Home for Mr Naipaul
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.
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?
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
always come naturally to me, of course."
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."
he think the proper response of the West should be?
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."
would like to think so, yes."
"I think Iran has to be dealt with, too."
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."
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.
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."
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!"
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."
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.
a pause I ask him if he can ever imagine a time when he can
no longer write?
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."
laughs. "I can tell Tim what you said to me: when I've
finished writing, I will do reviews."
says Naipaul quickly, "I would not do that. I have changed
said you were going to destroy a lot of big reputations!"
he says, "I think it is not worth it."
what I said," says Nadira. "I said: you do that,
Vidia, and no one will come to your memorial service."
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.
perhaps," he says. Then, bleakly: "It was at 72
that Ibsen had his stroke."
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."
include other writers?
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?"
he has made no peace with Paul Theroux, his former friend
and author of the obsessive attack on him, Sir Vidia's Shadow.
pay no attention to that. I never read his book, of course.
I do not look for controversy."
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, 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.
was first published in the Observer, UK
(R) thedailystar.net 2004