Despite his age, Sir Vidia Naipaul is still a vivacious, resilient and doubtlessly thought-provoking character. I like the way the London Evening Standard editor, Geordie Grieg, introduced him at the seminar, hosted by Intelligence and held at the beautiful setting of the Royal Geographic Society: 50 years ago he came to England, 40 years ago he wrote A House for Mr Biswas, 30 years ago he won the Booker Prize, and 10 years ago he won the Nobel Prize. What a life.
A younger alumni of the same college, I remembered going to his talk at Univ, Oxford, ten years ago. Introduced by Lord Butler, Naipaul was back then already a rather outspoken character, and he refused to perform the role that the Master had carefully set him up for: to be thankful. Instead, he told everyone in the audience how he disliked his days at Oxford and felt miserable there, and that he went to Oxford in the hope that such an education would help him become a better writer, only to realise that it hadn’t. For him, the habit of speaking out, of offending people, were to become an important part of his later life. For me, still an impressionable young college student back then, always taught to respect authorities and to feel indebted, I admired him for his courage to talk about his exile, his alienation and his tremendous self-conviction. I also respected him for writing books that dealt with difficult topics.
I never shared the same level of enthusiasm or nostalgia for my Oxford days as compared with other college friends. It is true that I enjoyed the freedom and the opportunities immensely – but it was the freedom of a college student living abroad, and being able to live her days without worrying about money or job prospects – not so much out of love or loyalty for the centuries-old institution. Back in those days my English was dreadfully inadequate, and countless times had I felt out of place, awkward and defeated. I disliked the posh accent, the subtle, upper class ways and the tight-lipped culture of it all. I thought them mere gestures to disguise old school insecurities. Yet it was a sense of inadequacy that spurred, or partly spurred, Naipaul on as a writer. He has become more famous as a result of his anti-Oxford view.
For many days last year I had my design lessons at the Royal Festival Hall Cafe, and each time I would pass by Nelson Mandela’s bronze bust statue outside the hall. Under the sun’s glare, I would look at the statue’s inscription on the plinth, ‘The struggle is my life’, remembering the fact that each day in England doesn’t come easy, and that perhaps it never would.
Ten years ago I was glad of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Naipaul. Ten years after, I felt incredibly lucky to have a second chance to hear him talk about his work. I hope it won’t be the last time.
I will write more on his books and especially, my favourite, Literary Occasions: a collection of essays, which I shed tears when reading.