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FACE TO FACE WITH A MASTER OF THE CRAFT

Up until the early 1990s, I had never actually read any of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s works. Read about them, but never actually read them. My personal library was a potpourri of Wodehouse, Richard Gordon, Henry Cecil, Damon Runyon, some fine writing on cricket, Punch annuals and more Wodehouse. Not exactly the crème de la crème of English literature, but not to be sniffed at either. It was, therefore, with a mixture of surprise and consternation that I viewed a totally unexpected invitation to meet Naipaul.

It happened in Calcutta during the late 1980s. I received a call one morning, out of the blue, from the then editor of Sunday magazine, Vir Sanghvi. He told me that V.S. Naipaul was in the City of Joy, doing extensive research for a new book he was writing on India, and whether I would like to meet him. The new tome would have completed a distinguished Indian trilogy for Naipaul, after India: A Wounded Civilization and An Area of Darkness. In order to obtain background material, the great chronicler was meeting people from all walks of life, all over India. As was his wont.

As to why I should have been among those hand-picked to be interviewed, I was somewhat at a loss to fathom.Vir explained that as I was then working for a well-known multinational company, whose ownership was changing from British to Indian hands, I would be a potentially good subject to probe on matters of change in management styles, culture, resultant impact on staff morale, and so on. I nodded dubiously, as if I understood, and recklessly agreed to the meeting — partly out of curiosity but more out of a feeling of overweening self-importance. My family, friends and colleagues were soon to be the victims of crashingly boring accounts of ‘my tryst with V.S. Naipaul’.

The great day finally dawned, and I did not, in the intervening period, rush out to buy a copy of An Area of Darkness, to bone up on Naipaul. In this case, I truly felt that ignorance was bliss, and I could thus approach the man with no preconceived baggage. Of course, I had a swarm of butterflies aflutter in my stomach. Not unnaturally. The venue chosen for this meeting was the now sadly defunct and revered Skyroom on Park Street. We made a threesome over tea — Naipaul, Vir and yours truly.

The tea, highlighted by sandwiches and pastries, was scrumptious. It was Skyroom, after all. My first impression of Naipaul was one of open-mouthed awe. Suave, urbane and very deliberate in the way he spoke. He chose his words carefully, and asked me a number of incisive questions — about my family background, my education, my extra-curricular interests and my professional work environment. His manner was gentle and not probing. I did not choke over my cucumber sandwich, nor loudly slurp at my tea and answered his polite queries as best I could. It was not a command performance, but I thought I did alright.When I told him that I had never read a book of his, he smilingly replied that that qualified me eminently to be a part of his research. Then suddenly, it was all over. He got up, firmly shook my hand and thanked me warmly for sparing the time. An anti-climax. I don’t even recall who paid the bill. Must have been Vir, armed with a generous expense account. That was that. My much awaited meeting with the great V.S. Naipaul was done and dusted in less than an hour. Or so I thought.

A couple of days later, I received an early morning telephone call and I recognized the deep baritone instantly. It was Naipaul, asking me if the two of us could meet up as soon as possible. I was pleasantly surprised and confused. “You would like to meet me again, Mr Naipaul?” I spluttered over the phone. “Is there anything else you need to clear up after our last meeting?” He guffawed in that characteristic way of his, and said, “No, no, that was just a trial meeting. To see if you were a fit candidate for a far more in-depth interaction. I hope you didn’t mind.”

We met again by the swimming pool of the Oberoi Grand on Chowringhee. The first of six such meetings, all at the same venue, with only fresh lime and soda to keep our wagging tongues and parched throats well lubricated. I would have preferred something stronger, given the forbidding challenge facing me, but he was interviewing several other people, and I had no wish to place any additional strain on the Naipaul exchequer. And so began our exhaustive, and at times exhausting, interactions.

Naipaul was nothing if not painstaking in the way he went about interviewing his subjects. Not for him the convenient option of a hand-held recording device, the better to transcribe every word later. He preferred the more difficult and arduous method of writing down every word you spoke in long hand. He had a separate exercise book for each and every subject of his, their names clearly block lettered on the cover with a fountain pen. Meticulous is the word that readily springs to the lips. His modus operandi was simple. He would ask me a question, for example, about my first job interview. During which he would, unexpectedly, ask me to describe in graphic detail, the room in which the interview took place. After I had feverishly wracked my scrambled brains, or what was left of them, to do justice to his demands and attempt a plausible description (he furiously scribbling the while), he would then pause, take a deep breath and proceed to read out every word I had just spoken. Imitating, almost mimicking, my gestures and expressions. It was uncanny. And unnerving.

Imagine listening to your own voice on a tape recorder. Always sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Now imagine a human voice doing exactly the same thing, sitting right across from you. With only a half-drunk glass of fresh lime soda to give you Dutch courage. Creepy. But Naipaul was extremely adept at this, and amazingly, not a word was out of place. Not the slightest inaccuracy you could cavil at. That’s when I realized that here was a true craftsman at work. A genius and a master of his profession. I felt more humbled than flattered. P.G. Wodehouse, himself a master, once famously said that every time he developed writer’s block, he would just sit in front of his typewriter and curse a bit. I don’t think Naipaul ever encountered such a problem — he had hundreds of fawning subjects telling him exactly what to write.

My six sessions with Naipaul took on a chronological pattern with respect to aspects of my life he found interesting to cover. Omitting birth, childhood and education, he found my early struggles to find and hold down a job of some interest. He also delved deeply into the volatile changes I experienced working for a well-known British multinational company that had decided to sell its controlling stake to a motley Indian collaboration. But most of all, he really got his teeth into my personal life, particularly conflicts with my parents over my proposed nuptials.

The thing is, I come from an orthodox Tamil Brahmin family, and when my parents thought it was high time I tied the knot, they proceeded to ‘arrange’ everything. This included ‘viewing’ a completely unknown girl in Madras, a mere formality, and expecting me to say ‘I will’ without demur. I shan’t go into the details as it has all been brilliantly recorded by Naipaul for posterity. This is one aspect of my narrative which he found utterly enthralling. He wanted me to describe in excruciating detail the girl viewing function, the interiors of the venue, the girl’s family, the small talk that took place and, of course, the girl. I was able to oblige him for the most part, except the girl, whom I remembered nothing of and with whom I did not exchange a word. Naipaul was holding his stomach, laughing. He was beside himself. I told him rather tartly that I had found nothing to laugh at at the time. Small wonder then, that as soon as I came back to Calcutta, I wasted no time in proposing to my then colleague and my wife of 35 years.

Given that my portion of this book was going to contain quite a bit of controversial material, at least from my highly conservative family’s point of view, I kept this wonderful interaction with Naipaul completely under wraps. Mum was the word, at least, as far as my Mum and Dad were concerned. I therefore decided to employ the old ruse of changing my real name in the book. I thus became Ashok, and Naipaul fully understood my compulsions and agreed to the name change. It didn’t do much good because everyone who read the book saw through the thinly veiled disguise. The news got to my parents, but I ensured the book never got to them.

As we entered the final session of our exchanges, I asked Naipaul if he would like to come home for a cup of tea. He readily agreed. Presumably to add verisimilitude, and to get a better idea of my surroundings and see me en famille, as it were. The family bit went for a toss as my better half decided to stay away that evening on the pretext of work pressure. Though I suspect she felt she might be getting in the way. Anyhow, we spent a most agreeable evening over tea, onion bhajjis and an assortment of toothsome pastries from Flury’s. A few days later, at a friendly cricket match between the publishing house where my wife worked and my company, Naipaul put in a surprise appearance. When I introduced my wife to him, he raised his hands to the heavens and declared dramatically, “At last we meet.”

Before we parted for the last time, I asked him if he would share his London contact number with me. As I was planning a holiday in the UK, I thought I might pay him a visit. In my naïveté, I assumed that we had become such good buddies now, that he would be happy to receive me at his home and hearth. Instead he gave me his agent’s number indicating he may not be in station at the time. I took the hint — thus far and no further.

The book, which is the raison d’etre for this piece, finally came out in 1990. I was beside myself with excitement and paid good money to buy a hard-bound edition. Predictably, I went straight to the chapter featuring Ashok and read it about seventeen times. The rest of the book I completed at a more leisurely pace. The book is called India: A Million Mutinies Now.

Footnote: in 2001, Naipaul visited Bangalore, where I now stay. It was to do with the launch of a new book, Half a Life. I attended the launch event and sent a note through to him, explaining that I was ‘Ashok’ from India: A Million Mutinies Now. This was the acid test. Knowing his moods, I wondered if he would agree to meet, or give me the cold shoulder. I need not have worried. He welcomed me warmly backstage, chatted briefly, and autographed my copy of the now well-thumbed, dog-eared book. It bears the firmly handwritten legend: To ‘Ashok’ — V.S.Naipaul.

My bookshelf, to say nothing of my life, is the richer for it.