high-tech societies there is no need for an intellectual life”
to Farrukh Dhondy, Nobel laureate VS Naipaul
puts writers of every hue – Indians, Russians, Brits - through the
sieve. Few come out looking good.
Augustus the cat is
lying on a dining room chair where Nadira, Lady Naipaul gives me a cup
of tea and oatmeal biscuits. I have driven from London to Wiltshire and
she says I should warm up, there’s a cold spell over England. Augustus
has the usual air of self-satisfaction but Nadira tells me he is in disgrace.
“Go and look in the sun room,” she says. I am familiar with
the house and go through the kitchen and utility room to the cosy, sunny
extension, as much Augustus’s domain as Vidia and Nadira’s.
A dead wren lies in Augustus’s food bowl, placed on top of the crunchy
cat food. Another, its little twiggy legs thrust upward from a round body,
lies dead a foot away.
“He has found
a nest of wrens,” Vidia says from behind me. “If I had a gun
last night, I would have shot him.”
joking. He is a strict but not a proselytising vegetarian. He hates cruelty
to animals and, though he doesn’t ever “want to be thought
of as a crank” says he would lend his name and his passion to the
cause of animal contentment.
“I admire Maneka
Gandhi for her stance on cruelty to farm animals. It shouldn’t be
allowed,” he says.
Later on, at a lunch
of polenta and shrimps, he returns to the theme of animals.
“I told you I’ve been reading. Plutarch describes his journey
to Greece and his fascination with Greek theatre. On his return to Rome
and on his advice to the Emperor, a Roman theatre is built.
”At the inauguration,”
Vidia says, “fifty lions were slaughtered – as a spectacle.
The place must have been awash with their blood…”
Vidia stops eating.
His face is pained and thoughtful.
He asks me to go over
my notes after lunch and see if I need to clarify anything. I have taken
instruction from him and left out the tape recorder. The last time I interviewed
him, half way through our conversation, it had begun to play up. I had
to press the cover constantly to get it to work and this distracted Vidia.
He said he’d rather stop and go out with me to get another tape
recorder. We drove five miles to Salisbury and I bought a new one.
“Take notes,” Vidia says, giving me an insight into his own
methods. “That way you think of what is being said, rather than
run on in your mind to the next question.”
He goes upstairs while
I wait in the sitting room. He says he’ll fetch me his notebooks,
I’ll be able to see for myself what he means, the note-taking method
in operation. He returns with four blue-covered notebooks, each the size
of a hundred-rupee note.
“The material for Beyond Belief,” he says.” The whole
book was written in nine of these.”
They are written in
a careful, neat hand and run on from singly worded questions he has posed
to pages full of the answers.
“And these answers, are they verbatim?” I ask.
He corrects my pronunciation of ‘verbatim’ and says they are.
I have my own notebook
ready. My pen works—good!
“What have you
been doing Vidia?” is my first question.
“When I finished my latest novel (yet to be published) I sent it
to Gillon (Gillon Aitken his literary agent) and I waited. I was exhausted.
For a few days I did nothing. Then I began to read. I’ve been reading.
In the old days, when I had to write to make money, you know, I would
finish a book and then look for a commission from the newspapers. I would
get in touch with the editors and get an assignment to travel. At the
end of a book my mind gets tired. I would be mentally dead and it gets
worse as you grow older. After this last one I rested for three weeks.
I was drained and waiting to hear from Gillon. Then I began to read Flaubert
He goes to the bookshelves
in the room, takes down the volumes and hands them to me.
“In the original?”
“Yes, I can
manage French and Spanish I did them in school.”
manage French though I did too," I say.
really no need,” he replies.
“So what did
“I read Madame
Bovary and The Sentimental Education. I was so disappointed. Devastated.
I began to join the ranks of his detractors. I had all my life admired
him immensely. But I see that Flaubert is a tireless self-publicist. If
you are not interested in the France of the 1840s it is very difficult
to read. It’s very parochial. Since our attitudes to sex have changed
with contraception and the absence of taint, it becomes hard to read Flaubert
on the life of the passions. I used to adore him because of the selectivity,
the detail, the speed of the narrative. In the first part of Madame Bovary
it still seems true. I often tell people about the scene in which Bovary
– the young doctor—is called out and he meets his second wife.
Everything in that scene is selected. Every detail. Then in the second
half of the book something goes wrong.
Flaubert is the predecessor
of writers who today hide themselves away in universities. He hid away
in Rouen in his mother’s house. Occasionally he would go to Paris
and meet people, but he knew very little of the world.
Some writers who hide
away in universities only write about the arguments they have had or the
students they have screwed. They stay in the universities because they
want security. And you can’t be a writer if you want to be safe.
You end up writing about the mortgage and the safe job.
In the English tradition
very little has come out of the universities. Gibbon had nothing to do
with universities though he produced a great work of scholarship. Dickens
didn’t come out of the university.
In England, the occasional
book by someone with deep experience, is almost always better than the
work that comes from academia. I am thinking of Mungo Park and
his insight into Africa.”
“Was it always
“I think there
is a difference between what the universities produced up to the 1940s
and after 1950. In America for instance, a strange academic language has
What is even more
strange is that some Indians want jobs at these universities and so they
develop this mimic language, this hollow language and they become monkeys.
The influence of all Western universities on India is bad. It imposes
an idea of what thought is, of what history is, for instance. This idea
of history doesn’t deal with India. There is an Indian history waiting
to be written, a big view rather than these monographs that people write.
The monograph method and form doesn’t serve the need. India should
have and could have a Gibbon.”
historians like Pannikar? He had a larger view, surely?”
“What I admired
about Pannikar was his book Asia and Western Dominance.
It was about how Java
and Sumatra, islands which were turned by the Dutch from nations into
plantations, preserved their soul. He says they preserved their soul because
of their religion and this is true, but he mistakes the religion. He thinks
it is Islam. The Javanese and the Sumatrans were animists, Hindus, Buddhists
and Islam was an imposition, destroying the soul of these nations. Islam
is a proselytising religion.
It explains the need
for fundamentalism. People have to be constantly told to give up their
old evil ways and sprinkle themselves with the sands of Arabia.
I’ll tell you a story. In ’95, I met an Iranian woman who
had returned to Iran from the West. She came back with a rage at the tyranny
of the religious state. “We no longer have to give our wives and
daughters to the Arabs, but we have to do this,” she said.
She meant to keep
quiet, keep your head down and to submit yourself. The revolution in Iran
makes no bones about the fact that it demands obedience. The Revolutionary
guards are there to bully you into it. They delight in making a scene,
you know. They suddenly turn up at the hotels and restaurants. You may
be in Shiraz or somewhere and they’ll appear, just to see if men
and women are together.”
We have in the past
covered ideas about Indian writing and its directions; we go over them
a little now. Vidia has maintained that Indian writing of any significance
is still awaiting its beginning. “The writers I read in English
seem to all be boasting. They boast about their families and their ancestry.
They have no historical sense of where they come from or what the source
of dysfunction in their society is. They are gazing down at their abdomens,
they are enclosed, looking at themselves. They have nothing really to
say about the world.”
In this context he
has always maintained that Russia in the nineteenth century witnessed
the real efflorescence. “Like them, do Indian writers now have India
and its history to fall back on and claim as material?”
“I used to think
they did,” Vidia says. “But I think I was wrong. Nineteenth
century Russia is nineteenth century Russia, and independent India is
independent India. In nineteenth century Russia, literature and books
were a matter of life and death. They were extremely important. One of
the startling things I discovered was that Russian writers were immensely
well paid. When Turgenev went to Paris and talked to the Goncourts, the
subject turned to how badly French writers were paid. Turgenev was embarrassed
to tell them how much the Russian magazines paid him. Russians relied
on their writers to give them a vision of themselves, to tell them who
they were and to keep intellectual life alive. To tell them where they
were going. The Russian critic Belinsky, who wrote about the necessity
of writing before Dostoevsky and Tolstoy began to write, died without
money. His widow got a publisher to collect his reviews and essays into
book and she was well paid for that. She became comfortable, you know.
– as you know well enough – like paying almost nothing. The
only value to Indians writing is a million dollar advance. Most of the
stories about advances are not true of course – they are just puffery.
But it’s the reason agents and publishers in the West are assaulted
by tidal waves of paper about ‘Mamaji’ and ‘ Chachaji’
and ‘Abu’ and ‘Papaji’. The point about Mamaji
and Chachaji is that they are like every other Mamaji and Chachaji. The
writers have nothing to say. They want to show they can do it too. Indians
who write in English are aiming abroad. Local Indians don’t need
to read about ‘Mamaji’.”
the first person to start this trend was Ved Mehta,” I say. “
He made a good trade of it.”
he made a trade,” Vidia says, “but do you think he really
started it? Actually one of his books is not about that at all –
I mean The Mahatma and his Disciples. It is a very good book.
He talks to the people who had contact with Gandhi, before they are all
dead, you know. It’s living history. But if you live in a monograph
culture you can’t see it as history.
I thought for many
years that Indian writers had a special function. But what has happened
is that the high technological age has rendered writers redundant. This
is true not only of India, it is true of everywhere else. In high-tech
society there is no need for an intellectual life…”
always a need,” I dutifully say.
“You think so?
I feel technology takes over and becomes the complete intellectual life.
The e-mail, the mobile phone, the gadgets people adore playing with, the
gadgets that are tempting to buy and to master. They are open to everybody
who can afford them – to the monkey with the palm pilot.
The TV gives us the news, it gives us fifty stories a day in the soaps
and hours and hours of commentary on the news. Writers become redundant.
And even in this high
technological age things can go wrong. There are military catastrophes,
political disasters, crises of some sort and this is where India leads
the world in dealing with them. India has the best holy men. Its astrologers
beat the astrologers of West Africa – the so-called African Spiritualists—right
out of court.
The complement to
the technological society is magic and the cult. People think there is
a contradiction, but there is no contradiction, in India or the USA, of
these things existing side by side.”
“And in England
too. But English people see England as a great success – the complete
reordering of a society which was shocking a hundred or so years ago.
Dickensian England. The people were in rags, without fuel to keep warm.
Berlin, St. Petersburg – they were the same – they all had
sinks of appalling poverty. They’ve altered all that. It’s
a great achievement. They are now happy.”
For once I can’t
tell whether he is being ironical.
“You think they
“Oh yes, they
are happy. The only people who may be happier are the Bangladeshis. The
outside world sees Bangladesh as a place of calamity. They have typhoons
and floods and natural disasters. But when all these settle down and they
rebuild the huts and houses in their villages, and the muezzin calls for
prayers from the minaret in the evening, they know in their hearts that
the infidel has been chased out of the land – and they are happy.”
We decide to end on
this note of happiness. Vidia ushers me in to the dining room for polenta
he look smart?” Nadira asks.
“I would say
dapper, with the black fleece and grey turn-ups...”
“I mean his
hair, you fool, ” Nadira says. “I cut it myself. He would
have had to pay forty pounds.”
says Vidia, striving for the exact, “I pay seventeen.”