Tata Literature Live! – Day 1

I’m doing snippety little pieces on Tata Literature Live! for DNA. Day One’s big attraction was the evening ceremony in which Sir Vidia Naipaul was given a lifetime achievement award, so that’s what I wrote about. Because really, who knew that Sir Vidia was a marshmallow about his pet cat (named Augustus, who had to be put down last year. RIP). Below the piece are notes and quotes jotted down at some of the sessions I attended.


The death notice that Naipaul placed in The Times last year

Sir VS Naipaul, Nobel laureate, is best known for being the enfant terrible of literature. In the past, his opinions have raised the hackles of a wide range of people, including feminists, patriotic Indians and Muslims. But the Naipaul who won the lifetime achievement award at Mumbai’s Tata Literature Live! last night was a gentler, more vulnerable man – one who needed help to get on stage, who looked to his wife Nadira repeatedly for encouragement and who was reduced to tears at the memory of his pet cat, Augustus. It wasn’t the only time in the course of the evening that Naipaul broke down. When asked to speak about A House For Mister Biswas, which drew upon episodes from Naipaul’s father’s life, the author broke down.

Recalling his Nobel prize, Naipaul said that he had feared that the “resentment” caused by his opinions would cost him the prize even though his name had been recommended repeatedly. When he finally was awarded the prize in 2001, however, he played it cool. “You’ve heard of my little spot of good luck,” he said to author Farrukh Dhondy when the latter called to congratulate him on the Nobel.

Naipaul candidly admitted that writing for him has always been challenging. “There’s always struggle in writing,” he said. Speaking about Area of Darkness, which was published in 1964 and caused furore because of Naipaul’s unromantic and critical view of India, he said that the India he saw in 1962 was “full of distress” and he found this “troubling” because it took him time to figure out how he would knit his experiences into a book. Some of Naipaul’s characteristic steeliness was in evidence when he said, of Area of Darkness, “A 50 year old book has a life and vigour of its own, and you have to accept it.”

Quotes and Notes

From Has Fiction Failed Mumbai? with Sidharth Bhatia, Altaf Tyrewala, Jeet Thayil, Cyrus Mistry and chair Naresh Fernandes.

Bhatia: Themes in Mumbai novels can be boiled down to nostalgia, diaspora and diasporic nostalgia. “I think non-fiction has crept ahead.”

Mistry: Journalism does something very different from fiction. “I don’t think the novelist has a role.”

Thayil: “The point about fiction is that nostalgia is part of the territory.”

“I would ask if Mumbai has failed fiction.”

“To say that Bombay is a city that reads, that’s stretching it a bit.” What the city reads, according to Thayil, is The Times of India.

Tyrewala: “The tone of literature is changing. … It’s an exciting time to be in the city.”

Mistry: “I don’t really feel like writing about Bombay anymore.”

Thayil said he was surprised by how much he remembered of 1980s’ Mumbai. In the middle of him almost waxing about the quality of light in opium dens, someone’s phone rang. “Are we being invaded?” Thayil asked. (The tune was from the soundtrack of Apocalypse Now.) So the street of 40-odd opium dens is now a set of identical shops with a McDonald’s at the end of the street. It was McMumbai. “It was a readymade metaphor. I didn’t even have to make it up.”

Bhatia: There’s been a change in Mumbai’s mythology. From the city where anyone can make it, it’s become a city for the rich.


Sir Vidia, in conversation with Farrukh Dhondy

“I had a very hard time starting. I knew about writing essays. That kind of writing was not writing for books.” And so he kept writing, looking for “language that might seem fitting for a book.” He suggested his style is reminiscent of 16th-century Castilian: “Sharp, and spare and pointed and full of pictures.”

“The process of learning to write came with the discovery of material.”

“One can be over-interviewed.”

When Dhondy asked about A House for Mister Biswas, Naipaul broke down and couldn’t speak. He looked to his wife, who said something to Dhondy. I think she suggested they move on to other books.

“The thing about writing is that you’ve got to keep on.”

“Reality by itself never makes a book. That comes from the fictive element.”

A travel book “represents a discovery.”

Augustus the cat was a rescue from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. Nadira Naipaul told Dhondy that they should get Naipaul a cat for his birthday. Naipaul named the cat Augustus because he was the emperor after the collapse of the Roman republic. Augustus lived for 13 years and had to be put down last year.


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