I first met VS Naipaul on the tree-shaded grounds of Bangalore's West End Hotel. He walked up to where I was waiting, dressed in khaki trousers and a felt hat, all ready to tackle the heat and dust of Bangalore. He introduced himself in a clipped accent. "I'm Naipaul," he said.
A day earlier, my editor at The Indian Express in Bangalore, TJS George, had received an urgent request from Rahul Singh, his counterpart in Chandigarh. Rahul told George that Naipaul was in Bangalore to research material for a new book, and to ask the Science reporter to meet him. Apparently, Naipaul needed a guide to take him around.
In 1988, Bangalore was witnessing the explosion of the IT industry. Texas Instruments had blazed a path that others soon followed: HP, Motorola, Digital, Wipro, and Infosys had all employed thousands of Indian engineers. Naipaul wanted to witness this miracle for himself. After two books — An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization — where he had been critical of India, Naipaul seemed to want to make amends. His new book, he said, would talk about how India was transitioning from a traditional society to a modern one. He saw this transition as a complex web of mutinies across the country, by people aching to become modern. He already had a name for his book, India—A Million Mutinies Now.
Naipaul was accompanied by Margaret, an elegant beautiful lady who attended to his every need. I had just returned from a pilgrimage to Sabarimala and had not yet broken my vratha. My vegetarianism seemed to please Naipaul, because he ate little or no meat himself. By the time he left, however, my vratha hand ended and I took him and Margaret out for lunch. He was horrified when I ordered sheep brain curry and roti. "You're a carnivore like any other," he said, appearing disappointed. After over 40 days of vegetarianism, I was enjoying the brain curry too much to be even mildly offended. Margaret was smiling, she loved her meats.
I traveled with Naipaul to Mysore, sharing the road with thousands of Ayyappa pilgrims, all dressed in black. We were on our way to the Mysore Palace, where Naipaul was to meet up with the royal priest and the royal barber. The palace was overrun with Ayyappa devotees, who were using the pilgrimage to undertake some tourism on the side. I remarked that they should focus on the pilgrimage, not on sightseeing. My irritation amused him, and he later commented on that in his book.
Naipaul was disappointed with his interview with the royal barber. He thought he was a bombastic liar, but was very interested in the priest, a soft-spoken old man who had fascinating stories to tell about the old Wodeyar rulers of Mysore.
While we were there, I introduced Naipaul to a relative of mine, who worked for the Karnataka government. She told him, "You're the one who said India is big toilet." He just smiled. Later, on the way back, I realised that her words had upset him. "That was another time. India has changed," he said.
I borrowed my uncle's Willys Jeep to drive him and Margaret around Bangalore. With the three of us squashed into the front seat and the top down, I could see that Margaret was enjoying it. Naipaul, not so much. He complained about the traffic, the dust, and the incessant honking. He was most unimpressed with Bangalore's IT hub in Electronic City. If he expected to see a modern well-planned city, he was disappointed.
Naipaul and I were invited for breakfast at the home of MP Prakash, a minister in the Ramakrishna Hegde government. I went to Naipaul's hotel in the morning and we walked from there. The pavement was in a terrible condition and we had to hop, skip and jump our way through. Naipaul complained ceaselessly all the way. Looking back, I can't help thinking what he would say about things now. If anything, things have gotten worse.
You can't be a journalist and accompany a famous English writer for a week and not, at some point, ask if you can interview him. But when I did, he refused. "You haven't read any of my books, you don't know anything about me," he said. Then, in a more conciliatory tone, he said, "Wait for this book to be published, then you can write an article on your experience with me." I was disappointed, but I agreed.
I tried to make amends, however. A neighbor of mine presented me with his old tattered copy of A House For Mr Biswas. I also bought An Area of Darkness. One evening, when he was still in town, I visited a book exhibition at the Institution of Engineers, across the road from The Indian Express building. I spotted the hardcover edition of A Bend in the River, priced at Rs 20. I went back to the office and called him at his hotel room. I told him about the book and asked, "Do you think I should buy it?" He paused, probably taken aback by my cheek, and then replied, "It seems like a bargain. You should buy it."
I went back and bought it. He autographed all three books for me. While signing the books he said, "The guy in the hotel bookshop got me to sign all the books he had on his shelves. He said they were for himself, but I think he is planning to flog them." In his dry witty way, Naipaul was paying me back for being cheeky.
I was cheeky in other ways too. For instance, I once expressed my love for PG Wodehouse. He dismissed it, saying, "I don't read fantasy."
I asked him what he liked to read, and he mentioned Spinoza, Moliere, Guy du Maupassant, and Ray Bradbury. I told him he should read Wodehouse as it would change the way he looks at the world. When they were clearing out their room, Margaret gave me some books she had finished reading and thought I would like to keep. One of them was Right Ho, Jeeves! "It's nice," she said. Naipaul was looking somewhere else.
When A Million Mutinies was published, I was surprised that he wrote about my Sabarimala experience. My brother did a count, and my name appears 35 times in that book. Even more surprising was that Naipaul is studied, and has theses written on his works. Quite a few PhD scholars wrote about the Sabarimala episode. Some even speculated on what kind of person I was. One gentleman said I was a "colourless figure", thank you very much. I have never before or since been a subject of a scholarly study.
As agreed, I wrote about my experiences with Naipaul in The Indian Express magazine. I had his address in England with me, which he had written down for me with an invitation to visit. I toyed with the idea of mailing the article to him, but I never did. A few years later, I received a telephone call. The voice at the other end said, "Is that Deviah? I'm in Bangalore." I no longer worked with The Indian Express, but Naipaul had tracked me down. He asked, "Did you read the book?" I said yes.
His next question surprised me, "Did it change your life?"
My life had changed since then, but because of his book? Not really, but I didn't want to hurt his feelings. I said, why don't we meet for lunch. I arranged to pick him up from his hotel. I took him to Karavalli, an excellent coastal restaurant at the Taj Gateway. With him was his wife Nadira, a Pakistani lady who fiercely defended his point of view on everything.
Naipaul was then in the process of writing Beyond Belief. Its theme, he explained, was how Muslims in South and southeast Asia had difficulty reconciling with their own ancestry. Unlike Margaret, who preferred to remain in the background, Nadira was actively involved in his conversations. I couldn't help thinking how right for him she was. We had a lively discussion over an excellent lunch of rice and Goan fish curry, attended to personally by Karavalli's legendary Chef Thimmaiah.
After lunch, I took Naipaul to my office and showed him the article I had written about him. He read the first paragraph and stopped. He wasn't happy with my description of him (which is almost exactly what it is in the first paragraph of this article). "I don't have a clipped accent," he said. I replied, "You should have allowed me to interview you."
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Titan watch showroom in Safina Plaza. Someone had asked him to visit one as an example of the new retail culture that was sweeping India. He wasn't impressed. At the hotel, we shook hands. I could see he was still irritated by my article.
The next time he came to Bangalore, he was a Nobel Laureate. He never contacted me.
Updated Date: Aug 14, 2018 08:38 AM