So what's the fuss about? It's not as if Arundhati Roy was invited to the BJP headquarters for a chintan baithak. Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Napaul and his wife Lady Nadira Naipaul have been in the city for some time now, and they are not exactly strangers to the BJP. So it was no surprise really to hear that the duo actually made a trip to the BJP's 11, Ashok Road, headquarters. "For a closed-door interaction with the party's 'intellectual cell'," as my friendly caller said, rather meaningfully, when he first called up to breathlessly ask if I had heard about The Visit.
"Was it a face-saver and diversionary tactics for - how does one put it delicately? - 'the notorious' D.P.Yadav?" came the first of the pointed questions. "Do you think he would be co-authoring the party's manifesto? Or perhaps offer a catch-line for the ad-campaign? Would he campaign? Would he accompany the big honchos on their election campaign perhaps, in search of another travelogue? After all, he was among the believers and, surely it was not beyond belief, my interlocutor insisted (yes, I could hear the italics in the emphasis). Would he, you think, like, join the party?"
Well, such are the travails of any self-confessed Naipaul fan. Alas, it was nothing even remotely as exciting. Turns out that it wasn't even the "intellectuals' cell" headed by the omnipresent Mr Punj (how appropriate; it seems the party changed the nomenclature to "think tank" quite some time back), but the "cultural cell" of the BJP Sure, the cameras clicked, mikes were thrust, the couple were virtually mobbed by the media when they emerged out of the chintan baithak, the TV channels got their sound and video bytes and, in all, a good "photo-op" was had by all. D.P. Yadav was buried along with yesterday's newspapers.
Because no official briefing was given for the meeting, and because the press had been kept out, the accounts of what happened behind closed doors are contradictory and, sometimes, even conflicting. While many saw his presence as an endorsement for BJP's Hindutva agenda, some even added with a twinkle in their eyes that he may well have been researching for his next book, or be a part of one more Tehelka sting operation.
All that has been highlighted in the press is what was perhaps the best moment for the audience, a gift for the BJP. As to what the Trinidad-born British citizen said when asked about Sonia Gandhi's "foreign origins": Is it an issue for occupying high offices? And he replied: "It is worth considering this idea. I think the Americans have their views". It was a coup as far as sheer timing for this meet and this affirmation of the BJP position was concerned. (though wags are already asking if it means they should be relieved that Sir Vidia himself would not ever be appointed to any high office? The catch, gentle readers, seems to be in the word "origins")
Once the "photo op" was over, the journos were asked to leave the hall where the "closed door interaction" was to take place. The Naipauls were welcomed by senior BJP leader J.P. Mathur (presiding over the session) and Law Minister Arun Jaitley who presented bouquets and ‘angvastrams’ to the couple. "Naipaul expressed his desire to come to the party office and meet members of the cultural cell" explained Jaitly, as part of the introduction and left soon after, leaving Sir Vidia in the august company of such other cultural, intellectual and literary heavy-weights from the parivar as Praful Goradia, Manohar Puri, Shyam Khosla, BJP's cultural cell convenor, D.P. Sinha and sundry new NCERT textbook writers among others in attendance.
Rajya Sabha member L.M. Singhvi (who reportedly admitted later that "the discussions were not up to Naipaul’s intellectual level") and danseuse Sonal Mansingh were the other (only?) distinguished attendees. According to reliable sources, after a brief introduction, Sir Vidia invited questions from the small gathering and largely heard them out more than he spoke by way of answers.
What did he say in the introduction? Apparently, he said he saw "a resurgent economy and education" ... "passion in this group" [BJP]... that "intellectual awakening" was happening in India which has "potential for good in the future" ...and that "I want encourage... that is why I came here". In short, did he see India shining? he was asked. "Yes, India is shining because I can see it," he replied.
The past preoccupies Naipaul's present, and history - how it is written and remembered - is a recurring theme in his recent oeuvre. "For having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories," had read his Nobel citation. The small gathering was not unaware of his views on Islam, history, Ayodhya et al, and so it was not surprising perhaps to find that questions about re-writing of history books were raised almost immediately. He agreed with the view that there should be resistance to those trying to "destroy history". He also defended the right to "rewrite history that tried to stamp out the ancestral culture".
"But Indians are not interested in the history," he snorted. "History writing is still evolving in India ...History is generally written by victors, not the vanquished," he went on to pronounce. But there was a note of circumspection too: "It should be written by independent thinkers, not influenced by any dogma or ideologies ... If mistakes creep in, they ought to be corrected".
Correcting historical wrongs had to segue into questions on Ayodhya, perhaps because lots of "independent thinkers" happened to be in the audience. Hadn't he justified the demolition of the Babri Masjid? "I have answered this question several times. I did justify it," he maintained. "By desecrating a shrine, Babur was negating the Indian culture which was set right by the demolition ... What Babar did was wrong. He wanted to damage India’s culture. There is no point in glorifying such mistakes." So far so good. It was in this context, he explained, when asked, that he had justified the demolition of Babari Masjid as "an act of historical balance".
He said he did believe that "Babar's conquest of India was an invasion that left a deep mark" and that " subsequent Mughal rule and the British conquest too left their impact on India" but that - more importantly - " one must move on". And then followed the obligatory tribute to the West for giving India "its modern ideas and value systems -- democracy, fundamental rights and human rights" We are not sure whether he spoke about his own contribution in furthering the "intellectual environment" in India.
"I don't agree history cannot be undone. It can be," he proclaimed before proceeding to talk about Spain - where Muslims had brought down churches, the Spaniards had rebuilt them, he pointed out calling that period the "most creative and richest period in its history".
According to some participants, rather direct - "even crude", one of them said - questions on Islam and Jehad were raised, but he chose to largely ignore them, only shuddering almost theatrically, but convincingly in reply, leaving his audience, who perhaps wanted a passionate encore of his views on the "calamitous effects of Islam", rather unsatisfied. He said 'clash of civilisations' was a catchy phrase but disagreed that anything of that sort was happening at present in the world.
Complicated and convoluted questions on identity and colonialism followed from his interlocutors. Why had he ignored African civilisation being wiped away by colonialism? It was dismissed as a "very tedious view of history". Could Hindutva be the identity to seek? he was asked. "Identity," he said, "does not have a single point of reference ... Man moves from place to place and changes from society to society and keeps on adding to his multi-layered identity. Mankind cannot move back and has to carry on moving forward." He said he was impressed with the BJP's "passion" for effecting a change but wanted it to forget the past and move on. "That is the way we can become more innovative and creative getting something anew." Whew. The person narrating this laughed, and said he didn't think the interlocutor was satisfied.
This was not all. "Ayodhya," he rationalised, "was a sort of passion ... Any passion is to be encouraged. I always support actions coming out of passion as these reflect creativity". And then came the googly: "I support Tarun Tejpal (the Tehelka Ed in Chief). That (the Tehelka sting) was an act of passion. Only when there’s passion there’s creative contribution".
The audience, expecting a diatribe on Islam, was suddenly stunned into silence. But that doesn't seem to have made news somehow.
No press conference had been scheduled but the 70 minutes or so that the meeting lasted was enough to have the grapevine buzzing and the media had assembled in full force. The couple were virtually mobbed when they emerged out of the chintan baithak, but it seems when it came to dealing with the press, Sir Vidia could only get a few words in edgeways as Lady Naipaul simply took over.
She had created quite a stir at the 2002 Pravasi Bhartiya Diwas celebrations, standing up to question the Deputy Prime Minister Advani pointedly - some said, even theatrically - on the Gujarat riots. Recalling that, asked one of the journos, what were the duo doing at the BJP headquarters? "You mustn’t ask me about passing, past things," the noble Nobel laureate remonstrated. Lady Nadira was quick to take the cue: "You keep quiet and let me answer".
At Neemrana, Sir Vidia had paid no attention to the wife's frenetically scribbled messages and had gone on to declare how "banalities bore" him. But he was, unfortunately, far more restrained this time around. Lady Nadira took it upon herself to be the spokesperson: "You have got it wrong. You tell me what is wrong, why is there so much media attention when we wish to come to the BJP office? What is so spectacular about it? BJP is a major force. My husband is a writer, he is concerned about India and we have come as observers".
On whether he justified the Ayodhya incident, he was circumspect: "I can't repeat my views. I have stated my views several times before." Is India shining? He wouldn't comment on something "so blatantly political.". But Lady Nadira did think it prudent to affirm: "We are not endorsing anything".But, wasn't the BJP appropriating them? "I don't mind it," Sir Vidia smiled benignly. He seemed to have been enjoying himself all along and would perhaps have provided some bon mots, but Lady Nadira was quick to step in, again: "We don’t mind being appropriated. Everybody should appropriate my husband. He is in the public domain. If the Congress had invited us, we would have gone there too. If the liberals had done their homework, they could have appropriated him." And that was about all.
For a change, there is actually some food for thought in what Lady Nadira said. Never mind the moribund Congress party, and its sensitivity to anyone who questions the Supreme Leader, the real trouble with so-called liberals seems to be that on one hand they deride and scoff at Naipaul and his world-view - such as it is - and wouldn't really want to "appropriate" him themselves, or ever sensibly engage with him, other than calling him choicest of names; but on the other, they sure seem to work themselves into paroxysms of self-righteous indignation when the likes of BJP move in to do just that. Is any one else reminded of l'affaire Arif Mohammed Khan and the last minute cup of tea he was offered by the Congress?
Many years ago, Salman Rushdie had said Naipaul's pronouncements make him sound like "BJP's poster-boy". Well, finally, the BJP could now actually print posters (they may not go to town with it yet, though, because of complex electoral reasons) with a picture for posterity - Sir Vidia and Lady Nadira, on a platform with a huge electronic hoarding showing the party's lotus symbol in full bloom.
Aman Khanna says he would have become a BJP-voter for ever if they had somehow prevented what the party calls a "backlash" in Gujarat, two years back, and brought all the power at its command to seek out and exemplarily punish the perpetrators of the Godhra carnage.