When I went to see V.S. Naipaul in hospital last week he was feeling marginally better. His wife Nadira had arranged for a violinist to play some Mozart to him, helping him relax. She did not allow too many visitors. This was not the first time he had been in hospital. His health had been deteriorating for the past 12 months and the family had been receiving — as always — a flurry of invitations from literary festivals and heads of state. All had to be declined. In his hospital room we discussed his coming 86th birthday and I suggested that we celebrate with champagne at the Ritz. He smiled and proposed we go to ‘the other place’. He had a better time at the Lanesborough and preferred to head there instead. We both knew that his time with us was limited: perhaps weeks, or months if we were lucky.
In the end, it was only three days. His wife summoned a few close friends to his bedside. One was Geordie Greig, the new editor of the Daily Mail, who read Tennyson’s ‘Crossing the Bar’ to him. I only held his hand. His body was not co-operating but his mind — a surprise for the doctor — was incredibly active. For me, there were too many memories. Thousands of images flashed in what seemed like a second; and it took me back to our first meeting, purely a chance encounter.
The first time I met the Naipauls was on a carriage of the London Underground. It was sheer luck that I should find myself sitting next to Sir Vidia on a Northern Line train. For an aspiring writer, trying to find my way in London, he was the great post-colonial writer to look up to, an absolute icon. I took my chances to tell him, as politely as possible, that I had finished reading In a Free State only the previous night. ‘How interesting,’ he said, and nodded. But he was not interested in my illuminating thoughts on the book.
In fact, he was never interested to hear what other people thought of his writing (critics very much included). Instead, he was curious about me, asking what I did for a living, and so on. ‘Temping,’ I said, as was the case with many of my peers who graduated in the aftermath of 9/11, hustling to secure a choice place in the City. He looked visibly pained, for he did not approve of the word: ‘temporary work’ would have been his choice of expression. Sir Vidia was punctilious about everything, from reading your facial structure to noting punctuality. If he did not like your face, there was little hope that he would see you again. But somehow I passed his tests — and two years ago, I took my chances again.
This time, I wanted him to travel 6,000 miles to Bangladesh. My two co-directors and I had this great wish for him to inaugurate the sixth Dhaka Literary Festival. Sir Vidia was in a wheelchair by then and it was a big ask for him to travel to this tiny country in a remote part of the world, but he immediately agreed. Several friends, including Paul Theroux, had told him it was unwise to go to such a dangerous location, but that did not stop him. There was only one condition: he wanted to see the birds which migrate there to escape the Siberian winter.
A writer cannot be afraid, he said on stage a few months later, to rounds of applause. I had been unaware of the titan’s stage fright and his incredible shyness. When the announcements were being made, Sir Vidia held my hand gently as we waited backstage. His grip tightened as soon as we started moving. But it was also a hallmark of his sincerity that he did not want to let us down. When the hour-long session ended, he asked if he was good enough. It turned out to be his last public interview.
Sir Vidia enjoyed his fish but avoided meat, which made him a pescatarian — some of the obituaries have suggested he was a strict veggie. He was as fascinated by the world of business as he was by people’s habits. He was curious and he liked to have fun with those he knew he could trust. He appreciated it if you dressed up for him, as he too would make an effort to present himself in the most impeccable manner.
I once remarked that he looked like a film star in one of the framed photographs that hung on his bedroom wall. He was immensely pleased. It was a great capture of him from the late 1970s, looking contemplative in a beautiful blazer, with the proof of A Bend in the River in front. ‘Oh, would you please tell that to Nadira?’ he said, and smiled.
Since his death, we have heard much about V.S. Naipaul, the author and personality. Condescending, heartless, misogynistic — all manner of terms have been bandied around, but they don’t fit the man I knew and loved. His literary record is known worldwide, but I will remember him for his courage, warmth and softness, which were apparent to any of those lucky enough to have had the opportunity to know him.
Ahsan Akbar’s collection of poems The Devil’s Thumbprint is published by Bengal Lights Books.