February 2, 2003
She kissed him most famously on the lips in Lahore at the American Consul General’s party in 1996 and declared, ‘‘I love you!’’ Thirty years her senior, Sir Vidiadhar Shivnarain Naipaul managed to say, ‘‘I think we should sit down.’’ Later he explained to the world, ‘‘I was totally taken aback and pleasantly surprised. I had to marry her.’’
‘Nadaan Nadira’ (‘Innocent Nadira,’ named after a popular Pakistani movie and as she is satirised in her home country) became Lady Naipaul, wife to one of the richest writers on the planet. In the seventh year of her marriage, it is others who itch while Nadira Naipaul herself is firmly installed as Sir Vidia’s fiercest minder and closest confidante. She is the eyes and ears, and most often, the mouth of her famous husband. Just this month, on January 10 in New Delhi, she outraged many by taking Deputy Prime Minister Advani to task on Gujarat. Draped in photo-op yellow, clutching Naipaul’s hat as usual in her hand (it is this, or his coat), she bounced up demanding to know the status of non-Hindu NRIs.
‘‘What is her locus standi?’’ fumed people who themselves take issue with the BJP. ‘‘All her husband does is trash India. What does she mean, flapping her lip?’’
Who is Nadira Naipaul, also famously known as Sir Vidia’s fave arm accessory? The former Nadira Khanum alias Nadira Mustafa aka Nadira Alvi is of Pathan descent, who spent her childhood in East Africa. She went to live in Pakistan only as a young woman. Her first marriage ended in divorce. She wrote a column called ‘Letter from Bahwalpur’ which was trashed in the Karachi newspaper, Dawn as ‘‘that zany column… about everything except Bahawalpur, naturally.’’
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Tall and heavily built, Nadira has a marked fondness for bright, eyecatching colours (turquoise, parrot green, red, yellow). ‘‘Just look for this loud, rude, long person with a fag growing between the claws of her paws,’’ one irate young Indian Writer in English was overhead saying at the already acrimonious LitFest last year, at Neemrana Fort Hotel in Rajasthan.
People in India who will not be named but have known Nadira since long, say that her best friends in Pakistan are affluent, westernised journalists perceived as ‘society’ like Nuscie Jamil, and that the pattern is replicated in the sub-continent as well. Naipaul’s early helpers like journalists Rahul Singh, Vinod Mehta and Satish Jacob, who did most of the travelling and note-taking for books like A Wounded Civilisation and A Million Mutinies Now are part of the India Old Boys Club. Nadira is known to josh around in Punjabi with new Best Friend Tarun Tejpal of Tehelka.com and of course, the Old Boys Club. Mumbai filmmaker-friends Anuradha and Dev Benegal screened English, August for the Naipauls four years ago, on Nadira’s first visit to India.
It was during this visit when Nadira first explained her unorthodox but beautifully direct method of man-catching to this newspaper: ‘‘I’m not an airhead who goes around doing that sort of thing. He seemed to me to be a very lonely and intense kind of man, so I went up to him and kissed him. And Vidia of course understood why I did it.’’
To Nadira’s credit, even her fiercest critics concede she is the perfect housekeeper and business manager to Sir Vidia. It was Nadira who negotiated the film rights for the two Naipaul books, The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr Biswas (‘‘Vidia was not too keen on these books being filmed,’’ she told this newspaper four years ago, ‘‘but since I’m younger and more wicked, I got around it.’’)
She throws a protective shield around her husband and challenges his most ferocious critics. Perhaps, her true test came when Naipaul was condemned in the Muslim world for, what many believed, the contempt and derision he wrote with on Islam in his two books, Beyond Belief and Among the Believers, and which they felt finally got him the Nobel Prize.
Despite being nicknamed Bride of Dracula in Pakistan, Nadira cried out after her husband was awarded the Nobel Prize, ‘‘I am disgusted and even bewildered at the recent media hype on his stand against Islam… I am also a Muslim woman who has written for 10 years against the oppression of her people, particularly women, by clerics and the feudals of our sporadic one-legged democracies…’’ Muslim writers say Nadira may be right except that this has nothing to do with the ugly caricatures of Islam they come across in her husband’s books. But as a friend in Delhi explains today, ‘‘After the marriage, a moderation has crept in on both sides on Islam.’’
So, what else has Lady Nadira been upto?
l Throwing her weight around (at the Neemrana LitFest, where she outranked Italian publisher-writer Roberto Calasso as Most Unpopular Person: ‘‘She ordered me to fetch mineral water for her husband!’’ complained a high-level organiser, also a prestige-project interior designer and close-lipped bosom buddy of Sonia Gandhi.
l Answering questions on behalf of a visibly squashed Sir Vidia at the Tehelka Press Conference this January and, all other press conferences (‘‘We want him, not her!’’ grumble quote-starved journos).
l Refusing to let Sir Vidia gift a pair of old trousers to an hireling at a Delhi five-star hotel that the star couple stayed in last year.
l Encouraging her tightfisted husband (celebrated for never tipping or paying for anything) to be niggardly with the small change. This was publicly noticed and whispered about at a celeb dinner in Neemrana when folk singers serenaded the rich-and-famous writer at his table. While the much-younger Anil Ramdas (writer of Indian origin from Holland) took out Rs 100 as inam, Naipaul’s fist stayed curled.
l Straddled across Sir Vidia and smooching away at a private dinner where the only other guest to arrive on time was the Editor-in Chief of a national newspaper. A not-unsurprisingly stilted conversation ensued over her bobbing head between Famous Author and Famous Editor.
l Dressing like a caricature of the Englishwoman In The Tropics with her straw hats and parasols.
If that reads like a minor list of offences in India, Nadira Naipaul’s unpopularity abroad as the Pushy Wife has darker histories. Two Octobers ago, at Queen’s College, New York, Naipaul did his first public reading/book-signing since his Nobel was announced. Naipaul said he would only sign copies of his just-out ‘autobiography,’ Half A Life. Along came John Simon, a bookseller from Pennsylvania, clutching two shopping bags full of books. He had driven two hours to make it to the reading, with every copy of Naipaul’s books that he could find. Half A Life had not yet arrived at his store. Naipaul refused to sign the books when asked by an intermediary. Simon could not even speak to him, because Nadira rudely told him to back off.
Sir Vidia will be 70 soon and will still be the rudest man on the planet. His rival seems to be his own rib.
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