February 21, 2020
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Naipaul And His Three Women

'I knew Pat was dying and Margaret was finished.... It was not that I was trying to displace a dying woman and an old floozy': Nadira

Naipaul And His Three Women
Naipaul And His Three Women
As he approached the age of retirement, V.S. Naipaul felt compelled to go on writing. By early 1995, unable to find the spark for a work of fiction, Vidia decided to loop back on himself once more and write a reprise of Among the Believers, his prescient early study of Islamic extremism. In a new global political climate, he would return to Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan to look at the future of Islamist ideology through the fate of the places and personalities he had encountered in 1979. Once again, he would make a forceful rejection of the late 20th century academic convention that all cultures, peoples and belief systems are different but equal. On July 25, 1995, Vidia flew out of Heathrow airport to Jakarta. As on his previous trips, he asked other people to aid him, and in most cases they fell over themselves to do so. His Anglo-Argentine mistress of 23 years' standing, Margaret Gooding, jumped on an aeroplane and travelled loyally with him through Indonesia, being permitted to collect and file useful press cuttings. Publishers' staff in London and New York provided contacts and helpers. Ian Buruma recommended the journalist Ahmed Rashid in Pakistan, who produced a string of names and invited Vidia to stay at his house in Lahore. The editor of the New York Review of Books Bob Silvers found regional experts and their telephone numbers. The publisher Harry Evans sent a gigantic list of possibly interesting people. The journalist Rahul Singh located politicians in Jakarta. Once Vidia arrived in the relevant country, diplomats would arrange dinners and foreign correspondents would open their contacts books to him. When he left for Indonesia, he knew his wife Pat was seriously ill with a recurrence of breast cancer. A month earlier, in a chilling letter to his accountant, Vidia had written: "Pat's personal papers (an important element of the archive) will be shipped on her death." A fortnight after he left England she was admitted to Chalybeate Hospital, and he sent her a fax with "tremendous and enduring love". After 40 years, Vidia was again feeling the sort of intense emotion he had felt during their early courtship. He wrote to Pat: "Very grieved to hear about so many things. Please let me know what you think I can do. With v. great love and gratitude for all that you are. V." And Pat, being Pat, suggested there was nothing her husband should do except continue with his work. So he travelled to Bandung, telling her that the material was shaping up. "I was visibly moved by the Fax," wrote Pat, who had to rest for long stretches each morning and evening. "I read it like lightning. It answered every need. You asked what you could do and that was it."

The recreation of something like an old love—if on opposite sides of the world, divided by years of pain—put a stress on Vidia's relationship with Margaret, and filled him with guilt. For the past two decades, whenever he travelled it had been with Margaret—to the Congo for A Bend in the River, to India for A Wounded Civilisation and to Argentina for The Return of Eva Peron. One day when he telephoned Pat from the hotel in Jakarta, Margaret made a remark which stuck in his mind, and filled him with unexpressed, silent anger. "Margaret said a few foolish things that made me react badly, quietly. Pat was in the hospital and I telephoned to find out how she was. I did it the next day and Margaret said, 'Ummm, almost like old lovers', or, 'It is almost like an affair', and I thought that was rather crass of her." In his head, Vidia began to reject the mistress who had through decades of aggression and harassment chosen to stand by him, and even now was traipsing around Indonesian villages wearing an unappetising red hat. Now that he might, if things went badly, have Margaret as his wife, he had a fateful, hateful, fatal sense that he did not want her in his life any more. It was unjust, but as ever Vidia presented himself as a figure controlled by irreducible needs. "I feel that in all of this Margaret was badly treated. I feel this very much. But you know there is nothing I can do.... I stayed with Margaret until she became middle-aged, almost an old lady."

When Margaret flew home from Indonesia, Vidia carried on to Iran and Pakistan. On October 26, two days after Vidia arrived in Lahore, Ahmed Rashid took him to a party at the US consul general's house. The evening at the diplomat's house was a typical occasion of its type, where the educated elite of a failing state discuss how best to spring the country from its present mess. Benazir Bhutto was running a corrupt and violent administration, but would Nawaz Sharif, or an unnamed military dictator, do any better? Vidia listened, saying little. Another guest was a tall, feisty, energetic, fearless, generous, dyslexic, divorced, emotional, fairly scandalous 42-year-old journalist, who wrote under the name 'Nadira'. When she arrived at the party at the end of a long day at the office, Ahmed Rashid asked if she would like to meet the famous writer. In her account, she saw a sorrowful looking man piling his plate high with salad in this land of vigorous meat-eaters. "I walked up to him and said: 'Are you V.S. Naipaul?' And he said, 'Yes.' I looked at him, I wasn't smiling, I wasn't laughing, I just looked into his eyes and I said: 'Can I kiss you?' And I kissed him on his cheek. I said: 'A tribute to you. A tribute to you.' Then he said we should sit down and he insisted I sit next to him.... He wangled a dinner invitation out of me too, on that evening. I thought to myself, God, now I am stuck with this bloody dinner." Vidia's engagement diary records that they met nine times over the next fortnight. Nadira spoke freely to Vidia about her experiences of Pakistan, holding back little. Then something strange happened: the writer, the writer who had guarded himself scrupulously since childhood, avoiding intimacy or revelation, began to speak. It was a partial account, but it came from deep inside him. He told Nadira about Pat, about Margaret, and about his family. He told her that his wife was dying and his mistress had hopes he could not fulfil. "We were driving past the Gymkhana Club, and Vidia said, 'I am a very passionate man.' He told me he should never have married Pat, but that she was a great support to his work, that he was sexually deprived but Margaret had changed all that, and that he had come to the end of the road with Margaret but had carried on because it was convenient. I listened like a friend. He was very angry with Pat, he felt angry that she was dying and angry that she was not dying fast enough because he wanted to carry on with his life. He was dealing with the shock of her dying by being angry. Vidia can't cope with grief or pain or bad news: he shoots the messenger. I knew it was a dead marriage, so I didn't think it was strange that he was with me rather than Pat."

Things moved fast after this. Vidia wanted to see more of Pakistan, and Nadira thought he should visit the depths of the countryside. She took him to Bahawalpur, and as they gazed out over the moonlit desert at Lal Suhanra, Vidia said to her, "I have never wanted children, but if I did I would want you as their mother." From a man whose wife had been unable to conceive and whose mistress had been through several terminations, it was a strange remark to make to a woman who had been forcibly separated from her own children, but Nadira took it as a sincere compliment. She brought him to the provincial assembly and to meet friends and associates, and when he came to write a chapter on the region in Beyond Belief, it was full of vigorous stories, and filled with a sexual charge last encountered in A Bend in the River.

Nadira helped to arrange his journeys, telephoning her many friends and contacts across Pakistan. She sent him to see Minoo Bhandara, a Parsi newspaper columnist who ran Pakistan's only brewery, in Murree. "...I picked him up from the airport. He was standing there sullenly and I said, 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' He went, 'Yes, yes, yes.' I took him around for a few days. I had no idea he was romantically involved. Nadira was a good friend of mine, a journalistic butterfly. She was a chirpy little thing, bright, known to a lot of important people.... I mentioned that my sister was a novelist, Bapsi Sidhwa, but he wasn't interested. When I asked him who his favourite writers were he said, 'My father.' Later I sent a letter to him in England, but didn't get a reply. A friend of mine said maybe my letter contained grammatical mistakes.... I would credit him with seeing more than I did (about Pakistan) at that time. He saw political Islam getting stronger by the day."

The next stop was Karachi, where Nadira's friend Mazdak met them both at the airport. Vidia was dropped off at his hotel, and a few days later on November 24, Mazdak gave a Thanksgiving dinner (his sister-in-law was American) to which the itinerant author was invited. When the party was coming to an end, Nadira heard that a girlfriend of Mazdak's had been present, and an argument began. While she was screaming at him at around 3 am, the telephone rang and a voice said, "Is Margaret there? I have to speak to her." "Margaret who?" asked Mazdak, and Nadira snatched the telephone, realising who was on the other end. "Come now to the hotel, I need to talk to you," said Vidia. She refused, but agreed to come at 8.30. Nadira went to bed, furious, and when she arrived at the hotel a few hours later, Vidia was still wearing his clothes from the night before. In her recollection, "He looked wild. His hair was all over the place. I said, 'Are you OK?' He asked me not to go, and then he said, 'Will you consider one day being Lady Naipaul?' I knew Pat was dying and Margaret was finished.... It was not that I was trying to displace a dying woman and an old floozy. So I said, you must wait. I rang Mazdak at his office and said, 'V.S. Naipaul has just asked me to marry him.' Mazdak said, 'I'm sorry, I can't match that offer.' I said, 'Well I'm not coming back, so kindly pack up all my stuff and send it here to the hotel.' I stayed the night with Vidia (and) the phone rang in the hotel room. I answered it. A woman said, 'Can I speak to V.S. Naipaul?' It was Pat. She said to him, 'Was that Margaret?' and Vidia said, 'No, no, it is someone else.' About three days after that Vidia flew back to London. I said to him, 'I'll only marry you if you come back, I want you to meet the people who are important in my life.' I knew that Margaret was in London. I had asked him. But I don't know what he had said to her. He told me, 'You're not to worry, you will not be dishonoured.'"

Vidia travelled swiftly now to Malaysia, anxious that neither the prospect of his wife's looming death nor putative marriage should interfere with his work, and returned home to Wiltshire for Christmas. Unsurprisingly, Pat was unable to give him the sort of welcome he sought. As he told his fiancee over the telephone, making long calls to Pakistan heedless for once of the expense, there was nobody to look after him. "His room wasn't done when he came back, and he caught a slight chill because there was no blanket. He is not a man to be inconvenienced. He got very irritated."

Before flying to Malaysia at the start of December, Vidia had decided he would return to Pakistan in the new year. Ahmed Rashid received a fax and passed it on to Nadira. 'Dear Ahmed, This is for Nadira: PIA can do a business class flight London/Karachi/Lahore on 3 January. ' There was one difficulty: first he had to tell Margaret that their relationship was over. How was he to do it? Vidia spoke to her in Argentina by telephone twice in late December, and twice in early January. Then his calls ceased. "I didn't tell Margaret I had met Nadira." By saying nothing, he had shelved the problem. His wife's deteriorating condition did not deter him: he flew east, and remained in Lahore for just over two weeks. This time, the news that V.S. Naipaul and 'Nadaan' Nadira of Letter from Bahawalpur fame were holed up together in the Awari Hotel spread swiftly through Lahore. Minoo Bhandara heard the gossip: "I asked, 'Is V.S. Naipaul a bigamist?' And I was told, no, but his wife is going to die in the next couple of months, and then he's going to marry Nadira." For Vidia's wife-to-be, it was a time to cut old ties and introduce him to her friends and family. "I was so in love. Nobody had given me that kind of attention and passion before. I felt protected. He was daddy, uncle, lover all rolled into one.... He was moved by the old yellow pencil marks I had made in my copy of India: An Area of Darkness. I was in love. Vidia was focusing on pulling the net."

Back in London on January 19, Vidia visited the dentist, suffering from nerve pain. On the same day, Pat went for her last meal at the Bombay Brasserie near their flat in London with their housekeeper Angela Cox, who had driven her up to London to meet her husband, now that he had returned from Pakistan after his important research. A few weeks earlier, Pat had seen her old friend Teresa Wells and confided in her that she was dying. She also told her that Vidia had met a new lover in Pakistan, with whom he wanted to spend his life. In Teresa's words, "Pat suggested that once she died it would be easier for them."

London, 1965: Naipaul's first wife, Patricia

During the last days of January, Pat's condition deteriorated fast. With Vidia, she went for an appointment at Chalybeate Hospital, where the anaesthetist said she had liver cancer and only days to live. Pat lay in her little bed at Dairy Cottage in Wiltshire, cared for by Angela, taking her medicines and applying durogesic patches to relieve the pain. As she slipped towards the end, Vidia started to keep a journal. It was the only thing he knew: making notes, taking notes. "These things will torment me until the end.... She to me: 'How are you? Are you well? Are you doing your work?' Smiles and looks beautiful when I say yes. So beautiful.... I to her: 'Are you content?' Yes. Would you say you have had a happy life? No direct answer. 'It was perhaps my own fault'.... Her bad—jaundiced—colour comes and goes. She is pure grace." Vidia read some of Nicholas Nickleby and The Pickwick Papers to Pat, a book she had read to him in the 'slum basement' of his cousin's house when they were both 22 and he was suffering from asthma. "She kissed me when I arranged her to sleep. She held me and kissed me. Which she hadn't done for 20 years and more." He told her he had met Nadira in Pakistan, but not that he planned to marry her. "I left that out. Pat was too ill to react. I don't know how much she understood."

The following night, Patricia Naipaul fell into a coma. Vidia removed her Cartier watch for fear it might be stolen by a passing health worker. The next morning, on Saturday, February 3, 1996, a little before seven o'clock, she passed away. Vidia did not know what to do. Having spent a lifetime shunning friends, he had no network of support. His wife was dead, at the age of 63. A death notice appeared in the newspapers: 'Patricia Ann (Lady Naipaul). Wife of V.S. Naipaul...after a long and wasting illness. Funeral at Salisbury Crematorium Thursday 8 February at 9.40 a.m.' The event was attended by only a few friends and relations, on a piercingly cold February day; snow lay on the ground. The service was momentary. There were no readings, or music, or an address. Vidia could see no other way to do it: "People have rebuked me about the funeral. Messages came back to me about the shabby way I did it. But I could do it only in that way, because there was only me.... I put an announcement in the papers, I think it would have been in the Telegraph. It was quite expensive, I remember, and I really expected no one to pay any attention.... Could I have called people and made a speech? I couldn't have done it.... I think it was what Pat would have wanted. I knew she would have liked the simplicity."

Enduring love? Naipaul, Nadira

After the cremation, Vidia returned to Dairy Cottage and took photographs of Pat's meagre possessions: her bed, her spectacles, her shoes, her medicines, and the snow outside. Angela the housekeeper went to Sainsbury's to buy food: cheese, Cox's apples, black and green olives. Vidia noted on the receipt: "The olives were for Nadira, arriving on the 9th Feb." A local taxi drove Vidia up to Heathrow to collect Nadira, while Angela, shocked to the core, prepared the food for his bride. And so it was that on the day after he had cremated his wife, V.S. Naipaul invited a new woman into her house—or his house—and the funeral green olives did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables. Vidia wanted no contact with anyone, and when his sisters and nieces telephoned they found a strange woman on the end of the telephone saying that he was indisposed. His extended family, having no option but to accept his idiosyncrasies, stepped back, although many of his nephews and nieces were distraught at Pat's death, having had no inkling that she was seriously ill.

Nadira and Vidia were married at Salisbury register office on April 15 in the presence of his sister Nella, her family and his agent Gillon Aitken. Three days later he held a celebratory dinner in London. Unsure how to proceed in this unlikely situation, Vidia had invited the likes of his old Oxford tutor Peter Bayley, the historian Antonia Fraser and her playwright husband Harold Pinter as wedding guests. A journalist from the Daily Telegraph, Amit Roy, was in attendance at the wedding dinner to break the story. Under the headline 'The moment V.S. Naipaul became a romantic novelist', Roy revealed that 18 little hearts were printed on the menu. The media had an exemplary story: V.S. Naipaul, austere scourge of Islam, had married a thirty-eight-year-old (sic) Pakistani woman. Around the world, columnists took the chance to make appropriate deductions. In the Times of India, Pankaj Mishra wrote that V.S. Naipaul had "discovered passion in early old age...with such complete lack of embarrassment that the slight guilt attendant on every nosey journalistic invasion of privacy is absent here." It was bad enough that he had spoken some time earlier to the New Yorker about having sex with prostitutes: "The revelations, shocking in themselves", had now been succeeded by the sound of "a Pakistani wife, 24 years younger than Naipaul, frothing full of pink-candy sentiments about 'loving' and 'caring' and 'sharing' and all that sort of thing."

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