The Rediff Special/ Aseem Chhabra
In January 2000, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the Trinidad-born English writer came to New York City's Upper East Side for an event organised by the 92nd Street Y. The evening with Naipaul coincided with the release of a new book by Alfred A Knopf -- Between Father and Son: Family Letters.
Technically the book, a collection of letters -- correspondence between Naipaul and his father, Seepersad -- was not written by Naipaul. It is edited by his literary agent, Gillion Aitken. And, although later in the evening, Naipaul acknowledged he was on a tour to promote Between Father and Son ("In a way," he said, in response to the question), that evening at the 92nd Street Y he did not read from the new book. In fact, in what may have been a first, Naipaul said he had not read the book nor did he plan to read it in the near future.
"It is too emotional, too personal, too painful," he told the packed audience at the Y's Kaufman Concert Hall.
The passage that he chose to read was, instead, from his 1998 book -- Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted People. The reading from the chapter The Bomoh's Son focused on the relationship between Rashid, an Indonesian man and the eighth son of a bomoh (a spiritual healer or a magic man) who has left his home and denounced his father's beliefs. Now a policeman, Rashid returns home to visit his wasted, bedridden and dying 88-year-old father.
There are similarities between the lives of Rashid and Naipaul. Naipaul left his home in Trinidad at the age of 17 on a scholarship to Oxford University. But, unlike Rashid, Naipaul continued to correspond with his father -- the basis of Between Father and Son. And, over the years, Naipaul continued to push his father to write the novel that Seepersad never wrote. Seepersad died unexpectedly in 1953, all the while coaxing his son to return to Trinidad. Seepersad's failed life as a writer became the source of Naipaul's fourth novel -- The House of Mr Biswas.
And while Rashid ultimately returned home to make peace with his father, Naipaul could not make a trip to Trinidad to attend Seepersad's funeral.
Kamala, Naipaul's older sister wrote: "There are things that 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."
That day in January 2000, while reading the passage about Rashid and the bomoh, Naipaul suddenly stopped mid-sentence. He started again in a quivering voice, but then there was long and an awkward silence. And then, Manhattan's chichi Upper East Side audience watched in stunned silence as the almost-70 V S Naipaul -- knighted by the Queen of England (and now a Nobel laureate) -- started to cry silently.
This is the same V S Naipaul, who Paul Theroux (a long time friend-turned-critic) described as a cheap, mean-spirited misogynist and cantankerous man with a fondness for prostitutes (in Sir Vidia's Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents), who was criticis7ed by a fellow West Indian (and fellow Nobel laureate) Derek Walcott for being racist and who Salman Rushdie characterised as "a cheerleader" for the Bharatiya Janata Party (Naipaul, too, once referred to Rushdie's views and statements as "trivial" and "antiquated"). The same Naipaul who referred to Nirad C Chaudhuri as "an old fool" and "a pretender."
A controversial man, Naipaul did not hesitate to cry in front of a large audience (most of them sympathetic admirers) at the thought of missing his father's funeral.
In his recent books, Naipaul has gone at length to describe his views about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the lives of ordinary people in various continents. Critics have labelled his views as simple and ill-founded. He lives a secluded life with his Pakistani journalist wife -- 24 years younger than him and few friends in the literary world. When the president of Swedish Academy called to inform Naipaul of the Nobel prize, the writer first refused to take the phone. Apparently, he does not like to be disturbed.
But Naipaul will be always be admired for his eloquent use of his post colonial (sometimes Trinidadian) voice and his exploration of exile and dislocation in the often autobiographic novels -- The Mystic Masseur, A House for Mr Biswas, Miguel Street, The Enigma of Arrival and A Bend in the River.
"His early novels are a great body of work," says author Amitav Ghosh, who believes Naipaul was deservedly awarded the Nobel prize. "His best work is about the Caribbean. There is no doubt that he is one of the great masters of modern fiction. His prose is so beautiful that there is a real compelling quality about it."
The New York Times best summed up Naipaul's contribution to our civilisation. Naipaul's reader "walks on sure-footed sentences into a place where the ground is suddenly uncertain and, the crust thin and broken, the familiar landmarks replaced by eruptions that no one but the author seems to notice."
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