In the morning of 17 November 2016, I rushed up to the Bangla Academy premises and kept sitting in the auditorium where V. S. Naipaul was supposed to appear and raise the curtain of the Dhaka Lit Fest. The designated speakers of the inaugural ceremony, including two of ministers, finished their speech, but there was no sign of Naipaul's appearance on the stage. The audience was getting restless inside. Was he really coming? Patient waiting for a brilliant writer, whom I, like numerous others, read with great appreciation. At last he came, just at the fag end of the program, to cut the ribbon. He uttered only a few words and departed. He was on a wheelchair. A legend, a history, out there, in front of the curious eyes! A globe-trotter who possessed a robust and hefty physique has been bound to such immobility! An enormous eloquence has been decimated to such near-muteness. It was a shock!
I had a book with me-Miguel Street, bought fresh from Bookworm. My ardent desire was to get an autograph of Naipaul. His pen's kiss on the book, a divine blessing for me, would be a source of immense pleasure. I would treasure it for my whole life, and show proudly to my band of crony and progeny. But, to my utter frustration, nobody from audience was allowed to go near, as it might cause disturbance to him. My book was deprived of his holy ink, which probably dried up by now. He is no more in writing business, being even unable to sign. The mightiest river in the world would cease to flow one day. That is the fate! A towering figure, reminiscent of dream, we witness-that is the only consolation. The desire of an autograph, let alone a photograph with him, perished instantly.
On 18 November in the afternoon, Naipaul, accompanied by his wife Nadira, appeared again on the stage to have a chat with Ahsan Akbar, one of the Lit Fest organizers. The hall was teeming with audience. Many people were standing as all seats were occupied. Amid crowd I sat on the passage mat between blocks of chairs. When Naipaul started talking, invigorously and ineloquently, in response to the anchor, a pin-drop silence gripped the space. As the conversation went on, there were occasional bursts of laughter and clap. Audience, all ears, wanted to relish every bit of his utterance. The verbal nectar, where was it? The scanty phrases flew on their heavy wings within the walls, around the minds of the huge audience. I was certain I would miss the second chance of his autograph. Bad luck!
Naipaul talked, not much. He was recalling his old memories, rambling down the home town and foreign streets, sometimes losing his way in the dust and fog. He was repeatedly telling of the struggle a writer has to go through. He said, with his typical British pronunciation, that it was not easy at all for him to be a writer. He had to suffer a lot. With a disturbed mind, he used to hang around, in a state of nervous breakdown. There were a lot of anxieties-anxieties of writing, making sense or not, worthy of publication or not. He acutely faced the teething problem-not knowing exactly what to write about. The anxieties were "horrible", according to him, though they were the essence of a writer's life. He faced many odds, but he kept up his spirits. He was depressed but he did not stop writing. He got inspiration from his journalist father and from within. He was resolute to be a writer and nothing could prevent him. He arduously learnt the art of writing and developed his own style of storytelling. And he became one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. According to him, making of a writer is a more 'complicated' process than one can even imagine. Nobody knows what goes on inside the mind of a writer, only the bubbles of worries could be seen to surface. Stressful situations and awful experiences are the makers of writer Naipaul.
Naipaul remembered his initial career days in BBC where he used to work as a presenter for the program Caribbean Voices on part-time basis. One day he would run up to the freelancers' room and not leave the room until he finished a story. One, then another, then another. That's how he completed Miguel Street, which depicts, in a humorous fashion, his experiences of early life in the Port of Spain. He peeped into the political environment of Trinidad with his other comical production The Suffrage of Elvira. Upon the request of André Deutsch he wrote The Mystic Masseur, which touched upon the pangs and pains of a writer and transformation in life. He gradually matured and set to write A House for Mr Biswas, the best of his life. The story of Mohun Biswas, with all embarrassments and failures, interpersonal conflicts, dangling between tradition and modernity, makes the readers feel pity for him. The vivid description of household details, great precision and accuracy in language, seamless plotting and flawless characterization made it a modern classic. It is a grand novel with a familiar social theme, the most significant masterpiece of a passionate artist.
Later on Naipaul moved towards non-fiction and he earned enviable success there as well. He started his journey with The Middle Passage which records the impressions of five societies-British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America. He travelled around the world, from America to Europe, from Asia to Africa, and came up with such noteworthy works as An Area of Darkness, The Loss of El Dorado, Among the Believers and A Turn in the South. He interviewed people and browsed through the historical records to reveal a wonderful hidden rock-solid world. His Midas pen spawned gold. He became an institution, or as the Lit Fest organizers termed, 'a festival himself', to have a glance of whom, hundreds of Bangladeshi admirers thronged the Bangla Academy hall.
Naipaul's Dhaka visit is undoubtedly a tremendous event, an unforgettable experience for many. How could he make his way up here? How was it possible? The organizers ran after him for about one and a half years. It would not happen unless the lady did not help. Nadira Naipaul played a decisive role in fixing the itinerary. Naipaul had little interest in coming to Bangladesh; he was not physically fit. When the Lit Fest representative met him in London, it was Nadira who convinced Naipaul. Nadira had some sweet adolescent memories of Dhaka, where she used to be enthralled by the croaking of frogs and the speech of Maulana Bhashani. She loved Bangladesh and out of this love she made Naipaul agree to attend the literary extravaganza in Dhaka. She is an amazing lady and we are grateful to her. The soil of the land got the footprint of the Trinidadian maestro just because of her earnestness.
I was thinking, gazing right at the appearance of V. S. Naipaul, so infirm and confined to wheelchair, this is the man who wrote superb docu-fictions like The Mimic Men, A Bend in the River, The Enigma of Arrival, A Way in the World and Half a Life. This is the man who achieved Knighthood and Nobel Prize. This is the man who stands alongside R. K. Narayan as a master of wit, irony and submerged pathos. This is the man who with his colonial and postcolonial scrutiny comes in the vicinity of Joseph Conrad. I witness a literary Avatar just a few yards away from me!
I felt happy and unhappy. I saw him so fragile, both physically and mentally. He could not speak clearly. He could not follow the words of others. In most of the cases he was just saying 'yes' 'yes' in his turn of interlocution. His brain cells seemed to be in disarray, with a clear symptom of dementia, though not as acute as that of Nazrul and Marquez in their last days. He wanted to say many things but his psychophysical condition did not allow. The voice was low and slow. He was fumbling for words, taking long pause. Sounds struggled to drop from his lips. It is a helpless situation-dire lexical scarcity for a magician of words. He has been merely a shadow of V. S. Naipaul, half withdrawn from the world.
The writer is the Director, Daffodil Institute of Languages (DIL), and Associate Professor, Department of English,
Daffodil International University