The crowds were expectant as they gathered on the front lawns and a great roar went up as Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul was wheeled on stage. The conversation with old friend Farrukh Dhondy began well with Naipaul speaking about finding his way as a young man who had no special reason to believe he was a writer: "I can tell you straight away that there was probably no reason for that (for wanting to become a writer). It didn't mean that I had special literary judgement, it didn't mean that I had great things to write about. In fact, I didn't. I had to find all these things out later when I settled down to being a writer," he said adding that, at the time, he had no training or ambition.
"I know when people say they want to be a writer they go on to say they were always writing since they were 10 or something. But that wasn't so with me. I wanted to be a writer without having anything to write about. I had to find out what I wanted to write about," he said reminiscing about a critic's rejection of his earliest book: 'Do something else'.
The conversation then, meandered to Naipaul's views on Nirad Chaudhuri, ("Autobiography of An Unknown Indian... is a very strange book and not a great piece of writing."), Carribean writers of the 1950s, his own classic comic books including the fantastic Mystic Masseur and the later contentious books about India (An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization), and his later illuminating India, A Million Mutinies Now.
However, the session was, on the whole, saddening. Naipaul, who is now 82 and easily given to tears, needed to be prompted by both his wife Nadira, who held up the microphone for him, often whispering key words into his ear ("Laugh" and, on Africa, "Magic"), and Dhondy, who often struggled manfully to bring Naipaul back on track when his mind wandered.
Still, Sir Vidia showed some flashes of his old self when Dhondy told the audience he'd converse with the laureate "as though they were sitting with a glass of white wine in Wiltshire looking out at the sunset."
"Farrukh is very romantic," he quipped, adding "I don't like talking about sunsets because it can be used against one too... be used to say sunset of life or work and it's a very unhappy metaphor."
As the conversation progressed, though, it seemed that Dhondy was speaking more than his subject and one began believing that subjecting a frail old man to this experience could almost be labelled a case of elder abuse. For anyone who has read Naipaul and admired his sharp mind, it was a depressing sight.
The session was perhaps saved by a joke about politicians from Ram Jethmalani, which gave the audience a great laugh and an insight into the friendship between the two men but added nothing to our understanding of the writer's current thinking on India or indeed anything else.
"Why do you call it an area of darkness, India is an area of light; It is not a wounded civilization, it is a live civilization," Jethmalani said.
To which Naipaul responded with the laconic "Ram's a friend and that's a very friendly comment."