It isn't an essay about language

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Today, decades later, that essay about language has become so intimate a part of my own experience that I cannot be certain where my own memory ends and Naipaul's narrative begins: was the frangipani mine or his, or was it instead a jacaranda that I was thinking of? From time to time other such Naipaul moments still surface in my memory, like aching wisdom teeth. Some years ago I was writing an essay about an experience of my own, in the Delhi riots of 1984. Obscurely, I recalled a passage from a Naipaul travelogue; this is how I described it: "in his incomparable prose Naipaul describes a demonstration. He is in a hotel room, somewhere in Africa or South America; he looks down and sees people marching past. To his surprise the sight fills him with an obscure longing, a kind of melancholy: he is aware of a wish to go out, to join, to merge his concerns in theirs. Yet he knows he never will: it is simply not in his nature to join crowds. .. It was Naipaul who first made it possible for me to think of myself as a writer, working in English... I read him with that intimate, appalled attention which one reserves for one's most skilful interlocutors. I remembered that essay because I too was not by nature a joiner: reading that account I thought I had seen, once again, an aspect of myself rendered visible in Naipaul's pitiless mirror." The word 'influence' seems inadequate for a circumstance like this: it is as though Naipaul’s work were a whetstone against which to sharpen my own awareness of the world.


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