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VS versus the ladies

Have you ever wondered why famous people so often demean themselves by the thoughtless silly things they say? Or by the sheer indiscretion of their behaviour? Vidia Naipaul is a classic example of this phenomenon, writes Karan Thapar.

columns Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:40 IST

Have you ever wondered why famous people so often demean themselves by the thoughtless silly things they say? Or by the sheer indiscretion of their behaviour? Usually, the greater their renown the more ludicrous the folly. Well, old Vidia Naipaul is a classic example of this phenomenon. His skill for putting both feet in his mouth could easily qualify him to be minor acrobat.

This week the old man dropped a resounding clanger. Women, he declared, can’t possibly be as good at writing as men. And what brought him to this conclusion? A woman is “not a complete master of a house, so that comes over her in her writing too.”

Building on this bizarre foundation Sir Vidia, as he likes to be called — just try addressing him as Mr Naipaul and watch the response — made a particularly striking if pointedly foolish claim. “(Whenever) I read a piece of writing,” he said, “within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.” Think about that before you continue. Old VS asserts that whether it’s a newspaper article or a book and, presumably, whether it’s poetry or prose, he can sniff out the sex of the author. If true, that would make him quite a literary bloodhound!

But is it? The Daily Telegraph, while reporting this boast, provides a little test. It put together quotations from Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, VS Naipaul, Diana Athill (the Old Codger’s agent) and Mary Riddell (one of the paper’s columnists). The piece that felt most as if it was written by a woman was, in fact, authored by Naipaul himself. Here it is and see for yourself if it proves or disproves the dear bigot’s point: “I did as he told me, and I saw what he meant. I felt like nothing, and at the same time I had never felt so big and great in all my life. I forgot all my anger and all my tears and all the blows.”

From what little I know of him, I’m convinced the man is unlikeable and wants to be disliked. In fact, he goes out of his way to be unpleasant and does so with admirable success. No wonder his authorised biographer considers him a bigoted, arrogant, racist, sado-masochistic, woman-beating misogynist. Which leads The Daily Telegraph to ask, “what on earth would an unauthorised biographer make of him?”

I can never forget his behaviour when we first met. It happened in 2002 at Naveen Chawla’s. This was before Naveen became important but that can hardly excuse what happened. This is what I wrote at the time:

“When Naipaul arrived his wife walked up and started talking. Moments later her husband joined us. It was a pleasant conversation. There was nothing remarkable about it. But there was a brief interlude with one of Naveen’s waiters that is worth recounting. I shall tell it without comment or conclusion.

“What will you drink, Sir?”

“What sort of gin do you have?”

“London.”

“Do you have Bombay gin?”

“No, Sir.”

“What make of tonic do you have?”

The waiter assured him it was a good brand. Naipaul was not convinced.

“What whisky do you have?”

“Black Label.”

“Do you have a malt?”

“No Sir.”

Naipaul finally settled for Black Label but after a sip wrinkled his nose and left the glass untouched. His wife, however, quaffed copious quantities without complaint or hesitation."

Naveen was too polite to say anything. The other guests were less constrained.

The views expressed by the author are personal