Sir Vidia’s Shadow

By Sunil Kumar

Once upon a time; there was a nigriscent Indian with an attitude. Paul Theroux; V.S Naipaul’s unauthorized biographer’s literary journey along with  Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul; the Indo-Trinidadian writer is the subject of this nearly 16-year old memoir.

Having read Theroux’s wonderful book “The Great Railway Bazaar“; one was tempted to explore more of Shri Theroux’s oeuvre. Like most Americans; Theroux does not get the Indian side of things; and tends to empathize more with other nationalities. But; “Sir Vidia’s shadow” is more about his relationship with V.S. Naipaul; a protege of sorts to a man who comes across as cold and reclusive.

Theroux is obviously a bibliophile of the first order; and he gives us vivid details of his admiration for classical writers(mostly Europeans) and Naipaul himself. 60s Uganda comes across as a strange melange of African kingdoms; with subservient Indian merchants; a fact that Naipaul detests and Theroux loathes; subtly.

V.S Naipaul’s life in Oxford; his struggles in a racist 50s Britain and misogynist feelings are discussed in detail. If we were to believe the biographer; Pat Naipaul; his first wife was an angel compared to his present companion; Nadira; the Pakistani. The thing I enjoy most are the vivid descriptions by Theroux; particularly in the “Great Railway Bazaar”; where an ancient age came alive; albeit tinged with Euro-centricity.

Naipaul is obviously a product of the Anglo-Indian convoluted experience; the strange love-hate relationship that characterizes India and its former colonizer; and seems to be an Anglophile although he repeatedly describes Britons as “second-rate”; common and “infies”(inferior). As Theroux’s biography informs the reader; Naipaul seems to have spent most of his life in country houses or the grand expanse of London.

V.S claims to be a Brahmin; and his sibling Shiva; somebody who Theroux met aeons ago in Delhi; seems to have famously described some parts of this country as The Turd World. Shiva died way back in 1985; so he would not have been around to see change happening in India and the world at large; but Theroux and Naipaul are still around; probably old and anchored in their antique world-views.

The literary world is described in detail by the author; and the strange and lonely business of writing. Anybody with a remote connection to the trade; knows it is a solitary; and not very lucrative trade; maybe limited to people; for some of us do like to read.

V.S Naipaul’s views on history seem to be sort of right; and his diagnosis of India’s civilization suffering as a result of relentless onslaught; an undeniable fact. But; the man seems to be neither completely at ease with his colonial heritage or being a product of his Indian ancestry. Somehow; he’s in between; floating between the two worlds; as all of these people with similar afflictions.

The privileges of artistic fame; existing in a world; where a few people would have bothered to read authors such as Naipaul; has also been touched upon by Theroux. My feelings about the book; frankly; I was tempted to read till the end.


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