Paul Theroux describes his one-time mentor VS Naipaul thus: an excellent candidate for anger-management classes, sensitivity training, psychotherapy, marriage guidance, grief counselling and driving lessons. When Patrick French was asked to write an authorised biography of Naipaul, he knew it was a “potentially fraught project” but he did take it up. A Nobel-winner who is more known to get under people’s skin with his offensive pronouncements than his writing, Naipaul was the perfect material for a biographer.
The very attempt to write about the author could become a subject of another book or be seen as an exhibition of the kamikaze spirit.
“So far, VS Naipaul has been helpful and easy to work with — I know that may surprise some people, but it’s true,” French had said in 2003. Five years down the line, he reiterates the same this week when he was in town to release the completed biography, The World Is What It Is. The tile was the first sentence of Naipaul’s masterpiece, A Bend in the River.
Naipaul is used to dumping people unceremoniously. Margaret, his mistress, met the same fate after a quarter century and French was aware of this. “It was,” he admits, “like a tightrope walk for five years.” Naipaul’s co-operation could have ended anytime with or without reason. But that would have been typically Naipauline, but to everyone’s surprise “he stuck scrupulously with the agreement” over a period of five years.
“He is a writer and would understand a writer’s mind. He could have easily nudged me into writing what he wanted to but I had no direction or restriction from him,” says French. But Naipaul, as French himself suggests in the book wore a shield of self-protection when speaking about intensely personal subjects. So how did he get Naipaul to talk? Were there a lot of mind games between the two writers? “I wouldn’t like to answer that,” says French, unlike his subject who always attempted to answer all the questions however uncomfortable or intimate.
Clearly there was one quality that French admired about Naipaul even without admitting it. “He has a certain diffident quality and ability to detach the writer from himself and speak about things. He does not dress up his bad behaviour or justify his acts.” This admiration could have affected his objectivity but many have felt that this much-talked about biography has ruined Naipaul’s reputation forever. It is being appreciated for its critical, unflinching biographical writing, which is as rare in India as life is on Pluto.
But what on earth led Naipaul to approve of this in the first place? “Naipaul was surprised when I met a lady with whom he was not in touch for over 40 years. She had by then changed her first and second name. All I knew about her was the surname of the person whom she was married to. I found her in New York. I think the seriousness of the project did the trick.”
What is Naipaul’s reaction? “I don’t expect him to read it but nobody can second-guess him. He loves to upset people’s expectations.” It has been rightly observed that this biography is as an addition to the Naipaul canon.