Naipaul's melancholy speaks


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Category: Profiles Date: 12 Dec 04


“Quick,” said my brother, “Switch on the television. Naipaul on BBC.”


There he was, filling up his chair, now bearded, moustached, an imposing literary figure, but there was something wrong with his eyes. They looked glued together. He seemed to be in discomfort. He said something about being ill. There was some question over whether he had another book in him yet. He appeared somewhat subdued.


Still he unnerved the interviewer who, anxious not to be made to look like a fool on world television, was extremely careful with his questions. That, too, irritated Sir Naipaul who swatted him as he would a fly to the question that said he “offended people,” was nasty to them in his books.


He told the interviewer to “go ask the people themselves why they were offended.” He said he wrote what had to be written, “not what people wanted to hear.”


We knew that.


The last time I saw Sir Vidia in the flesh he was receiving his Trinity Cross at President’s House—it was quite endearing really because his mother was present, draped in a modest orhni and sari and looking incredibly proud and he was the sheepish son. For an instant this made Sir Vidia like all the other recipients of national prizes (although he got his on a separate day in a special separate ceremony).


I slipped a note to him, imploring him for an interview. I never heard from him and can just imagine the careless brutality with which he crumpled and disposed of it.


In what might be one of his last books “Magic Seeds” which is the sequel to “Half a Life,” his character grows up, joins a revolutionary movement in Africa, realises it’s a sham, moves back to London and ruminates over his life.


The characters in “Magic Seeds” all speak in Sir Vidia’s voice. He is the bit player, the star and the omniscient narrator all in one. They are mouthpieces for his melancholy. After all this time, he hasn’t found his way in the world, which he has circled many times over after his rejection of his own country.


His character in “Magic Seeds” was “assailed by a loneliness that took him back to his first time in London 30 years before: back to some evenings in his childhood when—understanding the strains in his family, between his melancholy father, a man of caste, cheated of the life his good looks and birth had entitled him to, and his mother, of no caste and no looks, aggressive in every way, whom he, Willie, yet loved deeply; understanding as a result with the deepest kind of ache that there was no true place in the world for him—back to that childhood when on some especially unhappy evenings there came, with the utmost clarity, a child’s vision of the earth spinning in darkness, with everyone on it lost.”


Despite his accolades, despite decades of circling of real worlds as opposed to his hated mimic islands, Naipaul’s story is one of displacement and the impossibility of escaping ones birthplace.


“You might think I am talking like an old fool, and I probably am. But I cannot pretend at this age that I am making my way. In fact, every day I see more clearly that here, though I am a man rescued and physically free and sound in mind and limb, I am also like a man serving an endless prison sentence. I don’t have the philosophy to cope. It’s terrible to think of these people who look all right carrying their hidden wounds and even more terrible to think that I am one of them.”


After all these years, with eyes half shut, and a collapsing body, his childhood taunts him. Not even a Nobel could save him from that.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur