Like many readers across the world, I am appalled at his derogatory remarks about women writers. But then Sir Vidia has always been bafflingly contradictory at his core.
Well, what would you make of a famous writer, who makes time for two young journalists in the middle of his research for his second book on India, India – a million mutinies now. It must have been in 1988 that we had lain in wait at the West End and accosted him as he and his woman companion emerged for dinner.
We introduced ourselves; at that time, I was a cub reporter with Deccan Herald and my late husband Allen was with the Indian Express. Naipaul very graciously invited us to have a drink with him and we ended up chatting for nearly an hour.
And what an hour that was! One never knew what was coming next as he plied us with questions. It seemed to me a good idea that we ask the questions but very gently, he turned down the idea for an interview. He suggested, “Write down whatever impressions you have of our meeting. Use it later”. He was rather mercurial; when I naively tried to tell him my impressions of one of his books, he coldly insisted that he just could not relate to readers’ feedback.
He agreed to lunch with us the next day and little did we know what a singularly inappropriate choice we made in choosing Mezban, then a fairly up-market restaurant and one that we patronized for special occasions. Looking around the decor, Naipaul asked that the Middle-Eastern music be turned down. “H’mm, this is a Muslim place, is it? Do you know, that the Muslims believe for every infidel they kill, they get a virgin in Heaven?”, he demanded in a louder-than-normal voice.
We choked over our sherbets but Naipaul held forth in the same vein for a considerable amount of time. On tenterhooks lest the manager or waiter overhear Naipaul’s unpalatable remarks, we were only too glad when the meal ended.
Back then, neither of us had a car, so we hired a taxi from the West End to the restaurant. When we got down at the lobby, Naipaul realised that it was a horrendously expensive hotel taxi and insisted on paying the fare. A kind and gentlemanly act as both Allen and I, at the salaries earned in those days, were nearly broke after paying for the meal.
What struck me most was the contrast in his manner. In all the time we spent together, he never once spoke to nor included his woman companion in the conversation. After having introduced us to her, he simply ignored her. (I don’t recall her name but I would assume she was Margret Gooding, his long-time mistress, whom he dumped when he met and married Nadira, ironically, a Muslim).
Over the years, I had stopped trying to read his books; many just lay on the shelf and were simply unable to hold my attention when I did pick them up to read. Not because of his style of writing, which is undoubtedly masterly, it was the subject matter that I did not find interesting. I did not attend a bookstore event during the last visit to Bangalore; a good decision as he reportedly lost his temper and created a scene. It would not have been a pleasant sight to watch.
I am not incensed by his claim that he can spot a woman’s writing from a man’s; that does not bother me. I do take offence at his claim that no woman can match his writing. If I said that we would not want to match his bigoted narcissism, he would probably hold it up as an example of sentimental feminine writing. Sir Vidia, confidence in oneself is a good quality but arrogance is not becoming. Of course, even a Nobel Laureate is entitled to be an imperfect man.