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Remembering Sir V

By Nickunj Malik - Aug 30,2018 - Last updated at Aug 30,2018

There is hardly anything concerning Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul that has not been written about in the last few days, following his demise on August 11. His books, travelogues, literary awards, knighthood, Nobel Prize, as well as his temperament, sharp wit, punctuality and wives; every aspect was covered in lucid detail. 

It was also reported, in different media outlets, that he courted controversy and loved his cat Augustus, who he believed would outlive him but unfortunately, died suddenly in October 2011. 

“Everything of value about me is in my books,” Sir Vidia conceded in his Nobel Lecture, at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, in 2001. “I will go further now and I will say I am a sum total of my books. Each book intuitively sensed and in the case of fiction, intuitively worked out, stands on what has gone before and grows out of it. I feel that at any stage of my literary career it could have been said that the last book contained all the others,” he explained. 

In other words, the best way to know Sir V was through his books and what a wonderful treasure trove they were. If “Miguel Street” and “The Mystic Masseur” were laced with comedy but were sad at the same time, “A House for Mr Biswas” was a novel that was inspired by the life of his own father and remains, to this day, his most brilliant work. He wrote 30 books in a span of six decades and shifted between fiction and non-fiction while exploring the legacy of colonialism. 

A chance encounter with Lady Nadira at a literary festival, a decade or so earlier, led to a deep friendship between Sir V’s wife and me. I had dropped something on my foot and exclaimed in Punjabi, my mother tongue, which she overheard. In the next instance she responded to me, in fluent Punjabi! We burst out laughing at the absurdity of an Indian and a Pakistani talking in a common alien language, amidst the English speakers.

Nadira dragged me to their table and introduced me to Sir V who promptly wanted to know what the meaning of my name was. He pronounced it differently, enunciating the last few consonants slowly. In his deep Oxbridge accent, my name sounded more exotic than it was.

I was painfully shy in Sir V’s presence. A great many questions swirled in my head, but I could somehow never articulate them. His sharp observant gaze missed nothing. Requesting him to attend my book launch three years ago, seemed like an impossible task, but to my amazement, he accepted the invite immediately. 

Sometime later, as the preparations for our daughter’s marriage were being finalised, we had gathered in his sitting room. Nadira had invited our son-in-law’s parents for cocktails. We were all meeting each other for the first time. Sir V sat amidst all the wedding chatter with a watchful eye, without participating in any of it. 

“Nickunj,” his deep voice resonated suddenly. 

The last few consonants of my name rang around us. 

Everyone stopped talking to look at him.

“After the terrific launch of your book,” he stated evenly. 

“How is it doing now?” he asked me. 

I almost dropped the plate of food I was holding. 

“Close your mouth,” Nadira whispered. 

“Well?” Sir V prompted with an imperceptible smile. 

I searched for a clever answer as he regarded me steadily. 

“Well,” I replied eventually, echoing the grandmaster.

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