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Malavika’s Mumbaistan: Guess Who Came To Dinner

Which champagne is it?” Those were practically the first words which I, a young housewife who had newly set up home in Kolkata, heard from the lips of the great author VS Naipaul, when he’d come over for dinner, in the late eighties.

mumbai Updated: Aug 14, 2018 00:44 IST
Malavika Sangghvi
Malavika Sangghvi
Hindustan Times
Malavika Sangghvi,Mumbaistan,VS Naipaul
VS Naipaul

Which champagne is it?” Those were practically the first words which I, a young housewife who had newly set up home in Kolkata, heard from the lips of the great author VS Naipaul, when he’d come over for dinner, in the late eighties.

It had been a bizarre series of events that had led to that dinner. In town, along with Margaret Gooding, his Anglo-Argentinian mistress of many years, to research his forthcoming book on India, Naipaul had checked into the Oberoi Hotel and had begun reaching out to various people, including my former husband, who at that time was editing a Kolkata-based news magazine, to learn about the city. But, things hadn’t got off to a good start. On a busy day in the newsroom, when he’d received a call with a voice proclaiming, “I am VS Naipaul,” my husband had thought someone was playing a prank, and had dismissed it with a counter prank of his own (most likely: “And hello, I am Salman Rushdie!”) and hung up. It was only later in the day, on being informed that the great Naipaul had, indeed, come to Kolkata, that my husband had realised his error, and had called the hotel switchboard asking to be connected to the author, only to be continuously put through to the hotel’s pastry chef who happened to be a Mr Nagpal!

Perhaps, this comedy of errors accounted for Naipaul’s terse tone when they finally spoke that evening. My husband recalls telling Naipaul that however delighted he would be at meeting him, the person who would be absolutely thrilled to have the honour, would be his wife as she was a huge admirer of his writing. There had been a pause before Naipaul had replied: “Let’s keep the women out of this —shall we? ”

However, a few weeks later, on the eve of his departure, he had relented and here he was, along with the long suffering Margaret, at our home enquiring if the champagne we had offered him was up to his standards.

It was.

Because, not only had he been embarrassingly enthusiastic when handed a flute of what had been a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon that we had been presented as a wedding gift, and which we’d been saving up for a special occasion, (“Look! Look Margaret!! It’s Dom!”), but he had proceeded to quaff large quantities of it over the course of the evening. Thus, suitably marinated, he had held forth, basking in the attention he was afforded.

At one point , his eyes had chanced upon our bookcase, which boasted a handsome representation of his work. Unprompted, he had picked out one of his older novels, a personal favourite of mine, ‘A Stone For The Knight’s Companion’, and begun reading aloud from it enunciating each word and sentence, with obvious relish.

But, his face had clouded when, on the same shelf, he’d found a book by his brother Shiva Naipaul; and he had cut me short, mid-sentence, before I could launch into fulsome praise of his younger sibling’s writing. His dismissal of my collection of black American poets had been caustic too. “Don’t call them black,” he’d hissed. “Call them negro.”

But, there was no ignoring the fact that the evening had not only met his expectations, but had also perhaps exceeded them. “I envy you,” he’d turned to my husband towards the end of it. “Your lovely home, your beautiful wife; the life you live; in your own country.”

Of course, neither of us had the pluck to remind him that he too could have had the same. That, if he renounced his position as the world’s most celebrated exile, nothing stopped him from coming ‘home’ and living such a life. But, as we all knew, he had turned displacement into something of a literary cottage industry, so we let it pass.

Now that he was so mellow, we ventured to enquire why he had turned down the many invitations that had come his way to dine at people’s homes during his stay in Kolkata. Certainly, Margaret looked the worse for wear, having spent most of her time left to her own devices by the hotel pool.

“What can I tell you?” he’d said, affecting horror, “Middle-class homes; full of cooking smells; and at the evening’s end, the hostess presenting me the slim volume of verse she had recently published…” he’d shuddered. At which point, I had silently pushed the slim volume of verse that I had recently published, which I was working my courage up to present him with, further into the back of the sofa.

“It’s been such a wonderful evening,” he said on his way out. “I cannot thank you enough. We must meet again.” But, of course, that was only a formality; because, when my husband had asked how we might let him know when we were next visiting London, the effects of the bubbly already appeared to have worn out by the time he’d reached the gate. “Oh, I am hardly ever in London,” he’d called breezily over his shoulder. “You could try calling my publisher to enquire.”

And then, he was gone, and I never saw him again; but he’d certainly given me enough to dine out about — oh yes, he had!

First Published: Aug 14, 2018 00:44 IST