Field of Science

A meeting with V. S. Naipaul

I met him at a Starbucks outside the Tower of London. It was pre-arranged. I had told him I was an independent blogger. He told me he preferred to talk to independent writers these days; the mainstream media was more trouble than what it was worth. It helped that I wrote for a site that he regularly read and admired. 

The complexities of the London tube have thwarted me on more than one occasion, and this time was no different.  I was a full fifteen minutes late. He was sitting in a cafe, his signature fedora on his head, but still dressed inconspicuously enough so as to seem like one of the many people thronging the cafe.
“Mr. Naipaul”, I said, extending my hand. “It’s a real pleasure to meet you.”
“Oh yes, please, I was expecting you. Please, call me Vidia”
Taken a little aback by the very informal moniker I was supposed to address him by, I exclaimed, “Ok, thank you. And so sorry”, I said, “I have to admit that the tube, as wonderfully efficient as it is, challenges me every time I visit the city.”
“Indeed. It was difficult to get around the first time I visited too, more than fifty years ago. Often when I thought I had made it to my destination, I realized I was back where I started. Shall we?”
We passed several tourists on our way inside the Starbucks. Inside, we ordered a regular coffee for Vidia and, for me, an American bastardization I had gotten used to since my graduate school days – a caramel macchiato. Vidia insisted on paying. Then, with a conspiratorial wink at me and the barista  – a woman who seemed like she had been around since before the advent of coffee shops – Vidia started toward the direction of the restrooms.
“Come with me”, Vidia said, leading the way. I was a bit confused: weren’t we supposed to get a table either inside or outside, where the weather was gorgeous, especially for a London summer? But I followed his lead.
At the very end of the hallway in which the restrooms were located Vidia stopped. Making sure nobody was around he pressed what seemed like a small photo frame of a bucolic mountain landscape hung on the wall. Suddenly the narrow wall swung open, and with a quickness belying the girth of his aging figure, Vidia disappeared into the void and beckoned me in. I was too stunned to say anything, and I followed him almost as a reflex action.
The door in the wall swung back and closed as fast as it had opened, and a bright light suddenly illuminated the hallway.
“Sorry about the mischief, but I have to guard against unexpected knocks on the door, even when I am seemingly past my prime.”
I still remained rather stunned to say anything.
There was another brown door at the end of the hallway. Vidia walked up to it and knocked. A few seconds later the door opened. Nadira Naipaul was gently smiling at us and welcomed us in. She was warm and welcoming, the picture of grace.
“Nadira, we have a guest with us today”. Vidia introduced me and briefly told Nadira about my background. I followed the two of them into the living room. The elegance of the room belied its simplicity. The walls were cream colored and easy on the eyes, and photos of various and sundry landscapes hung on the wall; a street scene in Trinidad, a sea of grass from England’s Lake District, and a weekend market in Agra with the Taj Mahal in the background. The apartment behind the wall seemed spacious. What caught my eye the most, however, was the low-slung Japanese table in the middle.
Vidia saw me staring at it and quickly said, “That’s where I write these days. I used to write at a desk for decades, but I have found recently that a low Japanese desk, a desk where you must sit cross-legged, imposes a kind of contemplative discipline that is hard to achieve with other seating arrangements. Would you like to give it a try?”
Of course, I said. I sat on one side, Vidia on the other. Nadira asked me if I would like some tea and went inside to fetch some. “So, what is it that you wanted to talk about?” Vidia asked.
“Well, I must apologize in advance, because this is undoubtedly a topic that many must have discussed with you, but I wanted to talk about identity. I wanted to talk about this both because it has been a central part of all your writings, and also because it’s something I can identify with myself.”
“Ah, identity”, Vidia exclaimed, a look of wistful familiarity compounded with some sadness evident in his eyes. “Yes, we all must grapple with identity at one point or another. We can certainly talk about it.”
“Well”, I said, “I must give you some personal background regarding why I wanted to bring up this specific topic.” Vidia indicated that he wanted me to continue at length.
“I am an Indian transplant in America. I came to the country for graduate school. I was steeped in American history, American science, American politics, throughout my upbringing in India. My parents were both college professors, both highly educated and literate, and our house was full of books, intellectual discussions, social occasions, laughter. America, especially, figured prominently in our dinnertime conversations, and people like Edison, FDR and George Washington Carver were greatly admired figures and regular topics of discussion. When I came to America, I realized I knew about many aspects of the country as well as the natives.”
“For the first few years I never felt the so-called identity crisis that is often talked about by immigrants, and I even laughed when other Indians in the United States indicated that they felt it. I felt at home in America. The public libraries, the basic rule of law, the respect for science and technology, the clean air, all left me feeling ecstatic; left me feeling that this was the greatest place in the world. Naturally during the first few years, just like other immigrants, I was eager to assimilate. However, in a somewhat paradoxical way, as I spent more time here, I started to ask myself, who am I, exactly, Indian or American or something in between, and does this even matter? And then – quite recently, I must admit – I read your wonderful book, ‘The Enigma of Arrival’, and that drove home the dilemma of identity in a fresh manner. My parents are no more now, and I certainly think of myself as American – or least Indian-American – and proudly call America home, but it is hard to let go of the dilemma entirely”
Vidia was quiet as I was saying this, nodding almost imperceptibly. “Yes”, he said, “the feelings you noticed weren’t alien to me, and I am sure you realized them when you were reading my book. I can certainly understand the gnawing dilemma of identity you must have felt. I am sure you understand that with me it was a case of a triple identity crisis, if you will. My grandfather came to Trinidad as an indentured Indian laborer, so I grew up with a motley collection of brown, black and white-skinned people in a very heterogeneous culture. Ideally I should have appreciated the cornucopia of racial and cultural complexity, but I was desperate to leave. Then I won a scholarship to Oxford, and I have lived in England for the last forty years. As you know, I have even been knighted, which is as English as it gets. And yet, if you ask me if I feel English alone, I would say no. There is a deep sense in which my mixed Indian-Trinidadian-English identity is indelible, and no amount of denial will peel away those layers and reveal a shining singular self.”
Glad to hear that he empathized with my thoughts regarding identity, I suddenly noticed Nadira standing next to us, holding a tray on which teacups made of elegant China were kept. I took a cup and added two spoonfuls of sugar in spite of the warnings about diabetes from my doctor; I wanted to make sure I was alert and attuned to anything Vidia was saying. “Can I join both of you?”, Nadira asked, “Of course”, I said. Company this charming was always welcome.
“Vidia and I were talking about identity”, I said. “Yes”, Nadira replied. “It’s a topic that Vidia and I never tire of discussing, especially in the context of his book, “The Enigma of Arrival”. “Exactly”, I said, delighted that Nadira and I shared the same taste in all things Naipaul. I recounted to Nadira what I had told Vidia. “I do understand”, Nadira said, “Each one of us has to square with different dilemmas of identity. As Vidia mentioned, he had to deal with a triple identity, I had to deal with a mixed Pakistani-English identity myself, and it seems you went through a similar experience.”
“I did. And as I told Vidia, I wonder sometimes whether it’s even worth feeling as if you have a conflict of identify, whether it’s something you should simply take in and become comfortable with rather than rationalize and overthink. And you know, you wonder about this even in the smallest instances; whether to speak in an American accent, how much to celebrate festivals from the old country, even something as seemingly trivial as whether to respond in your native language in kind on social media.”
“Yes, there is something to be said about the challenge of adopting to your new culture while being true to yourself.”, said Vidia, empathizing with my sentiment.
“There’s also something else I want to ask you about. What is identity, after all? How specific is it to one’s upbringing and family as opposed to one’s country? I say this especially in the context of the so-called ‘values’ that we speak of. For instance, if I ask myself what specific values I inherited from India, I would feel hard-pressed to find an answer. I would say that all the important values I have inherited are specific to my parents and family rather than to my country. At least the deep ones. The fundamental values I have gotten from my parents are ones like hard work, honesty, a thirst for knowledge and basic human decency. Is there something in here specific to India? I would think these are universal values, imparted by conscientious parents to their children around the world, in any country. If the deep and fundamental values I have are not specific to India, then what are? Diwali and Holi and Butter Chicken? Those sound rather superficial.”
Both Vidia and Nadira looked contemplative, and for a moment I worried whether I was boring them with my extended monologue. “I want to agree with you in principle; at least in terms of the notion of universal values that you speak of.”, remarked Vidia. “That being said, I think you are being too rational in your analysis here. It is quite difficult to truly speak of the values you imbibe when you grow up in a certain place, especially when you spend your impressionable years there. The real value of values, if you would forgive the expression, is intangible. It is the sum total of formative influences imparted by both your family and your country, the little things that you take for granted, the almost unconscious tics that you display; these are the lasting influences that are going to shape you as a person and contribute to your so-called identity.”
“I agree”, Nadira said. “There are all kinds of hidden influences that contribute to your identity, and through your actions later in life, you drop little hints here and there regarding those influences. For instance, as I am sure you know, Vidia’s father had a very deep and rather ambivalent influence on him; Vidia never even read the collection of letters between him and his father that was published a few years ago. This influence was a joint combination of his father’s identify as the son of an indentured Indian laborer in Trinidad and as an English-language journalist growing up as a subject in an English colony. Now of course, Vidia’s grandfather himself had been imported from India as a British colonial subject into a country where he became a different kind of British colonial subject. And he is also a Brahmin to boot, so there is another kind of caste-based identity embedded in this forest of identities. So you see how complicated this layering of identities gets?”
Vidia seemed a bit uncomfortable with Nadira’s explication, looking like he resoundingly agreed with it in principle while trying to stay away from the particulars. But he retorted, “She’s right. I think the best thing to say is that one always has many different identities; identities layered upon identities; identities fortifying identities; even identities contradicting other identities. It’s the essence of Walt Whitman’s quote about a person containing multitudes. That’s the way we all are. And we have to be comfortable with these splinters of identities.”
I took a cue from this discussion. As someone trained as a scientist, I thought I could bring a different idea of identity to the table. “I agree. Beyond a certain point it seems like it may be futile to analyze identity too rationally and minutely. But please humor me a bit here. I think of identity as something that goes beyond caste, creed, nationality, ancestry. I always think of human identity as embedded in a tapestry of biological identities, and I think we have to consider this aspect of identity at some point. I mean, think about it: whether as Indians or Americans or Englishmen, we are all part of a vast identity called ‘Homo sapiens’. And as Homo sapiens, we bear, as Darwin so memorably put it, “the indelible stamp of our lowly origins”. Our identities are intertwined with the identities of starfish and bears and orchids and earthworms and hummingbirds and barnacles that make up the grand edifice of evolution. The point I am making is that whatever our feelings about our national or ethnic identities, these are but a speck compared to the four billion years of identities that have manifested on our planet.”
“Wonderful, wonderful.”, Vidia remarked, and his face showed genuine appreciation. “I must confess I have always had trouble appreciating you scientific types. You know, during my travels in India, whenever people I met seemed quite confused about my identity as a Trinidadian-Indian-Englishman, I always took the easy way out and told them I was a chemistry teacher. Fortunately nobody asked me what I exactly taught, otherwise I would have been in trouble. Now, listening to you, I think perhaps I should have paid more attention to those meager science classes I attended in high school. ‘The indelible stamp of man’s lowly origins’. Wonderful. I could not agree more. However, I would say that it’s not always easy to subsume your proximate identity of caste and country, if you will, to this ultimate identity that you speak of. Everyone grapples with their own particular brand of identity. That differentiation of identities is itself a dilemma within a dilemma which we should all confront, much like the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma which that blue-blooded imperialist Churchill talked about in reference to the Soviet Union.”
The tea and pastries had gotten cold, the hour was late, Vidia seemed tired. “I think that if there is one take-home lesson from this discussion”, I said, “it would be that all of us, without exception, have to deal with multiple identities. Even if it’s not an identity of caste, it’s an identity of nationality. And even if it’s not one of nationality, even if your ancestors have lived in a country for hundreds of years and have never married outside their specific ethnicity, they still have to live with the multiple identities that have been bequeathed to them by evolution. We are all connected to each other in that regard.”
“Yes, as much as they try to deny it, not even those fervent evangelicals that I saw at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas can escape from these multiple layers of identity!”, said Vidia. Nadira laughed.
“Indeed!”, I exclaimed. “Well, I think I don’t want to take up too much of your time. This has been a delightful conversation, and I am deeply grateful to you for your time.”
“We feel the same way. Make sure you send us your article, please.”, Vidia said. After bidding him and Nadira goodbye, he again walked me through the secret passageway and pressed a little button that opened the door in the wall. I grasped his hand and said goodbye, and made my way through the dimly lit Starbucks. Opening the door, I stepped out into the London night. The city was still alive, its multiplicity of identities glowing with anticipation.
Note: I never met V. S. Naipaul, although I am sure I would have loved to. But I did have a delightful dream about meeting him, about the secret passageway at the end of which was his home, about his charming wife Nadira, about a vigorous discussion about identity and his book The Enigma of Arrival (which, after waking up, I read enthusiastically). This is an elaboration of that dream. RIP, V. S. Naipaul.
This post was first published on 3 Quarks Daily.