VR Logo

India's Lost Son

The author talks about controversial writer V.S. Naipaul

V S Naipaul, whose 'authorised' biography, a fat volume of 600 pages, has just been published, is a man of large contradictions, as large as his reputation as a writer. He says he is an Indian, but does not know a single Indian language. He married a Pakistani woman, two days after losing his loving wife of 40 years. And he must be the only Nobel prizeman to be hated by his own mother to the point she refused to talk to or about him.

I met Naipaul for the first time about fifty years ago, on top of the London underground, of all places. We were both waiting for a common friend who had invited us for dinner at Earls Court station, a down-at-hill district of London. We didn't know each other until we were introduced. Naipaul looked like an Indian, but there was something about him that was distinctly African or Negroid and we stood eying each other across the hub of passengers coming and going past us.

When our friend turned up and introduced us, I was struck by the funny sounding name. Nepal yes, but Naipaul? I asked him whether he was a South Indian. He said he was from Trinidad, an island I knew only vaguely, but he said - and he said that again and again afterwards - he was also an Indian.

We walked down towards the trains and took a tube to Leicester Square, which is to London what Connaught Place is to New Delhi. We then walked up towards Tottenham Court Road, a seedy district just outside Soho. Our friend took us to a Burmese restaurant where I ordered noodles and curry but Naipaul preferred a prawn dish, although he said he was a vegetarian. He added, as an afterthought, that vegetarians also ate fish.

Naipaul said he was working for BBC, which was not quite true, as he was not employed by them, and was only doing some programmes for listeners in Trinidad. He did not say much, but did ask for a bottle of wine, which was strange considering we did not drink wine in those days, only beer or spirits, but Naipaul had fastidious tastes even then.

Twenty years later, during which time Naipaul had become quite famous or infamous, depending upon what you make of his nasty books on India. I learnt that his mother was in town (Delhi). I went to look her up in Ashoka Hotel and found her sitting in the lounge with the air of a queen whose crown prince was at that time dazzling the literary world - or so I thought. Her name was Draupadi.

After the preliminaries, I asked her why her son was not accompanying her on what was after all her first visit to her ancestral land. Silence! Total silence.

I repeated the question. I asked her since she had come via London, she must have met Naipaul, and how was he? Silence again, but this time with a slight curling of the lips, as if to say can we move on?

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get a pip out of her about her son. It was as if she was disowning him. Everytime I mentioned Naipaul, the woman froze, tightened her sari around her and all but walked out on me.

She brightened up only when she spoke about her other children, a boy or man called Shiva, and a girl called Kamla. They meant nothing to me and I could but stare at her.

I never saw any of the Naipauls again. And after that chilly encounter in Ashoka Hotel, I was not too keen to do so, though I would have liked to meet Naipaul again and ask him about his mother.