Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 13 | September 17, 2004 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   Slice of Life
   A Roman Column
   Human Rights
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   Book Review
   Dhaka Diary
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home



A Home for Mr Naipaul

He has written another novel, is actively involved in Indian politics and believes that certain countries should be destroyed. Yet, at 72, VS Naipaul says that what he craves most is a quiet life. His wife sometimes begs to differ.

Tim Adams

Sir Vidia Naipaul sits in the garden of his cottage in the Wiltshire countryside, sipping tea. His eyes are almost closed to the afternoon sun, which gives him an air of weariness. The journey for him here has been a long one. It began in Trinidad 72 years ago. It took in his scholarship to Oxford, his discovery of his family's original place on the earth in India, his 27 books that dwell, often, on displacement and exile. What does he think of now, I ask him, when he thinks of home?

He smiles and his eyes are completely lost. "I was talking about this to my wife, Nadira, some days ago," he says. "From time to time - and this is probably true of all people - there is a sentence that comes into my head, and the sentence is, 'It's time for me to go back home now.' For me, it does not mean anything. But it is there all the same.' He chuckles and shifts a little in his chair. When he moves, he winces slightly with his bad back, which has laid him up for the best part of a year. "Home is, I suppose just a child's idea. A house at night, and a lamp in the house. A place to feel safe."

Naipaul's latest, a novel, Magic Seeds, is the bleakly comic story of Willie Chandran who responds to the anxiety of his own displacement by trying to find "his war". Chandran also featured in Naipaul's last novel, Half a Life, in which he migrated from India to England to southern Africa, mostly in search of a sex life. Now he returns to India and joins up with a Maoist revolutionary group, lives in the jungle, wondering all the while what on earth he is up to.

Naipaul does not see the book particularly as a sequel. "This thing was quite a separate idea," he says. "I went to India and met some people who had been involved in this guerrilla business, middle-class people who were rather vain and foolish. There was no revolutionary grandeur to it. Nothing. And I put the whole thing out of my head. And then, as is often the case, I found a way of using that material as it should be used."

Naipaul has always been happy to be provoked, and likes to seem exhausted by the consequences. "Making a book is such a big enterprise," he says, with a sigh, sinking deeper in his chair. "There is so much inspiration needed, so many illuminations. You have a whole life's experience to deal with, and it colours each of your sentences."

The sentences of Magic Seeds are full of all Naipaul's exact and cumulative brilliance. "My wish is to fix a scene with a very bright picture and to move along like that," he says of his method, 'very bright pictures. People can never remember long descriptions. Just one or two images. But you have to choose them very carefully.

That has always come naturally to me, of course."

Naipaul says he has always travelled with one question in his head: will this be interesting in 20 years' time? His inquiry on the rise of Islamic states, Among the Believers, in 1981, has proved, in this respect, particularly prophetic. Most of the world still has not confronted its implications, he believes. "The blowing up of the towers: people could deal with it as an act of terror, but the idea of religious war is too frightening for people to manage. The word used is jihad. We like to translate it as holy war, but really it is religious war."

What does he think the proper response of the West should be?

"Well, clearly Iraq is not the place to have gone. But religious war is so threatening to the rest of us that it cannot be avoided. It will have to be fought... there are certain countries which foment it, and they probably should be destroyed, actually."

Saudi Arabia?

"I would like to think so, yes."

"I think Iran has to be dealt with, too."

Ironically, he came here first for the quiet, an enchantment that he describes in The Enigma of Arrival. Naipaul's accounts of his childhood in Trinidad, by contrast, are, above all, noisy. Did he always long for silence?"I think so, though I never thought of that when I was there. But I think Wiltshire is important in calming me down. And age smoothes out anger, too. Moreover, a man who is not sensually fulfilled is an imperfect man; when that fulfilment comes, a man becomes more complete and that can help the writer."

After his first wife died, Naipaul married Nadira, a journalist, who he first met when she came over to him at a party and kissed him on the lips. She has not lost that sense of drama and, as such, they make a perfect pair of opposites. He reserved, thoughtful, weighing every word, she impulsive and full of talk. Towards the end of the interview, she joins us with their cat, Augustus, their pride and joy.

"Nadira brought the cat to the house. I think it was an act of idleness, really. But once a creature comes into your life, you have to look after it. It came as a tiny little kitten, terrified, and as soon as I held him he calmed down. I could not abandon him after that."

Nadira suggests that the cat has been a focus for the Nobel laureate's latent paternal qualities. So fond of him is he, she confides, typically, that he has changed his will. "No longer will the royalties go to the society of authors but to an animal home in India I will set up when he is gone!"

I wonder if Naipaul regrets not having children. Lady Naipaul answers. "He has got a daughter now! He has legally adopted my 25-year-old. And he is a brilliant father. He impresses on her above all that she is free. That she need not get married, that if she is bored in a relationship, bam! Out! Move on! It horrifies my family. She loves it."

Sir Vidia begins to explain again how he likes silence, but before he is finished, Nadira has cut in to tell me about his involvement in Indian politics, and the situation in Pakistan, and how much hard work her husband is.

When there's a pause I ask him if he can ever imagine a time when he can no longer write?

"I think it will happen and I think it will be extremely painful. Without writing, everything will become insipid. Reading would have no point, because a writer reads with a purpose."

Nadira laughs. "I can tell Tim what you said to me: when I've finished writing, I will do reviews."

"No," says Naipaul quickly, "I would not do that. I have changed my mind."

"You said you were going to destroy a lot of big reputations!" Nadira says.

"Now," he says, "I think it is not worth it."

"That's what I said," says Nadira. "I said: you do that, Vidia, and no one will come to your memorial service."

Naipaul considers this. "There are very few writers over 72, you know," he says, "who have written well."

I am about to suggest Saul Bellow, when he reminds me who he considers his peers to be.

"Tolstoy perhaps," he says. Then, bleakly: "It was at 72 that Ibsen had his stroke."

"You'll be perfectly all right; don't you worry," Nadira snaps cheerfully. "The material for his books now comes to him. You'd be amazed the people that come down that path."

Do they include other writers?

"No," Naipaul says. "I would not know what to talk to another writer about. He would be thinking about his book. And I would be thinking about mine. And what would we think of to say to each other?"

I assume he has made no peace with Paul Theroux, his former friend and author of the obsessive attack on him, Sir Vidia's Shadow.

"I pay no attention to that. I never read his book, of course. I do not look for controversy."

When Lady Naipaul finishes, her husband smiles. "Nadira said last night that the last nine years with me have been relentless." He rolls the word around his tongue. "Relentless, she said, just like that. It's not quite how I hoped she would express it, but still." He laughs. "Relentless. I suppose it is something."

"Yes, yes, Vidia," says his wife. And then she helps him to his feet and he disappears inside to rest his tired back, and to find some quiet.

This article was first published in the Observer, UK


Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2004