A seat at the table

Where I grew up, we were taught – or we didn’t have to learn, it was in the air, something you could catch like a virus that settled in your gut – to pay attention to men. If those men were geniuses, then they were owed more than your attention. Adulation, or an unquestioned acceptance of their genius.

We learned to append a word to the description of geniuses who were men who may also have acted monstrously: problematic. It allowed you to acknowledge the troubled areas – the abused girlfriends, the dominated wives, the rough-riding over women who dared to excel in the fields these men had chosen for themselves – without ruffling the smooth bedspread surface of their talent.

***

The first time I saw V S Naipaul, I was too timid to speak to him, such was his aura. Unnecessary to say that I had read and loved A House For Mr Biswas, Miguel Street, In A Free State, and I lacked the vocabulary or critical thought to explain why some of his travel books, later novels and non-fiction – always introduced in conversation with the word “great” tagged on to them – left me cold. I did not intend to emulate a Naipaul as a writer, then or now; the only novels I’ve written so far are light fantasies. But many of the male writers around me admired him, and the fact of their admiration was a wall, precluding engagement with his views. If you said, tentatively, “Problematic,” someone would draw your attention to those dazzling sentences.

They did dazzle, some of them. “I left them all and walked briskly towards the aeroplane, not looking back, looking only at my shadow before me, a dancing dwarf on the tarmac.” That was quoted to me by three different Naipaul defenders, on separate occasions.

He was at a literary festival, in an old restored fort in Rajasthan. Taught to pay attention to men, I sat in the shadows, and paid attention to Sir Vidia, from a safe distance. He came prepared to be genial. He applauded the Rajasthani dancers. He smiled at the people who went up to him, seeking assurance that he was comfortable, and thanked a few for their help with small matters.

I read Guerrillas undisturbed, reaching the passage where Jimmy Ahmed rapes Jane.

“He said, very softly, ‘You are rotten meat.'” Naipaul’s dazzling sentences. This, and the description of Jane’s rape by Jimmy, and the murder that follows, had disturbed some commenters who saw it as evidence of Naipaul’s dislike of women. But Naipaul had covered the murder of Gale Ann Benson, and other murders, when he wrote about the trial of Michael X for the Sunday Times, and Joan Didion captured the way he translated this real-life rape and murder into fiction more accurately, not as generalised misogyny, but “…a novel of such extensive dislike for the victims of its own narrative that it nearly dissipates into “snuff”-film allegory.”

These parts of Naipaul’s writing, the rapist, and the woman shrieking, wailing, sobbing, who “began to plead, now with a suppressed scream, now with a whisper”, were not quoted to buttress the fact of his genius when he was alive, and will not be what first comes to mind, for most readers mourning his death. He wrote beautiful sentences, but also cruel, effective ones. After he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was considered – in some Indian literary circles – unassailable.

***

That day at the festival, V S Naipaul got into an argument with Vera Hildebrand, a scholar and the wife of the American ambassador to India. The argument was over whether Islamic immigrants in Denmark should be permitted to wear their veils. It flamed outward; Naipaul called her a “foolish and illiterate” woman, and she remarked that we all knew from his books that he had a low opinion of women. This was reported as gossip.

On the last day, Nayantara Sahgal was speaking about the legacy of colonialism when Naipaul interrupted her to make a dismissive point, and in turn, the writer Ruchir Joshi and the editor Ritu Menon told him off. This too, was reported as gossip.

But these incidents formed my memory of Naipaul as a person, separate from the writer whose books lined the shelves of friends who in time, made themselves into writers. He was the man who grew angry when a woman contradicted him, the man who told women to leave the table, the man who interrupted women speaking. I paid less attention to him, more to other writers, in translation and in English, whose work seemed to mean more to me. I grew increasingly uninterested in contradicting people for whom his novels were illuminating and life-changing, for whom he remained a writer of monstrous talent. Monstrous genius.

***

Everything changes. The Nobel prize for literature has lost much of its lustre after a scandal and the revelation that members of the academy covered up the misconduct of a powerful man, accused of sexual assault by several women. Behind the scandal, the question, again, of who anoints the world’s best writers, what they ignore or cannot see when they assess a writer’s work, worth and reputation, whom they read, whose work remains outside their reach.

At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to Vera Hildebrand. But now, remembering the incident, what I remember most clearly is Vera keeping her place at the table. Naipaul had told her to leave, but she said that she intended to stay on. He could leave if he was not comfortable. It was one of the first times in my adult life that I had witnessed a woman refusing to defer to a man, refusing to pay attention to his anger, or to soothe his discomfort, or to apologise for making him uncomfortable.

In my memory, that remains sharp. The woman who so casually but firmly claimed her space, with her inconvenient opinions, who refused to leave Naipaul’s table. Thank you, Vera.

(I wrote a formal obituary of VS Naipaul for the FT, and then I wrote this journal entry for myself, not wanting to forget this memory. Please do not reproduce this piece elsewhere.)

7 comments

  1. Excellent piece Nilanjana! I knew of him as a brown man who won a Nobel. I wonder if the committee just hands these out to keep the diversity optics bright !

  2. It is indeed unfortunate that the real men are so different from their reel or penned impressions! We tend to mentally put someone on a pedestal due to the fictitious portrayals they present to us in word or visuals…wr forget that the writers or creators are as human and flawed as the next person and it pains us when they fall from the pedestal in our eyes! The toughest thing is to see an idol being humanized after all!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing. Its just saddening such great instruments of literature have so cheap notions and opinion, what more hatred towards the gender without whom he wouldn’t be alive and breathing and using freedom in such manner.

  4. Incisive and brilliant; rather objective as you refer to ‘convention of deference’ to men.Naipaul’s conduct in personal life has never been unassailable, as is his depiction of facts in an ultra realist manner verging on ugly.
    Some of his books are good; much more actually.His non fiction caused much discomfort to blinkered liberals, esp. in India, ref. to his trilogy.
    A very fine obituary any way: ending with the lady refusing to leave.
    Teju Cole in his obit says Sir Vidia liked to be challenged which he invariably ignored( on personal interaction).
    Thanks for sharing your valued thoughts.
    If we go by parameters of morality, propriety, in regard to an author’s personal life, most of literature by both men and women wd deserve to be trashed.
    Regards.

  5. Thank you, Nilanjana. I am moved that my contretemps (as Vikram Seth suggested I call it in our plea to keep Sir Videa from leaving the literature festival on the early morning flight to London) made a positive impression on you. Your introduction to the story is exactly right, it depends on what you were taught as a girl. My Danish upbringing did not leave me a choice, I had to stay at that table. But thank you for writing it – my daughter says she is proud of me. Warmest, Vera

    • Your actions and grace in that situation made a powerful impact, Vera. Your daughter is not alone in the pride she feels for you.
      Glad I had a chance to say thank you, after all these years!

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