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Home > News > Diary

Basharat Peer | January 10, 2003 16:42 IST

At the Maurya Sheraton hotel in New Delhi, a crowd mobbed Bollywood star Aamir Khan. I spotted a beautiful lady and a graceful gentleman in the lobby and thought to myself, their faces seem familiar. The next moment Aamir's frenzied fans blocked my view. The crowd passed, and I saw them again.

The lady was fair and tall, and wore a black pullover; the gentleman donned a well-cut greyish suit, a French beard and a wry smile. That is Naipaul! I realised. V S Naipaul, Nobel laureate, and for me, the greatest living writer in the English language, and his wife Nadira.

When I was in college I had boasted of reading his books, not once but thrice. I even claimed to have understood his take on writing and life. And when he wrote about his journeys in the Islamic world, I marvelled with admiration at his descriptive powers. His books made me dream of becoming a writer. "He will die a hundred times if he writes even 10 pages like Naipaul," my friends would say. I knew they were right.

There in that chaos, in flesh and blood, I saw the man whose writing helped me make sense of my world and many other worlds.

In sheer excitement, I mumbled God knows what, and greeted him. He smiled and extended his hand. I introduced myself as a feature writer. In ecstasy, I did away with journalistic protocol and requested him to write anything he wanted in my notebook.

"Young man! I do not sign a piece of paper. Get a book," Sir Vidya ordered.

Lady Nadira saw desperation on my face. "We are in the bar. Come there with the book, he will sign it," she said.

The next moment I was hurtling across the hotel, asking directions for the bookshop. The shop was shut, and the hotel staff could not do much about it. There was no time. Sir Vidya and Lady Nadira would leave shortly.

A colleague suggested a hotel next door. In minutes, I was in that hotel's bookshop. All his books were there. I grabbed a personal favourite, A House for Mr Biswas, and ran back to the first hotel. He was coming out of a restaurant, presumably after dinner.

The couple acknowledged us with a smile. His manner was warm, even affectionate. "You got the books. That is really nice. Come, I will sign them for you," he said, patting me lightly on my arm. We walked towards the lobby and found an empty table.

I asked which one of his books was his personal favourite. He smiled, and said, "I said in my Nobel lecture that I am a sum of my books. There is no favourite."

I mentioned I was a Kashmiri Muslim and how his travelogues, Among the Believers and Beyond Belief, made me realise many things Muslims usually ignored.

"I like Beyond Belief a lot," he said, and revealed where the inspiration for the book came from. Years ago, he said he had read a novel about a people not conscious of their state of affairs. "That book had wonderful stories about people," Naipaul explained.

Then he shook hands with my colleagues. He had mixed up their names, but made it a point to get it right the second time around.

Lady Nadira had joined us by then, and we took some pictures. Pointing to a group of older men, she said, "That is a used generation. We have hopes from you."

She asked where I came from. Kashmir, I replied. I knew she was born in Pakistan. "I am half-Kashmiri," she said, giving me a hug, and a peck on my cheek.

Photograph: Jewella C Miranda

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