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The Whole Truth about V.S.Naipaul

Harish Trivedi

By Patrick French
Picador, London, 2008, pp. 555, Rs. 595.00


'Sir, sir,’ said an excited M. Phil student to me recently, ‘did you see that Naipaul has said he killed his first wife?!’ That was, of course, how the newspapers had headlined the report that an authorized biography of Naipaul had come out, while omitting to say, naturally, that what Pat Naipaul had actually died of was breast cancer (—that dread and fortuitous disease which, however, is not normally reckoned to be among the various modes of homicide known to man). This rich, rivetting and upright biography makes numerous horrible disclosures about Naipaul’s private life which will confirm many Naipaul-haters in their already fixed belief that the man is a monster if not an ogre. On the other hand, it will also reveal to many others what a deeply vulnerable, anguished and torn man Naipaul has always been, nearly as sinned against as sinning.   This biography documents in some detail, for example, how Pat as well as a long-running Anglo-Argentine mistress Margarita were ill-treated and abused in the most lofty manner by their common lord and master Vidia Naipaul. What is worse, after he had ‘killed’ one and dumped the other of this pair of utterly devoted and adoring sati-savitris, he promptly installed in their place a younger third woman. Oddly for an alleged Hindutva sympathizer, he now chose a feisty Pakistani journalist, Nadira Khanum Alvi, whom he brought home the very day after his first wife was cremated and whom he married a couple of months afterwards. This act of unseemly and indecent haste inspires the biographer Patrick French to attempt one of his few high literary allusions, to the cold meats of a funeral furnishing forth a marriage table, as in Hamlet.   But that is an uncharacteristic flourish from a biographer who sustains his credibility by employing a brisk and even brusque narrative tone throughout. In the early parts of the book, French seems a little anxious to be seen as standing at some distance from his subject and sounds even off-hand at times; it is as if he feared that if he were to delve into Naipaul’s psychology, he might be quickly sucked in. But as the biography progresses, it is lifted from being just chronologically busy and anthropologically bustling by an unsuspected and even unfashionable depth of emotion.   This depth is often fenced in by inverted commas, for it comes mostly from Naipaul’s ...

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