He was painstaking. Respectful. Patient.
He sat alongside his interview subjects with his notebook open, asking questions, probing slowly but steadily, exploring, in minute detail, the personal and intimate.
He didn’t use a tape-recorder. Instead, he wrote everything down, in longhand.
It was laborious. Full sentences.
He wanted to hear it all – life stories that stretched back in time, ranging across cities and countries, with details about wayward fathers with multiple families and migrant grandparents, until his notebooks were full.
There were many Sir Vidia Naipauls (full name: Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul).
There was the gauche colonial from Trinidad, eking out a living on the margins of literary London; the chronicler of empires in retreat – Conrad’s supposed heir; a Western cheerleader fearful of man’s primordial and atavistic nature and then, much later, the supercilious, tweed jacket-wearing cultural grandee.
Throughout them all, the self-effacing, travel writer-cum-collector of stories barely merits a mention.
Yet it was this Sir Vidia that I encountered 23 years ago, when he visited Malaysia researching for the sequel to his Muslim world travelogue, Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey.
And it was this man, or rather, his way of working, that was to have such a deep and lasting impact on how I approached my writing.
I didn’t accompany him to all the interviews. I only sat with him when he needed a translator. Those who spoke English, he could manage himself.
I would leave them to talk, sometimes for hours, coming back when they were finished. It was as if he was immersing himself in their lives, accumulating stories – colour and nuances – until V.S. Naipaul, the man was submerged, weighed down and almost obliterated by the sheer mass of details.
Years later when I read his book Finding the Centre: Two Narratives (the essays outlined the way he researched and wrote), I began to understand that his approach – this endless looping back in search of some kind of order or centre or home – was an intrinsic part of his search for the truth. It also revealed a surprising gentleness and yes, even humility about a man who by the time I met him had acquired an unparalleled reputation for irritability and self-centredness.
The truth was that Naipaul liked people. He found respite in their stories.
What he didn’t like was the rigid theories of belief, the philosophical and religious systems that men and women had erected around their lives. Those, he abhorred and his scorn was vituperative.
His most successful novels were about figures, whether Mohun Biswas or Salim the trader from the East African coast, who tried to assert themselves – their independence and integrity – in the face of these didactic and unforgiving systems.
As I watched him teasing stories, observations, insights and emotions from his interlocutors, I began to realise the significance and relevance of what he was doing.
For Naipaul the author, it was straightforward enough. He had a commission: he needed to comprehend and then write about these non-Arab Muslim lands. To do so, he gathered stories – narratives that would help him map this unfamiliar terrain. But he didn’t just ask about their faith, about their beliefs.
The ordinary and the everyday details of life provided him with the core around which he built his narrative and his argument. In “swallowing” their lives and “consuming” their stories, he was preparing himself to understand their world from the inside out.
By the time I met him in Kuala Lumpur in the mid-90s, I had embarked on my Ceritalah (Tell me a Story) columns. Having observed the way with which he handled his subjects, I found myself doing much the same – especially since I too was starting to travel and with greater frequency across Southeast Asia.
I was bored of listening to politicians and famous people. Tired of their carefully-crafted narratives. I just wanted to sit down with farmers, factory workers and office clerks. It was their lives that really intrigued me, and it was this fascination with listening that took my columns in the resolutely ground-up direction they have since assumed.
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a cantankerous old Nobel laureate in literature, who would have hated it if people realised that he was a “softie” deep down inside. But I saw how fascinated – and yes, even distracted – he became as he listened to different stories.
To be fair, the sections on Malaysia from Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (the book that he eventually wrote based on the trip I helped with) are a muddle. Still, I like to think that they’re a mess because I reinforced and encouraged his fascination with storytelling to the extent that he lost interest (or focus) in his initial objective: chronicling the growing, global wave of Islamisation.
Maybe in years to come, people will likewise accuse my work of the same messy outcomes, of becoming too obsessed with people’s stories to the detriment of an overarching narrative.
But isn’t that the point?