Tall Tales

Dom Moraes’s neglected nonfiction


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.”

Wyndham was perhaps being racist, and Busybee was certainly drunk, but Moraes and Naipaul did have more than Oxford in common. Both had journalist fathers; both enjoyed early success in Britain. Moraes was not yet twenty when he became the youngest writer to win the prestigious Hawthornden Prize for Literature, in 1958. Six years later, Naipaul won the same award: he was 31. Novels and poems brought them fame, but it is the nonfiction they wrote, partly to make ends meet, and partly to make sense of themselves in a world after empires and endless wars, that made them notorious. Naipaul travelled through the Caribbean after finishing Mr Biswas, then to India—the “wounded” land of his Hindu forefathers. He was in Iran just after the 1979 revolution. He was in Argentina when Juan Perón returned to power and military rule briefly ended, in 1973. Throughout his life he wrote memorably about his trips to Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and the United States.

Moraes began with the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, which he covered for the Times of India in the middle of his honeymoon. He narrowly escaped bombing in Algeria, predicted the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. The Indonesian government put him on a blacklist after he exposed the inhumane conditions in which the president, Suharto, had kept ten thousand dissidents captive on a remote island. Returning to India, he wrote commissioned accounts of his travels through Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Rajasthan. Moraes was a citizen of everywhere and nowhere before globalisation—he was born in Bombay to Indian parents, received an education in Oxford, took jobs in London, Hong Kong and New York, and returned to India in his middle age on a British passport. He confessed his predicament in three frank memoirs, and reprised it again in two biographies and 20 documentaries. If Naipaul, in A Million Mutinies Now, his third and final book on India, was hopeful about the majoritarian resurgence that would culminate in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and riots against Muslims in Bombay, Moraes reported the shock of the horrendous violence—in Bombay, in Bihar, and most poignantly in Gujarat after the 2002 carnage. Between them, the two brown men chronicled every point of view. Over a span of fifty years, they covered the world.

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.