'Nightmare' city with likeable folks

In writing about India, V.S. Naipaul faced a big problem.

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 13.08.18

London: In writing about India, V.S. Naipaul faced a big problem.

"He looked Indian but when people spoke to him in Hindi, he couldn't reply," recalled journalist Rahul Singh, who had met Naipaul when the writer first came to India and later acted as his friend, guide and interpreter.

"This was because Naipaul couldn't speak Hindi," Rahul said. Or any other Indian language. "This barrier caused frustration on both sides."

Naipaul never brought his first wife Patricia to India. "I always met him with Margaret," a reference to his Anglo-Argentine mistress, Margaret Gooding, who was replaced in Naipaul's affections by Nadira Alvi, who became his second wife.

"I spent a lot of time with him in Punjab - that was the time of terrorism," Rahul, who was then editor of Reader's Digest in India, continued. "I visited Calcutta with him. He found the city a nightmare but he liked the people he met."

Referring to the nuclear physicist Bikash Sinha, Rahul continued: "Bikash gave a lunch at the Bengal or the Calcutta Club. Naipaul did not have a coat and tie so we had to get that for him."

On his early trips, it was Rahul's father, the journalist and author Khushwant Singh, who had the most contact with Naipaul. "My dad always thought he would get the Nobel Prize."

At a dinner in Bombay, Naipaul was placed next to the columnist Behram Contractor, known as "Busybee".

"Behram did not know who the man next to him was. He asked, 'Who are you?' 'Naipaul.' 'Not the Naipaul?' Naipaul admitted that he was. Behram, who was a bit drunk, shook Naipaul warmly by the hand and said, 'You are a great writer but Dom Moraes is better.' Naipaul was not amused."

Rahul summed up by saying Naipaul "had the knack of getting under the skin" of whatever he was observing. "Some people didn't like the truth but the truth needed to be heard. I think he was the best writer in the English language that I have read - and I have read nearly all his books."

The journalist who has been closest to Naipaul in recent years is Farrukh Dhondy, who said: "I used to drive him to Whitstable where he loved to have oysters."

Asked whether any of Naipaul's books, other than The Mystic Masseur, which has already been adapted for the screen, would be made into movies, Dhondy said he had written a script for A Bend in the River and done a four-part TV treatment for A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul, he said, had read and approved the scripts.

Having talked to Nadira, Farrukh said it was his understanding that Naipaul's funeral would be a very private, emphatically non-religious affair, probably in Wiltshire, with only close family and friends -- "the A team" -- present. This will be followed later by a memorial where many more people could be invited.