OBITUARIES AND THE Internet will tell you about Sir V.S. Naipaul. I want to write about my friend, inspiration and constantly engaging guru and even entertainer, Vidia, ‘the boss’ and ‘mamaji’, when he was out of earshot.
Yes, yes, he was a literary colossus of the twentieth century, inventing genres which told us more about the world we live in, and even about the language we speak, than James Joyce. As for his standing amongst other writers, one can say they are as slingless Davids to his Goliath with a plethora of slings, if not literary and observational AK47s.
Entertainer? Yes! With a determination that any writer of note has to provoke through accuracy of observation and insight. He was deliberately stimulative of dissension. His tongue stayed firmly out of his cheek when he knew he was being provocative and could predict the reaction it would stimulate from the people he wished to tease.
“When do you return Farrukh?” he asked when I visited him in his hotel in Delhi in the days after the Babri Masjid episode.
“Tomorrow morning,” I said.
“Can you stay for a day longer? I want you to come with us to a meeting to which I’m invited of the BJP’s Cultural Wing.”
“Isn’t that an oxymoron?” I said.
“Now, now. Don’t be clever Farrukh” says Vidia.
I stay the extra day and we go and are greeted by some stalwarts of the party. The television crews and journalists are at the gate and being held back by security as we drive in and alight.
Vidia tells the assembled crowd in the hall, the BJPs culturalists, that he is there to ask them questions and to listen, and not to make a speech. He asks them why and in what way they are revising history books. I sit in the corner seat of the front row in the audience as the witness that Vidia wanted, as he is convinced that there will be those who will distort and twist anything he says and even make it up.
There are answers from the floor to his several queries, some of which talk about ‘correcting’ school history books and some of which are vituperative rubbish.
Then someone makes bold to ask Vidia about the Babri Masjid and whether he supports the action that the volunteer marchers have taken in attempting its demolition. Vidia says he is only certain that the Mughal conqueror Babur built the masjid as an act of hubris. I found myself wondering how many in that audience understood the word.
As we emerged from the hall the press and cameras had forced themselves through the gate and besieged us. The questions began to fly.
“Naipaul, do you condone the slaughter of Muslims in Gujarat?”
Vidia posed as though he was about to answer. Nadira, Lady Naipaul, was shouting back, fielding the antagonistic questions which were framed like the classical “have you stopped beating your wife?”
I grabbed Vidia’s arm. “Let’s go, they are trying to set you up.”
“I want to be set up,” he said.
I dragged him away and we escaped the apparent hostility.
Sure enough, Vidia’s expectation and precaution in asking me to accompany them proved right.
Two very well-known writers wrote critical and even accusatory articles in the Indian-English press implying that they were reporting on the meeting as though they were there. They were not.
The animus against Vidia, the accusations of racism, Islamophobia, misogyny and Allah-knows-what, are sometimes justified reactions to his very opinionated pronouncements, but very often reactions of the wounded to the keenly observed, precisely pronounced and possibly hurtful truth.
Vidia’s legacy is the arrogant observation of the realities of our world in all its transitions and the examination in his fictional works of characters in worlds of historical flux.
His prose, fictional and non-fictional, the prose of discovery, has been called window-pane prose. We look through it at the object beyond, unlike the meretricious stained-glass prose which vainly calls attention to itself.