My friends with benefits

Allow me to brag a little: I have interacted with two distinguished Nobel laureates so far! V.S. Naipaul, of course, was a studied act—think about the air of utter contempt he exuded towards lesser beings (everybody). When I encountered it, I found it more amusing than annoying. Over the years, I met him in short bursts and loved the practiced art of withering disdain he projected towards his fawning admirers.

Years ago, he attended a dinner party at our home, with his then partner—an imposing, garrulous Argentinian lady called Margaret. She was his ‘advance party’. Her job was to arrive a few minutes earlier, leaving the great man waiting in a car close by. This was to scan the crowd at the venue and quickly filter it. Were the people present worthy enough of Sir Vidia’s august presence? Was the whiskey being served premium enough for him? It was a neat drill. She would stick her head in from an ante room, survey the scene quickly, and then disappear. If she appeared again, it was with Naipaul, who then greeted his subjects with a slight nod and settled into a corner with a tumbler of the best. Hosts got delirious at the thought that they had passed the Naipaul test! That the lofty one had deigned to honour them with his visit!

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

Since we did not supplicate ourselves, nor was I prostrating at his feet in sheer gratitude, I guess he figured if he wanted to enjoy a drink at our home, he would have to behave like any other guest. The sight of freshly steamed mini-idlis threw him off guard. He asked me in a somewhat cross voice, “What on earth are these?” I told him. He looked stricken. “Where are the implements to eat these things with?” he quizzed. Margaret scuttled off in search of suitable ‘implements’ (knife and fork). Apart from that, Naipaul was perfectly well behaved and, mercifully, didn’t insult any of our guests.

My husband and I met the adorable Amartya Sen at a Jaipur Literature Festival dinner. Here was a Nobel laureate who wore his multiple honours as lightly as the navy blue pashmina shawl draped across his tweed jacket. Not for him the lofty grand standing or posturing of Naipaul. He was relaxed, charming, humourous and fabulous company. My husband and I had met him earlier, of course. But this was different. We were with his daughter Nandana (a close friend of ours), and her husband John Makinson (such a darling!). Amartya was with Emma Georgina Rothschild, his third wife, a quiet and observant scholar. The conversation sparkled minus any stiffness, as we discussed Bengali cuisine in minute detail and relaxed over glasses of a splendid red, carefully picked to complement the delicious Rajasthani food. A few years earlier, I had discussed a book idea with Amartya. He had been startled and might I add—a tad flattered! And what was the idea? I had vastly enjoyed Amartya’s The Argumentative Indian, which had become an international publishing sensation. Taking off from that terrific title, I wanted him to write, The Erotic Indian. Alas… it wasn’t to be! I am not sure who shot it down—it could have been Nandana, the loving, protective daughter! I still think it’s a great idea, and Amartya should do it!

Two brilliant minds. And so totally different in their thinking! Sen’s recent opinions on the Indian political scenario are radically opposed to Naipaul’s endorsement of the present government’s stated policies and outlook. Naipaul leaves behind a hefty body of work. So would Sen. Both men offer intellectual banquets to readers to feast on for generations to come. This is called legacy. I feel privileged to have met two unique geniuses at different points in their lives and mine. Friends with benefits? You can say that again!