I am more of a fiction reader – murder mysteries, historical romances, science fiction, fantasy and such. But this book came highly recommended so I began to read what turned out to be part biography, part homage, part autobiography, detailing a friendship between two writing geniuses that spanned several decades and continents. Paul Theroux (The Great Indian Railway Bazaar, The Patagonia Express, The Mosquito Coast to name a few) was a struggling wannabe writer who was earning his living as lecturer in English at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda when he first met V. S. Naipaul. And Naipaul was by then already a writer of repute when he arrived on a fellowship at Makarere for a short term. As described by Theroux he was even then a curmudgeony fellow, somewhat racist and bigoted and elitist. But he took to Theroux and took him firmly under his patronizing wing. The book begins with this unusual friendship in which Naipaul alternately takes complete advantage of, and grudgingly helps Theroux’s career along by critiquing his writing and making many constructive suggestions. Naipaul’s favorite term for Africa and Africans “Its all going back to the bush (..as soon as the Britishers leave)” typified his general contempt for Africans and most other people he did not think his equal in intellect. Sir Vidia and his mousy wife Pat, move back to the UK after Vidia finally reads and praises one of Theroux’s writings! Theroux spends a Christmas in the UK with the Naipauls and meets the “prodigal” brother Shiva Naipaul. As Theroux is guided by Naipaul into a belief in his own writing skills (and there is considerable matter-of fact admiration from Vidia for Theroux’s abilities, in the narrative), he quits his Makarere job and moves to Singapore. After that most of the correspondence between them is by letters.
The 350 odd pages fly by as Theroux has a firm grip on the narrative, slowly revealing VS’s genius, his misogynistic treatment of his British wife who basically lets him walk all over her, his abhorrence of any talk of sex and his self-professed dislike of women of “loose morals” – exactly the kind of women who flock to the young Theroux in Uganda, his disdain for almost any other writer – well regarded or not, and a general disposition of dislike for almost anything, seasoned with an extremely high regard for himself! As one reads one is almost shocked at what is being revealed about the nature of the great man. Lest you get a sense that Theroux is somehow out to “get” Naipaul, there is a strong sense throughout this book of a student talking of a revered mentor – whom he is able to see with all his flaws. He still falls for it every time Naipaul maneuvers him into paying for the meal, and keeps coming back for more. Then Theroux reveals the shocking fact of Naipaul’s long affair with a lady from Argentina – likely begun while he was still married to his wife, who was dying of cancer. And to top it all Naipaul’s prodigal brother Shiva commits suicide.
BEWARE, SPOILERS FOLLOW if you intend to read the book!!
This span of time is peppered with landmark events, books that release to rave reviews, a knighthood, and eventually (soon after this book) a Nobel Prize. While in Uganda Naipual had a chance encounter with a 12-year old Pakistani girl and many years later she marries him and becomes Lady Naipaul! And this is the turning point in the relationship between Theroux and Naipaul. According to him Lady Naipaul (Nadira Naipaul) fiercely guards any interaction with the great man, and even warns off Theroux when he writes an obituary for the dead Pat Naipaul. A blistering letter from Theroux to Nadira says:
“You object to my obituary of Pat Naipaul. I wonder why. She was a woman I loved deeply; the piece was not “a favor” as you put it, but a labor of love. You accuse me of writing a self-serving obituary of, as you termed her, “poor Pat”. How inappropriate that you should mention her name in this way, since you were associated with Vidia as the woman lay dying.”
Nadira forbids Theroux from writing a biography, and demands that he return all letters and papers that he might have relating to Naipaul. They have commissioned an official biography of the man and do not want anyone to write anything before that! Then all relations between Theroux and Naipul are cutoff, as he refuses to return anything and Vidia ignores all of his communications!
A final painful encounter with Vidia is a chance one in London, and when Theorux asks Vidia “Do we have something to discuss?” His response is a “No” as he is nervously hurrying away, trying to avoid the encounter. When Theorux shouts after him “What do we do, then?” “Take it on the chin and move on” is what Vidya tells him, as he scuttles away. And just like that a friendship that spanned decades and continents is over! Theroux writes of the amazing feeling of liberation that comes over him then:
“I was dazed, because I was liberated at last. I saw how the end of a friendship was the star of an understanding. He had made me his by choosing me; his rejection of me meant I was on my own, out if his shadow. He had freed me, he had opened my eyes, he had given me a subject.”
And thus was born “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”! The book is an amazing look into the life of a flawed genius through the eyes of another literary giant. And one is left with a strong sense that however flawed the genius might be, it can still leave an impact on our minds, and shape other phenomenal talents. The book is well worth reading to see the beginning of Theroux the writer, the turbulent interactions he had with Naipaul, and the life of Naipaul and his inner demons as revealed to Theroux.
Here is what the WIKIPEDIA has to say about Naipaul’s troubled personal life:
Naipaul was married to Englishwoman Patricia Hale for 41 years, until her death due to cancer in 1996. In an authorized biography by Patrick French, Naipaul admitted ill-treating and frequently cheating on her, to such an extent that he contemplated he may have contributed to her death. As well as regularly visiting prostitutes in London, Naipaul often abandoned his wife to travel with Margaret Murray, a married Anglo-Argentinian woman with whom he became infatuated in 1972. Naipaul also would often psychologically abused his wife by telling her how much he missed his mistress; however, he also said that he needed her (Hale) to help him with his books.
Two months after Hale’s death, Naipaul abruptly ended his affair with Margaret Murray to marry Nadira Naipaul, a divorced Pakistani journalist, born Nadira Khannum Alvi. She worked as a journalist for the Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, for ten years before meeting Naipaul. Nadira was divorced twice before her marriage to Naipaul and has two children from a previous marriage, Maliha and Nadir. 
Filed under: Books! |