Behind Sir Vidia’s Masque: The Night the Naipauls Came to Supper, a Personal Account by Gillian Schutte
Nobel literature laureate VS Naipaul visited South Africa in July 2009 to conduct research into the book on African beliefs that has just been published, to mixed reviews, as The Masque of Africa. Naipaul traveled with his wife, Nadira; one night, they knocked on filmmaker Gillian Schutte and her husband Sipho Singiswa’s door. Here follows Schutte’s entertaining account of supper with Sir Vidia:
I receive the call at around 2 p.m. It is Khadija, a lapsed Muslim. Or is it a lapsed gym bunny? I can’t remember, but nonetheless her name is Khadija, a sometime colleague, and she has tracked down my number.
She asks, rather urgently, if Sipho (my husband) and I would meet with none other than VS Naipaul, the world-renowned, knighted, foremost English prose writer of the Western world. My mind does a flik flak. VS Naipaul wants to meet with us? I had just recently read a colleague’s MA dissertation, in which Naipaul had been quoted quite extensively in a manner that suggested thinly disguised immodesty (on the quoter’s part), which had made me snigger somewhat. Now I was listening to the voice of a woman (who I had once argued with about the popular representation of mixed couples in advertising) requesting a meeting with the man.
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘How about Wednesday at his hotel?’
‘Well actually… how about tonight at your home? He prefers to meet people at their homes.’
‘Oh, but it’s already 2. Is he coming for supper?’
‘Yes. They’re vegetarian.’
‘It will be Naipaul, his wife Nadira and I.’
‘Shall I buy wine?’
‘Sure. See you about sevenish.’
‘He’s more interested in Sipho than you,’ she blurts out before I put the phone down. ‘He’s researching for his book on African belief systems and he’s keen to hear about Sipho’s experiences in the struggle. I told him about your documentary Umgidi and the circumcision ritual that Sipho underwent on Robben Island.’
That explains it I think as I put the phone down. Fucks sake. I can’t cook for them at this late hour. There is only one solution. Phone the South Indian Restaurant down the road and order in vegetarian curry. Do they even eat curry? Well they are of Indian descent. Yes, but I read somewhere that VS Naipaul is an anglophile and detests all things Indian. Does this include flavours? Too bad, that is all I have time for and I am hardly going to order vegetarian hamburgers or pizzas. Oh shit. The last time I read VS Naipaul was in first year at University and his work had not moved me. I was way more into the postmodern writers and the Beatniks and Magical Realism. I only hope the topic of his literature was not on the agenda tonight. Were we even expected to ask him questions or was he simply coming to our house to survey a mixed-couple and their child and hear the political rantings of my husband, who could talk in one-hour bytes if I was not there to temper him.
I walk to the lounge to tell Sipho the news. He is playing racing something or other on the playsation with Kai, our ten-year-old son.
‘Now remember, when he comes keep it conversational,’ I warn him.
‘I always do,’ he protests.
‘Well that’s because you confuse lecturing with conversation. Conversations happen in quick sound bytes… a minute at the most. Twenty-minute tirades do not constitute conversation.’
‘It’s the African way,’ he says.
‘Well I’ve seen plenty an African go glassy-eyed after ten minutes with you,’ I say. ‘I’m not sure how a Nobel laureate will take to 20 minute lectures.’
‘Ok, ok,’ he says. ‘Just kick me under the table like you always do …control freak.’
‘Shut up you two,’ says Kai. ‘You’re acting like children.’
‘Shoosh Bonaparte,’ says Sipho.
‘Yes Bonaparte,’ I concur. ‘Come on guys. They’re going to be here in a few hours. Help me make this place look decent.’
I cast my eyes around the room as if I am Naipaul himself. God, when am I going to grow up and buy decent furniture and art? Our house if full of throwaway tongue-in-cheek kitsch … as is my wardrobe. It is part of my sense and expression of the transient nature of this world – the playful impermanent face of this experiential realm. I just could not take material possession too seriously and my taste for Hindu iconoclastic art extended this notion. I had a decent red Italian leather sofa, but as for the rest. What would he make of it? Would he get it, or would he write off my Trechikoffs and Hindu art as nothing more than confusion and bad taste?
I phone the restaurant and order an array of vegetarian dishes with fragrant basmati rice. Then I switch on my computer to do some research on our eminent visitor so as not to appear completely oblivious of his vast canon of work. I phone my mother while my computer is uploading.
She cannot believer her ears. ‘I’ve read every one of his books… as well as the book by Paul Theroux about him. I love his writing … but apparently he is rather malevolent if Theroux is anything to go by.’
‘Well I’m researching him now. Oh my god, what the hell is he coming to my pondokkie for? Do I even want him here? What if he writes about us?’
My mother laughs. ‘Only you, Gillian.’
It is surreal. I have just completed an experimental novella through the Wits creative writing MA programme, under a supervisor who fancies himself a travel writer (although I can never understand how people who write about hotels and freebie weekends consider themselves travel writers) and the very paragon of travel writing is coming to my house. The primal life force was definitely bent over in chortles and guffaws right now.
‘I’ve ordered in South Indian food.’ I tell my mum.
‘Oh’ she says.
‘What do you mean Oh?’
‘Well not everyone likes Indian food.’
‘I know … and if he is as reductionist as I’m beginning to imagine he is, he’s probably going to think I ordered Indian food because they are of Indian descent.’
She laughs again.
‘Oh too bad … what other vegetarian take away food is there ? Got to go. Bye.’
‘Just be your self,’ she tells me.
‘Am I ever not?’ I ask.
I click on a few Google articles about Naipaul. Golly gee. He appears to be have been accused of dimensions of vitriol such as I have never heard before. He has been charged with everything from wife-beating, a predilection for anal sex to disproportionate nastiness. His writing has been lauded as anti-black and he has been known to refer to Africans as wogs. But surely he has grown out of all that by now … settled down … become more spiritual in his old age … mellowed into a better acceptance of the detestable human race? What the heck was he going to make of me, my ‘wog’ husband and mixed-race child? I vaguely recollect some commentary he had made about the bereftness of mixed-race people – or was I confusing him with some other imperialist?
Nothing I can do now. Just let them in. Our detractors in the film industry et al can have a good snigger when they read about us in his impending travelogue.
They arrive late. I’ve already downed two G & T’s and smoked a few cigarettes. It is freezing cold. Sipho got tired of waiting and went over the road to see our neigbours about an important matter. Now here I am, having to greet VS Naipaul on my own. Khadija brings them to our front patio and helps a frail overweight Naipaul up the three stairs. My two large dogs are sniffing his legs and our little foxie, Gugulethu Flower, is yipping away conversationally at him. All three dogs are instantly attracted to him and completely ignore his wife.
‘This is nice,’ he says. He reaches down to touch Gugulethu Flower. She falls in love with him immediately and decides to stay by his side the entire night. He seems equally enamoured.
I’m yipping even more than my foxie. Where the hell is Sipho?! I introduce Kai to Vidia (as VS Naipaul has been introduced to me as) and Nadira, his wife. They instantly adore my beautiful child with his wild curly mop and huge almond shaped brown eyes. His demeanor is relaxed, he looks adults in the eye and his handshake is firm. It’s just who he is. They are transfixed. I start to chatter nervously. I narrate a pointless anecdote and see a fleeting look of irritation on Vidia’s face.
‘Oh … yes Sipho is on his way. He had to go and sort something out but he’ll be here just now.’
I pour some very expensive red wine. Nadira, who is larger than life and dressed in fairly gaudy Indian style clothing, starts to talk. She tells me how grateful they are to be in the company of real people and how tedious and boring every person they have met thus far, has been. I glance at Vidia, wondering how such inane and unkind chatter sits with his expected greatness of mind. He seems to be complicit in his silence. She talks spitefully about a pompous academic they had met the previous evening and how politically correct and false he was. I am supposed to be flattered I think. But I feel uncomfortable and pressurised. Damn, now I have to put on the “I’m an authentic person” act.
She tells Kai that he is of exceptional beauty. ‘What do you refer to him as race wise?’ she asks me. I am a bit taken aback by her brashness.
‘Well,’ I answer, ‘some documentation in South Africa still requires the race of the person, which means that he is coloured … myself white and my husband black … so we still have three classifications. But he refers to himself as mixed-race.’
‘I am so grateful to hear you use the term coloured with no qualms,’ she gushes. ‘Every person we have met so far refuses to use this term.’
‘Well it is historically loaded…’ I begin to say, but Khadija interjects.
‘You cannot just wipe out a whole nations identity because of political correctness. I grew up coloured… so what am I now if the term no longer exists?’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘But my child did not grow up with that identification. In fact it is far removed from his culture. So in his case he does not relate to the term coloured. Even he picks up that the term relates to a specific culture. He gets upset when he is referred to as coloured because it singles him out as different to his parents … he says he is mixed-race. And then again, if I refer to him as mixed-race or brown my BC friends shout me down and say he cannot be anything but black because he is not white.’
Kai sits on his stool listening intently. He gives me a look that shouts … stop including me in your conversation. I shrug apologetically at him.
Vidia has said nothing. His eyes are darting around my lounge like laser beams, slicing up my existence into descriptive partitions. Categorised, theorised, analysed. Patronised? I should just say to him … Oh get over your self old man. You’ll never work it out. I’m a Postmodern-Buddhist-Pagan-Neo-Post-Structuralist-Feminist-Transcendental Idealist with Socialist leanings… my husband is partly atheist, partly animist and mostly socialist and our child still believes in the tooth fairy … so there. Analyse that one mister.
Nadira is just about to say something else race related when Sipho strolls in, ten minutes late. He is introduced to Vidia who now has Gugulethu Flower sitting snuggly on his lap and licking his hand. I notice that Sipho also forgoes to say what an honour it is to have the great Nobel laureate in our house. Damn, I think, does he think we are arrogant? Well I suppose in some way we are. As a self-styled Postmodern-Buddhist (etc) I do not buy into the high and low of social engineering. The contract is obvious here. He wants to meet authentic people. He wants to hear Sipho’s story. He has not bothered to join in our conversation and in fact has not said a word yet. Perhaps we are the small people. I’m beginning to feel like we have been hired as court jesters to amuse (or not) King Lear.
I am also acutely aware that Nadira is the stage manager. She ingratiates herself though flattery. She makes you feel like her best friend. She keeps the conversation going – by turns jovial, intimate and gossipy – and then she goes for the kill. I saw her do it with the race topic. Better watch my back I think.
Nadira asks Sipho his opinion on the race card. He begins to talk. I can feel it is going to be a long one. I step onto the verandah to have that much needed smoke. Khadija joins me.
I say, ‘You do know from experience that Sipho talks the hind leg off a donkey.’ She’s been in a couple of workshops with him in the past.
‘It’s fine.’ She smiles. ‘They want to hear his story.’
‘OK,’ I say and stub my cigarette in the ashtray. ‘I’m going inside.’
The conversation seems to be going well. I refill wine glasses and go to prepare the food. I lay out the array of curries and stainless steel plates. I like stainless steel plates … especially when eating tumeric soaked curry. Will they feel insulted? Well fuckit. You cannot expect the finest china and home cooked food when given a couple of hours notice.
Kai comes through to say he is tired. I take him to his bedroom to tuck him in.
‘Mom does the Indian guy not speak English?’ he asks.
“Kai, he is the foremost English prose writer of the western world … he speaks English alright.’
He looks perplexed. ‘Oh, I thought he could not understand what you guys are saying because he just sits and watches and he doesn’t talk.’
I say, ‘He is just old and exhausted Kai,’ as I kiss him on his forehead and switch off the light.
I go through to the lounge to tell them the supper is ready. I think they will help themselves and go back to the lounge to eat off their laps, but Nadira is already helping Vidia up and they are shuffling towards my tiny dining room. OK deal with it, I think.
Naidira dishes up minuscule amounts of food for Vidia. I surmise that curry probably gives him acid. I refill his glass. Nadira gives him a warning look. He sheepishly takes a gulp of wine.
By now I am quite tipsy. Sipho is still talking and Nadira seems enchanted by his narrative. Vidia’s eyes are darting around my dining room. Again the room is a hodgepodge of Buddhist and Hindu art, Frida Khalo, some classic nudes, plastic flowers bordering an antique mirror, a picture of Christ and his bleeding heart, Ganesha, a black mother Mary with a black baby Jesus on her lap. How would he interpret this?
The conversation has finally turned towards tradition and Sipho is telling them the story of his circumcision on Robben Island when he was nineteen years old and the youngest inmate on the island. He tells them that it was considered vandalism of state property and that it had to be done in secret lest he got caught and his sentence extended. He talks about how it was important for the inmates to hold onto their traditional practices when in jail so that they could maintain their morale and say ‘fuck you’ to the boeres, who were stripping them of everything. He is impassioned as he speaks, more of an oracle than a conversationalist.
Then the conversation turns toward corruption and the ANC. Sipho tells them of his short ride on the gravy train and his exposure back then of corruption in Shell House (the original ANC headquarters) and how he could never be part of that ethos. He talks for 20 minutes flat about the current government. He tells Nadira that the majority of blacks do not have the same attitude towards the Mandela so well loved by the west and the whites. He says Mandela has been turned into a zombie and is surrounded by opportunists who use him as a fundraising tool. He says the name Mandela means nothing spiritual to the blacks of South Africa anymore and Madiba has betrayed them by not speaking out against some of the corrupt government officials. He says the TRC was nothing more than a tool to appease local whites and the conservative Western world and it did nothing for the morale of black South Africans.
I look to Vidia. What is he thinking? Is he even listening? He has had the same impervious expression on his face the entire night. His wine glass is empty. I pour him some more. He is grateful. Nadira glares at him sternly and taps his hand. He pushes the wine glass aside.
Nadira looks at Sipho and says. ‘You are in so much pain. I feel for you. You have given up.’ My hackles rise. How does she think she knows him so well?
‘Absolutely not,’ I say. ‘He is still the revolutionary. His focus has changed, but he has not given up.’ She smiles at me. She says. ‘You’re a strong woman. Very bright.’
You’d better believe it I think as I go outside to have another cigarette. Khadija joins me. We talk about our children and books. I tell her I have just finished a book by an Indian writer, Tarun J Tejpal, entitled Alchemy of Desire. I tell her about the narrative and she says she would love to read it. I ask if she has read any Naipaul. She says yes, but I get the feeling she may not have. We go back inside.
The conversation has turned towards tradition and culture again. I tell them we will give them a copy of our film Umgidi, if they want to experience firsthand, the culture of tradition in urban settings nowadays. Sipho is preaching like a newborn Christian about his tradition. I take a sip of wine and say, ‘Ja ja … tradition is sometimes just like happy clappy Christianity these days. It happens so seldom and everyone becomes holier than thou and become hypocrites and turn on each other and it is just awful. I hated the umgidi and I never want to go through something like that again.’
Vidia looks surprised for the first time that evening. I know it has come out all wrong and it is a discussion that needs a lot more careful thought. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘I think African tradition has been so sullied by everything that has happened to blacks since the whities first arrived with their bible, that it is now often one big ostentatious desperate expense when it does happen and certainly I did not like the metamorphosis that my in-laws went through in Sipho’s umgidi.’
I tell them a bit about this… how Sipho’s sister was meant to tell me what to wear, but never did and I insulted the elders by wearing jeans in front of them … how the clans fought for recognition and status and how spiteful people became… how the only advice I was given from my sister in law was not to get jealous if Sipho’s ex girlfriends came to the party… how I was trying to shoot a film and yet was expected to be a traditional makoti (wife) and serve people at the same time … how I nearly had a nervous breakdown from all these dynamics and how my outspoken three year old son had appeared cheeky and they blamed me. I am acutely aware that I am giving them an outsider’s view of something that has little meaning for me – so I tell them this is all in the film and that the film won a prestigious award in Washington as an ethnographic representation of the struggle between modernism and traditionalism as well as cross-cultural relationships.
It is a story told in quick, staccato bytes which elicit some laughter. Vidia does not laugh. His eyes sear into me. Oh well, there it is, I think. He assumes I am the domineering white wife who thinks my views are superior to her black husband’s views. He probably also saw me kick Sipho under the table once or twice when his narrative started veering off the main track. But what does he make of the fact that Sipho is equally amused by my rendition of the umgidi story and that when I say something he does not agree with he is very vocal about it?
Nadira asks me how it is to be married into a culture that I am not at home with. I tell her that I am at home with many aspects of the culture… and that we are not exactly married in that sense. ‘We decided not to do it in that way,’ I explain. ‘It is just too complex for us and I feel the fine balance will be toppled if we bought into what it means to be married in both his culture and mine. If I really do become makoti then the entire expectation of me would be huge. I would be expected to fulfill roles that I do not own … like serving and cleaning and generally being belittled when I am there, as makotis are for whatever reason. I’m not going to buy into that. When I go to Cape Town it is on holiday… I’m not going to start being a servant for their family when I need a break from my work. So I don’t and it creates conflict sometimes. Too bad. Neither of us are Christian so we are married in spirit and that is enough for us.’
Vidia looks interested. I imagine I see a twinkle in his eyes. ‘I did not marry Sipho to become Xhosa,’ I say. I am white. He is black. We have our own culture which is based on what we have in common… and we live in Joburg which makes it that much easier for me at least. Sipho is not treated as different by my family…’
‘Except when her mother talks to me about blacks as “them” … as if I am not one of them,’ he laughs. ‘There are things that I choose to ignore but sometimes I do feel that Gillian’s family does not think in the same way she does and it can be quite irritating because it just seems not worth it to engage with them about it. She is quite different to her family and probably they have overcome some of their racism because of her choices. And again, whites don’t have any particular traditions that I have to fit into as such. They are cultureless except for bladdy Christmas… which I am forced to buy into to make Gillian and Kai happy. It is such capitalist nonsense.’
We all laugh and I tell them about how many Christmases have actually been ruined by Sipho who turns into the Grinch and gets depressed while I am trying to keep the magic alive for Kai. ‘Now we both expect him to be morose on Christmas day and we call him the Grinch and let him lie around hating the day … or we just leave him at home and drive to my mother’s house and enjoy it for what it is.’ More laughter.
It is getting quite late but no one seems in a hurry to leave. Nadira is still making comments about Sipho’s suffering and she seems stuck on casting me into the role of the long-suffering-white-wife. I tell her that I am a bonefide filmmaker and human rights journalist – that I have just written a novella and hopefully it will be published soon. I thought I had made it clear that I am not merely the woman behind the man. She seems to get the message so I move on and tell her about my love of Tarun J Tejpal’s book. She says she is a personal friend of his and she will get me some signed copies of his books. ‘Two,’ she says with import. ‘Get me him,’ I say. ‘I have never read such absolutely sensuous writing from a man.’ She raises her eyebrows. ‘I want to interview him,’ I explain.
By 1 a.m. they begin to show signs of leaving. We still have not asked any questions of Vidia. He is simply there as the observer. I feel as If I am on reality TV. I just do not know what to say to him and I certainly don’t want to waste any of his precious time by asking him the same old clichéd questions. I’ve never known how to fawn over important people and I am not going to start now.
Nadira says thank you and hugs me. She says to give a kiss to Kai and that he is a special boy. She tells us that Vidia loves our dogs. Then they are gone.
Sipho and I pour ourselves another drink and sit on the verandah to smoke. ‘So how do you think it went?’ I ask him.
‘OK,’ he says, calmly. Everything is always ok as far as Sipho is concerned.
‘Ja but he didn’t say a word the entire evening. Kai thought he did not understand English and that his wife would have to translate.’ Sipho bursts out laughing.
‘And Nadira was hell bent on casting us as clichés … you the wounded revolutionary and me the long-suffering white wife. He’ll probably write about your good looks and my impending double chin and make some clichéd vitriolic summary about the pathology of cross-cultural marriages. Shit man I wish they had never come. I feel used somehow.’
Sipho laughs. ‘You see. You make everything about you. They came to hear my story and I gave it to them.’
‘Well, I was there too you know. If I had said nothing they would have thrown ‘lack of personality’ into the mix. You know the white wife always comes off second best in these situations?’
Sipho throws back his long dreads and chuckles. ‘Come here my longsuffering white wife.’ He pulls me towards him and mumbles, ‘Hmmm hmmm give me some of that kinky white angst now.’
‘Only if you promise to thrust all those years of black suffering into my sympathetic you know what.’ I laugh.
We down our drinks and head for bed.
Later, lying in bed with a wounded revolutionary, I decide that I am going to get Sir Vidia S Naipaul to sign three books for me before he leaves the shores of Africa to write his possibly caustic account of the darkest continent. If we had inadvertently become part of that then we ought to get something out of the deal, too.
- Read more about Gillian Schutte, Sipho Singiwsa and Umgidi at handheld Films
- Visit Schutte and Singiswa’s Media For Justice
- The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief by VS Naipaul
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