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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In the morning they came to the big town. He asked his way to the big temple and he stayed there, moving about the temple courtyard to avoid the sun. In the evening, after the temple prayers, there was a distribution of consecrated food. He was not left out of that. It was not a great deal, but it was more than he had been living on. He tried to behave as though he were a pilgrim. No one asked questions, and that was the way he lived for the first few days. But then he was noticed. He was questioned. He told his story. The temple officials didn't throw him out. It was one of these officials, a kindly man, who suggested to my grandfather that he could become a letter-writer. He provided the simple equipment, the pen and nibs and ink and paper, and my grandfather went and sat with the other letter-writers on the pavement outside the courts near the maharaja's palace.

Most of the letter-writers there wrote in English. They did petitions of various sorts for people, and helped with various government forms. My grandfather knew no English. He knew Hindi and the language of his region. There were many people in the town who had run away from the famine area and wanted to get news to their families. So there was work for my grandfather and no one was jealous of him. People were also attracted to him because of the priestly clothes he wore. He was able after a while to make a fair living. He gave up skulking about the temple courtyard in the evenings. He found a proper room, and he sent for his family. With his letter-writing work, and with his friendships at the temple, he got to know more and more people, and so in time he was able to get a respectable job as a clerk in the maharaja's palace.

That kind of job was secure. The pay wasn't very good, but nobody ever got dismissed, and people treated you with regard. My father fell easily into that way of life. He learned English and got his diplomas from the secondary school, and was soon much higher in the government than his father. He became one of the maharaja's secretaries. There were very many of those. They wore an impressive livery, and in the town they were treated like little gods. I believe my father wished me to continue in that way, to continue the climb he had begun. For my father it was as though he had rediscovered something of the security of the temple community from which my grandfather had had to flee.

But there was some little imp of rebellion in me. Perhaps I had heard my grandfather tell too often of his flight and his fear of the unknown, only looking inward during those terrible days and not able to see what was around him. My grandfather grew angrier as he grew older. He said then that in his temple community they had been very foolish. They had seen the disaster coming but had done nothing about it. He himself, he said, had left it to the last moment to run away; which was why, when he came to the big town, he had had to skulk about the temple courtyard like a half-starved animal. These were terrible words for him to use. His anger infected me. I began to have some idea that this life we were all living in the big town around the maharaja and his palace couldn't last, that this security was also false. When I thought like that I could panic, because I couldn't see what I could do to protect myself against that breakdown.

I suppose I was ripe for political action. India was full of politics. But the independence movement didn't exist in the maharaja's state. It was illegal. And though we knew of the great names and the great doings outside we saw them at a distance.

I was now at the university. The plan was that I should get a BA degree and then perhaps get a scholarship from the maharaja to do medicine or engineering. Then I was to marry the daughter of the principal of the maharaja's college. All of that was settled. I let it happen, but felt detached from it. I became idler and idler at the university. I didn't understand the BA course. I didn't understand The Mayor of Casterbridge. I couldn't understand the people or the story and didn't know what period the book was set in. Shakespeare was better, but I didn't know what to make of Shelley and Keats and Wordsworth. When I read those poets I wanted to say, "But this is just a pack of lies. No one feels like that." The professor made us copy down his notes. He dictated them, pages and pages, and what I mainly remember is that, because he was dictating notes and wanted them to be brief, and because he wanted us to copy down these notes exactly, he never spoke the name Wordsworth. He always said W, speaking just the initial, never Wordsworth. W did this, W wrote that...

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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