at home that if you get married at all you will be lost to us. We cannot afford losing you; I am not good any longer for any hard work. And one or two must work to see the younger members of the household come through..."
In the same letter, Seepersad wants his Vidia to return to Trinidad.
"There are more teaching jobs in secondary school here now than there are candidates," he writes to Naipaul. With a sense of caution he adds: "All this is not to say that I want you to live in Trinidad... but I am sure you will enjoy a holiday here."
Soon after Seepersad has a heart attack and dies. Naipaul sends a telegram home which reads: "= HE WAS THE BEST MAN I KNEW STOP EVERYTHING I OWE TO HIM BE BRAVE MY LOVES TRUST ME = VIDO."
Unlike Rashid, the bomoh's son, Naipaul does not return home for his father's funeral.
Kamla, who is back in Trinidad writes to her brother:
"There are few things which haunt me -- he didn't see you, who he so much wanted to see... What really hurts me is that he worked so hard all his life, all for us."
There is a lot more to this collection, most of which quite understandably Naipaul is reluctant to read.
There is gossip about family members, especially in the correspondence between Kamla and Naipaul; descriptions of life in England; references to new friends; and reports from Naipaul's travels to other Europeans counties, including Spain and France (while Seepersad tries to coax his son for trip back home).
Naipaul tells the audience at the reading that he felt that the letters represented a "cultural record". He was delighted when he was told that the letters could be strung together in a narrative structure.
Eventually, in agreeing to publish the very private letters, Naipaul is ensuring literary fame for his father that Seepersad never could achieve in his own lifetime.
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