Excerpt from Half A Life by V.S. Naipaul, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Half A Life

By V.S. Naipaul

Half A Life
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2001,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Oct 2002,
    224 pages.

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It became hard for me to step out of that role. One day the maharaja himself sent me his good wishes by one of the palace secretaries. This worried me a lot. I had been hoping that after a time there might be other religious excitements in the city, and I would be allowed to go away, and work out my own way of life. But when during an important religious festival the maharaja himself came barebacked in the hot afternoon sun as a kind of penitent and with his own hand made me offerings of coconuts and cloth which a liveried courtier--a scoundrel whom I knew only too well--had brought, I recognised that breaking out had become impossible, and I settled down to live the strange life that fate had bestowed on me.

I began to attract visitors from abroad. They were principally friends of the famous writer. They came from England to find what the writer had found. They came with letters from the writer. Sometimes they came with letters from the maharaja's high officials. Sometimes they came with letters from people who had previously visited me. Some of them were writers, and months or weeks after they had visited there were little articles about their visits in the London magazines. With these visitors I went over this new version of my life so often that I became quite at ease with it. Sometimes we talked about the people who had visited, and the people with me would say with satisfaction, "I know him. He's a very good friend." Or words like that. So that for five months, from November to March, the time of our winter or "cold weather," as the English people said, to distinguish the Indian season from the English season, I felt I had become a social figure, someone at the periphery of a little foreign web of acquaintances and gossip.

It sometimes happens that when you make a slip of the tongue you don't want to correct it. You try to pretend that what you said was what you meant. And then it often happens that you begin to see that there is some truth in your error. You begin to see, for instance, that to subtract from someone's good name can also be said to detract from that name. In some such way, contemplating the strange life that had been forced on me by that meeting with the great English writer, I began to see that it was a way of life that for some years I had been dreaming of: the wish to renounce, hide, run away from the mess I had made of my life.

I must go back. We come from a line of priests. We were attached to a certain temple. I do not know when the temple was built or which ruler built it or for how long we have been attached to it; we are not people with that kind of knowledge. We of the temple priesthood and our families made a community. At one time I suppose we would have been a very rich and prosperous community, served in various ways by the people whom we served. But when the Muslims conquered the land we all became poor. The people we served could no longer support us. Things became worse when the British came. There was law, but the population increased. There were far too many of us in the temple community. This was what my grandfather told me. All the complicated rules of the community held, but there was actually very little to eat. People became thin and weak and fell ill easily. What a fate for our priestly community! I didn't like hearing the stories my grandfather told of that time, in the 1890s.

My grandfather was skin and bones when he decided he had to leave the temple and the community. He thought he would go to the big town where the maharaja's palace was and where there was a famous temple. He made such preparations as he could, saving up little portions of rice and flour and oil, and putting aside one small coin and then another. He told no one anything. When the day came he got up very early, in the dark, and began to walk to where the railway station was. It was very many miles away. He walked for three days. He walked among people who were very poor. He was more wretched than most of them, but there were people who saw that he was a starving young priest and offered him alms and shelter. At last he came to the railway station. He told me that he was by this time so frightened and lost, so close to the end of his strength and courage, that he was noticing nothing of the world outside. The train came in the afternoon. He had a memory of crowd and noise, and then it was night. He had never travelled by train before, but all the time he was looking inward.

Excerpted from Half a Life by V. S. Naipaul Copyright 2001 by V. S. Naipaul. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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