Amit Chaudhri, Farrukh Dhondy, Nadira Naipaul, Anchee Min, Paul Theroux and Hanif Kureishi. Jaipur Literature Festival (c)Whenever Naipaul phoned, he would identify himself as “Naipaul, the writer”. I wish Naipaul, the writer, had come to the Jaipur Literature Festival. Naipaul came this time, not to ask questions, not to take notes, not to cast his baleful eyes on the wretched, non-achieving people and their filthy habits and surroundings. He came not to damn but to praise. But that was not the Naipaul for whom more than 5,000 visitors gathered in the festival's Front Lawns.
Naipaul sizes up persons and societies so well. If only the expert diagnostician had observed on the festival’s stage that performing Naipaul, his wife and fellow writers… With his acute sense of irony in his luminous prose, Naipaul alone could have captured that comic-tragic scene.
Naipaul’s words made him famous. His deeds brought him more fame. The literary mob, fed on Naipaul’s biography by Patrick French and Hanif Kureishi’s novel with a Naipaul-like hero, waited excitedly for him in Jaipur. Some came to see one of the greatest living writers. A few others came to hear him talk about his mistress. Those who marvelled at his sexual prowess as revealed in the biography wanted Naipaul’s guidance in an area other than writing.
The dramatic potential of Naipaul’s appearance was immense. The Dramatis Personae included those who had provoked him in the past or were provoked by him. Those whom he had upbraided or those who had attacked him. There was his former protégée Paul Theroux who wrote a book when his services as a friend were terminated. There was Hanif Kureishi who recently penned a novel with a South Asian morally-bankrupt writer for hero, resembling Naipaul. There was Nayantara Sahgal whom Naipaul had rudely interrupted at a literary gathering in India. He was enraged by her views on the colonial legacy. Then there was Girish Karnad who had publicly questioned the wisdom of honouring Naipaul. He criticised Naipaul for not knowing history and for failing to recognise Islam’s contribution to India.
Then there was the festival co-director William Darlymple, who in a scathing review in a British newspaper had declared Naipaul dead as the writer! Dalrymple wrote off the writer a long time ago. Many other British critics are sharpening their knives just in case Naipaul comes out with another book. The writer in decline is the product of medical science, according to Martin Amis.
Despite this explosive mix of writers present, Indian intelligence did not panic as it had during the 2012 JLF when Salman Rushdie had to call off his visit to dodge the Islamic snipers. It knew that Naipaul’s protective Pakistani wife would always be by his side or behind him, and that Naipaul’s interviewer was his staunch defender, Farrukh Dhondy, who would ward off questions about Naipaul the person.
And yet the theatrical stage set for Naipaul in Jaipur was full of turbulence. When he was brought on stage in a wheelchair, some mistook it for a theatrical prop. They had presumed that the writer was as fit as a fiddle since he had travelled all the way from a distant island and since only recently he would have gone to the Bali literature festival but for a dispute over his fee.
Naipaul appeared twice on stage, first for a minute or so to thank his younger fellow writers who had heaped praise on his first great novel, A House for Mr Biswas. His extended performance followed this trailer. Farrukh Dhondy asked him questions designed to jog Naipaul’s memory about his past books and travels. Naipaul generally agreed with the interviewer’s statements. The only thing he did not like was Farrukh Dhondy using the word “sunset” while recalling their meeting in Naipaul’s country home. A very unhappy metaphor, Naipaul said. Of course, the word “sunset” gives an intimation of mortality!
The questions related to Naipaul the writer. No reference was made to Naipaul, the person. His views on mistress-beating, violent and inter-racial sex or prostitutes etc. were not sought. For his part, Naipaul left alone the women writers, his former woman editor, the Islamic fundamentalists, blacks, Africa and the British Labour Party. He spared those who have stupidly turned away from his great books because of his conduct.
Even the theoretical issue of the writer’s life influencing his art was not touched upon. As to his craft, Naipaul said what he has said in the past, such as that he began in a small way and that he has been a life-long learner etc. Naipaul punctuated his replies with silences. At one stage he said: “You see, I have nothing to tell people. I have no great message.” No fresh material was offered except that he had disliked the fried food (mainly plantains) that he was offered decades ago by the Prime Minister of Trinidad.
Sitting in the wheelchair, with his wife at times whispering a reply into his ears, Naipaul answered the questions haltingly. He had not lost his broadcast-quality voice but he had lost the penchant to offend, to display his testy temperament. There was no trace of conceit or arrogance. He did not denounce hypocrisy or lack of authenticity. The very setting had something inauthentic and ironic about it. The tributes to him were recorded but the private thoughts of those applauding him could only be guessed at.
Naipaul’s act of appearing to speak and to sign books reminded one of his own description of a colonial politician performing in an election campaign. Naipaul once belonged to the old school of writers who just wrote and refused to perform. He was a late convert to the art of using literary festivals for signing and promoting books. But he changed under the influence of someone dear to him.
Those familiar with the earlier Naipaul wondered why Naipaul agreed to participate in the Jaipur tamasha. How could he accept an invitation from someone who had written that Naipaul was finished as a writer? Why did he thank the writers including Hanif Kureishi who praised him? Kureishi had through his fictional hero further publicised Naipaul’s dishonourable conduct. Did Naipaul really care for what they thought of him?
Naipaul made no caustic comments on the two teachers of creative writing on the panel even though he has always ridiculed their profession. He heard patiently what the “pointy-headed” intellectuals had to say! He made no scene when Paul Theroux displayed a rekindled adoration.
Naipaul is moved to tears frequently and still he agreed to appear on the stage. He, who valued the Brahminical as well as British sense of dignity, heard his wife Nadira declaring that her husband was “overwhelmed”. He did not avert his face while Nadira wiped the corners of his eyes and cheeks. He was not offended when she whispered in his ear an appropriate response to a question. He did not restrain her when at the end of his performance, she shouted ecstatically “Bravo! Bravo!” , trying to egg on the unresponsive crowd. When Nadira gave a flying kiss to Ram Jethmalani, Naipaul’s face remained wooden.
The once penetrating eyes have changed their way of seeing. The mask that Naipaul always wears for a provocative interaction was absent. So was his mischievous smile. A craving for conciliation blunted his responses. All was forgotten. All was forgiven. The short fuse replaced by a wire thick enough not to burn. It was calm of mind, all passion spent. At last, Naipaul was not trying to explain why the world is what it is. Those who blame him for his bad temper should have seen the new, mellower Naipaul.
Naipaul the performer had lost his unique selling point. What is a literature festival without confrontation, controversies and spats? The crowds came to JLF with great expectations, only to discover that Naipaul is not what he was! They felt let down by Naipaul who had never disappointed them in the past.
When Indians find a film entertaining, they say Paisa Wasool, the money spent was worth it! Had the Jaipur Literature Festival not been free, the spectators would have abused the performer, notwithstanding his confinement to a wheelchair!