Naipaul, from close quarters

Contrary to the general tenor that the just departed Nobel laureate Sir V S Naipaul was an abrasive, haughty and supercilious man of letters, the students who attended his lectures at various premier universities across the globe found the colossus to be very friendly, down-to-earth and witty. Mind you, it wasn't wry humour or typical attic humour of an upper-class Brit.

Oxford still has this noble tradition of inviting Nobel laureates to the varsity and requesting them to address the students discussing their books, works and other interests. Since its contemporary language and literature syllabus have the works of many living Nobel laureates in Literature, Naipaul was a regular fixture. Moreover, he was permanently based in London and studied at Oxford. 

For the students of MA in English literature at Oxford, Naipaul's three books have always figured since their publication: A bend in the river (1979), A way in the world (1994) and The enigma of arrival (1987). Students and professors have always preferred his memorable  book A bend in the river which opens with the chilling sentence: "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." Since this line speaks of his own life, because Naipaul came from nothing but didn't allow himself to become nothing, he was invited in every term to explain it to the students with respect to his own life. 

I was pursuing MA in Classical Persian Literature and Mysticism at Oxford when he was invited by the English department. The liberal ethos of Oxford also allowed students studying different languages and literature to come and listen to the literary giant. So, despite not being an English Literature student, I got an opportunity to be in the audience for his lecture.

Those lucky enough to be present among his students at Oxford and Cambridge will vouch for the fact that he was a completely different man while teaching. There was no trace of arrogance in his attitude. He never talked to students in a boorish manner. I still wonder why interviewers and others found him to be extremely difficult and conceited. He'd ask questions in the class and crack jokes.

Students could ask him anything related to his book(s) and at times also about the books that were not on the syllabus. A Muslim student once asked him whether he suffered from Islamophobia as his book Beyond Belief: Islamic excursions among the converted peoples suggested? He laughed and asked him, "Do you think so? Then you should also know that I've a Muslim wife." Readers may be aware that his third wife Lady Nadira hails from Bahawalpur, Pakistan.

No student ever saw Naipaul get angry. Never did he show a single mean bone in him. He may have been a tough writer and individual to the scholars, editors and his peers but to his students, he was Sir VS, who was loved, adored and respected unconditionally and he too loved his students without pontification.

Here lies the greatness of the man whose books will always be read and admired even by the posterity, provided, reading doesn't become an anachronism! 

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Naipaul, from close quarters

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