It has been 51 years since Nobel Prize-winning British-Trinidadian author VS Naipaul published A House for Mr Biswas — one of his most significant books that is based on the life of his father — but on Wednesday night, memories of writing the book caused him to break down before a rapt audience at the Literature Live festival in Mumbai.
Naipaul, who had just been given a lifetime achievement award by Literature Live at the NCPA at Nariman Point, was in conversation with author Farrukh Dhondy about how he came to write his early novels. When he came to the question of the “big novel” — A House for Mr Biswas, published in 1961 — Naipaul paused for nearly fifteen seconds, broke down, and said in a choked voice, “I have told this story so many times, but it’s very moving.”
His wife, Nadira Naipaul, requested Dhondy to skirt the question and move on to the next one. That particular story ended there, but the ensuing discussion was just as moving, as Naipaul spoke of the challenges of travel writing, his exploration of India and even the death of his cat.
“My background is Indian, and I have always been interested in my background,” Naipaul said, talking about his decision to travel to India in 1962 to write the book that would become An Area of Darkness.
“When I began to write it, I wanted my experiences to stay with me – I didn’t want the time to pass… the book was based on my internal discovery of India.”
In the past few years, Naipaul has been vociferous against cruelty to animals, something he attributed to his love for his cat Augustus, gifted to him by Dhondy last year. “The cat altered my life and I remain, to this day, passionate about animals,” Naipaul said, getting emotional once again.
What disappointed the audience, perhaps, was his declaration that he would not write about India again. “I’ve written enough about India,” he said.