A piece by Farrukh Dhondy for the Times of India.
Dear Arun Jaitley, I feel I should start with an apology even though you are not remotely aware that I owe you one. Allow me then to outline my offence and proffer my conditional withdrawal of careless words:
A few years ago I was in New Delhi and visited VS Naipaul. He said the cultural wing of the BJP had invited him to address them and he was sure that whatever took place at the meeting would be misrepresented by sections of the Indian press. “Cultural Wing of the BJP?” I queried, feeling mischievous, “surely that’s an oxymoron?” Vidia appreciated the joke but asked me if I’d go.
“You have to come as a neutral witness to counteract any lies!”
Perhaps you recall the meeting. It was a robust and enthusiastic gathering of party members, artists and professors. Vidia didn’t make a speech but asked questions of the audience about the party’s attitude to history, the economy, democracy etc. The only point which could possibly have caused any controversy was when someone asked Vidia what attitude he took to the Babri Masjid episode. He said he didn’t want to make any political judgements but would say that Zair-ud-din Babur’s construction of the mosque at that site was an act of hubris. Perhaps the precise meaning of the Greek word eluded most of the audience and the discussion went no further. Some silly and false reports and articles about the meeting did follow. I replied as an eye-witness in a publication which has since suffered some reverses and fallen into a limbo of repute.
So Minister saheb, what I am conditionally apologizing for is my frivolous joke about the BJP and ‘culture’ being linguistic contraries. I am sure it’s not so and the culture and heritage of India, to a section and revival of which the BJP’s scholars have given prominence, are a priority of your government.
I know your ministerial responsibilities don’t include the request I am about to make but I am sure Smt Swaraj and Sri Javadekar, whom I have no way of addressing, will respond to a nudge from you whom I have taken the liberty to address.
My contention and accompanying request is this: that you use your good offices to ensure that VS Naipaul, a British citizen, is afforded a PIO or any other status which would enable him to live in India — something he dearly wants to do. Vidia is indisputably of Indian origin, is 82 years old, has written internationally acclaimed books about India which he has always acknowledged as his motherland and feels close to its culture and sensibilities.
He now needs medical attention and trusts Indian doctors more than any others in the world. The last time Vidia applied to the Indian High Commission in London for such status was when the Congress government was in situ. The High Commission’s officials demanded that he produce proof from the village of his great grandfather, who was indentured by the British Raj to work as a labourer in Trinidad, stating he was of Indian origin. The history of VS’s ancestry is not a matter of civil record. He doesn’t even know from which precise place his ancestors came, though his family has, as the Brahmin castes did the Vedas, kept alive the memory of the past through verbal transmission.
You and I are aware that under a subcontinental arrangement a certain amount of money could fetch from Gorakhpur or thereabouts some sort of certificate to say that the Naipaul family are old denizens of the district and the records of their births and deaths are enshrined in temple documents. Such a document signed by a conniving official or magistrate could have been submitted to the High Commission and it may have done the trick. It’s not a procedure that Vidia would approve of and I am sure your anti-bureaucratic and anti-corruption regime wouldn’t either.
I am sure you will look compassionately at this request but there is a small further snag. Vidia needs to be accompanied and to be constantly attended to by his wife Nadira, Lady Naipaul, who is a British citizen. The fact that her family has or had connections with Pakistan has always been an obstacle to her getting permission for a sustained stay in India. I can assure you that (though she occasionally terrorizes me) she is no terrorist and should be considered for a long term visa so that she can see Vidia through the necessary medical treatment and through his return to his native land. Ministerji, it’ll also enrich India’s cultural landscape to have VS Naipaul, Nobel laureate, as a son of the soil. Fix it yaar!