Ahsan Akbar

The heart of the master | 16 August 2018

The great writer’s warmth and softness have not been emphasised enough

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.

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