Clash at Neemrana
A great change had taken place in the shy young writer DOM MORAES first met in a pub.
A moment at Neemrana ... a journalist's sketch of Naipaul.
IN the 1950s, Soho was a part of London much frequented by writers and painters. Its restaurants were good and cheap and its pubs overpopulated. Dean Street could have been described as the centre, and in Dean Street was a pub officially called the Yorkminster. Its unofficial name was the French Pub, for its owner was French. Gaston Berlemont looked exactly like Hercule Poirot and capitalised on the resemblance. He gave impecunious artists credit, not always willingly. Above the teeming, noisy, and bohemian bar was a restaurant that served excellent French food. This restaurant was where I first met V.S. Naipaul.
At that time I had a friend called Francis Wyndham, a literary critic and an editor with the publishing firm of Andre Deutsch. He kept telling me about a very promising young author from Trinidad and saying I should meet him. I had read and liked Naipaul's first two books, but I did not see why I should meet a writer simply because I liked his work. After all I was a writer too. Francis coyly said that his author and I had many things in common. I wanted to know what.
"I don't write novels," I said. "He doesn't write poetry."
"He was at Oxford a couple of years before you." Francis said.
"That," I said, "is ridiculous. Why should I waste this poor man's time because he was at Oxford a couple of years before me?"
"It's strange," Francis replied. "Vidia said exactly the same about you when I mentioned this to him. You see, you two do have a lot in common."
Finally he arranged lunch at the French pub. I liked Naipaul very much as a person. He was very shy so was I and as I had told Francis we had nothing whatsoever in common.
Over lunch, we talked about books we had read. I have forgotten what they were. Later I mentioned the matter to a friend, who knew Francis and laughed.
"Don't you know what Vidia Naipaul and you have in common," he inquired.
"Francis may have been too polite to say so, but you both have brown skins. He may think he was the only White friend either of you had, and that you should keep each other company in this English wilderness."
That was the first time I ever met Naipaul. Later, when he wrote An Area of Darkness, I reviewed it. I thought it was a wonderful book. After this we had lunch together once or twice. Over the long years since then, we have had occasional, but always friendly, meetings in one place or another. He is a very wise and witty man, when he allows himself to be. I, therefore, rather wish that our last meeting hadn't been at a recent literary conference that started in Delhi and went on to the famous heritage hotel built out of the old fort of Neemrana.
Apart from the hazards of precipitous steps, not meant for people like me who suffer from vertigo, it was a beautiful place, in which 60-odd writers uneasily allowed themselves to relax and face one another. On our first day there, a poetry reading took place. I read some poems and Naipaul congratulated me on them. I felt pleased about this. He had become different in his appearance and now looked like a famous writer as well as being one. He had also acquired what most famous writers do, an entourage, which constantly hovered around him.
That evening we had dinner in a garden, and were sitting about at various tables afterwards. Some distance away from where we were, I noticed mild confusion. Soon after this another guest came up and said, "Sir Vidia has had the most frightful fight with the American Ambassador's wife. Each of them ordered the other to leave the party. I don't know who won."
A few moments later Naipaul stamped crossly up steep steps to our table, sat down, and said, "The Americans are giving a reception for us tomorrow night. All of you are my friends, and none of you will attend it." A prolonged and confused silence fell upon us all.
At this point another friend of mine arrived, led up to the table by his wife Lin. This was Ved Mehta, who cannot see. In the uncertain light, she did not notice Naipaul or inform Ved that he was among those present. This was unfortunate, since he, addressing us all, inquired in a concerned fashion, "Do you think Naipaul has become a megalomaniac?"
The English writer David Pryce-Jones, who was with Ved and me at university, leant over and whispered, "Careful, Ved! Careful!"
Ved replied, "Why should I be careful, David? I honestly think there's something wrong with him." Sir Vidia rose and walked away.
Next day, like Achilles, he sulked in his tent, or bedroom, demanding that the Ambassador's wife should send him a written apology. Author after author went up to plead with him before he rejoined the conference.
He was not present at the American party. The rest of us went. A great change had taken place in the shy young writer I first met in the French pub. Change isn't always for the better.
Dom Moraes is a writer, poet and columnist based in Mumbai.
Send this article to Friends by