Tall Tales

Dom Moraes’s neglected nonfiction

MADHU KAPPARATH
MADHU KAPPARATH

SOMETIME IN THE 1980s, at a party in Bombay, VS Naipaul was seated next to a drunk man. The man introduced himself—Behram Contractor, better known as Busybee to the readers of his daily newspaper column on the city, “Round and About”—and asked Naipaul who he was. “My name is Vidia Naipaul,” came the reply. Busybee was amazed. “You are not the VS Naipaul, the famous writer?” Naipaul nodded. “You are a very good writer,” Busybee said. “But Dom Moraes is a better writer than you are.”

This was not the first time Naipaul found himself paired with Moraes. As a younger writer in London, while writing A House For Mr Biswas, a common friend had insisted he should meet the poet. Moraes tells the story of being persuaded by Francis Wyndham, an editor at the British publishing firm, Andre Deutsch, to meet a “very promising young author from Trinidad.” Moraes wasn’t sure why:

“I don’t write novels,” I said.

“He doesn’t write poetry.”

“He was at Oxford a couple of years before you.” Francis said.

“That,” I said, “is ridiculous. Why should I waste this poor man’s time because he was at Oxford a couple of years before me?”

“It’s strange,” Francis replied. “Vidia said exactly the same about you when I mentioned this to him. You see, you two do have a lot in common.”

Finally he arranged lunch at the French pub. I liked Naipaul very much as a person. He was very shy — so was I — and as I had told Francis we had nothing whatsoever in common. Over lunch, we talked about books we had read. I have forgotten what they were. Later I mentioned the matter to a friend, who knew Francis and laughed.

“Don’t you know what Vidia Naipaul and you have in common,” he inquired. “Francis may have been too polite to say so, but you both have brown skins.”

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a writer whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, The Nation, The Guardian, Hazlitt and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a Provost's fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a recipient of the Deena Davidson Friedman Prize for Fiction.

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