Naipaul, an interesting monster, says Theroux
Forty-one years after they first met, 11 years after a deep friendship spawned by that meeting ended in acrimony, nine years after he wrote about the relationship and its death in his memoir,
Sir Vidia's Shadow
, what does writer Paul Theroux have to say about his one-time mentor Sir VS Naipaul?
"When I came out with Sir Vidia's Shadow, people called it cruel. 'A Judas betrayal,' they said. But the thing is that I have great affection for Naipaul. He is a kind of interesting monster; difficult in a rewarding way."
Theroux, who looks much younger than his 66 years, has this past week been in Mumbai, hopping from one lecture hall to another. But be it at the Kala Ghoda Festival or speaking to students at SNDT Women's University or during an exclusive chat with
, the questions about his three-decade-long friendship with Naipaul kept coming back: as far as his readers were concerned, Sir Vidia's shadow had not yet been banished to the penumbra of Theroux's life.
Sir Vidia's Shadow
, Theroux (who still admits he would never have become a writer had it not been for Naipaul's encouragement) had written of how Naipaul called Africans "bow-and-arrow men", how he referred to people from the Middle East as "Mr Woggy" and how he made his dislike of children evident. Was Naipaul a racist?
"I don't think that he is a racist or misogynist but he is opinionated and is not interested in anyone else's opinion. The trouble with opinionated people is that they don't listen," said Theroux. Theirs, said Theroux — whom Naipaul had introduced to literary London — was a one-sided friendship, and one that was always a strain. "Maybe it wasn't a friendship at all, if it was that one-sided."
Theroux talked about
, a memoir by Naipaul's editor Diana Athill. In it she writes that when Naipaul decided to move from her publishing house to another, she felt as if the skies had cleared and the sun come out. She realised she was happy, she realised she would never have to be nice to him again. "I didn't feel exactly that but I could relate to it," Theroux said.
What he could also understand was how difficult it is to slot Naipaul in a pigeon hole.
"In Henry James's introduction to
A Portrait of a Lady
, James says that the house of fiction has many windows. Looking out, one sees black, one sees white. One sees good, one sees evil."
Similarly, when one sees Naipaul, explained Theroux, one can sees many things: a prophet, monster, great, comic, Indian, West Indian, British, complex.
Theroux, however, is thought of as an American and more as a travel writer than a novelist.
The good news is that he has been retracing the route he took to produce his wry, sardonic bestseller,
Great Railway Bazaar
He travelled again through Eastern Europe, Central Asia, India, China, Japan and Siberia.
The result is a sort of sequel,
Ghost Train To The Eastern Star
, which will be published in September.