I first encountered VS Naipaul – or, at any rate, his way of thinking – in his first book about India, An Area of Darkness. I wasn’t to encounter the man himself till years later.
In London, through my friend and painter Tarun Bedi, I met Naipaul’s younger brother Shiva Naipaul. On occasional evenings, over drinks in a pub, the persistent political argument or difference between me and Shiva would be the inevitable topic – he had not a distrust but a deep contempt for any left-wing sentiment or idea. His mockery of socialists didn’t seem to derive from any firm commitment to capitalistic or feudalistic principles or espousal of conservatism but seemed a visceral reaction. It was as though he had inherited the conviction as people of faith or ultra-nationalists do.
It was much later that it occurred to me that his seemingly instinctive stances were reflections or imitations of those his elder brother held. I eventually met Vidia when we shared a platform at Warwick University for a forum on some literary topic. We made our contributory speeches, were asked questions and then audience and speakers were invited for a drink.
I didn’t quite interact with him outside of this, but he told a friend of mine, “That fellow Dhondy doesn’t believe in anything, does he?”
Having strongly rejected from the platform that assessments of works of literature could be or should be subjective, I was disconcerted and puzzled by Vidia’s comment. From reading English in my final year at Cambridge, I had certainly picked up the critical idea that there were standards and criteria for the assessment of a literary work.
FR Leavis of the university had written several elegant and convincing books, championing particular novelists and poets, denigrating others and backing up his pronouncements. It seemed to me, and to probably all the undergraduates reading English in that era, to be the critical doctrine to follow. Elsewhere, there was a cult of subjective judgement which decried and denied the existence of any code of criteria, reducing every work to an equality without allowing for one to be more equal than another.
I had diligently bought and continued to avidly read everything that Vidia published – his novels set in Trinidad, his second book of discovery of India unrelentingly titled India: A Wounded Civilisation and the books of travel in southern USA, Africa, South America and countries which were converts to Islam.
In 1990, a few months after we shared the stage, his third book of exploration on the country, India: A Million Mutinies Now, was about to be published. The producer of The Book Programme on BBC radio called and asked if I would interview, in the style of a review, Vidia about his new book. He sent me the book, and I read it without putting it down, through a day and night, and then skimmed it again for notes on what I would ask Vidia.
At seven in the morning on the day the recording and broadcast of the show was scheduled, my phone rang. I was asleep but awoken by the ringing, took the call.
“Mr Dhondy, this is Naipaul, Vidia Naipaul,” he said, not intending, I am sure, to echo James Bond’s idiosyncratic style of introduction.
“Er...yes,” I said.
“We are to speak on the television this afternoon. What shall we speak about?” he asked in a matter-of-fact tone, although the timing of the call, coupled with this question, made me think he may have betrayed some anxiety. Had the possibilities of the interview kept him awake?
“Well, the BBC has asked me to review your latest book on India, which I’ve very much enjoyed, and to possibly range in general over the rest of your work and perhaps ask you about your reaction to the criticism some of your books have received.”
“Ah. Which books were you thinking of?”
“Not the novels, but perhaps the ones featuring your travels in Africa and the Muslim world?”
“I see,” he said and paused.
“I look forward to it.”
“Yes, yes, goodbye,” he said and put the phone down.
As soon as I got to my office at Channel 4 that morning, The Book Programme producer rang.
“Hi, Farrukh. I just got a call from Naipaul’s agent, Gillon Aitken. I believe you spoke to Naipaul this morning.”
“Yes, he called me at bloody seven in the morning.”
“Well, Gillon says Naipaul doesn’t want to be interviewed by you?”
“He said you told him, ‘Negroes don’t like your books.’”
“What? I said nothing of the sort. It’s not the kind of language I use, and why would I have said any such thing? Oh shit, so it’s off?”
“No, no. It’s not off. You’re on, and we’re sending the cab to pick you up. I told Gillon that if Naipaul won’t be interviewed, we’re giving Mr Dhondy half an hour to say whatever he likes about Naipaul’s work.”
I was a bit taken aback, but he continued, “Can you think of what you’ll say? I’m sure you can do half an hour of your views on any and all of his work? You have carte blanche.”
“OK. There’s plenty to say. I love his work.”
“Fine. See you at the recording.”
An hour or so later, he called again.
“Naipaul has changed his mind. You will be talking to him.”
The recording was scheduled in a room of a “boutique” hotel in South Kensington so that Vidia could walk to it from his flat. He always wore a hat when he was outside, and he arrived, took it off and took his place. I had brought three first editions of his books with me and placed them on the coffee table in front of us.
I asked him about this latest book on India and said that it seemed to me a change of heart or a progression from his previous books.
“Oh dear, you’re already giving me marks,” he said.
He seemed determined to treat the interview as a hostile encounter, though the questions I asked were, if not flatteringly put, devoid of any snide critical intent – which is what I think he expected.
The interview was meaty enough, and when our time was up, before he rose to go, I asked if he would sign my copies. He said he would sign just one and did so. He took his hat, nodded to the producer and left. The producer and crew looked as though they were breathing sighs of relief. I was assured it had gone well, was brilliant and all the usual guff producers feel obliged to tell their interviewers.
It was perhaps a year later that Gillon rang me and invited me to lunch with Vidia.
“Is this a joke, Gillon? Vidia hates my guts!”
“All that’s changed,” Gillon said. “You know the new Lady Naipaul...”
“I read that he got married to a Pakistani lady.”
“Yes, Nadira, who reads your columns and books, loves them and wants to meet you, so Vidia’s called you to lunch. Is Bibendum good?”
Bibendum was a fancy oyster joint in South Kensington, and yes, I said, it was good.
Vidia was sullen as he took his place at the lunch table, while Nadira was effusive as Gillon introduced us.
Excerpted with permission from Fragments Against My Ruin: A Life, Farrukh Dhondy, Context.
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