believe Theroux has missed the point. His vicious book, instead of
diminishing Naipaul, has served only to confirm that his estranged friend
has found immortality as the finest living writer in English.’
who builds a life on being pleasured by honour and flattery can only have
known great rejection and insecurity and a yearning to belong. Vidia’s
temperament was a riddle. There seemed to me, nothing lower than being
beastly to book-tour escorts and nasty to secretaries, or to any underling
who, out of nervousness, made gauche remarks. Did Vidia’s compulsion to
intimidate such people arise from his having felt rejected himself? He did
not make much of his experience of racism, but he acknowledged that he had
known it in England. His cruelty could have been a case of monumental
payback, though it was anyones guess why his victims were innocent
Americans and English flunkies and earnest Hollanders.
denied being Indian. He saw himself as ‘a new man.’ But he behaved
like an upper-caste Indian. And Vidia often assumed the insufferable ‘do
you know who I am?’ posturing of a particular kind of Indian bureaucrat
which is always a sign of inferiority. It had taken me a long time to
understand that Vidia was not in any sense English, not even Anglicized,
but Indian to his core; caste conscious, race conscious, a food fanatic,
precious in his fears from worrying about his body being ‘tainted’.
Because he was an Indian from the West Indies, defensive, feeling his
culture was under siege, his attitudes approached the level of self
lost his humour, he blunted his descriptive gift, he denounced
universities, he bemoaned readers, he tried to hold a funeral and bury the
novel. But like the soothsayer who sees only evil because he is a
miserable grouch, Vidia was not to be taken seriously.”
from “Sir Vidias Shadow:. A Friendship across Five Continents” by Paul
book is an act of revenge, an epic poison pen letter. A massive
Shakespearean stab in the back of a 30-year-old friend. Parts of it are so
like intense hate mail that it is written like an obituary because Naipual
is spoken of as if he no longer exists. In “Sir Vidia’s Shadow” by
Paul Theroux are scores of anecdotes which show how bitter Naipaul is, how
cheap, how absurd, how cruel, how arrogant, how insecure, how physically
ugly (“his personality dominated his face, which was forever contorted,
twisted down in disapproval and misery and suffering”).
more on how ignorant he is, of his absurd generalizations on Islam, and
India and writing and people. He is conceited: “an enigma, a mocker, a
complainer.” He is a snob. In Kampala he “belittled the politicians,
ridiculed the currency, sneered at the newspapers.” Naipaul is also,
according to Theroux, greedy money-minded, a misogynist, a visitor of
prostitutes, finicky. Finally at the end of the book, Theroux attacks
Naipaul’s centre calling his recent books “odd and insufficient”.
book is vastly entertaining, because it does sound like the Naipaul we
know. The very one who told local journalists that he “doesn’t know
any Indians” when asked his opinion on the East Indian experience in
Trinidad. The very man who told local journalists that the politics of a
country of 1.2 million people doesn’t interest him. The man who has
written scathingly about his own people and disowned his country.
of the first chapters is bound to catch the West Indian eye. It is titled
On Safari in Rwanda. It is roaringly funny to read about Naipaul in the
late 60s during a safari when he wore heavy clothes “like a hunter or
soldier”. He wore his expensive camera “as an accessory, a big thing
thumping on his chest.” The conclusion was that “with his downturned
hat brim and his downturned mouth and the way he sweated in those heavy
clothes in the Ugandan hot season, Vidia appeared conspicuous and
this long safari we learn through Paul Theroux that Naipaul was
“knowledgeable and enthusiastic” about calypso.
had written, in ‘The Middle Passage,’ ‘ It is only in the calypso
that the Trinidadian touches reality’. Tell your sister to come down,
boy. I have something here for she. That was Mighty Sparrow, whom Vidia
called Sparrow. Lord Invader, another calypso singer, he called,
familiarly, Invader. Vidia sang in his scratchy needle-on- record voice:
only thing to stop these hooligans from causing panic in the island;
I go by the government,
they need another kind of punishment,
say one thing to cool on this crime
bring back that old-time cat-o-nine”
in the same “tone-deaf voice” that “oddly affected” Theroux he
sang the chorus.
is another hilarious little anecdote in that chapter, this time reportedly
told by Naipaul to his friend Theroux over the wrong spelling of names.
“He (Naipaul) said he had once received a letter from Penguin Books
addressed to “VS Naipaul.” It was from a man named Anthony Mott. Vidia
replied, typing on the envelope, ‘To a Mutt,’ and began his letter,
‘Dear Mr Mutt.’”
are also given proof of Naipaul’s finicky ways, his distaste of dirt and
disorder. This was set in a hotel restaurant in Kisoro where he had
stopped for lunch. Naipaul himself reportedly told Theroux this story so
it’s told in Naipaul’s voice. Naipaul summoned the manager
he came to our table, I said, ‘You have very strange rules here.’
rules? What do you mean?’
governing the condition of your staff uniforms’, I said
have no such rules. Only that they wear them.’
you have a rule saying that all staff uniforms must be dirty?’
I said, ‘I thought that, because they were all dirty, your staff must be
obeying a rule.’
manager glared at me. But I was not through. ‘The other rule I noticed
was the one about serving. Whenever a plate or bowl is brought the table,
the waiter has his thumb stuck in the food. That’s surely a rule,
because they all do it.’”
is another incident over which the reader is not sure whether to laugh or
get angry. It took place after Paul Theroux described the scene of the
Clapham riots in London.
was not a riot,’ he said. “ That was a disturbance. Frightening, I
grant you. But not a riot.’
of people. Angry West Indians.’
angry,” he said. ‘Why would they be angry? They were jubilant. They
wanted witnesses, and people took notice. They succeeded in destroying
something. Windows, whatever. I suppose they stole some television
is capable of dismissing whole continents. Take this conversation with
Theroux in Uganda when he was only 34. Theroux asks him his feelings on
Soyinka. Chinua Achebe.”
they write anything?”
Novels’ I said
he said. “ You can’t beat a novel out on a drum.”
has a word for people he considers inferior. “Infi”, he calls them. He
walks out of countries and dinner parties even if he is the guest of
honour if an “infi” annoys him.
recurring theme in the book is that Naipaul avoided paying restaurant
bills over this 30-year friendship.
bill was brought. I paid it, I left the tip. Vidia had not seen it. He did
not see bills even when they were brought on the most expensive china and
folded like origami and presented to him. It was one of his survival
skills that a bill come and go without ever being visible.”
these are mere trifles when one considers how far he has come. Both the
Naipaul brothers were given glimpses of a larger life, liberated, by their
father who wrote, and read books. Shiva was to write of him.
in the rough, often squalid largely illiterate peasant environment out of
which he had sprung augured so peculiar a life story. It was a leap of
ambition, of imagination, of sensibility, which moves and astonishes
to their father’s leap of ambition Naipaul was able to achieve the
accolade of the finest living novelist in English. Even Theroux has had to
admit that Naipaul is stimulating, brilliant, funny, curious because
otherwise there would be no value to the man and nobody, would buy
Theroux’s book on him.
had impossibly high standards. He said there was no point in having
standards unless they were high. He did not compromise. He expected the
best, in writing, in speaking, in behaviour, in reading.”
“Sir Vidia’s Shadow” is undeniably gripping, after a while it loses
its credibility. No man can be so bad. The book only gets away from being
churlish because it is sold as a portrait of a friendship. It allows us to
eavesdrop on countless conversations: Sir Vidia in delicate lunch parties,
Sir Vidia as a householder in a cramped flat and a larger house with a
garden where instead of flowers, he planted only various shades of green;
Sir Vidia on a snowy evening in America. As West Indian readers we are
privileged because at times we know where he’s coming from. After all if
he loves cricket, different shades of green, calypso, he can’t be that
was never any question of Naipaul returning to Trinidad because there is
nobody to read, write or publish books here. There is no publishing
industry. As far as he is concerned a society does not yet exist here.
They are extreme views. But we can’t dismiss them entirely. The fact is
that most great West Indian writers find it impossible to live here. CLR
James went away. Walcott is here only for brief periods. We can’t
sustain them. We are intellectually very young. Most of us barely get
through a book a year.
late brother Shiva ultimately helps unravel their sense of exile, and
ambivalence towards this country. The revelation comes from an extract of
Shiva Naipaul’s essay for the BBC2 series “Writers and Places”
broadcast in June 1982.
shadows on the horizon are oilrigs. Trinidad has struck it rich.
dares to think of what might happen if and when the oil runs out.
gap separating rich from poor has become accentuated. The island is
beginning to acquire a Latin-American profile. Rich and poor are evolving
fantasies, which are not merely separate but deeply incompatible.
calls itself a nation. It has a flag, a flower, a seat in the UN. But we
have no genuinely collective existence. We are merely a random collection
of races thrown together by outside forces.
arise out of shared experience, shared memory, and shared aspiration. In
Trinidad these ingredients have existed only in the most superficial
forms. The fragments out of which our island society was haphazardly
assembled had no communion with one another, no common sympathy. Each
lived according to its own code and went its own way. Talk of a nation
under these circumstances is late 20th century humbug. The term
Trinidadian, aside from its geographical reference, has for me very little
live in London now. Yet the ragged landscape of Trinidad lives on in me.
Its smells, its textures, its squalor and its beauties run in my blood. I
cannot disown it and it cannot disown me.”
a West Indian reader, I believe Theroux has missed the point. His vicious
book, instead of diminishing Naipaul, has served only to confirm that his
estranged friend has found immortality as the finest living writer in