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Father, Son Keep Love Alive in Letters

Family * A book captures the heartwarming exchange across the miles and years.

March 21, 2000|From Associated Press

When 18-year-old V.S. Naipaul set out from his native Trinidad for Oxford on a scholarship in 1949, the farewells didn't include "See you during the holidays" or "I'll phone you as soon as I arrive." There wasn't any money for such things.

(As it happened, his father never saw him again. But he did occasionally hear some of his son's stories read over BBC radio.)

But as the heartwarming correspondence in "Between Father and Son: Family Letters" (Knopf, $26) makes clear, distance cannot separate a caring family.

Their link was air letters, as it already was between Naipaul and his older sister, Kamla, at college in India.

Father and son worried about each other's health, worried about money, kept one another up to date on the home front and about doings at Oxford. If Vido (V.S. Naipaul's nickname) neglected to write, he was rebuked. But most of all, they extended endless advice and encouragement to one another about writing.

The father, Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist, knew that all his son wanted to become was a writer. Seepersad himself wanted to write stories and novels, and did as much writing as time allowed--which was little, given the need to support a family that grew to include seven children.

Meanwhile, the Hindu Indian from Port of Spain, Trinidad, was also becoming an Oxonian:

Feb 12, 1951: ". . . The undergraduates in this place are not all dazzlingly intellectual, as you probably think. There are asses in droves here."

July 30, 1951: ". . . I discover in myself all types of aristocratic traits, without, you know too well, the means to keep them alive. Whenever I go into a new town, I go into the best hotel, just to feel comfortable. . . . That is the one good thing Oxford has done for me. . . . People expect you to behave easily, and, believe me, you do."

Nov. 8, 1951 (in a letter to Kamla, some of whose correspondence with the family also is in the book): "You know, I do wish I had about 200 pounds more a year to live on. Life here would be then simply perfect." He adds a long list of things he cannot afford--good shoes, travel during vacations, a decent typewriter.

But he also recounts weeklong visits with classmates' families, something he enjoyed immensely, and giving parties for his friends. And in 1952 there was a trip to France and Spain, which, he wrote, helped him recover from a nervous breakdown.

The trip occurred after he had told his family he would visit them during summer vacation. His delighted father scraped up money for part of the boat trip, only to hear from Vido that he wasn't coming after all. Vido explained that he had taken the money earmarked as his share of the boat trip and spent it wildly during his breakdown.

Seepersad Naipaul had a heart attack in 1953 and died that October.

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