Paul Theroux. Under  Sir Vidia’s Shadow Still


Travel Writer and author Paul Theroux at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Travel Writer and author Paul Theroux at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015.

(Published first in the Bangkok Post, Feb 2015)

“ Take it on the chin and move on”, Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul curtly told writer and friend Paul Theroux when the latter confronted him on ignoring his letters, bringing their over three decades of friendship to an end over 17 years ago. But on the stage at  the Jaipur Literature Festival 2015, it was the aging wheelchair bound Naipaul, who forgave his former protégé- and reconciled with him publicly for the first time.

Naipaul was dealt not only on the chin but had been administered many a searing body blows  by Theroux , most  of them well below the belt, with Theroux’s  intimate account of their friendship in his memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow,  in which  Naipaul came out shining like a bad penny.

But then  Theroux had only been listening to his literary mentor who once wrote to him, “You must give me the pleasure of seeing what I look like. It would be like hearing one’s voice, seeing oneself walk down the street. You must feel free.”

Theroux felt free and more and portrayed Naipaul as a freeloading, children- hating man with an inflated ego and a contempt for just about everyone and everything.

“Vidia was the neediest person I have ever known. He fretted incessantly, couldn’t cook, never cleaned, wouldn’t drive, demanded help, had to be the center of attention”, Theroux wrote.

The unkindest cut was Theroux using the poetic license to suggest that a  little girl Naipaul once dismissed in East Africa as ,” What a horrible child”,  had grown up to become Nadira, Naipaul’s wife.

Paul Theroux at the Jaipur Literature Festival taking a snapshot with his phone. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Paul Theroux  with his wife, Jaipur Literature Festival.

The book, Theroux’s parting shot,  was seen as the final  nail  in the coffin.

It was just as well that their first public rendezvous happened at  the Jaipur Literature Festival, a literary carnival- the biggest in Asia-   marked each year by one defining incident or the other, none of them having anything to do with literature.

The  2012  festival was overshadowed by  virulent protests against Salman Rushdie’s invitation as speaker.  Rushdie never came but as a mark of solidarity, four  writers read passages from his controversial book  Satanic Verses . But soon after they fled Jaipur fearing arrest.

In 2013,   it was Indian sociologist Ashis Nandi’s  off- the- cuff remark  that low-castes in India are the most corrupt, that had politicians and social workers baying for his blood. Nandi was eventually dragged to court.

And the endearing image of the 2015 festival will be  the public coming together of friends -turned -foes after Theroux  sang  paeans to Naipaul’s seminal book, ‘The House for Mr. Biswas’ calling it, “ the most complete novel I have ever read since Dickens”.

Naipaul was wheeled to the stage and got a standing ovation after which he shook Theroux’s hand.

An overwhelmed Naipaul who Theroux once wrote  “, cries too easily”, took the mike but after mustering a ‘thank you’ was overtaken completely by emotion and tears. Lady Naipaul, quick to the rescue, said, “ I think my husband is overwhelmed with your reception and the wonderful  things said about his book”.  Lady Naipaul was  seen on more than one occasion,  dabbing the 82- year old writer’s eyes with handkerchief with Theroux looking on.

Lady Naipaul wipes Naipaul's tears after his talk at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

Lady Naipaul wipes Naipaul’s tears after his talk at the Jaipur Literature Festival, Jaipur.

Even after decades of association, the  falling out and the reconciliation, Theroux himself pushing 73, with dozens of fiction and non-fiction books behind him,  still seemed to be under Naipaul’s shadow.  Theroux, who had come with his Chinese wife and his son  Marcel Theroux- also a writer- was seen shadowing Naipaul everywhere and proudly posing with him for  photographs.

Theroux said that he is also writing a book on the American South, following very much in Naipaul’s footsteps who wrote , ‘A Turn in the South’ -a book on Naipaul’s  travels in what was then  racially segregated  America.

“ My book in progress is on the American South”, he said revealing  little except that he was fascinated that all the motels in South of America were owned by  the Indian Patels.

Theroux also quoted Naipaul when asked for that one  writing tip, “ Truth is Prophetic. Tell the truth. You may see it as awkward but write it down “, he said.

The Jaipur Literature Festival was also an ironic backdrop to their coming together  as both of them have publicly declared their disapproval of all literary festivals. Naipaul hated them and had once told Theroux,“ The writer should never precede the work. The writer should remain invisible”.  Theroux went further and called literary events ‘’dog shows’’.

Theroux  wrote about a literary festival in Europe but he could well be describing the Jaipur Literature  Festival ,  “ Books were the things but there were no books in sight, only goggling faces in the sold-out tents and the sense of scrutiny, all those faces like light bulbs”.



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