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Back Matter 1
Back Matter 2
Back Matter 3
1 I LU
VOLUME 48, Nos. 2&3
(Copyright reserved and reproduction without permission strictly forbidden)
V.S. NAIPAUL: NOBEL LAUREATE FOR LITERATURE, 2001
CALL AND RESPONSE
Guest Editor: Bhoendradatt Tewarie
A House for Mr. Biswas Revisited: Ethnicity, Culture, Geography
and Beyond vii
THE CALL -The Swedish Academy 1
i. From The Caribbean Region
Naipaul Out of Nothing: Praise, criticism for Caribbean Literary Icon 3
Sir Vidia's Shadows 6
A Reply 7
Knowing a Deeper Shade 12
Rachel Manley \
War Is At My Black Skin 13
V.S. Naipaul: Nobel Laureate: Can't Live With Can't Live Without Him 14
A Place for Naipaul 17
Scientist as Well as Artist 19
V.S.Naipaul: Native Son 22
Fr. Henry Charles
Naipaul: Greatness and Ungraciousness 25
A Writer's Hero 27
Isle of the Imagination 30
In Search of Naipaulian Depths of Satisfaction 36
Making a Way in the World 39
V.S. Naipaul: A Life in Full 42
Three News Items 56
Extracts from Two Letters to the Editor 60
ii. International Response
October Surprise 61
Nobel in Literature goes to Naipaul, an Explorer of Exile 63
Strange News from Sweden the Nobel Prize goes to a Writer of Merit 66
Naipaul: More Right than Wrong 69
Brilliant Even Though He Says So Himself 71
iii. Response from Sweden
The Presentation by the Academe 74
From the Nobel Laureate
Two Worlds 77
Predestination, Frustration and Symbolic Darkness in Naipaul's 87
A House for Mr. Biswas.
P. G. Rohlehr
Review Article: The World of A House for Mr. Biswas. 95
Commentary on V S. Naipauls' A House for Mr. Biswas.
1. A West Indian Epic 109
2. Cultural Confrontation, Disintegration and Syncretism in
A House for Mr. Biswas. 118
Maureen (Warner) Lewis
Articles on V S. Naipaul that have Appeared in Caribbean Quarterly 127
Book Review 128
Books Received 133
Notes on Contributors 136
Information for Contributors 137
Vidia Naipaul joins three other Nobel prize winners from the Caribbean and is
the second person from the Anglophone segment of the Antillean archipelago to receive
the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Geographic size as we have come to appreciate, bears little or no relation to the
quality and significance of the contribution made by the multi-talented, creatively
resourceful people of the Caribbean region who have carved niches for themselves in
myriads of ways through music, literary prose and poetry as well as in the fields of sports
and the performing arts, in addition to the contributions to developing world political
thought and activism related to the anti-colonial struggle of the last century and post-co-
lonial lonial discourse which is currently apace.
The collective genius of the people of the region has been fired in a crucible of
encounters between diverse cultures borne by people who were either forced into chattel
slavery or recruited into indentureship as well as those who came fleeing religious
persecution in their own lands or to supervise the labour that came. There were, too,
those who came as adventurers seeking ready wealth or another life.
Vidia Naipaul as a person of Brahmin stock, came from a bloodline of Indians
who were not indentured. They in fact came of their own volition to be the pundits in this
Sir Vidia remains controversial as his most recent publication of a collection of
essays entitled, The Writer and the World, demonstrates. Paul Theroux, admirer-
turned-detractor, could not not resist chiding his nemesis for mocking the West Indies, for
being "unsparing" on India and for missing "the joy of Africa" He further describes the
essays as follows, "some of them exquisitely subtle, others just excruciating".(Time,
Sept. 16, 2002, p.50)
Caribbean Quarterly takes this opportunity to honour Sir Vidia Naipaul with this
Special Issue, appropriately entitled Call and Response with Dr. Bhoendradatt Tewarie,
Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of the UWI's St. Augustine Campus and himself a
long-time Naipaul scholar, as Guest Editor.
Finally, I take this opportunity to thank our contributors for allowing Caribbean
Quarterly to reproduce their articles. Copyright remains with the original material.
Caribbean Quarterly honours V S. Naipaul, Nobel Laureate for Literature,
2001, with this special issue appropriately titled Call and Response. The call came from
Sweden through the Nobel Academe and the Response constitutes, first of all, selected
opinions generated in the media by the announcement of the award, and secondly, the
response at the actual presentation ceremony in Sweden from the Nobel Laureate, V S.
Naipaul himself. Caribbean Quarterly has gathered together articles from the Caribbean
as well as from the international press they comprise feature articles, commentaries,
news items and the opinions of the man-in-the-street, These responses are presented in
their original form. This is an unusual format for Caribbean Quarterly but our desire is
that the Response speaks for itself, as well as provide a valuable stock for further
research and additional work on, one of the Caribbean's greatest literary icons.
This Special Issue consists of a prologue A House for Mr. Biswas Revisited:
Ethnicity, Culture, Geography and Beyond, which was adapted for the occasion from
my doctoral dissertation. Part 2, is made up entirely of out-of-print articles from
Caribbean Quarterly on the work of V S. Naipaul, still much in demand by Scholars.
The articles contained in Part 2 are all commentaries on A House for Mr. Biswas by well
established academics three of whom are still on the staff of the University of the West
Indies. The focus on A House for Mr. Biswas should not be surprising nor should the
inclusion of articles all written over thirty years ago, shortly after publication of that
ground-breaking novel. Today it is widely acknowledged that A House for Mr. Biswas
is the novel that best reflects Naipaul's deep knowledge of Caribbean Life not only from
the perspective of the ethnic group to which he belonged, but also from the perspective of
a muti-dimensional Trinidad in transition. Not the least of Naipaul's contribution to the
West Indian cannon, however, was his legitimization of the spoken language of the people
of the West Indies. This was recently acknowledged at a Symposium held in October
2001, at the St. Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies shortly after the
announcement of the award to Naipaul in Sweden, when it was pointed out, that V S.
Naipaul was a writer who possessed a deep understanding and respect for Trinidadian
creole, which he incorporated in his early novels by writing in the vernacular without
apology or translation long before the "post modernists" advocated the merits of such an
This Special Issue ends with a book review by Marie N'Zengou Tayo on a highly
appropriate topic for this issue transnationalism, and the challenge of negotiating
loyalties between their home and their host country for migrants. In Georges Woke up
Laughing an in depth analysis of the relationship maintained by migrants with members
of their extended families in their home country is provided. According to the reviewer
"the originality of this research stems from its cross-cultural dialogue where a third
generation American with a Jewish and European background confronts her own family
experience with that of a first generation migrant (Georges Fouron) coming from an
African-Caribbean Background." It is included because Vidia Naipaul himself a product
of the cross-cultural complexities of modern day existence has been able to draw on
similar international reality for his rich, controversial and always challenging, literary
output. Naipaul's response to the compexities of contemporary existence has been his
literary gift to the world and our joy to read, study, experience and reflect upon. We
salute this great writer on his contribution to Literature.
A House for Mr. Biswas Revisted: Ethnicity, Culture, Geography
In 1950, V.S. Naipaul left Trinidad for Oxford intending to become a writer.
"The ambition to be a writer was given me by my father" he writes in "Prologue To An
Autobiography" and tells us in that same piece that by the time he was ready to leave for
London "it had been settled that I was to be a writer. That was the career I was traveling
Like so many other writers from the British Caribbean who left in the 1950s for
the metropolitan center of London to pursue their dreams, Naipaul also made the journey
at the tender age of eighteen. But as soon as he settled down in London and began to
face the challenge of writing, he found that he had to make another journey of the mind
homewards: "To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave.
Actually, to write it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge" 2
Writing for Naipaul, then, became a process of self-discovery as he began to
delve into memory to try to rediscover and to recapture the world from which he had
come: "So step by step, book by book I eased myself into knowledge. To write was
The first book-length work that V.S. Naipaul wrote was about what he calls
"street people"4 in the Trinidad of the 1940s. Naipaul has taken the time to explain that
the principal character, Bogart, in Miguel Street, (written in 1954 but published in 1959)
wanted to be free of Hindu family conventions.5 Nowhere in Miguel Street is this factor
made explicit; and, although from time to time, the reader is acutely aware that the
characters in Miguel Street reside in an ethnically mixed neighbourhood in a relatively
easygoing multi-ethnic colonial society, such psychological tensions of a cultural or ethnic
nature as may exist, do so silently and unobtrusively in the remote background.
Miguel Street depicts the life of the multi-ethnic underclass in a colonial society.
All the Indo-Trinidadian characters in the book are very marginal urbanized Indians,
individuals who have somehow broken out of their ethnic community and distanced
themselves from their background. How did this sociological phenomenon occur? Nai-
paul began to ponder such questions and this influenced not only what he wrote but how
he wrote about it. This is how he explains his thinking after writing Miguel Street which
was not accepted for publication until four years later:
There was much... that had to be examined there
was a migration from India that had to be considered,
a migration within the British Empire. There was my
Hindu family, with its fading memories of India;
there was India itself. And there was Trinidad, with
its past slavery, its mixed population, its racial an-
tagonisms and its changing political life."6
After completing Miguel Street, Naipaul went on to write The Mystic Masseur
which became his first published novel in 1957. This novel reflects some of his concerns
The Mystic Masseur7 traces the life of a Hindu of the Brahmin caste through the
stages of student, householder and community and political leader. In the society in
which the protagonist Ganesh Ramsumair lives, Hinduism is limited to the remote
countryside while the wider society itself is a British colonial creation whose assumptions
are based on Western values and norms despite the existence of a diverse, multiethnic
population. In such a society, conflicts, contradictions and ambiguities lend themselves
easily to comedy and Naipaul exploits these comic possibilities. Behind the comedy,
however, lurks a more somber vision of what the dislocation inherent in the transfer of
large numbers of human beings from a rigid value system to a more fluid and unpre-
dictable one has meant to a people seemingly not quite equal to the challenge of coming
to terms with the situation in which they find themselves. This is the theme which V.S.
Naipaul takes up in his universally acclaimed A House For Mr. Biswas.s
By the time Naipaul came to write A House For Mr. Biswas, he had already
published The Suffrage of Elvira and, therefore, had three full-length works to his name.
He had also won two prestigious literary awards, The John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial
Prize and the Somerset Maughan Award and had been reviewing books for the New
Statesman and other similar publications for some time but he had not yet made his mark
as a writer of world significance. With the publication of A House For Mr. Biswas in
1961, however, the literary world not only took notice, but acknowledged V.S. Naipaul
as a writer of talent and stature.
C.L.R. James described this acknowledged Naipaul masterpiece as "the finest
study ever produced in the West Indies (or anywhere that I know) of a minority and the
Herculean obstacles in the way of its achieving a room in the national building" 9
The critic Andrew Gurr assessed it as "probably the finest novel written in the Third
World since the beginning of Independence." Gurr goes on to describe the novel as
"completely and splendidly written to the Tolstoyan formula evoking, above all, sympa-
thy for the Indian Biswas in his community and in his invoiced aspirations. "Kevin Mc
Sweeny, as late as 1983, when Naipaul had written as many as 14 books after A House
for Mr. Biswas including Mimic Men (1967), Guerrillas (1975) and A Bend In The River
(1979) described A House For Mr. Biswas as the highwater mark of Naipaul's career.1
Edward Kamau Braithwaite has observed that Naipaul's "remarkable individual talent
uses and absorbs his East Indian experience and background to build a book which is an
excellent novel by any standards." Michael Thorpe has acclaimed it as "a work of rare
distinction .a novelist's novel, a model work." A House For Mr. Biswas received
praise when it was first published and is today regarded as a major work of fiction of the
twentieth century; yet, in my view, much has been overlooked in the interpretation of this
work. In light of Naipaul's recent achievement as a Nobel Prize winner for Literature,
it seems appropriate to take another look at A House For Mr. Biswas, arguably Naipaul's
most significant contribution to twentieth century fiction.
The last paragraph of the prologue of A House for Mr. Biswas, often quoted by
"How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be
without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the
squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent
family; to have left Shama and the children among
them in one room; worse, to have lived without even
attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth;
to have lived and died as one had been born, unneces-
sary and un-accommodated." (ppl4-15 Penguin,
This assessment by the narrator implies that Biswas success lies in the inde-
pendence which he has won for himself, his wife and his children having survived a
period of rootlessness and restlessness, having escaped the Tulsis and having sunk his
Thus his house becomes a symbol of independence in his lifetime offering the
promise and possibility of individual freedom and personal fulfillment to his children.
Biswas himself never finds personal fulfillment, because his entire life is a struggle for the
individual freedom which he wins only partially at the end. Although there are brief
moments of happiness, yet even these are perpetually overshadowed by Biswas's over-
whelming sense of insecurity. The tremendous vitality of the novel, therefore, ultimately
derives from Biswas's insatiable hunger for individual liberty, which drives him to
despair, to insanity and ultimately to the audacious act of buying a house without the
foggiest notion of where the money was likely to come from. Implied, too, in the last
line of the passage quoted above is the notion that Biswas's life has ultimately been
worthwhile because he actually succeeds in securing a place for himself in a world that is
clearly indifferent to his inner needs and deepest aspirations.
What is it that Biswas achieves? How is he finally accommodated? These
questions need to be properly answered if we are to understand the full significance of A
House For Mr. Biswas.
Mohun Biswas, lest we forget, is only forty-six years old when he dies. Yet at
middle age he is tired of life, exhausted by the struggle. In the Epilogue we are told:
"Living had always been a preparation, a waiting. And so the years had passed; and now
there was nothing to wait for. Except the children"(p.586). And what was it exactly that
Biswas had been waiting for, before marriage and the children? Working as a sign
painter with Alec, his friend since school days, and living with his mother in a back trace
in Pagotes in an old mud hut that did not belong to them; income unsteady, life unsure
with no place to call home; Biswas "had already begun to wait, not only for love but for
the world to yield its sweetness and romance. He deferred all his pleasure in life till that
day." (p 80). Although he does grow to love Shama, life remains a bitter experience that
never yields any romance, except, perhaps, for that "brief, happy, hopeful period" (p13)
when he develops an interest in writing magazine articles. And so Mr. Biswas, who has
lost his mind and has, throughout his lifetime suffered with his stomach, in the end loses
his heart as well, "about which he never complained" (p 587). Then "A lethargy fell
over him. His face grew puffy. His complexion grew dark a darkness that seemed
to come from within"(pp587-8). When Shama visits him in the hospital after his second
heart attack, "His face held a pain she could scarcely bear to watch" (p. 588). It is meant
for the reader to appreciate that the pain is emotional rather than physical.
From this time onward, with death like a somber shadow over him, Biswas
begins another period of waiting: not for love, sweetness and romance in his lifetime, but
"Waiting for Savi, waiting for Anand, waiting for the end of five years." (p. 588).
Waiting for his children to return from their studies in England and for his mortgage to
be paid off, "he became more and more irritable" (p.588).
Then Biswas is fired and things seem bleak, only to become bright again. The
paragraph which closes the record of Mohun Biswas's life is in fact a happy one:
And right at the end everything seemed to grow
bright. Savi returned and Mr. Biswas welcomed her
as though she were herself and Anand combined.
Savi got a job at a bigger salary than Mr. Biswas
could ever have got; and events organized them-
selves so neatly that Savi began to work as soon as
Mr. Biswas ceased to be paid. Mr. Biswas wrote to
Anand: "How can you not believe in God after this?"
It was a letter full of delights. He was enjoying Savi's
company; she had learned to drive and they went on
little excursions; it was wonderful how intelligent she
had grown. He had got a butterfly orchid. The
shade was flowering again; wasn't it strange that a tree
which grew so quickly could produce flowers with
such a sweet scent? (p. 589).
This is our last memory of Biswas, hopeful and happy that his own children had
begun to blossom, thankful for the generosity of God. After that paragraph, the novel
ends quickly, merely recording his death and cremation.
Biswas dies in his own home free of financial worries. He is proud that he is
leaving Shama and the children with a roof over their heads. He thinks not of the fact
that he did not win his own freedom, nor that he never attained personal fulfillment, nor
that sweetness and romance had never come his way; but rather, that the children, whose
childhoods it suddenly dawned on him one day that he had missed, had indeed won their
freedom and would find their personal fulfillment in time. For them "suddenly the world
opened" (p.586), as never could open for Biswas in his time. And in this philosophical
and hopeful frame of mind, Biswas dies, with deep faith in God on the one hand and
stoically yielding to fate on the other. If fate had been unkind and indifferent to him, it
would not be so to his children. The whole world was now their inheritance. And if
Biswas found it difficult to follow in the footsteps of his father Raghu, Anand would never
live a life similar to that of Biswas and similarly Savi, who had already secured an
independent profession, would not be like Shama. The circumstances and events in their
lives would set in train a different set of options.
Too little attention has been paid by the critics to Mohun Biswas's life before he
comes into contact with the Tulsis. The world into which Mr. Biswas is born is one of
economic destitution and wild superstition, dominated by a fatalistic philosophy. When
Mr. Biswas's mother, Bipti, tells her father about her horrible life, Bipti's father gives the
inevitable reply: "Fate. There is nothing we can do about it. (p.15). To emphasize the
tragedy of such a philosophy, the narrator comments:
Fate had brought him from India to the sugar estate,
Aged him quickly and left him to die in a crumbling
mud-hut in the swamp-lands; yet he spoke of Fate
often and affectionately, as though merely by surviv-
ing, he had been particularly favoured. (p.15).
True to the philosophy handed down by the generation before, Raghu and Bipti
yield to fate and surrender their lives to forces beyond their control. This conflict
between the temptation to surrender and the need to assert ones individual will is at the
heart of Mohun Biswas existential struggle and is a dominant motif in V.S. Naipaul's
work from his first written work Miguel Street to his most recently published novel Half
a Life. Indeed the dominant themes and motifs which Naipaul develops and explores
more intensely in his later works all emerge in A House for Mr. Biswas in the battle
between Mr. Biswas and the Tulsis, a battle which is set against the backdrop of a cultural
crossfire between Hindu orthodoxy, of the Old World, emphasizing caste, clan and fate;
and New World society offering opportunities for individual freedom, personal choice
and achievements through the assertion of individual will.
It is important to appreciate that the world which Naipaul depicts in the Prologue
to the novel under discussion did not even exist during the author's childhood. Naipaul's
understanding of the world that he depicts in telling the story of the birth of Mohun
Biswas was gained from the short stories of his father Seepersad Naipaul.15 Until the
Negro-Chinese photographer makes his entrance at Raghu's funeral we have no inkling
that these events are taking place in Trinidad, not in India. When Biswas is born, the
Pundit comes to read his horoscope and to name him. A Barahee celebration, a
communal affair typical of Hindu village India, is held on the ninth day after his birth and
a Shiva dance is performed. Cows chew their cud at the back of the house; Bipti's father
talks about the Black Age or Kalyug; the people are poor, superstitious, God-fearing,
speak only Hindi and are engaged in agricultural and other peasant tasks. Child labour is
The novel demonstrates that in such a world two options are available to Mohun
Biswas: he could seek his fortune in land where illiteracy is no barrier to economic
success as demonstrated by his brother Partap or like Ganesh Ramsumair he could
become a Pundit since he meets the caste requirements. Biswas on the instigation of his
aunt Tara does try to pursue this second option but he lacks the temperament and
disposition and it turns out to be a fiasco. At the end of the day, however, Biswas
chooses neither the road of Hindu orthodoxy and spirituality nor that of physical labour
and economic reward. Ultimately, he chooses the world of western ideas and philosophi-
cal speculation which makes it possible "for him to console himself in later life with the
Meditations of Marcus Aurelius." (p.24).
It is during the time that Biswas, his mother and sister are dependents of his aunt
Tara in Pagotes, following the death of his father and the disintegration of his own family,
that Biswas begins to be exposed to the world of Western and modern ideas. In Pagotes
Biswas enters a world of English language, colonial schools, law, and documentation, and
leaves behind a world of Hindi, ritual, custom, and tradition. It is in Pagotes that Biswas
enters the modern world. But he does so in a condition of destitution, without a complete
family and without a home. In this condition, he must find the means to cope with
modern life and to make a successful transition from the Old World to the New. By the
end of the first episode of the novel, Biswas's ties to the old tradition are completely and
literally obliterated. As the narrator comments, "The world carried no witness to Mr.
Biswas's birth and early years" (p.41). Mr. Biswas has to establish his identity in this
new society. He does so by securing his birth certificate, as is required by the school,
and "In this way, official notice was taken of Mr. Biswas existence and he entered the
new world" (p.44). This suggestion that a remaking of identity is required to function
effectively in a new environment is an important Naipaulian insight that informs the
author's treatment of other characters in later works such as Ralph Singh in Mimic Men,
Santosh in In a Free State and Salim in A Bend in the River.
The new world offers the English language, western education, literature,
Christianity, and, in spite of the often meaningless history and geography lessons, some
contact with historical achievement and with the wider world outside.6 It also offers
inter-ethnic contact which indirectly leads to self-discovery. It is through his association
with Alec, for instance, that Mr. Biswas discovers his gift for lettering, which leads to his
first attempt at an independent profession as a sign-painter, which in turn eventually leads
to his marriage to Shama.
At this point in the novel, we see Mr. Biswas straddling two different worlds at
the same time. In the Hindu world, where caste becomes important at religious ceremo
nies, he is treated with deference because he is a Brahmin. As soon as the
religious ceremony is over, however, he is measured in terms of his economic status as a
poor and homeless person. The value systems of these worlds contradict each other and
cannot seem to meet. When Tara takes Biswas out of the Presbyterian school and has him
apprenticed to Pundit Hairam, he lives in Jairam's shadow as his virtual handyman and
servant. But Biswas proves to be unsuited to the rigid rules of orthodoxy and eventually
is driven from the Pundi'ts house and has to walk through the village humiliated. At this
point Biswas re-enters "that other world he had entered at Pagotes, the world signified by
Lals school and effete rubber stamps and dusty books of F.Z. Ghany" (pp. 55-56).
Biswas's dependence hits him most forcefully when his uncle Bhandat, accuses
him of stealing and physically abuses him. It is at that point that he resolves, "I am going
to get a job of my own. And I am going to get my own house too. I am finished with
this" (p. 67). This very drive for independence, however, leads him to his strong
dependency on the Tulsis for the better part of his lifetime.
One might well ask why does Biswas agree to get married when he has no job,
no home, or no means of independent existence, and when he does have such a strong
drive for freedom and independence. The answer has to do with the fact that Biswas,
dangling between the old world and the new, finds it difficult to cope with individual
freedom and impossible to come to terms with life on his own. Without a support system
of some kind, he finds life unbearable. We get an indication of this situation when he is
thrown out of Jairam's house and longs for his mother's sympathy, receiving it ultimately
from Tara. But we see it clearly when Biswas is left alone for a weekend in Bhanda'ts
The empty rooms, usually oppressive, now held un-
limited prospects of freedom and vice; but Mr.
Biswas could think of nothing vicious or satisfying...
But the feeling of freedom and urgency remained. He
walked aimlessly, along the main road and down the
side streets he had never taken. He stopped buses and
went for short rides. He had innumerable soft drinks
and hard cakes at roadside shacks. The afternoon
wore on... As fatigue overcame him he began to long
for the day to end, to relieve him of his freedom. He
went back to the dark room tired, empty, miserable,
yet still excited, still unwilling to sleep (p.64).
Up to this point, all of Biswas's decisions have been made for him by others. He
has to learn, painfully, how to make his own decisions how to be an individual,
personally responsible for his own life and his own actions. But one notes in the passage
quoted above a certain ambivalence towards freedom and independence. It becomes too
much for him and he retreats to the security of his room.
After making his decision to get a job and a house, Biswas has to leave the
security of his mother's hut and Tara's protection and venture out into the world on his
own. He becomes a sign-painter; sign-painting leads him to the Tulsis; the Tulsis lure
him into marriage; and their home, Hanuman House, swallows him up.
This contradiction between individual freedom and community dependence,
between personal choice and communal loyalty, between the assertion of will and the
surrender of self, are vintage themes throughout Naipaul's work. In the works before
"Biswas" these themes are somewhat muted; after "Biswas" they become central to
Naipaul's major novels such as Mimic Men and A Bend in the River but are also dominant
concerns in a work such as In A Free State.
Much has been written about the Tulsis and Hanuman House, most of it
unfavourable. What has been ignored, however, is that the Tulsis are an atypical Hindu
family in Trinidad (my emphasis). Pundit Tulsi, founder of the family, seems to have
migrated to Trinidad as a man of means, a member of an established family in India with
which he continued to maintain contact, unlike most other Indian immigrants. In Trinidad
the family, pious, conservative, and wealthy because of its holdings in property, has
remained unknown to the outside world and a mystery even to other Indians. They have
lived a self-absorbed existence within the walls of Hanuman House, to which outsiders
have been admitted "only for certain religious celebrations" (p.81). The Tulsis have no
racial sense, only a sense of caste and clan. Hindi is the language of the household. The
founder of the household being dead, Mrs. Tulsi is left alone to look after the family a
family of daughters, except for two school-age boys. The Tulsis are the very antithesis
of Biswas. Their connection with the past is strong, while his past has been completely
wiped out; they are pious, conservative, and traditional, and their world is relatively
closed, while Mr. Biswas is different, open, flexible, and yearns after the outside world.
Mr. Biswas and the Tulsis clearly view the world and its available options quite
differently. The Tulsis are steeped in tradition; Biswas has been touched by modernity.
There is very little sympathy for the Tulsis in A House for Mr. Biswas; over and
over again, we are virtually forced to feel sympathy for Mr. Biswas instead.17 But a close
examination of Mrs. Tulsi's life shows that she deserves sympathy as well.
Mrs. Tuls'is husband dies and she is left to manage the store, a vast cane-farming
enterprise, and other business ventures. In addition, she is left with a bevy of unmarried
daughters and two sons not yet in their teens. Mrs. Tulsi operates under the old system,
the only one she knows. The duties and responsibilities that she must execute are to keep
the business enterprises going in order to secure income for the family, to marry her
daughters to men of equal status in the Hindu community (Brahmins), and to educate her
sons. Mrs. Tulsli has no brothers, nor does Mr. Tulsi; within the old system the thought
of remarrying comes close to sacrilege. Therefore, Mrs. Tulsi turns to the husband of her
sister to provide an adult male presence in the household, to look after the business
enterprises, and to give direction to the family and hold it together. The alliance between
Seth and Mrs. Tulsi is so successful that the Tulsi family can afford to exist almost as an
entity unto itself. Mrs. Tulsi is able to fulfill her three obligations: she keeps the family
business going, she marries all her daughters and even some of her granddaughters, and
she educates her sons at the best high schools in the country at the same time that they
learn Hindu rituals and read sacred literature at home, even as they prepare for higher
When her sons Owad and Shekhar enter high school in the city, she moves into
Port of Spain with them to ensure that their experience in school is not one of loneliness
and alienation. It is during this period, when she is absent from Hanuman House all
week, returning with the boys only on weekends, that things begin to fall apart. Without
her anchoring presence, rivalries develop, resentments grow, and individualism asserts
itself. Finally a rift emerges between Seth, who is the brother-in-law, and the rest of the
Tulsi family, who are united by blood. This rift badly shakes the solidity of the clan.
Mrs. Tulsi tries desperately to hold them together by moving to the Shorthills estate,
making a final effort to establish a kind of family communal enclave in the Northern hills,
but this is doomed to failure. At this point she lacks the energy, even the authority, to
organize and direct. Individualism is unleashed with a vengeance, and from this point on,
the disintegration of the Tulsi clan is swift and irreversible.
Not quite understanding what is taking place in her family, both the external
pressures and the internal combustion being beyond her comprehension, Mrs. Tulsi
attempts to return to the past to start fresh in a new pastoral setting, large and remote,
isolated from the rest of the society. She hopes that in this idyllic setting they can again
become a self-sufficient entity But the germs of disintegration have already infected the
clan in Hanuman House; in Shorthills, the disease merely spreads like a plague. The
narrator finds it "puzzling that the last corporate efforts to the Tulsis should have been
directed toward this uprooting" (p.392), but Mrs. Tulsi never saw it as an uprooting. It
was meant to be a new beginning, a return to solidity, a remaking of the clan as it might
have been in the ideal. Mr. Biswas, however, is only too aware of the prospects ahead
and as he wanders through the uphill path with Mrs. Tulsi, viewing the Shorthills estate
for the first time, he "found it easy to imagine the other race of Indians moving about this
road before the world grew dark for them" (p.397). He feels a sense of foreboding that
hints at a doom that will come for the second race of Indians from the East.
It suddenly dawns on Mrs. Tulsi that nothing can hold the family together; that
disintegration is not only inevitable, but has already occurred. It is at this point that she
and Mr. Biswas, who have both sought to avoid a face-to-face confrontation, finally
clash. Clearly the clan cannot be kept together again, and now Mrs. Tulsi does not care.
Mr. Biswas never cared. The final break occurs when Owad returns from England as a
medical doctor. Mrs. Tulsi would like to pass on the reins of responsibility to him, but
Owad does not want any such position; he wants to escape the family and be free from
responsibility for anyone other than himself. At the first opportunity he marries into a
wealthy family, making his life among the educated elite, an emerging class in the island.
The disintegration of the Tulsi family is complete. All those who can do better, move
out on their own, including Mr. Biswas; those who cannot, like the widows, remain with
Mrs. Tulsi until she dies. After the quarrel between Mr. Biswas and Mrs. Tulsi, family
relations could never be the same again.
They awoke with a sense of unease. Almost at once
they remembered. They avoided one another... Mr.
Biswas anger had grown stale; it burdened him. Now
there was also shame at his behaviour, shame at the
whole gross scene (p.558).
The clan structure must give way to nuclear family units. Communal responsi-
bility must give way to individual self-assertion. Times have changed. The open conflict
between Mrs. Tulsi and Mr. Biswas represents a clash between Old World values and
New World perspectives not to mention, the clash between obligations and opportunities.
To the extent that Mohun Biswas's struggle can be seen as the battle of an individual
against an oppressive and stifling system, then A House for Mr. Biswas captures the
classic formula of the great nineteenth century novel.18 But the drive to individual
self-assertion can be taken too far, making it impossible for society to cohere, and this is
a theme which Naipaul explores in some depth in his 1975 novel Guerrillas. This issue
of the assertion of self and the need for human connection is again a pervasive source of
tension in the works of V.S. Naipaul.
If the Tulsis have a strong sense of caste and an even stronger sense of family
loyalty, Mr. Biswas, in contrast, is the total individualist. He has no sense of loyalty to
anyone and is a completely self-centred personality. He has no relationship with his
mother and is estranged from his two brothers and his sister. Only with Tara and
Adjodha, his aunt and uncle-in-law, does he have anything approaching a cordial
relationship with family members. Most of the time, prior to his marriage to Shama,
Mr. Biswas simply feels sorry for himself, is terribly lonely, and blames the world for his
condition. Mr. Biswas is cruel to his mother; saying to her, one day, "You have never
done a thing for me. You are a pauper" (p.65). It never occurs to Biswas that he might
do something to help both himself and his mother out of dependency and destitution. His
brother-in-law Ramchand, for instance, a low-caste yard boy for the Adjodhas, is able to
get a job, rent a house, support himself and his wife, and educate his daughter.
The trait of waiting for outside forces to intervene on his behalf remains with
Biswas throughout his lifetime, as does his tendency to blame others for his problems.
He wishes to act on his own behalf, but is unwilling to accept full responsibility for his
actions. Although he writes a love-note to Shama, (and this is the concrete act that
eventually leads to marriage), he blames his cousin Rabidat for goading him into
marriage. Even very late in the novel (and in his life), when he is experiencing difficulty
as the Sentinel (the newspaper for which he works) goes through a period of reorganiza-
tion, "He blamed his father; he blamed his mother; he blamed the Tulsis; he blamed
Shama. Blame succeeded blame confusedly in his mind..." (p.439). This attitude of
blaming others for his condition, coupled with Biswas's tendency to look outside of
himself for solutions to his problems, contributes in no small measure towards his
unhappiness. Throughout his lifetime Biswas is bitter about the past, cynical about the
present, and fearful of the future. He is a most unhappy man and his unhappiness stems
from his incapacity to summon the will to take charge of his life.
Biswas would have the world believe that he is trapped into marriage by the
Tulsis, but during "negotiations" with Seth and Mrs. Tulsi, Biswas is guilty of duplicity.
When Seth asks Biswas who his father is, Mr. Biswas evaded the question. "I am the
nephew of Adjodha of Pagotes" (p.89). He uses his uncle's name to augment his status
in the eyes of the Tulsis, and although he has misgivings about the marriage and fears that
"he would be losing romance forever" (p.93), he is, on the other hand, elated at the
prospect of marriage because "he felt he had achieved status" (p.92) and at the same
time... the girl was good-looking. And there would be a handsome dowry" (p.93).
Thus Biswas is not as pure as he would have us believe: the attraction of the Tulsis is that
they offer status and economic security. To his friend Alec he boasts, "I got my eyes
open. Good family, you know. Acres and acres of land. No more sign-painting for me"
(p.92). This may be an idle boast to save face following his rash decision, but later events
reveal that in spite of Biswas's intelligence, sensitivity, ambition, and his genuine search
for self-respect and dignity as an individual, he is no less an irresponsible plunderer and
free-loader selfish to the extreme, in the Tulsi household rebellious merely for the sake
of being rebellious.
Biswas craves freedom, but cannot cope with it when he has it. Similarly, he
longs to take charge of his life, to assert his individual will, but finds it impossible to do
so. He commits himself to marriage, but then becomes terribly afraid. Yet "It never
occurred to him that he might withdraw" (p.96). He worries about how he is going to
cope with marriage economically, but finds Mrs. Tulsi and Seth "unapproachable" (p.96)
and can't bring himself to raise the issue. So he married, though without "money or
position. He was expected to become a Tulsi. At once he rebelled" (p.97). His initial
attempt at rebellion is to engage in futile, childish games, "Pretending not to know what
was expected of him" (p.97).
Seth had offered, according to the old system, to make marriage arrangements
through discussions with Mr. Biswas's uncle Adjodha, but Biswas makes arrangements
on his own and is therefore deprived of the support of his family in the negotiations.
When he senses his powerlessness in the Tulsi household, he rebels and then tries to
escape from responsibility for his actions altogether. Visits to his mother and aunt and
uncle confirm "that he really was married, that in some irrevocable way he had changed"
(p.99). In the Hindu view of things "He was married. Nothing now, except death, could
change that" (p.100). The reasonable thing for Biswas to do is to accept the reality of
his situation by acting like a married man who is now responsible for a wife, as well as
for himself, but Biswas is unequal to the task. Tara visits the Tulsis and tries to conduct
negotiations on Biswas's behalf, but she senses the strength of Mrs. Tulsi, as well as the
weakness of her nephew, and is upset at his inability to assert his will and personality
(p.101). Biswas returns to Hanuman House, which is described, significantly, as an
"organism" (p.302, to find that "His status there was now fixed. He was troublesome
and disloyal, and could not be trusted. He was weak and therefore contemptible"
(p. 102). In the Tulsi household Mr. Biswas continues with his sign-painting, contributes
nothing to the family, and uses his vast amount of free time to engage in name-calling,
stirring up trouble whenever he can. Things come to a head when Seth summons him:
You come here, penniless, a stranger. We take you
in, we give you one of our daughters, we give you a
place to sleep in. You refuse to help in the store, you
refuse to help on the estate. All right. But then to turn
around and insult us!
Mr. Biswas had never thought of it like that (p.109). This conflict between
Mr. Biswas and the Tulsis represents from Biswas point of view a tight, authoritarian,
totalitarian system that denies individual liberty. To Seth and Mrs. Tulsi, however,
Biswas is a selfish and irresponsible individualist. Biswas thinks in terms of paddling his
own canoe (p. 107), while the Tulsis think in terms of "family unity and the family name"
(p. 112). The confrontation between Seth and Biswas ends not in compromise but in
mutual antagonism. Mr. Biswas engages in "his campaign against the Tulsis" (p. 124); in
turn, the Tulsis take the position that given enough rope Mr. Biswas will eventually hang
himself (p. 131).
Mr. Biswas continues to rebel in every way that he can, upsetting the order of
the household, causing Seth to say in exasperation that Kalyug or the Black Age has come
(p. 124). But every once in a while, Biswas seems to sense that rebellion for its own sake
The campaign against the Tulsis, which he had been
conducting with such pleasure, now seemed pointless
and degrading. Suppose, Mr. Biswas thought, in the
long room, suppose that at one word I could just
disappear from this room, what would remain to
speak of me? A few clothes, a few books. The
shouts and thumps in the hall would continue; the
puja would be done; in the morning the Tulsi door
would open its doors.
He had lived in many houses. And how easy it was
to think of those houses without him!... In none of
these places he was being missed because in none of
these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an
upsetter of routine... There was nothing to speak of
Biswas wants his life to matter. Ambition makes him restless because he senses
that only ambition can save him from personal extinction. This theme of personal
extinction and the need to summon the will to fight against it will become something of
an obsession in Naipaul's later works as Naipaul himself begins to view his writing as the
only means of staving off his own personal extinction. 19
Although Biswas wants his life to matter, however, his ambitions are neverthe-
less vague and undefined. He has rejected the options available in the old system and
does not quite know what he should be ambitious for in the new. After the fight with
Gobin, Biswas's fate is decided for him by Seth: Biswas moves on to the next stage of his
existence, as a shopkeeper, well away from the Tulsis:
I don't think we could stand you here any longer. You
want to paddle your own canoe. All right, go ahead
and paddle. When you start getting your tail wet,
don't bother to come back to me or Mai, you hear.
This was a nice united family before you come. You
better go away before you do any more mischief and
I have to lay my hand on you.
So Mr. Biwas moved to the Chase, to the shop.
Shama was pregnant when they moved (pp. 140-41).
Biswas secures some measure of individual liberty from the Tulsis and is in a
position to make himself economically independent. But he is a failure at commerce, as
he was at agriculture and as a Pundit's apprentice. On the very first day that he is alone
at the Chase, he longs for the safety, security, and comfort of Hanuman House. The
boredom and futility of life at the Chase drive him to retreat into philosophy, yet he
continues his ways of rebellion against the Tulsis, taking the dispute into the public arena
by having a slanderous article about the Tulsis (as pig rearers) appear in the national
press. Eventually Seth has to rescue Biswas by giving him a job as estate sub-overseer.
During his six-year sojourn at the Chase, Biswas would use Hanuman House as
a retreat: "The House was a world, more real than the Chase, and less exposed;
everything beyond its gates was foreign and unimportant and could be ignored. He
needed such a sanctuary. And in time the House became to him what Taras had been
when he was a boy" (p. 188). Moreover, Biswas is treated "with indifference rather than
hostility" (p. 188) by the Tulsis, and as a mater of fact now enjoys an enviable position in
Now that he had dropped his Aryan iconoclasm, they
discussed religion, and these discussions in the hall
became family entertainments... His standing rose
even higher when there were guests for important
religious ceremonies. It was soon established that
Mr. Biswas, like Hari, was too incompetent, and too
intelligent, to be given the menial tasks of the other
brothers-in-law. He was deputed to have disputations
with the pundits in the drawing room (p.189).
Still Mr. Biswas is perpetually restless, tormented by the dereliction of his shop
at the Chase and by fear of the future. His life as estate sub-overseer in Greenvale is one
of perpetual depression and loneliness. His wife and children spend more and more time
at Hanuman House, less and less with him. The Tulsis look after their health, education,
and general welfare. Biswas is surprised to learn, for example, that Savi is attending
school. On another occasion when he visits Hanuman House, he discovers that Savi is
wearing leg braces to correct her bow-leggedness, which he had for so long taken for
granted as un-rectifiable. In the meantime Seth saves Biswas the embarrassment of
appearing in court to answer a minor bicycle charge and provides him with unexpected
money (from the insurance company) for the Chase shop.
During this period, Biswas's drive to secure a house of his own increases, as
does his yearning for life in the outside world, a yearning stimulated by the journalistic
articles and books that he reads. He also seeks the solace of religion, on one occasion
writing the following quotation from the Bhagavat Gita, the principal Hindu sacred text,
on a strip of cardboard and sticking it on the wall of his room: "He who believeth in me,
of him I will never lose hold and he shall never lose hold of me" (p. 211). In addition,
he becomes afraid of people and withdraws from human contact. Instead of doing
something about the future, he cries for his lost happiness (pp.267-69).
Although Mr. Biswas comes to the realization that "If anything was to happen he
had to act" (p.273), when he thinks of acting it is in terms of negatives, rather than
positives. Just prior to his nervous breakdown, "He decided that he had to get rid of
Anand and Savi and himself, in such a way that the children would never know who killed
them" (p.273). At this point, Mr. Biswas is going out of his mind. He becomes
paranoid, blaming everyone for his problems, as is his custom. He blames the Tulsis and
perceives himself as persecuted and abused: "I know you want me to get a real fever. I
know all you want to see me dead" (p.276). He rants and raves and during a quarrel with
his pregnant wife kicks her in the belly. When a storm comes, destroying the dilapidated
house that he had been attempting to build, Biswas can do nothing but recite the prayers
and mantras that he knows, asking Anand to do the same. As the storm rages outside so
the storm within Biswas rages, in spite of his prayers, and he has a nervous breakdown.
Biswas is taken by the Tulsis back to Hanuman House. Govind, who had earlier
fought with Biswas when he threw a plate of food at Owad, now takes him in his arms to
bring him upstairs to Mrs. Tulsi's room, where he is left to recover. 21 Mr. Biswas
"welcomed the warmth and assurance of the room. Every wall was solid" (p.295), and
later, as he begins to recover, "He remained in the Blue Room, feeling secure to be only
a part of Hanuman House, an organism that possessed a life, strength, and power to
comfort which was quite separate from the individuals who composed it" (p.302).
Part One of the novel ends with Biswas's recovery after the care he is given at
Hanuman House. After his nervous breakdown and recovery, he develops the courage
to engage the world:
He was going out into the world, to test it for its
power to frighten. The past was counterfeit, a series
of cheating accidents. Real life, and its especial
sweetness, awaited; he was still beginning (p.305).
But Mr. Biswas might have stayed for a longer period in retreat, were it not for
the fact that he remains "unwilling" (p.304) to face Mrs. Tusli and Owad, who are
returning from Port of Spain to Hanuman House.
As with everything else, the decision to go to Port of Spain is made for Mr.
Biswas by someone else. The bus conductor grabs his suitcase and Mrs. Biswas gives in
because "he was without energy to go back on it" (p.308). Once in Port of Spain, Mr.
Biswas feels a tremendous sense of freedom in the city, but this freedom is short-lived and
soon becomes a burden. Once he thought that he might make a fresh start, a new
beginning, but Mr. Biswas rapidly comes to realize that "His freedom was over and it had
been false. The past could not be ignored, it was never counterfeit; he carried it within
himself" (p.316). Similarly, at this point Mr. Biswas comes to understand that a man's
future cannot be entirely divorced from his past: "If there was a place for him, it was one
that had already been hollowed out by time, by everything he had lived through, however
imperfect, makeshift and cheating" (p.316).
One cannot start fresh, then; one merely has to continue from where one is at the
moment; past, present, and future are not only interrelated, they are intertwined. When
Mr. Biswas secures a job as reporter with the Sentinel, he sees the inter-connectedness of
events over time, as well as the element of chance: "A chance encounter had led him to
sign-writing. Sign-writing found him a place on the Sentinel" (p.323). What Mr.
Biswas ignores, however is the fact that for the first time in this life he has taken control
of his life, asserted his personality, and acted forcefully and decisively on his own behalf.
Perhaps chance indeed has played a part, and certainly the good job that Mr. Biswas had
done at painting the signs for the editor made Mr. Burnett a little more receptive to him,
but had Mr. Biswas not decided firmly to enter the newspaper office, and insisted on
seeing the editor in spite of various attempts to thwart him, nothing would have happened.
Here Mr. Biswas makes fate work for him, rather than against him, and the past becomes
not a millstone around his neck, but a stepping-stone to the future. Naipaul implies that
fate can work for you, that the past need not be a burden, if you are prepared to act
decisively and positively. Biwas is successful precisely to the extent that he acts
decisively and positively in service of a clear objective.
The fact that Biswas does act decisively in this instance does not mean that he has
solved his problems. But the single decisive action gets him a job that he likes, raising
his self-esteem and making him relatively self-sufficient, and this change sets into motion
other events that eventually lead to the acquisition of his house and of a sense of
If Biswas has earlier used Hanuman House to withdraw from the world, the
world which he now enters allows him to escape from the Tulsis, at least for a short
while. His foray into Port of Spain was undertaken in order to avoid Mrs. Tulsi's return
from Port of Spain; he left Hanuman House without even viewing his last child, born on
the day that he left (the child Shama was carrying when he kicked her in the stomach).
Indeed, Mr. Biswas has temporarily abandoned his family. After some success as a
journalist, however, he returns to Hanuman House to effect a reconciliation. No one
there even mentions his transgressions. He is warmly received and "The reconciliation
was soon complete, and on terms that made Mr. Biswas feel he had won a victory"
(p.332). When he meets Mrs. Tusli in Port of Spain, "She pretended not to know that
he had ever left Shama and Hanuman House... Mrs. Tulsi proposed that Mr. Biswas
should move his family to Port of Spain and live with her son and herself" (p.332). To
Mr. Biswas "The offer was stupendous: a house, no less. It was the climax of his current
good fortune... The House stood on high pillars and was one of the newest and most
imposing on the street" (pp.332-333). Mr. Biswas is relatively happy living in this
house. His job gives him a sense of dignity and self-worth, he takes charge of his
household, and, far enough away from the Tulsi clan, he becomes a father to his children.
Even in this relative peace, however, Biswas yearns for escape. He writes
stories, whose theme is always the same: "The hero, trapped into marriage, burdened
with a family, his youth gone, meets a young girl. She is slim, almost thin, and dressed
in white. She is fresh, tender, unkissed; and she is unable to bear children" (p.345).
Paradoxically, at the same time that Biswas is writing these stories of escape, his
relationship with Shama grows warmer. He grows closer to the children, especially
Anand, and he comes to feel a genuine affection (which he will not admit) for his in-laws.
When Owad is ready to board ship for England, "Mr. Biswas was unaccountably moved.
His legs shook. He felt unsteady... Tears rushed to his eyes" (p.362). Yet because of his
economic insecurity Mr. Biswas is aware that his is a "curious status: welcomed, even
fawned upon, by the greatest in the land, fed as well as anybody and sometimes even
better, yet always finally rejected" (p.347).
By this time Mr. Biswas is existing on the fringe of two worlds: he is the most
marginal of Hindus, and at the same time he is marginal to the larger society outside as
he struggles to keep the two lives separate. His shaky position is emphasized when Seth
bullies his way into Biswas's yard with his trucks and destroys his rose garden. The
damage occurs during a quarrel between Seth and the Tulsis, a quarrel which reveals that
the communal vision of Hanuman House is a sham. Seth's individual aspirations have
been merely hidden, not fully suppressed, despite his position as headman of the Tulsi
household. Mr. Biswas's powerlessness to do anything about Seth's intrusion is clear.
He is simply not in a position to stand on his own two feet. For this very reason Mr.
Biswas's position vis-a-vis the outside world is equally vulnerable. He finds himself
constantly fighting against humiliation. One of Anand's school friends tells Anand that
when Mr. Biswas comes to visit, he must enter through the back door. Anand is deeply
upset, but Biswas's response to Anand reveals that despite his problems he views the
Tulsis and Hanuman House as providing security and refuge. "I don't depend on them
for a job", he says to Anand. "You know that. We could go back to Hanuman House.
All of us. You know that" (p.380).
Mr. Biswas's response to the changes at the Sentinel reveals how much he is
dependent upon encouragement and approval. With Mr. Burnett gone, and the atmos-
phere at the newspaper office more impersonal than ever, Biswas flounders. His writing
suffers badly, because "He needed to address his work mentally to someone. At first this
had been Mr. Burnett; then it had been Owad. Now there was only Shama. She seldom
read his articles. He has come a long way, but has not yet won his independence. And
perceiving his dependency, he is restless, miserable dissatisfied. Anand describes him as
"A man who... who, whatever you do for him, wasn't satisfied" (pp.378-379). Biswas,
who despairs of his own life, sees education as the only way out for Anand, saying to him,
on one occasion, "I don't want you to be like me" (p.374). Biswas is not at all happy with
his limited achievement and his circumscribed condition.
When the decision is made to undertake the Shorthills adventure, after the family
squabble, Biswas is invited to participate and he does. However, he contributes nothing
to the communal effort, is cynical about it from the beginning, remains detached
throughout, and engages in plunder wherever the opportunity presents itself. With all
her daughters married, her sons taken care of, and the war with Seth raging, Mrs. Tulsi
does not have the zeal to lead the undertaking herself; life has broken her down. On the
other hand, there is no one else to plan or direct things. The members of the family live
together, but there is no communal feeling; there isn't even communal prayer. Everyone
is on his own. Bit by bit, the estate is ruined because the Tulsis do not know how to
begin to take advantage of its opportunities for splendid living. The Tulsis are unequal
to the task of colonizing the estate: they are too completely colonial themselves, having
failed in their effort to sustain their world whole.22
Mr. Biswas is aware of what is happening, but makes no effort to intervene. He
simply turns the situation to his own personal advantage:
Though surrounded by devastation, Mr. Biswas re-
mained detached. He paid no rent; he spent nothing
on food. He was saving most of his salary. For the
first time he had money and every fortnight it was
increasing. He closed his heart to sorrow and anger
at a dereliction he was powerless to prevent; and
recognizing with a thrill that it was now every man
for himself the phrase gave him much pleasure he
continued to plunder, enjoying the feeling that in the
midst of chaos he was calmly going about his own
devilish plans (p.407).
And what were these devlish plans? To save enough money to build or buy his
own house and so win his independence and escape the Tulsis at the same time. Mr.
Biswas, however, is not the only such individualist. Everyone else who is able to do so
uses Shorthills simply as a base from which to take advantage of the economic opportu-
nities unleashed by the war, and the American presence on the island, while they try
desperately to secure an education for their children. In colonial Trinidad, where all must
struggle to find a place, education and wealth provide the only routes to personal
independence and self-respect. Hence "everyone had to fight for himself in a new world"
The push toward success in the New World causes what remains of the Old
World in Shorthills to disintegrate. Biswas, along with others, moves in to Port of
Spain; one of the common goals is to have their children educated. Cramped into two
rooms of a house in Port of Spain, sharing it with several other families, Biswas becomes
full of self-pity again. As others begin to show signs of economic advance, he begins to
dwell in the past instead and to blame his present condition on various other people:
It was now that he began to speak to his children of
his childhood. He told them of the hut, the men
digging in the garden at night; he told them of the oil
that was later found on the land. What fortune might
have been theirs, if only his father had not died, if
only he had stuck to the land like his brothers, if he
had not gone to Pagotes, not become a sign-writer,
not gone to Hanuman House, not married! If only so
many things had not happened! He blamed his father;
he blamed his mother; he blamed the Tulsis; he
blamed Shama. Blame succeeded blame confusedly
in his mind (pp.438-39).
Biswas is still looking for escape, unwilling to come to terms with reality, yet he
shows some signs of self-understanding. Sent out by his newspaper to investigate
"deserving destitutes" he becomes increasingly aware of his own derelict condition:
"Deserving Destitute number one", he told Shama, "M. Biswas. Occupation: investiga-
tor of Deserving Destitutes" (p.440). He begins to see destitution all around him among
his own relatives among his widowed sisters-in-law, and in Bhandat, whom he visits in
his shack. On one of the Biswas's family visits to Adjodha in Pagotes, Adjodha directs a
telling question to Anand, who is collecting funds to aid Polish refugees of the war: "You
are a funny sort of family... Father collecting money for destitutes. You collecting money
for Polish refugees. Who collecting for you"? (p.457). It is at about this time that
Biswas, becoming more aware than ever of his condition, flushes down the toilet his
escapist stories about meeting a barren heroine: he has been seriously disturbed by seeing
Bhandat and his barren concubine living like animals in a shack.
At this time, too, Mr. Biswas has three quick successes, each of which reveals a
change in his attitude toward past, present, and future. First, when Bipti, his mother,
dies, to come to terms with her death he writes a poem about her, a poem charged with
emotion. It is the only authentic writing that he has produced, something that comes
directly out of his own experience, an exorcising of a demon lodged somewhere deep in
his soul. Second, angered and hurt by a doctor's callous attitude toward his deceased
mother, he writes an eight-page letter to the doctor, who later acknowledges his error to
Mr. Biswas. In writing the letter Mr. Biswas does not resign himself to fate or bewail
his condition. He asserts himself as a person of dignity and self-worth, someone whose
rage and protest are justified. The letter is not an act of futile rebellion, it is an assertion
of self-hood, a banishment of impotence. Finally, when Anand wins a scholarship to
college Mr. Biswas forgets about his own condition, seeing a bright, independent future
ahead for his son. After this so far the only triumph in Biswas's life comes his
acquisition of the house, which leaves his wife and children with some measure of
security after he dies.
A number of things fall into place in rather quick time to give Mr. Biswas the
house he craves. He receives an assignment to investigate a new governmental agency,
only to be offered a job by the person in charge, and at a higher salary than he makes as
a journalist. His capacity to save money is increased immediately. By the time of the
quarrel with Mrs. Tulsi, when it becomes absolutely necessary that he secure alternative
accommodations, he has just enough money to think about buying a house (about eight
hundred dollars). Then suddenly someone offers to buy the material from his burnt
house in Shorthillls, adding four hundred dollars to his savings. Mr. Biswas credits God
with his good fortune. When he goes to his uncle Adjodha for further funds, he does not
lose courage but asks for a loan outright, and it is given. In this way Mr. Biswas buys
his house. Although when Mr. Biswas is then fired and worries about how the mortgage
is going to be paid, Savi returns home and "began to work as soon as Mr. Biswas ceased
to be paid" (p.589). In a letter full of delights, Mr. Biswas writes to Anand: "How can
you not believe in God after this"? (p.589). Everything works out in the end. His faith
in life and divine justice is restored.
One cannot ignore the fact that Mr. Biswas is a Hindu. In the midst of the
cultural dislocation and disintegration that are taking place all around him, the one thing
he holds on to is his belief in God. With God at the centre of his universe, Mr. Biswas
looks toward the future with hope, even in the midst of his fears. On each occasion that
he comes face to face with nothingness, he calls on God in the only way he knows by
chanting hymns and mantras to Hindu deities. He does this during his stint as estate
sub-overseer, which is perhaps the loneliest and most depressing phase of his life; and
when the storm rages just prior to his nervous breakdown, though helpless and afraid he
keeps chanting "Rama, Rama" Biswas also truly believes in the phrase that he cuts out
and sticks on a wall: "He who believeth in me of him I will never lose hold and he shall
never lose hold of me" (p.211). Throughout his lifetime, his faith in God keeps him
going and helps him to stave of the "Void" In the letter to Dr. Rameshwar, he reveals
himself as a proud Hindu and is in fact rather condescending about his religion.
He compared the doctor to an angry hero of a Hindu
epic, and asked to be forgiven for mentioning the
Hindu epics to an Indian who had abandoned his
religion for a recent superstition that was being ex-
ported wholesale to savages all over the world (the
doctor was a Christian). Perhaps the doctor had done
so for political reasons, or simply to escape from his
caste; but no one could escape from what he was.
This theme was developed and the letter concluded
that none could deny his humanity and keep his self
Mr. Biswas's attitude toward Hinduism is complex. He has continually ridi-
culed the syncretism between Hinduism and Catholicism that occasionally appeared in the
Tulsi household. His objection to the Hinduism of the Tulsi is based on his reformist
passion: he never ceases to be a Hindu, as has been indicated, but he is reformed not an
orthodox, Hindu, with little respect for the ritualistic or mechanical aspects of Hindiusm.
But old habits die hard, and the same Biswas who opposes ritual and orthodoxy is pleased
when Anand decides to go through the orthodox rites of the Brahmanic triple-thread
ceremony. He is grateful when Shama greets his mother Bipti by bowing to her feet,
enacting the role of a traditional, respectful, dutiful daughter-in-law. Being of a
philosophical bent and influenced by western ideas, he is ambivalent about orthodox
practices, yet at moments he is willing to concede that some of these practices do have
their beauty and can give a sense of belonging to the individual and a wholeness to the
culture. He knows, however, that the old ways cannot survive in the competitive era of
modern western civilization, and he lives in the modern world. His Hinduism is
unrelated to India. It is a philosophical perspective on life and mans place in the world in
relation to the deities. Nevertheless, the old Hinduism is enough a part of him that he
uses a tone of Brahmanic superiority in his letter to Dr. Rameshwar. He is ambivalent
enough about the Hindu rules to eat canned salmon and yet insists that Shama cook
separate meals when he learns that one of his nephew has roasted a sheep in the forest. 23
A revealing episode in A House for Mr. Biswas tells of the Biswas's family
vacation on the seashore. At first, alone in the beach house, in unfamiliar surroundings,
they all huddle together in one room. Then, as time passes, they "spread themselves about
the house on the hill" (p.506) to enjoy their new space and freedom. As they return home
after an enjoyable stay at the beach, the narrator comments: "On the way out they had
feared arrival, a casting off into the unknown; now they dreaded returning to what they
knew" (p.506). This pattern throughout the novel speaks to our universal condition. We
fear the unknown, we summon the courage to venture out, and then the old securities
which we once enjoyed become an encumbrance. This is what happens to Biswas. The
past becomes only the past, though he carries it within him. There can be no return.
But Biswas still yearns to escape the present, and because he cannot do so he is afraid of
the future, which he sees as a great void swallowing him up.
It is in Hanuman House, late in his life and after the house has been abandoned,
that Biswas finally accepts his present condition and loses the anxiety that has made him
worry about leaving the world with nothing behind to speak of him. The Tulsis have had
so much that spoke of them, and yet "In the store the Tulsi name had been replaced by
the Scottish name of a Port of Spain firm and this name had been spoken so long that it
now fully belonged" (p.520). Alone in Hanuman House one day, Mr. Biswas reflects on
himself. In his earlier life there, "he had reflected on the unreality of his life, and had
wished to make a mark on the wall as proof of his existence" (p.531). But "Now he
needed no such proof. Relationships had been created where none existed; he stood at
their centre. In that very unreality had lain freedom" (p.531). He contrasts his position
then and now: "Now he was encumbered, and it was at Hanuman House that he tried to
forget the encumbrance: the children, the scattered furniture, the dark tenement room,
and Shama as helpless as he was and not what he had longed for, dependent on him"
(p.531). Previously Biswas had looked upon his life as unreal and had hoped to be free
of it, to escape. Now, however, he accepts his life for what it is. He is not a solitary
individual; he is responsible for other lives. He who has been yearning for a place in the
world realizes that he has always had a secure place he has always been at the centre of
their universe. The problem was that he was so caught up in rebellion and escapist
fantasies that he was blind to reality. This new sense of responsibility to his family
reinforces the urgency of his situation, having been thrown out of the Tulsi house, with
Anand saying: "Pa. We must move... I can't bear to live here another day" (p.537).
Forced to act on his and his family's behalf, and finally recognizing his responsibility,
Biswas does his duty and everything falls into place.
In the forty-six years of Mr. Biswas's life he goes through the stages of student,
householder, man of affairs, and, at the end of his life when he can work no more,
recluse. When he dies, like a good Hindu, his body is cremated on the bank of a river.
In the end he is free of fantasy, knowing that in his final years some semblance of
independence has been achieved and that a bright future lies ahead for his children: the
whole world will be open to them. His acknowledgement of God as a good God suggests
that he dies with some measure of spiritual peace.
After A House of Mr. Biswas, Naipaul goes on to write The Mimic Men which
captures the life of a failed Indo-Caribbean politician and moves back and forth in time
between the fictional island of Isabella and the metropolitan city of London.
In the five works (The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, The Suffrage of Elvira, A
House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men), Naipaul presents protagonists who are caught
between past, present and future; between a memory of India, a life in Trinidad and a
yearning for the modern world which Western civilization offers. In A House for Mr.
Biswas, by drawing on his father's short stories, Naipaul takes us as far back as 1904
when life in a rural Trinidad village was indistinguishable from village life in India, and
with the publication of The Mimic Men, Naipaul would have examined the presence of
the East Indian in the New World during a span of over half century and would have
connected both India and Trinidad with the source of British colonialism in London.
The focus in A House for Mr. Biswas is on Mohun Biswas who relentlessly seeks
individual freedom and fights to stave off personal extinction. In The Mimic Men, Ralph
Singh journeys to London, the Centre of the British Empire, to find that there is an excess
of individuality, but little freedom. In Naipaul's early novels, therefore, up to The Mimic
Men what we have are protagonists from Hindu backgrounds for whom life in the modern
world means life on the marginal fringe. These protagonists are marginal to Hinduism,
marginal to the mainstream of Caribbean society and marginal to modern western
civilization. They are in a sense, to draw on the title of one of Saul Bellow's novels,
Dangling Men.24 They end up in this condition because of the cultural disintegration and
dislocation which have been induced by the processes of history.
In Naipaul's later works, which tend to be more international in scope and
cosmopolitan in character, the dilemma of the dangling man or the marginalized individ-
ual seems to be a common condition to all people in the modern age who must wrestle
with what Alfred Kazin, commenting on Naipaul's work has described as "the psychic
realities of exile" 25
For V.S. Naipaul, however, the exploration of his own background and the
portrayal of the condition of Indians in their New World setting was crucial, perhaps even
necessary, before Naipaul could see the dilemma of marginality and exile in its broader
context. A House for Mr. Biswas made it possible for Naipaul to move beyond the limits
of ethnicity and beyond the boundaries of geographical location in his writing.
In the early works of V.S. Naipaul, therefore, with House for Mr. Biswas being
the quintessential example, V.S. Naipaul uses ethnicity as a key element in character, an
element that helps to determine the protagonist's view of the world and his attitude
towards it. As a central component in personality, ethnic concerns often constitute a
strong source of spiritual restlessness and malaise. Caught up in a condition of spiritual
malaise and cultural fragmentation, Naipaul's protagonists often find it difficult to act and
may retreat into inaction. Thus Naipaul's protagonists are often in a conflict between
engagement of, and withdrawal from, a world of chaos. For Naipaul's protagonists,
therefore, the tendency to be seduced into withdrawal or inaction is an ever-present
danger as we have noted in the case of Mohun Biswas.
Withdrawal represents a need for security in the familiar, while engagement
demands an assertion of individual will in spite of prevailing challenges and a willingness
to summon the capacity for responsible individual freedom.
As in the case of Mohun Biswas, all Naipaul's memorable protagonists in his
later works face the challenge of solving identity crises through a process of self-discov-
ery and achievement of self-knowledge which enable them to re-engage the world and
triumph over their circumstances.
Ultimately (and the platform is securely established in A House for Mr. Biswas)
Naipaul's protagonists resolve, even though they may falter, to take control of their lives
and to do whatever they can to give that life, meaning. And this is how Mohun Biswas
finds accommodation. In the end what he achieves is a detached perspective which puts
his life in context and gives it meaning. As a novel A House for Mr. Biswas allows
Naipaul to explore the world of his childhood with which he was most familiar to present
and wrestle with important themes which he explores and develops with great sophistica-
tion in this later fiction.
V.S. Naipaul, "Prologue to An Autobiography" Vanity Fair, 46, No.2 (April 1983), 59.
2. Naipaul, "Prologue", p.59.
3. "Prologue", p.59.
4. "Prologue", p.54.
5. "Prologue", p.56.
6. "Prologue", pp.58-59.
7. V.S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur. Middlesex: Penguin, 1964.
8. A House for Mr. Biswas. Middlesex: Penguin, 1977.
9. C.L.R. James, "Introduction" in Wilson Harris, Tradition and the West Indian Novel (London, West In-
dian Students Union, 1965), p.6.
10. A.J. Gurr, "Third World Novels: Naipaul and After", Journal of Commonwealth Literature, 7, No.1
(June 1972), p.11.
11. "Third World Novels", p.11.
12. Kerry McSweeney, Four Contemporary Novelists. Angus Wilson, Brian Moore, John Fowles, V.S. Nai-
paul. (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1983), p.172.
13. Edward Braithwaite, "Roots" Bim, 10, No.37 (July-December 1963), p.18.
14. Michael Thorpe, V.S. Naipaul (London: Longman, 1976), p.14.
15. See Seepersad Naipaul. The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories. London: Andre Deutsch, 1976.
In the introduction written by V.S. Naipaul he acknowledges his reliance on his fathers early stories.
16. The Works of V.S. Naipaul, especially his novels, are riddled with ambiguities of this kind; such ambigu-
ity adds richness to his fiction. This many-sided Naipaulian approach has eluded many of his ideology
bound critics, who prefer to have clear-cut positions on all issues.
17. It is debatable, therefore, whether Naipaul's presentation of Biswas's character is, in fact, one-sided. Most
critics have simply ignored the subtlety of interrelationships in the work, viewing the Tulsis from the
start as the enemy and Biswas as embarked on a noble quest.
18. The novel as a literary form has from inception been about the struggle of the individual within the frame-
work of an existing social order or against conventional norms.
19. See for instance The Enigma of Arrival: Viking 1987, pp.93-96 where Naipaul describes his feelings when
one of his books (The Loss of El Dorado) is rejected by his publisher on the recurring images of death
which dominate his dreams and his consciousness.
20. Again the question of morality does not arise: it is taken for granted that society is corrupt.
21. This is one of the occasions when Naipaul's authorial intrusion seems heavy-handed and unnecessary.
William Walshs comment in "V.S. Naipaul: Mr. Biswas" The Literary Criterion, 10, No.2 (Summer
1972), 28 does not seem quite accurate: "the author speaks when he feels he has to, mildly or incisively
or pityingly, but always appropriately" It seems to me inappropriate that Naipaul would impose his
view on the reader in this way: "By carrying Mr. Biswas in his arms, Govind had put himself on the
side of authority; he had assumed authority impersonal power to forgive" "Biswas", p.295.
22. It might be useful here to invoke Michael V Angrosinos interpretation of Naipaul's "Colonial": ...to be
a colonial implies that the psychological loss of identity... has occurred within a context of spatial dis-
placement" See "V.S. Naipaul and the Colonial Image" Caribbean Quarterly, 21, No.3 (September
1975). Naipaul himself has written "A peasant-minded, money-minded community, spiritually static be-
cause cut off from its roots, its religion reduced to rites without philosophy, set in a materialist colonial
society: a combination of historical accidents and national temperament has turned the Indian into the
complete colonial" The Middle Passage, p.89.
23. Maureen Warner takes note of Biswas's ambivalence toward Hinduism but does not seem to be able to
make sense of it. She writes of the syncretistic consequences of the collision of Hinduism and Christian-
ity but does not discern that there is a difference between Biswas's version of Hinduism and that of the
Tulsis. See her "Cultural Confrontation, Disintegration and Syncretism in A House for Mr. Biswas "
Caribbean Quarterly, 16, No.4 (December 1970), p.73.(reprinted in this Special Issue)
24. Saul Bellow. Dangling Man. New York: Avon Books, 1975.
25. Alfred Kazin, "Displaced Persons", New York Review of Books, 17 No.1 (1971) p.13.
The Call From the Swedish Academy*.
The Nobel Prize in Literature for 2001 is awarded to the British writer, born in
Trinidad, V.S. Naipaul "for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny
in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories"
V.S. Naipaul is a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at home in himself,
in his inimitable voice. Singularly unaffected by literary fashion and models he has
wrought existing genres into a style of his own, in which the customary distinctions
between fiction and non-fiction are of subordinate importance.
Naipaul's literary domain has extended far beyond the West Indian island of
Trinidad, his first subject, and now encompasses India, Africa, America from north to
south, the islamic countries of Asia, and not least, England. Naipaul is Conrad's heir
as the analyst of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: His authority as narrator is
grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished.
The farcical yars in his first work, The Mystic Masseur, and the short stories in
Miguel Street with their blend of Chekhov and calypso established Naipaul as a humorist
and a portrayer of street life. He took a giant stride with A House for Mr. Biswas one of
those singular novels that seem to constitute their own complete universes, in this case
a miniature India on the periphery of the British Empire, the scene of his father's
In allowing peripheral figures their place in the momentousness of real literature,
Naipaul reverses normal perspectives and denies readers at the centre their protective
detachment. This principle was made to serve in a series of novels in which, despite the
increasingly documentary tone, the characters did not therefore become less colourful.
Fictional narratives, autobiography arid documentaries have merged in Naipaul's writing
without it always being possible to say which element dominates.
In his masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival, Naipaul visits the reality of England
like an anthropologist studying some hitherto unexplored native tribe deep in the jungle.
With apparent short-sighted and random observations he creates an unrelenting image of
the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European
Naipaul has drawn attention to the novel's lack of uniiversality as a form, that
it pre-supposes an inviolate, human world of the kind that his been shattered for
conquered peoples. He began to experience the inadequacy of fiction while he was
working on The Loss of El Dorado in which after extensive study of the archives he
described the appalling colonial history of Trinidad. He found that he had to cling to the
authenticity of the details and the voices and abstain from mere fictionalism while at the
same time continuing to render his material in the form of literature. His travel books
allow witnesses to testify at every turn, not least in his powerful description of the eastern
regions of the Islamic world, Beyond Belief. The author's empathy finds expression in
the acuity of his ear.
Naipaul is a modern philosophy carrying on the tradition that started originally
with Lettres persanes and Candide. In a vigilant style which has been deservedly
admired, he transforms rage into precision and allows events to speak their own inherent
*Reproduced with permission from The Trinidad Express, Friday, October 12,
2001, "A Tribute to V.S. Naipaul"
RESPONSE i. From the Caribbean Region
Naipaul Out of Nothing: Praise, criticism for Caribbean literary
The day after it was announced that Vidia Nalpaul had won the Nobel Prize For
Literature, good news that came as a breath of fresh air for Trinidad and Tobago amid Its
obnoxious political wranglings, I had a quick survey of how the major newspapers of the
Caribbean Conmmunity (CARICOM) covered the historic event:
Poor, was my conclusion, except for the coverage in his native land. Save for
the Guyana Chronicle, there were no editorials. Few provided page 1 coverage, mainly
blurbs based on extra-regional reporting.
Others made use on inside pages of an article circulated by the Caribbean Media
Corporation (CMC) highlighting comments by George Lamming, probably the most
political of our English-speaking Caribbean novelists.
In its editorial: "A well-deserved honour for an oracle of our time", the Guyana
Chronicle said that the announcement of the award of the Nobel Prize to V.S. Naipaul 'is
probably the best news disseminated in the Caribbean over the last few months...
And from a Guyana-born West Indian columnist living in London came an
e.mafl note to me stating:
What delightful news for Naipaul and the Caribbean.
I doubt, however, there would be in the region the
usual euphoria. What makes it worse, he did not
mention the Caribbean in his statement today (Octo-
ber 13) This will be used against him with justifica-
tion. 'Whatever one may think of some of his views
and his frank expression of them, he remains the
leading Caribbean literary figure.
Consistent in an arrogance some find rather repulsive, Naipaul, frequently hailed
as a "British author born in Trinidad and Tobago", had no mention of his native country
in welcoming his elevation to Nobel Laureate status. In a brief statement by his
publishing agency in Britain he said: 'It is a great tribute to both England, my home, and
to India, home of my ancestors".
The Trinidad and Tobago he left for England at the age of 18 and that gave him
its highest national honour, the Trinity Cross, was poignantly ignored and, of course, no
reference to the Caribbean where, like other authors of the region, he is lionised by many.
Yet, for all his aversion to the West Indies, as noted by the literary critic Derek
Bowe, Naipaul is deeply indebted to it, since the mass of his writings revolves around the
For Lamming, another internationally renowned literary icon of the Caribbean
region, the Nobel Prize was long in coming for the 69-year-old Naipaul. It should have
happened over ten years ago.
Perhaps, as Lamming said, even before the deserving Derek Walcott who
became the first West Indian to be 'crowned' with the Nobel Prize For Literature in 1992.
Naipaul was first nominated for the Nobel Prize 20 years before. Now it is
finally a reality after years of efforts by the prolific writer's own contingent of strong
lobbyists and when, as he was to admit on learning the good news, he had given up hope
of ever being awarded the internationally coveted prize.
The joyful celebration of this pinnacle achievement by this son of Trinidad and
Tobago, over whom there has long been a love-hate relationship, is shared by the diverse
peoples of the Caribbean.
There is not the euphoria evident when Derek Walcott first won this prize to
become the second Nobel Laureate of the Caribbean in 13 years the first being the
legendary Arthur Lewis in Economics.
Nevertheless, there is unmistakable joy for a Trinidad and Tobago product that
the Caribbean as a whole has offered the world. Yes, this very region from which that
Naipaulian perversity felt 'nothing was created' (see his 1962 The Middle Passage).
Rex Nettleford, that very articulate exponent of West Indian culture, said to me
in a telephone conversation on Friday from the St Augustine Campus of the University of
the West Indies:
I have never taken Naipaul seriously on his oft
quoted view that we in the Caribbean have created
nothing. By a strange bit of irony he is, of course,
one of our proud creations.
But acting in his capacity as Vice Chancellor of the UWI, Nettleford despatched
a letter on that same day addressed, fondly to 'My dear Sir Vidia:
I write on behalf of the fellowship of the University of
the West Indies to extend sincere congratulations to
you on the Nobel Prize for Literature which the
Academy of Stockholm has made for your: 'having
united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny
in works that compel us to see the presence of sup-
'The University,' Nettleford said:
takes particular pride in having recognized such at-
tributes of the Naipaul creative intellect and imagina-
tion in its early award of a Doctorate honors causa
and we now join with all West Indians and the rest of
the world in celebrating this magnificent, if somewhat
belated recognition of one of the Planet's great writ-
I am among the avid readers of Naipaul's books, one who is also aware of the
controversies; the raw anger his writings have also provoked among writers and commen-
tators in Africa, India and Islamic states.
I happened to be in Port-of-Spain when Eric Williams, the historian and author
of Capitalism and Slavery, launched a blistering attack on Naipaul's An Area of Darkness
(published in 1964) as a woeful denigration of India.
It made no difference to the celebrated author of the seminal work, A House For
Mr. Biswas, viewed by Lamming as perhaps his most profound contribution.
Naipaul has always seemed impervious to criticisms from any quarter. His
critics in the Caribbean, though forgivng, find it difficult to ignore the contempt he has
often shown for this region in his writings. Professor Ken Ramchand of the UWI, author
of The West Indian Novel And Its Background, in praising NaiPaul noted that:
In Naipaul's 40 years of dedication to his 'craft and
calling', he has been constantly forcing us to question
our values and beliefs, someone who is able to shatter
our complacencies and make us abandon many of our
Perhaps those in Africa and India angered over his caustic views about the
"backward races', may not be so understanding,
But now the Caribbean, which Naipaul had so rudely claimed back in his Middle
Passage of 39 years ago, 'that nothing was created in the West Indies', has produced three
Nobel Laureates in 22 years between 1979 and 2001 Arthur Lewis, Derek Walcott and
Sir Vidia Naipaul.
The late William Demas, that towering Caribbean icon, who had so often
pointed to the very impressive intellectual capital of this comparatively small Third World
region of poor and developing states, would have been pleased to know that a fellow
Trinity Cross recipient is the newest Nobel Laureate.
Reproduced from, The Daily Nation, Wednesday, October 17, 2001 p.31A
6 Sir Vidia's Shadows*
V.S. Naipaul has won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, long after the
Academy seemed to have passed him over for good. Now, the Caribbean will have to
revisit the bitter, contrarian qualities at the heart of his great talent, to make up its mind
about his mean-spirited description of the region (a white man's nigger (always) looking
down says the literary critic Edward Said); to decide whether to celebrate or mark him
down as a turncoat who now speaks of England and India as his homes.
His ability is beyond question. From the very start Naipaul sounded like a major
writer. His early comic novels and the remarkable A House for Mr. Biswas remains at
the very front of our literature. Later travelogues, novelistic memoirs, essays, historical
and cultural analyses, although not dealing directly with the Caribbean, can often be read
as extensions of his thesis that nothing was created in the West Indies. In Reading and
Writing: A Personal Account he says, "As a child trying to read, I had felt that two worlds
separated me from the books that were offered to me at school and in the libraries; the
childhood world of our remembered India, and the more colonial world of our city What
I didn't know, even after I had written my early books of fiction, concerned only with
story and people and getting to the end and mounting the jokes well, was that these two
spheres of darkness had become my subject." In The Enigma of Arrival, he speaks of the
colonial smallness (of Trinidad) that didn't "consort with the grandeur of my ambition"
After 'Biswas', and his establishment as a serious writer in England, everywhere he went
he found internalised colonialism, darkness, emptiness, and stupidity
What can and has been questioned is his claim to the cultural high ground, his
deliverance from this darkness. "Here is a man," wrote the novelist Caryl Phillips "who
can visit the Ivory Coast, or Iran, or Pakistan, or his native Trinidad, and make the most
outlandish, racist, unscholarly and inaccurate statements, in books and interviews, and
still be taken seriously. A man whose literary fame has allowed him to get away with a
great deal of shameful nonsense. One example will suffice: when Elizabeth Hardwick of
The New York Review of Books asked him about the dot on the forehead of Indian women,
Naipaul replied, 'the dot means: my head is empty.' "
For the Caribbean, the early novels and especially 'Biswas' are Naipaul's most
rewarding works, for they show his considerable gifts as a storyteller: a whole cast of
finely drawn characters, their pretensions and foibles depicted with a graceful humour
and sympathy. Nobody has written more vividly about the region since. What makes
these early works so charming is that Naipaul withholds much of the later condescension,
he allows his characters of life outside of his dystopic worldview.
Success, particularly in England, changed this, to the point where if we can
believe his backstabbing former friend Paul Theroux Naipaul became one of his own
changeling colonials and genuinely began to think of his background as a nightmare from
which he had heroically awoken; dressing, speaking and behaving as though he were a
minor aristocrat. If you are from Trinidad you want to get away, he told Vanity Fair
magazine in 1987, "You can't write if you are from the bush. Long gone the young
Vidia who had written, at the end of his first term a University College Oxford, I have
got to show these people that I can beat them at their own language" Well, he has beaten
them and he is now British; no longer from "the bush. His reinvention is complete.
And yet, for all the negative things one wants to say about Naipaul, it is
impossible to live in the Caribbean without acknowledging the truth of many of his
observations, even some of the bitterest. It is this doubleness that makes him so
interesting and relevant; he has dared to say, arrogantly, flippantly and offensively
several home truths that West Indians spend a lifetime suppressing in themselves. Much
of his impishness has been our self-contempt set free. For more than two decades he has
been the dominant voice in West Indian prose, the man to refute, but apart from Derek
Walcott, no Caribbean writer has developed a voice strong enough to Sir Vidia's gloom.
His prose has outlasted his critics; his offences have been forgotten. Let us hope, as we
grudgingly toast his Nobel prize, that our next Naipaul will not feel so estranged, will not
need the comforts of elsewhere so badly, will capture more of our humanity and be less
selfish with his own.
Published with permission from Editorial, Staebroek News, 25/10/2001,
Two weeks after V S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature,
Stabroek News (SN) finally, in its own words grudgingly toast(ed) his accolade. (SN
10-25-01). Even then, the editorial was so snide, sneering and snickering that it was
more of a roasting than a toasting from its caption. SN set the tone by pluralizing the title
of the backstabbing (SN's word) Paul Theroux's petulant Oedipal outburst, signalling that
it has similar unresolved complexes about Naipaul. SN's Sir Vidia's Shadows slyly
insinuates dark, hidden, malfeasances to Naipaul's supposed pretentiousness and vanity
even though Naipaul does not use the 'Sir' and his life has literally been an open book.
Reinvention and the Bush
SN's selective negative quotations do no credit either to the facts or to the
extremely more nuanced reactions, which Naipaul has provoked, from even Caribbean
intellectuals. For instance, SN takes a boast from the brash, young Naipaul at Oxford
who vowed to beat them (the British) and juxtaposes it with a much later statement that
refers to Trinidad as 'the bush' and concludes, ipso facto, that the mature Naipaul is a
turncoat who has reinvented himself as British. This is a simplistic and dishonest
argument. Firstly, Naipaul, in those same series of early letters from Oxford had already
expressed his disappointment at the colonial sterility of Trinidad: 'I never realized before
that the Trinidad Guardian was so badly written, that our Trinidad worthies were so
absurd' Secondly Naipaul has also very clearly explained what he means by 'the bush'
which he applied to huge swathes of the world, not just Trinidad not just mere
unsophistication but the breakdown of institutions, of the contact between man and man.
It is theft, corruption, racist incitement. Arent we still "bush" in Trinidad, or Guyana for
that matter? Thirdly, since Naipaul's entire corpus of work includes facts from his own
life, especially as they touch on the question of identity, it is quite vulgar to reduce
conclusions on his choice of identity ( and Naipaul holds that it should be a choice for all
of us) on innuendoes of Trinidad's being "hick'
So what is the significance of Naipaul omitting Trinidad from sharing the
accolade of the Nobel with "England, my home and India, the home of my ancestors"?
After all, Naipaul has always defined himself as a Trinidadian of Indian origin living in
England. But that formulation on identity inevitably creates its own ambiguities which
need to be clarified. Nalpaul saw himself triply alienated once from the world of the
metropole presented in books (England) and then from the childhood world of our
remembered India and the more colonial world of our city two spheres of darkness. While
Naipaul shies away from jargon, his formulation rejects any easy essentialism and
compels a search for "self a discovery not a reinvention One isn't born ones self One
is born with a mass of expectations, a mass of other people's ideas and you have to work
through it all. In his, and our, case, to be born in a colonial setting makes 'working it
through' quite a struggle since most of the institutions of the society and the state are
geared towards shaping us in the vision of the old colonial expectations.
Working through the bondage of colonialism meant that one must first recognize
the hypocrisy and falseness of the colonial order. But, he warns, we cannot succumb only
to blame; we must also examine. Through a critical examination of one's past... we begin
the process of discovery of one's self and uncover the psychic damage of historical
upheaval but we should feel no nostalgia for the miserable security of the old ways.
Naipaul commends Koestler's aphorism: 'Men can add to their knowledge, but they
cannot subtract' One may, during the search, become disoriented by the overwhelming
feeling of alienation, homelessness, the burdens of the past and the confusions of the post
colonial chaos. As objectively as we can, we have to remove our areas of darkness and
locate some centre: not necessarily to sterilely glorify our past or seek the camouflage of
some larger cultural entity through mimicry, which appear to be the endemic response of
third world leaders in general, and the Caribbean in particular. From very early boyhood
Naipaul dedicated himself to be a writer and conducted his search for self and identity
through the practice of his craft. As he blended autobiography with social enquiry, to
create a new genre, he returned again and again to the theme of the alienated outsider
dealing with the complexities of identity in the modem world by exploring the strands of
identity. In 1990 he visited Trinidad (and Guyana), doing a lot of returns, summing up
journeys for the emotion and for the feeling of completeness. It resulted in A Way in the
World which, he confirmed was, 'a settling of accounts for me, with myself.' A year ago,
Naipaul pointed out that:
although I come from the Caribbean Trinidad, I'm
of Indian origin, and the Indian experience has always
been interesting to me and necessary for me to ex-
plore and come to terms with. My interest begins
with my community and my place of birth. My
community commits me to an exploration of India
and the Islamic world. My place of birth commits me
to an understanding of the New World, the Spanish
invasion, slavery, revolution in the New World. It
also commits me to an attempt to understand Africa.
He can in no way be said to have "disowned" Trinidad; his statement suggests
that he has come to grips with the metropole the enigma of arrival it's his home from
where he can write, and has possibly cleared up one of his areas of darkness, India. It is
apparent that he now feels that India is on its way to creating a coherent response to its
past. He is simply telling us that he still has to work through his more colonial Trinidad
past; his last area of darkness "the nature of your society conditions the kind of writing
you can do about it." For Naipaul, a writer, Trinidad (read "Caribbean") is still a society
in which he cannot practice his craft, and uncover his "self It is still "the bush" While
this truth may be unpalatable to many of the region's intellectuals, it is also the truth of
many of the Indians in the Caribbean who are given to even a minimum of self-reflection.
What is the reality for Indian- Caribbean writers?
Most Afro-Caribbean intellectuals, and the few Westerners having an interest in
the region, define the identity of the Caribbean Man as being constituted during the slave
encounter between Europe and Africa. While not everyone may be as blunt as Professor
Rex Nettleford to assert that groups such as Indians will have to blend into the Afro-Euro
Creole culture, purported "kinder" visions such as the vaunted hybridityy' of Derek
Walcott does not imply anything else for them. The quest for identity, of course is not
unrelated to the question of power in these societies.
When Caribbean intellectuals, such as Derek Walcott, accuse Naipaul of Negro-
phobia it highlights the dilemma arising out of his commitment to tell the truth as he
discovers it, but not being permitted to because he is not African. His motives are
automatically suspect. There is the attitude Naipaul says 'that you must never say unkind
things about Africa. The result is that it is sinking into famine and civil wars' The same
can be said for Guyana, where recently an Indian-Guyanese immigrant to the US was
criticised for revealing, on the Oprah Winfrey Show, conditions during the Burnham
dictatorship. Naipaul simply refuses to be patronizing and paternalistic and evaluate third
world citizens by a different yardstick than the developed countries. He is constantly
challenging us to go beyond the excuses and evasions and perform at the level or beyond,
that of the departed or neo-colonials. It's not a race thing as some like Caryl Phillips
complain, since Naipaul has criticized the white Argentineans who blithely pretended they
were still 'European' but also created no autochthonous culture and have paid the price.
White man's nigger
Edward Said's nasty characterization of Naipaul as a "White man's nigger"
betrays his reading of imperialism and colonialism as an encounter only between the West
and the "colonized natives" While he concedes that the West is differentiated by culture,
religion, region etc., he mimes the Imperial predilection of lumping all natives within a
colony, into one mass possibly distinguished by their amenability to the colonial order.
Said easily defines himself as "an Arab and an American" since even as a colonized
Protestant in the Lebanon of his childhood, he was still "an Arab" The situation is
entirely different for Naipaul and the Indians in the Caribbean who were brought and
thrown into a society of different races and cultures. The Indians' Caribbean colonial
experience were as such not limited and conditioned only by their interactions with the
British, but with the other groups brought into the region, especially with the Africans,
who saw the Indians as undermining their bargaining position after emancipation. Said
does not seem to fully appreciate that part of the interrogation of the post-colonial
condition might demand an examination of the encounters of the colonized peoples
amongst themselves. It smacks of racism to conclude that Naipaul, in his search for
self-understanding, would explore the milieu of the peoples of his "community" the
Hindu, the Muslim, the African etc.- on behalf of, or to please, the "White man"
Naipaul has said flatly, "It wouldn't be worth my while to write about people if I were
not sympathetic to them. None of the Caribbean intellectuals, who are given the
"cultural high ground" by SN, have had the moral vision, courage or fortitude to emulate
Naipaul's lead to explore the histories, lives, geography etc, of the other peoples in "our
community" in their own search for "identity" and "authenticity" In fact many of these
intellectuals eagerly adopted rhetoric honed from the African-American experience and
declared the world was divided into "Black vs. White", and were taken aback when their
reductionist ontology did not resonate amongst Indians in the Caribbean. Isn't it the
diffusion of the "Black vs. White" dichotomous-world paradigm that compels the
conclusion that Naipaul must be pandering to the "White man"- that he must be a
"turncoat" for announcing England is his home and allows him to write; for accepting that
we may have absorbed some useful civilisational concepts from the West and for exposing
our dirty laundry to "them"? Our reality, and the world, Naipaul advises, are a bit more
complex than that.
Naipaul's vision for the Caribbean
When SN accepts that it is impossible to live in the Caribbean without acknow-
ledging the truth of Naipaul's observations, even some of the bitterest, but yet skewers
him, it would appear that SN would rather have blind, romantic, feel-good, politically-
correct platitudes rather than Naipaul's unsparing truths, bleak as they may be. Why is
it wrong to be critical of people who know how to use a telephone but can neither fix nor
invent one and do not care? Isn't it possibly racist, and certainly paternalistic, to imply
that Caribbean people can't take the 'truth'? How are we ever to get past our colonial
neuroses, which are bemoaned even by our cvilizing intellectuals? Even if Naipaul is 'the
man to refute' why limit our refutation to rhetoric, even as refined as that of Derek
Walcott's. Aren't we fulfilling Naipaul's observation that the Caribbean man is just a
'talk man' with grandiose airy-fairy plans but no truly creative action?
Naipaul is not consumed by bitterness, as SN would have it, but because he cares
deeply about what he writes, he accepts that he works) with very strong emotions.
Anger is one such "strong emotion" Anger at parasitism, intellectual dishonesty, and
exaggerated chauvinism. People who don't pay tribute to freedom which they enjoy; they
take them for granted. Anger at those leaders and intellectuals who take the easy way out
and remain fixated at simply criticizing 'imperialism'and 'colonialism' but do not have
the resilience and discipline to rise above their debilitating prejudices, dogmas and
posturing to create coherent, alternative new values, institutions and societies to replace
the 'colonial' ones derided, torn asunder but yet retained. They create an illusion of
freedom: such a stance is ultimately nihilistic self-immolation rather than the self-eman-
cipation which Naipaul advocates. This sterility and nihilism is the lack of creation for
which Naipaul has criticized the Caribbean and which has irked so many here.
One trenchant criticism by Naipaul of our colonial condition is that we accept the
picturesque image in which the colonial would wish to box us in; Naipaul has very little
patience with both those who perpetuate, and those who accept, this "trivialising
condition" To continue to live the 'bongo-man' fantasy for the benefit of European
tourists is certainly not 'to create' or gain their respect. On the outrageous answer that
Naipaul gave to Elizabeth Hardwick's question as to what does the dot on the Indian
woman's forehead signify, ("My head is empty!"). What else do you tell someone who
is supposed to be a serious novelist, spent months in India, has written a book on "Women
and Literature" and still trivializes the Indian woman as an exotic "dot" that Naipaul is
supposed to explain. On the other hand, Naipaul would have been considered "gauche"
and "provincial" if he had asked Hardwick why men wore cummerbunds on some formal
occasion. For us to be taken seriously, we must first take ourselves seriously. If we
really want to make our societies complete we must integrate all the various strands with
which we let find ourselves us. Naipaul exhorts us to heed the Ortega y Gasset
meditation on what.it takes to keep a country together:
People don't live together just like that; that kind of
cohesion exists only within a family. The groups
who make up a state live together for a purpose.
They are a community of projects, desires, big under-
takings. They don't come together simply to be
together, but in order to do something tomorrow.
Knowing a Deeper Shade
V.S.Naipaul... An Appreciation
When I was nineteen I was assigned A House For Mr. by V.S. Nalpaul as
required reading on my university curriculum in the English Department of the University
of the West Indies. I had only ever read Shakespeare, the Romantics, the Austen books,-
Wuthering Heights though I knew every nuance of Jamaica's Blue Mountains by
heart, I was only taught the voices of the Lake District and the Yorkshire Moors.
And then I read A House For Mr. Biswas. Although I was from Jamaica, not
Naipaul's island, the Republic Of Trinidad and Tobago, I knew the people in Mr.
Biswas' World, I knew the characters on Miguel Street. I knew the small-fisted clutch
of social meanness British Colonial snobbery engenders in us. I knew the despair of lost
cultures that hunker down in secret and the vanity of trying to compete in a world that will
never belong to us. I knew the interminable hours and parts that attended the mechanic as
he sought to stop the tappets from knocking, to make a smoother ride, a better car, by
assembling and reassembling the second hand and third hand, mashed-up and obsolete
transport that was his karma.
I knew the vanity of thinking, the futility of serious conversation, the narrow-
ness of verandahs and the inaccessibility of horizons. I felt the fragility of hope and the
imitative instinct of insecurity, the self-treachery of religion, and so I understood Biswas
having flabby calves.
When I heard over the years that Naipaul was not always universally accepted as
a prophet or poet or master painter in his own land, or in the lands of the Caribbean, I
knew that he had done his job. If the scale weighs too heavy or the mirror ages, we do
not always forgive. We do not easily forgive the language that reflects, for that is the coin
of privilege. Whilst all the time seeking some nebulous idea of self worth through
political independence, we still would rather be patronized and humoured like small
children, lauded for the cuteness of our primitivism instead of chastened for a lack of
perspective. Naipaul never did this.
He handed us a mirror and invited us to look.
When Paul Theroux, after years of sycophantic pandering, was finally snubbed
by his reluctant mentor who had had enough, he snarled at his rejection in a tell-all book.
I read an extract, and Naipaul made me brim with pride. Not just because writers are
better writers if they don't bother to be "nice people", but because once again I saw the
West Indian tall and strong, cussedly refusing compromise or patronage, just an angry
poet of life doing what those fine traits of honesty, anger and poetry, do best.
And once again I discovered through V S. Naipaul and who he was, a deeper
shade of who I am myself.
And I am not surprised to see that the Swedish Academy has recognized V.S.
Naipaul for the giant that he is before we as a region have recognized ourselves.
War is at My Black Skin*
It is wholly appropriate that Sir Vidia Naipaul should have been awarded this year's
Nobel prize for literature. Sir Vidia, a most eloquent and gifted writer, has been a fountain of
joy for those who believe that the end of history has sanctified capitalism and the Mid-atlantic
way of life.
Naipaul has been at pains for four decades, to explain away the White Man's Burden.
He has made it his mission to explain to the Anglo Saxon world the painful deficiencies of the
lesser breeds, so granting absolution to those who may have felt guilt about mistreating the
masses of humanity without laws.
My only meeting with Naipaul was 42 years ago, around the time of Jamaica's
independence, when he was writing the Middle Passage. I helped shepherd him around
Kingston, and, unwisely as it turns out, was responsible for inviting him to a party in Trafalgar
Park. There a furious argument broke out between two of my friends. Parbosingh the painter,
and Basil Keane the dentist. This row was later immortalized in The Middle Passage, as one
example of the Congolese Behaviour that Naipaul found so acutely distressing.
The use of the term Congolese behaviour was a giveaway. It was not only a
deliberate insult to Jamaicans, but to the Congolese, whose prime minister Patrice Lumumba,
had recently been murdered by the Belgians on behalf of the Americans. It was the kind of
express malice which is Naipaul's signature in his dealings with his ex-compatriots in the
Naipaul is, as far as I am concerned a lifeless robot with a second hand soul.
*Reproduced with permission of the author from "Common Sense" The Sunday Observer,
Jamaica, 28-10-01, p.9
Nobel Laureate: V.S. Naipaul
Can't Live With Him Can't Live Without Him*
The Nobel compass tends to trace a slow arc from country to country and from
region to region, such that the prize in literature seldom falls to any one nationality more
often than once in a generation. The Caribbean's last laureate in literature was Derek
Walcott, in 1992, which makes it unclear whether this year's laureate, novelist and travel
writer VS. Naipaul, has cornered the supply for Trinidad, where he was born, or for the
India of his ancestry or for England, where he has lived for all his adult life. There's a
case to be made in each regard, and while Trinidad holds the earliest patent on him, the
announcement of his laureacy was celebrated on both islands concerned (three, counting
Tobago), as well as on the subcontinent. Although, not entirely. However the issue of
his nationality plays out, it's fairly certain that Naipaul holds the laureate for his
generation in another, more transnational sense: Of all the abrasive grouches in the world,
it's been a long time since one of Naipaul's displacement has been winched onto the
Nobel podium and it stands to be a long time before we see another.
The Indian Express called the newly laureated Naipaul "the greatest living writer
of English prose" a distinction for which a pretty good case can be made. Naipaul is an
exquisite stylist, and is devoutly read wherever high standards of English prose obtain,
and also sometimes in America. His books are crisp and nuanced, sharp and polychro-
matic, and their influence is as widespread as it is well-founded: Naipaul is the world's
most eminent and persistent critic of the often dirty, noisy, ill-governed places on the
globe where poor, dark; skinned people live: the Indian subcontinent, Africa, the West
Indies and so on and not exempting America South of the Mason-Dixon line. He's
probably the world's most eloquent champion of Western civilization, specifically British
civilization, as a palliative against the turmoil of the global South, on which he writes
incisively and sympathetically, but (and this is where the trouble starts) whose citizens he
hasn't hesitated to call by such epithets as "monkey" and 'Mr. Woggy. According to
Derek Walcott, 'Naipaul does not like Negroes." Nor Muslims. In his 1998 book,
Beyond Belief Excursions Among the Converted Peoples, Naipaul calls Islam "the most
uncompromising kind of imperialism. Naipaul believes that Islam produces countries
and peoples divorced from history, with no past beyond their Islamic past, no matter how
recently forged, and with only the vaguest idea of the future countries and peoples with
"an element of neurosis and nihilism," which can be easily set on the boil. Whether his
points bear merit or not (the Islamic world is a large and varied one, and Middle East
experts such as Edward Said find in Naipaul himself a certain element of neurosis and
nihilism), it's certainly the case that if you were to tally the people who offend Naipaul,
and whom he has in turn offended not only blacks and Muslims, but also Hindus, the
English, various other Europeans, fellow novelists, Trinidad in particular, journalists,
Latin America, virtually the entire African Continent you'd find most of the world on
the list. Naipaul's assaults on other writers are legendary: E.M. Forster, author of A
Passage to India, is in his accounting an "odious fraud. His comments on African
novelists have suggested that they bang out their books on drums. A long friendship with
travel writer Paul Theroux detonated recently, leaving a biting expose, Theroux's Sir
Vidia's Shadow, as its legacy. Naipaul has said that Gandhi was shallow, and that Trinis
have no inner life. Why then, is Naipaul so loved in the Indies, both West and East?
Perhaps it's because he's rarely in the room to distract from the merits of his books.
Naipaul was born In 1932 to a Brahman family in Port of Spain, Trinidad. His
father was a local journalist and a writer of short stories, and his ambitions helped send
the younger Naipaul to Oxford in 1950. Upon getting his degree, the young Naipaul
freelanced for a time and worked as a commentator for the BBC, and made his first
literary stake as a novelist. 1957's The Mystic Masseur and the following year The
Suffrage of Elvira were fairly ordinary British novels, and garnered better reviews than
But in 1961, with A House for Mr. Biswas, Naipaul's gaze turned homeward, to
Trinidad, and his style began to coalesce. The title character was based on Naipaul's
father a Trinidadian Brahman who wanted to exempt himself from the strictures of his
religion culture. Mr. Biswas passes his life caught a web of social obligations and
unmoored to any particular job, striving for a house and a status of his own. His son is
a writer set free from the overwhelming obligations his father endured, and launched into
the world as his father's proxy. Despite the novel's sharp comedy, It's a story that should
be familiar to anyone freighted with their parents' unrealized ambitions, or set free to rise
by their sacrifices: It was a story with resonance in the emerging Caribbean of the early
'60s, and the still-fledgling nation of India. Mr. Biswas established Naipaul as a serious
writer, and is considered his fiction masterpiece, subsequent novels eleven in all- have
tended to confirm his self-assessment: "I am the kind of writer that people think other
people are reading," although In a Free State won the prestigious Booker Prize 1971, and
others have won other awards throughout the years.
Naipaul's eminence comes, however, not so much from his novels, but from
powerful nonfiction. Despite being the world's biggest goad, he's also, and not seldom,
its greatest champion. His biliousness over its people and prospects comes, it seems,
largely from disappointment from the fact that he expects more from them than politics
and the legacy of colonialism can provide. 1962's The Middle Passage kept his lens
trained on the West Indies, giving an ambivalent, yet prescient picture of region and
firming his reputation there. An Area of Darkness, in 1964, was the first of several books
on India followed in 1977 by India A Wounded Civilization. They were ungentle books,
meticulously written steeped in foreboding. Naipaul saw the country as courting ruin in
attempting a halfway sort of civilization, one with a Western veneer overlaying a core of
World disorder. The India he described was one that an Indian would recognize as his
own, but seen with a sensibility farther toward India's ambitions at the time than India
itself could attain which won him if not every heart it came in contact with then, much
respect. Beginning in 1979, Naipaul turned toward Africa, with the novel, A Bend in the
River, 1980's A Congo Diary and parts of The Return of Eva Peron, an essay collection
from the same year.
His conclusions were similar, only more doleful. In 1981, "Among the Believ-
ers: An Islamic Journey" brought the Muslim world under his pen a project repeated with
1988's Beyond Belief. All are masterpieces of unsparing reportage, fairly and humanely
drawn, but steeped in dark prophecy. Naipaul's American masterpiece a Turn in the
South, 1989, penetrates the Mason-Dixon line a more foreign (if a more immediately
familiar) culture to Naipaul than even Africa's. India: A Million Mutinies Now, returns
to the subcontinent somewhat less dolefully than before. Naipaul recounts the stories of
ordinary India and, concluding that although religion, caste, and tradition in short,
culture are on the wane, there is nonetheless "In India now what didn't exist 200 years
before: a central intellect, a national idea.
The contradictions in Naipaul himself, however, have only increased with time.
For all that he despises colonialism and its after effects, in his maturity he's the Laureate
most like Rudyard Kipling in aspect and conviction a vaguely walrus-like figure with
vaguely bull-doggy mien, waist-coated and Eton-accented, and epicene of gesture through
long and comfortable acquaintance with celebrity- a grumbling blunderbuss of a man, a
bit florid around the edges. On this, Kipling and Naipaul would agree: The darker
Peoples of the globe are noble and ignoble, storied and obscure, sand-striding or jungled,
mannered or wild, and of various degree and character, but all are equally civilization's
charges our burden to carry as we carry the Prometheus torch. Let them prosper, yet
let them always remember under whose light prosperity reigns. That was a tricky
proposition even in Kipling's day. It is, as well a proposition to make a Trinidadian
Hindu come off like one of those over-ardent West Indian cricket players -the kind with
the too-white uniforms who are always showing up the home teams by playing harder
than you're really supposed to. And the chief difference between Naipaul and Kipling
need hardly be stated: In Kipling's day, and no matter which man was the better, Naipaul
would have been the man carrying the water jugs. If that is a sign against certain dark
imprecations on the future of the global South, then all the more reason to celebrate the
election of V.S. Naipaul, brilliant writer and epic weapons-grade grouch, to the Nobel.
Reproduced, with permission from Skywritings, January February, 2002, Air
Jamaica's In Flight Magazine.
A Place for Naipaul*
Now that he has the Nobel Prize for Literature, V.S. Naipaul has won nearly
every major literary honour there is. The other main prizes among several are the
Somerset Maugham Award in 1959 for Miguel Street, the Booker Prize in 1971 for In a
Free State and, in 1993, the first David Cohen British Literature Prize for 'lifetime
achievement by a living British writer"
Though he may not mind being known as a British writer, Naipaul regards
himself as a man with no place. And he definitely abhors being called a West Indian
writer. He once withdrew a book from a publisher when he saw himself so described in
their catalogue. In an initial response to the news that he had won the Nobel, he said he
was grateful for England and the sub-continent of his ancestors.
Diana Athill vwho was Naipaul's editor for his first 18 books, writes of him in
...I had no conception of how someone who feels he
does not belong to his 'home' and cannot belong
anywhere else is forced to exist only in himself; nor
how exhausting and precarious such a condition
(blithely seen by the young and ignorant as desirable)
can be. Vidia's self his very being -was his writing:
a great gift, but all he had No wonder that while he
was still finding his way into his writing he was in
danger; and how extraordinary that he could never-
theless strike an outsider as a solidly impressive man.
Naipaul's reputation for misanthropy is well-known, and Paul Theroux's devas-
tating portrait of him in In Sir Vidia's Shadow, confirms some of Naipaul's more
obnoxious traits. That he has charm, however, there is no doubt: one can hardly be a
good travel writer without being able to get along with people. Athill remarks that she
enjoyed his company because "he talked well about writing and people, and was often
funny" In a 1994 interview, New York Times writer Mel Gussow describes Naipaul as
having "a most expansive personality and a comic sense of proportion" When he came
to Trinidad in March 1990 to receive the Trinity Cross, he was gracious to everyone and
spoke readily to the media about his work.
But Naipaul, whatever else he may be, is a complex and contradictory character.
In a 1992 lecture in Trinidad. arranged by the Beryl McBurnie Foundation, he said, "In
my last book, I've taken it as far as I can take it. I've come, to the end." He has also
declared several times in the past decade that the novel is dead. Nonetheless, he has
continued writing and, this year, even published a novel called Halfa Life.
The Nobel Committee's press release, which cites The Mystic Masseur, Miguel
Street, A House for Mr. Biswas. The Enigma of Arrival, The Loss of el Dorado and
Beyond Belief, states, "Fictional narratives, autobiography and documentaries have
merged in Naipaul's writing without it always possible to say which element dominates."
And notes that "Naipaul has drawn attention to the novels lack of universality as form,
that it presupposes ,an inviolate human world the kind that has been shattered for
conquered peoples. In the Gussow interview, speaking about A Way of the World he
remarks on the "arbitrary divisions" between history, scholarship and fiction and says the
book was called a novel at the publisher's request.
Though he has written the same number of novels as nonfiction works, the
impression is that he really won the prize for using novelistic techniques to write
non-fiction. The AP news report about the award is headlined 'VS.. Naipaul wins Nobel
in literature for post-colonial writing about India, Africa. It is worth noting, in this
context, that seven of his 12 novels are set in Trinidad, while only two of his non-fiction
works, The Loss of Dorado and The Middle Passage deal with his birthplace.
It is, in fact, those two books which have caused Naipaul to be bad-talked in
Trinidad by many academics and literary people. But a careful reading of the Trinidad
essay in The Middle Passage shows that Naipaul was critical mostly of the society's l6ite
and their habit of mimicking the metropole. As for The Loss of El Dorado, Athill has a
telling comment from a visit to Trinidad in 1969, when the book was published
"Everyone I met, including the Prime-Minister Eric Williams and the poet Derek
Walcott, had talked about it in a disparaging way, and had betrayed as they did so that
they had not read it"
Of his own literary reputation, Naipaul once remarked that he was "the kind of
author people feel other people are reading" Penguin keeps many of his books in print
and reportedly gives him huge advances which, given his small sales, they know they'll
never make back. The Nobel Prize confirms their perspicacity: even as prestigious a firm
as Penguin can stand having a Nobel Laureate on their list.
* Reproduced with permission, "Tribute to Sir Vidia Naipaul", The Trinidad Express,
October 12, 2001
Scientist as Well as Artist*
I am surprised Frank Abdullah recalls Vidia Naipaul at Queens Royal College
(QRC) as a student who came and went. My recollection of him is as a celebrity even
then. One hard put not to hold court, wherever he happened to be.
I have a clear picture of my first encounter sometime in 1948. It was during the
last minute before the mid-day resumption. I'd sneaked upstairs from Third to Sixth
Form. Not the done thing. Ours was the class of 1946. It inhabited a room on the ground
floor in the Main Block under the clock. If you exited by East North East you are on your
way. Once up pass the den to your left where the specialists in Maths, Physics and
Chemistry performed their sundry mysteries.
To the right lay the home of the humanities. Latin, French, and Spanish were
not always on their own as a scholarship specialization. Students had also to distinguish
themselves in English Language, Literature and History, European and English.
In that year, the famous name was Demas, then waiting to go off to Cambridge
and passing time teaching French downstairs to the likes of Denis Solomon, Reggie
Dumas, John Neehall and the rest of us.
That lunch break, for some reason, it seemed especially animated in heaven. It
was the first time I'd ever tiptoed up, promptly to he chased. But there I'd glimpsed him
on the balcony, in khaki shorts, Cambridge blue shirt, standing and holding court. It is
the image that lasts.
I recall an evening in 1960. Naipaul was on tour to write what became Middle
Passage. He'd been invited to lecture at the Students' Union, Mona. He arrived on the
hour. The rest of us operated Jamaica time. Refusing to indulge us he folded his tents.
"Please take me awav.
We returned to 38 College Common. A huge crowd soon turned up in my
drawing room to hear him. He held court, as only he could. As if my luck would last, I
was thrice lucky, in Port of Spain, later that year.
Lloyd Braithwaite and I were a team on mission, to help Demas with the Second
Five-Year Plan. Seven months we lived in Government quarters in Petit Valley, newly
built, on the right going up, just before Simeon Road and Sparrow's Hideaway.
It was as if God had planned a regal. For dinner, he cast Trinidad's three finest
raconteurs. My wife cooked a corker. Along with Braithwaite were James and Naipaul.
all with wives. In the company, it was hard for Naipaul to hold court but he did. I felt
twice blest. I'd paid no admission fee.
And yet I cannot say I've ever got to know him save through his oeuvre. We
crossed once or twice in London, at the BBC. Possibly in the mid-70s, I stumbled upon
him in St. Augustine. In the twilight, he was walking family north-west of campus, just
where the old train line ran south. We exchanged greetings, chatted for perhaps 15
I'm happy he's at last got the prize that puts matters right. You might be
skeptical of his human posture. No doubt about the penetration, the insight, the industry
and the craft. And the sparkle, holding court. Had he not been selected, he would have
been no less appealing. But as one ot us. I am not so sure he did not need the validation.
With that I have no quarrel. More than anyone else he has taught us the reasons.
Many think Paul Theroux' Sir Vidia's Shadow exposure, if not assassination. I
find it simply lifts the masks Naipaul has worn the better to play himself, like any other
Trinidadian. I'm happy for his family and rest of us more assured now that he's
legitimate. I congratulate Naipaul. He has created an effective context for work and
that's what is important.
His magnum opus is of course Biswas. The metaphor is powerful for a people
like us needing a native tradition and a past. Naipaul is so distressed by our loss, he
considers himself homeless. In his work, the real characters are the dislocated and the
He has become fascinated with Islam. Worse than colonialism, he thinks, it
blocked out the memory of the converts. Perhaps only to the Arabs has it conceded
dignity or ancestry. The Caribbean predicament is not very different. Particularly the
educated know little about country, culture or self.
The work that has detained my attention is Suffrage of Elvira. It is not the most
subtle or elegant. The narrative skill was only just in the making. It is a little contrived.
It is in its remarkable powers of observation and scrutiny, now his trademark, that lies
Naipaul's appeal. The novelist was 18, it was the second election on the basis of adult
First time round, in 1946 he was 14. But he discerned that the T&T public had
not yet "seen the possibilities" His theme is familiar: government from above with little
politics from below. Elections were then, and are still largely now, mostly business
opportunity. Make money by any means.
This is society not lawless but with no concept of law or responsibility. Were
not our peoples transplanted only to lose old tradition while finding new tradition almost
impossible to create? Is the problem not identity' Is it not the terror of being, with little
reference to time or to place?
It is precisely Naipaul's point that we suffer a mis-match between culture and
institutions. The irony may be that, if such a condition were truly understood, it would
carry real possibilities for an order free of monarchy, oligarchy or class. Does the
promise of the Caribbean not lie in a creole ethos, still to be forged from the sensibilities
of slaves and indentured workers. Might that not be the main chance for democracy and
Naipaul is clearly pessimistic. He has not yet seen that some of us are still
driven by that vision. For all his insight he probably does not yet realize that the first act
to create such an order is to paint the picture exactly as it is. His own contribution is that
he's refused romance. He does not pretend we're anything we pretend to be.
In Elvira, he was the first to describe the fractures as they are. Only incidental
not exclusively, are they racial. Bonding is indeed primal. We're so panicked, only the
most convenient basis, the most automatic, the most mindless, would do. In that sense
solidarity is frankly ethnic.
In Evira, the parties are Spanish, Hindu, Muslim, Negro. In Naipaul's clinical
way they invoke all of religion, colour, class and homeland as well as race. To grapple
with complexity, the treatment is simple. Naipaul adds to our self-knowledge. He
rejects ideological impositions. The political sociology he devises is founded on scientific
The hardware of our Constitution may sound like Westminster but the software
of our political culture makes a government and politics of its own kind. Novelist and
writer that he is, and artist supreme, craftsman of the prose, it is the scientist in him
which, at this precise moment has come to the fore.
*Reprinted with permission, from Trinidad and Tobago Review, Vol.23, Nos 9-10,
VS Naipaul : Native Son*
FR. HENRY CHARLES
James Joyce referred to Ireland as "the sow that eats her own farrow" As a
young writer, he fled Ireland, too narrow, too stultifying, to spend most of his life in self
imposed exile in Paris. Naipaul, similarly, left Trinidad early "escape" was his word
In The Middle Passage he wrote of awakening from sleep in England in terror
from the nightmare that he was back in "tropical Trinidad"
Trinidad was, and remained, irrelevant and unimportant, somewhere "on the
other side of the real world.
Ireland has an annual "James Joyce festival," I am told. I am not sure we're
ready to do Naipaul a similar honour, or favour. The point to be underlined, however, is
that a writer is not the best guide or interpreter of his work or his life. Joyce remained
inescapably Irish, just as Naipaul, a chauvinist of note, remains inescapably Trinidadian.
No one, not even Selvon at his best, captures the cadence and nuance of
Trinidadian speech as accurately, as dead to rights, as Naipaul. To recall some of
Naipaul's lines, especially in the early works, is to be flooded by the laughter of
In an instant one inhabits a culture. This is not simply the effect of style.
Language, as Heidegger pointed out, involves more than representation or style. It is the
instrument that "unveils" reality. It discloses where we dwell.
Naipaul's ability to occasion that disclosure is simply without peer. His assess-
ment of new world possibility, on the other hand, provokes ongoing controversy. He
leaves anger in his wake wherever he goes.
There is little doubt that Naipaul indirectly absolves the imperialist and colo-
niser, in the Caribbean, Africa, or India. At the same time, there is a truth about the
colonial experience which he has relentlessly dissected and laid bare.
It is the enormous void at the heart of it. India, Africa, and the Caribbean are
not all the same in this regard. In the former two, the end of colonialism meant some
return in those societies to (what he called) "their own internal reverences"
In the Caribbean, things were different. With colonial rule in place you had
absorption or mimicry. With rule relinquished, absorption and mimicry became forlorn
options. You lived, as Meredith put it in Guerrillas, in "a house without walls".
This, in my view. is the one thing Naipaul has said again and again and again.
The Swedish Academy praised him, among other things, for compelling us "to see the
presence of supressed histories" I am not sure this quite fits, what Naipaul compels is
the perception of absence.
It is all in the history, finally. In the Mimic Men, Ralph Singh longed to make
the deep disorder, which the great explorations the
unnatural bringing together of peoples who could
achieve fulfilment only within the security of their
own societies and the landscape hymned by their
ancestors brought about.
What Singh longed to do, of course, is what we're still trying to do, that is,
interpret history in such a way that the future becomes a horizon of expansion, not simply
the anticipation or repetition of disorder.
Order and disorder, Singh's preoccupation, as Robert Morris wrote, are key
preoccupations for Naipaul. The underlying question is, how can order be generated -
and maintained in societies that came into existence as creations of empire", or, as
Sydney Mintz put it, through "demography by fiat"?
It's a question whose existential, political, and cultural implications are still
being worked out. For Naipaul: the issue is settled.
Miguel Street (more perhaps than A House for Mr. Biswas) may be taken as the
classic existential exploration.
"A stranger could drive through Miguel Street," says the boy-narrator, "and just
say 'slum', because he could see no more. But we who lived there saw our street as a
The characters who people this world struggle valiantly against everyday chaos.
Like people everywhere, they have their projects, dreams, and hopes. The gap between
reality and aspiration, however, between actuality and possibility, proves impossible to
They get nowhere, but not because of lack of effort or desire. They are stymied
by conditions of the "street" itself. If they wanted to get somewhere, they couldn't start
Naipaul's later judgment, with cynicism and contempt added, is this judgment
deepened, writ large, and delivered with the force of an incantation.
The controlling feature is the disorder, the void, in which the society began, to
which it returned when the coloniser left. This is what determines Naipaul's outlook.
Given its terms, there is no history to unfold. Change is always illusory. Thus,
his "guerrillas" of the 70s may well have come from the 50s. They were only "playing
badjohn", and they got "licked down" Whether in the fifties or the seventies, politics,
too, is a charade. It's only "playacting", and it moves, predictably, "from playacting to
Caribbean origins and history may be looked at differently, more positively, as
other artists have done. This outlook involves more than simple affirmation, or the
philosophy of the tourist brochure. You don't get beyond Naipaul by proposing hope
cheaply. Hope worthy of the name requires a more complex statement, and more arduous
To dismiss Naipaul as lacking nationalism or patriotism is understandable. His
chauvinism can be deeply offensive. But there is more to a great writer than moral flaws.
We don't go to Naipaul to learn how to live, though we should read him to know
something of where we live. Naipaul's is a clinical diagnosis of ramifications of the
imperial experiment, through colonialism and beyond. All serious reflection, whether or
not it acknowledges him must keep coming to terms with the issues he raises.
* Reprinted with permission from Sunday Guardian, Trinidad, October 28, 2001
Naipaul: Greatness and Ungraciousness*
It was always widely believed in Trinidad that at some time in his life, Vidia
Naipaul would receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was also always widely
believed, and not only in Trinidad, that he would never receive a noble prize an award
for graciousness, gratitude or the Chaucerian gentilesse.
I first met Vidia Naipaul on Miguel Street, Presentation College, San Fernando.
I immediately related to Naipaul's characters. Later in life when one of my friends, in
the throes of unrequited love and betrayal, climbed a tree and invited us to stone him, my
respect for Naipaul as both chronicler and seer grew enormously. I felt that he really
knew his people. It is only afterwards that I recognized that while he knew us, we were
definitely not his people.
It was some time before I read The Suffrage of Elvira. It had fooled me on two
counts. Like Dickent little Philip Pirrups' infant tongue which converted his name to
Pip, my limited vocabulary converted suffrage to sufferage. Having met at least one
neighbour named Elvira, and another lady named Eltie, I assumed Elvira was a woman.
I had no great expectations that the book was anything but the travails and triteness of the
life of some woman. I stuck to Zane Grey. El Paso came before Elvira.
Then I read Elvira and it became my favourite Naipaul. The picture of the
protagonist, Harbans, clad in British finery, coat, gloves and all, reminded me of the first
time I met Tubal Uriah Buzz Butler. My grandfather, Khadaroo, a contractor, lived on
the old road to Fyzabad. All the cars passed in front of his house. One day, a shiny
chauffeur-driven car stopped and I was astonished at the sight of a bearded, black man in
the back seat wearing a hat of some furry, grey material, scissors-tail coat, white gloves,
sparklingly polished shoes and a cane. Reading Elvira brought back that memory.
Harbans and Butler are both intertwined in my mind as twin pinnacles of political parody
with life imitating and outdoing art while, in the context of today's politics and political
leaders, validating it.
I appreciated the irony of which (I am certain) Naipaul was totally unaware. He
was receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature even as Trinidad and Tobago was back in
Elvira-land once more, holding what has become our national pastime, a General
Election. Many years ago, after Naipaul took his own bend in the river and wrote the
book, I met Derek Walcott walking through the midday heat of St. Clair, knapsack on
back over a faded polo shirt, heading for the television station.
I gave him a lift and asked, "You think they will finally give Vidia the Nobel
Prize?" Walcott agreed that Bend in the River would be the clincher if the Nobel
committee needed one from Naipaul. I said facetiously, "Well you know Dr. Williams
named planes after our two big winners, Penny Commissiong (Miss Universe) and Hasely
Crawford (Olympics 100 metres), you think he will name one the Vidia Naipaul?"
Walcott responded dryly, "That will kill Vidia. To have all them black people riding up
I could not disagree. My only meeting with the man was at a conference on the
Indian Diaspora at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. In the middle of the
oil-boom, I was producing a government television series at the time called 'Issues and
Ideas' with a total budget of $2,000 annually. My boss, Caribbean joumalist-at-large,
George John, knew Naipaul and I didn't. I asked George if we could get Naipaul on our
show. George told me to ask him. I did. Naipaul's only words to me were "How much
are you going to pay me?" As it could not be more than $2,000, and Mr. Naipaul would
not accept less, the long-awaited day never arrived.
A letter-writer in the Stabroek News of Guyana, Dave Martins, attributes
Naipaul's acidity to show business. According to Martins, when Naipaul says Africa has
no future, or Trinidad's only accomplishment is drum-beating, or the dot on an Indian
woman's head means its empty, or nothing was ever created in West Indies, he is on
stage. He knows these are the things his audience will rise to, the press will carry them,
you and I repeat them. Perhaps, show-business or the naming of a plane after him, might
well cause Sir Vidia to take up the invitation of our President to visit Trinidad.
If Sir Vidia is served our local coffee, he might repeat his observation that we
produce the best coffee in the world but drink the worst. If we have a cultural show for
him, Naipaul would observe that we are the only people see culture as something that we
put on a stage (and wine to) rather than as a way of life. In light of our Election he might
modify his view that as the Third World's Third World, we camp society and see us as a
scamp society. He might do like Harbans. When Harbans had left Elvira and was in
County Caroni, he stopped the lorry and shook his small fist at dark countryside behind
him. "Elvira!" he shouted. "You is a bitch! A bitch! A bitch!"
*Reproduced by permission, The Gleaner, Jamaica, December 17, 2001 p.A4 (Tony
Deyal writes from Trinidad)
A Writer's Hero*
Sir Vidia Naipaul often has cited the influence of his father, Seepersad, on his
ambition to be a writer and on his writing. In this article I look at one of the writers who
may be considered Seepersad's mentor
In a letter dated October 10, 1950, former Guardian journalist and short story
writer, Seepersad Naipaul, begged his son, writer-to-be V(idiadhar) S(hivadhar) Naipaul
(Vido) to send him a copy of Mr Sampath, a book by Indian writer R(asipuram)
(So if you ever wondered how V.S. Naipaul's initials might have come about...)
Mr Sampath was "very favourably spoken of in The Year's Work in Literature,
1949... as the most delightful of Indian novelists writing in English," Seepersad writes
among the collection of letters published by Sir Vidia as Letters Between a Father and
Son, (Little Brown and Company, 1999).
Then, of course, Seepersad did not know similar phrases would be used to
describe his son's competency in English.
Seepersad had to remind the later-to-be Sir Vidia to get him the book twice more
(October 27, 1950 and November 27, 1950).
His opinion of Narayan, expressed in letter to "Vido" on January 19, 1951 was:
"I have read all of the Narayan short stories. They are good stories, but not dynamic."
Later he wrote:
You were right about RK Narayan. I like his short
stories, but his novel, The English Teacher is obvi-
ously immature. His English is often unEnglish, be-
traying the foreigner. Nevertheless... he has made a
go of his talent, which, in my own case, I haven't
Seepersad's haughty (or, should I say, Naipaulian) denouncement of Narayan's
"unEnglish" language may be forgiven, as he was living in a time when pretensions to
being more-colonial-than-the-colonials were the norm in Trinidad's "high society"
Inexcusable too, may be his failure to recognize it was perhaps Narayans
unEnglish use of the English language that made Narayan's writing more appealing to a
dying Empire whose golden age in literature was losing its glow.
(That awakening and recognition of the freshness of West Indian English did
not begin for the Caribbean until Samuel Selvon used West Indian dialect in his prose in
his novel The Lonely Londoners).
The exchange in "Letters", nevertheless, is indicative of the profound effect
Narayan had, not only on Seepersad, but also on writers in English in India and other
parts of the British Empire, even those like Seepersad, who would never meet him.
Narayan was one of the pioneers of Indian literature in the English, rising to
fame during the rising tide of the Indian nationalist movement of the 1930s which led to
India's independence in 1947. (Similar nationalism was sweeping other British colonies
in the Caribbean, that gave impetus to the development of a West Indian literature).
So Narayan was, by 1950 the time Seepersad was corresponding with his son in
England already a many-times published writer.
He had published Swami and His Friends in 1935; Bachelor of Arts in 1937; The
Dark Room in 1938; Mysore in 1939; The English Teacher in 1945; An Astrologer's Day,
and other stories in 1947 and Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi in 1949.
To be published so many times would have been a heroic deed in itself to young
Seepersad, descendant of an Indian in faraway Trinidad, whose yearning to be a published
author is well-documented in "Letters" The book-publishing industry in Seepersad's
far-flung appendage of empire was in a less-than-embryonic stage.
Narayan's writings about the ordinary folk of rural India also would have
touched a corresponding chord in writers like Seepersad, whose short stories were about
similar characters (vis Gurudeva, Jaimungal, Mr Sohun, Daisy) in his diasporic commu-
Even Sir Vidia, later writing about RK Narayan's work "small men, small
schemes, big talk, limited means: a life so circumscribed that it appears whole and
unviolated, its smallness never a subject of wonder" could very well have been referring
to the middle-class Trinidadian society of his father's time.
And Seepersad Naipaul shared another thing with Narayan a writing style that
was witty, perceptive, critically modified by gentle irony, that warmed the presentation
of each of his society.
Seepersad's characters those who peopled the world of his fictional "hero"
Gurudeva were the equivalent of Narayan's fictional Malgudi and its cast of characters.
Narayan used the Malgudi setting for many of his novels, as it presented an ideal
backdrop for his presentation of an insular society opening up to outside influences.
The "immature" writing of Narayan would mature in his many publications to
follow. He had remained an active writer until he died at age 95 on May 13, 2001. After
Mr Sampath, Narayan would produce 27 other works.
Narayan was a writer who constantly challenged himself (unlike Seepersad who
always seemed to be itemising the obstacles in his (SeepersadS) path.
For example, his novel Waiting for the Mahatma has been considered one of
Narayan's most ambitious works, in which one of the characters is Mahatma (Gandhi)
It is to his credit that, in this book, he succeeds in capturing the effect the historic
Mahatma had on shaking up the sleepy, unambitious, rural elements of India to follow his
"Quit India" "non-violent" doctrines, aimed at the British, while at the same time tell
what can be seen as an unpredictable love story
Equally ambitious was his attempts at The Ramayana a shortened modern prose
version, published in 1972; and The Mahabharata a shortened modern prose version in
1978. Any attempt at creating "shortened moderned prose versions" of these daunting
ancient Hindu epics would be considered overreaching oneself. Yet again, Narayan'
simple adaptations successfully presented the core stories and values of these epics.
But even more ambitious, it seemed to me, was his The Painter of Signs. A
seemingly simple tale of a young Indian, rising into the middle-class, hopeless infatuation
with a strong, feminist, "sterilisation-preaching" Daisy, The Painter of Signs is yet to be
recognized for what seems to me to be the harshest commentary on the rule of once Indian
Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to date.
Couched as it is within his characteristic Malgudi setting, with his cast of absurd
characters, Narayan's achievement, here, as in other works such as The Vendor of Sweets,
must be his ability to outwit even the most discerning readers.
Often defined as conservative, these works with layers upon layers of irony
challenge conservative and traditional Indian notions of the purpose of life, man's role in
society, social and political progress. His unheroic heroes are poignant descriptions of
Everyman of the modern age.
As such, RK Narayan1 may be seen as prolific producer of the modern fable.
*Reproduced with permission from Sunday Guardian, Trinidad, October 14, 2001
1. Books by RK Narayan,Swami and His Friends, 1935; Bachelor of Arts, 1937;The Dark Room, 1938;
Mysore, 1939; The English Teacher, 1945;An Astrologer's Day, and other stories, 1947;Mr Sampath
The Printer of Malgudi, 1949; The Financial Expert, 19S2;Grateful to Life and Death, 1953; Waiting
for the Mahatma, 1955; Lawley Road, and other stories, 1956; The Guide, 1958; Next Sunday: sketches
and essays, 1960;The Man-Eater of Malgudi, 1961; My Dateless Diary: An American Journey, 1964;
Gods, Demons, and others, 1965;The Vendor of Sweets, 1967;A Horse and two Goats, stories, 1970;
The Ramayana a shortened modern prose version, 1972;My Days, 1974;Reluctant Guru, 1974;The
Painter of Signs, 1976;The Mahabharata: a shortened modern prose version, 1978; The Emerald Route,
1980; Malgudi Days, 1982;A Tiger for Malgudi, 1983;Under the Banyan Tree and other stories, 1985;
Talkative Man, 1986;A Writer's Nightmare: selected essays, 1988;A Story-Tellers World: Stories, Es-
says, Sketches, 1989; The World of Nagaraj, 1990;Malgudi Landscapes: the best of RK Narayan, 1992;
The Grandmother's Tale: three novels, 1993;Salt & Sawdust: stories and table talk, 1993.
Isle of the imagination, and a place called home*
Sir Vidia Shivaprasad Naipaul did not come out from nothing, or nowhere. He
is not an aberration that has arisen from Trinidad and Tobago society. He is inherently a
product of the society and the times in which he grew up; a society and time that is still
very much an area of darkness to many of us.
It is a reality which, if Naipaul himself does not acknowledge verbally, he
expresses more than adequately in his books.
Trinidad, as the place of his physical origin, is the common denominator that
exists between the lines and the pages of his 26 volumes of assorted fiction, non-fiction
and combinations of those in infinite permutations and hybridisations as biography,
autobiography, semi-biography; various definitions of the form "the novel"
Whether he is writing about India as in An Area Of Darkness and India, A
Wounded Civilisation, or Africa as in A Bend in the River, or the American South as in A
Turn in the South, or Indonesia and Islamic Asia in Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions
Among the Converted Peoples, his is writing about himself as a product of Trinidad.
Vidia's father, Seepersad Naipaul's influence on his son's ambition to be a writer
is clearly documented in Letters Between Father and Son the exchange of correspon-
dences between the two when Naipaul left Trinidad to study at Oxford University,
The most poignant passage of the entire spectrum of Naipaul's autobiographical
reminiscences come from one of these letters. It reveals how Vidia's quest to become a
writer was an almost physical transference of his father's stunted ambition to be a
recognized writer of fiction himself. The fulfilment of his dreams in his son Seepersad did
not live to see. He died while Vidia was still at Oxford. The letter addressed to "Dear
I feel so darned cocksure that I can produce a novel
within six months if only I had nothing else to do.
But I want to give you this chance. When your
university studies are over, if you do get a good job,
all well and good; if you do not, you have not got to
worry one bit. You will come home and do what I
am longing to do now: Just write; and read and do the
things you like to do.
This is where I want to be of use to you. I want you
to have that chance which I have never had: Some-
body to support me and mine while I write. (Letters)
Seepersad was a part of society where the desire to write was nurtured through
a century of yearning and aspiring towards that goal.
When Naipaul left Trinidad in 1950, illiteracy rates among IndoTrinidadians
were as high as 70 per cent.
In the 1940s, of 151,076 IndoTrinidadians in the population, 107,000 were
illiterate. Low illiteracy levels meant there were limited numbers of people who could
read books. A writer could expect only mythological, rather than actual, acclamation
from a society such as this. He could be a hero for doing something others in the society
could not do, not because they read and appreciated and understood and lived what he did.
For those who could read, the preoccupation was more with economic and social
advancement as these were the more immediate pressing needs. Esoteric intellectual
development could only expect a stillbirth.
The gatherings of social leaders in the courtyard of his grandfather's mansion
known as 'Lions House' in Chaguanas, discussed political and social issues of the day
food, clothing and shelter for hundreds of destitutes who littered the streets of Port-of-
Spain; education for their children so they could get better jobs, and better feed and clothe
and shelter their own children.
Those like Vidia's father, Seepersad, who nurtured a dream to write, found an
outlet, albeit inadequate, in journalism, a profession which was itself a social necessity
because it was the forum to articulate such social concerns. It was too risky to have ones
messages misinterpreted and misunderstood by couching them in fiction.
But the impulse for fiction could not be stifled. Like Seepersad, the non-fictional
prose of early writers sounded very much like fiction, hence Seepersad's hallmark
interjections in his newspaper articles: "Amazing scenes"- "dramatic scenes" "remark-
able scenes" "amazing plot" "amazing interview"
In his work, real-life occurrences took on the texture of fiction as they were
converted into words. And it was that life that Vidia converted into fiction his own life,
in a small society, with limited means, and opportunities; of men thriving for excellence,
to be someone, to establish an identity, to carve out ones own little corner of the earth;
not die, as Mr Biswas did, "unnecessary and unaccommodated" So we have Mr Biswas
in his novel, and Nazruddin in A Bend in the River; and The Mimic Men etc. Therein one
can find the value of the long awaited recognition proffered by the Nobel Prize
Committee, recognition for a man who has defied a physical, psychological and even
karmic inevitability, for self fulfilment.
As Naipaul was growing up, he would have witnessed as a teenager the bitter
political battle of the 1940s against the forces that tried to deprive Indo-Trinidadians, who
then comprised almost 50 per cent of the population, from exercising franchise rights, on
grounds that they were illiterate in the English language.
Attempts to introduce an English language qualification to the right to vote in
Trinidad produced one of the most intensely bitter national debates in the country's
That battle was won in 1944, but the acrimony it produced is part of the bitter
taste left on the mouths of sons like Vidia, just about entering Queens Royal College. No
doubt, it remained an indelible part of the psyche of the individual who would take off for
England, not caring to glance backward.
In the 1940s, descendants of Indians in Trinidad were, not unlike now, by no
means "a community" Opinions were divided. There were bitter rivalries among groups
of persons with contending views, not unlike the current situation. Only to the outer
society which viewed them as a people with common ancestry, similar cultural traits, and
alien language, habits and modes of dress that they appeared to be a community.
Still ringing true were the words in 1850 of Governor Lord Harris, "A race has
been freed, but a society has not been formed" A race had been freed; a new group of
people had been introduced; together the races had fought economic depression, and a
world war, political alienation; but a society had not been formed.
A literary yearning, articulated from as early as the 1860s by writers who
defined themselves as part of the national landscape when no one else saw them as such,
children of Indian immigrants were referring to themselves as "son of the soil",
"Indo-Trinidadian" "Indo-Creole" in letters to the press.
All this is documented in the period of pre-fiction in journals and magazines
produced by various groups of Trinidadians.
These early publications invariably started out with good intentions, of mirroring
the needs and aspirations of the society, although many instead functioned to meet the
needs of self-serving political aspirants.
These journals, magazines and sporadic newspaper publications were the only
outlets available for those with aspirations to write, and given the priorities of the time
the need for social and economic advancement, articles that highlighted those, rather than
creative fiction, took centre stage.
Creative writers had to contend with reading their scribbled poems to little
groups in intellectually sterile literary clubs, which were themselves preoccupied, not
with generating creative prose and poetry, but with producing good orators and public
speakers who could advance social causes. A desert. A sterile place. A nightmare for
those who wanted to emulate the great British writers to whom they were exposed in their
The newspapers, journals and magazines of the time repeatedly showed a
yearning to produce an indigenous body of creative fiction.
The Indian Koh-i-Noor Gazette, a shortlived broadsheet newspaper produced in
Trinidad between October 1898 and March 1899, in announcing its advent into the
journalistic world, to champion social issues, also stated:
We will, besides cultivating our own little corner be
gleaners from the great world, and particularly from
the section devoted to literature, which we shall ever
make it our duty to support and encourage.
A later publication, the East Indian Herald, which ran sporadically from
September 1919 to 1925, also identifying the need to "give voice" on social issues;
intended to "encourage East Indians to write stories, photo-plays, poems, or any literary
work and to speak on their behalf if necessary.
Another, the East Indian Patriot, which came on the scene in 1924, for a few
issues, told of "its main objective ...To provide a scope for the development of the
literary talents of our people."
The most influential of these early publications, the East Indian Weekly influen-
tial if only because it ran for the longest sustained period, from April 1928 to 1932 also
announced a wish to play its part in promoting "a disease, a contagion that is daily
spreading; the disease of writing.
But the extent to which that was realized was limited to recounting the activities
of the many literary and debating clubs in the society, whose main preoccupation was
more with developing orators than fiction writers.
It was at the "Weekly" that Seepersad Naipaul cut his journalistic tooth, writing
articles of an adaptation to an evolving society, feminine evolution, social mentality,
language and some poetry.
His yearning to be a writer of great fiction, like others in the Koh-i-noor, and the
Herald and Patriot before him, would have to wait. It would also have to wait as the
Guardian "stole" him from the "Weekly", a year later in 1929, to cover Chaguanas. And
it will wait, too, while he tried to make ends meet, rear children, educate them, and hold
off the debtors like others in the society must do, until those with the courage like Samuel
Selvon and George Lamming, and VS Naipaul boarded steamships, for England.
They were propelled by the evidence of a century of frustrated creativity, which
to Naipaul was more real because it formed a part of his every growing experience in the
figure of his father.
In his books can be found his many returns, imaginatively, mainly, to those early
formative years which propelled him to England, a country he immediately adopted as
home; England, the land of the great writers in the school textbooks, the land of fiction.
The Enigma of Arrival, the book which the Nobel Prize committee cited in
announcing the award (Naipaul calls it a novel) is perhaps Naipaul's least harsh explora-
tion and expository on his journey to becoming a writer.
In it, he defines his point of arrival as the point at which he fulfils his
dream/ambition/obsession to become a writer. It occurs in England, but ambiguously so.
The location for the act of writing may be England, the place where in books are
generated and great writers are born, but his knowledge of the books and those writers
began in another location, which shaped how he viewed those books and their writers.
So the point of arrival is hardly clearcut. Rather, it is lost in a nebulous area of
personal and ancestral, and national history that takes him through four continents, and
26 volumes of fiction and non fiction, and everything in the continuum between those
The place to which he always returns, as articulated in many of these works,
including Reading and Writing; Finding the Centre, Beyond Belief, A Way in the World,
A House for Mr Biswas etc. is Trinidad.
In Enigma, arrival "home" the place where he finds ambivalent fulfilment,
England, is made equivalent to entering the Alice-in-Wonderlandlike looking glass, and
existing in the world of fantasy created by books.
He was now inside his fantasy in fairytale land, which paradoxically was, while
in Trinidad, the real land to him real because his imagination resided in fiction.
But as this land becomes a reality, the land that he has left (Trinidad) becomes
now the fictional land, the land where his imagination dwells. And so, Naipaul returns
again and again to Trinidad imaginatively in his writings; in his real visits, he is contented
to remain a shadowy elusive figure, recognized by no one, so he sneaks in and out,
unannounced. That is the enigma.
The Enigma of Arrival partly documents that process of the switch of landscape
that occurs in the writer's imagination:
As a child in Trinidad I had projected everything I read on to the Trinidad
landscape, the Trinidad countryside, the Port-of-Spain streets. (Even Dickens and Lon-
don I incorporated into the streets of Port-of-Spain. ("Enigma")
Conversely, in England/London, he projected the Trinidad landscape on his
surroundings, so the items that filled Jack's garden in "Enigma" are the familiar/yet
different Chaguanas scenes of his childhood the cows, the vegetation, the floorless
cottage ruin merging surrealistically in fiction/fact, fantasy/reality land:
The hay in this shed was new, with a sweet, warm
smell; and the bales unstacked into golden, clean,
warm smelling steps, which made me think of the
story about spinning straw into gold and of references
in books with European settings to men sleeping on
straw in barns. That had never been comprehensible
to me in Trinidad, where grass was always freshly cut
for cattle, always green, and never browned into hay.
It is Naipaul's last laugh, then at those who condemn his seeming neglect of
Trinidad in his public utterances. Trinidad occupies the central space in his writings, so
why state the obvious? England is only his home, and India but the land of his ancestors.
In his words:
You could start with the sacrament of the square and
work back: To the black madmen on the benches, the
Indian destitutes, the plantations, the wilderness, the
aboriginal settlements, the discovery. And you could
move forward from that exaltation and that mood of
rejection to the nihilism of the moment.
A Way in the World, 1994.
I was homesick, had been homesick for months. But
home was hardly a place I could return to. Home was
something in my head. It was something I had lost.
A Bend in the River, 1979.
It was that fear, a panic about failing to be what I
should be, rather than simple ambition, that was with
me when I came down from Oxford in 1954 and
began trying to write in London Without having
become a writer, I couldn't go back. In my eleventh
month in London I write about Bogart. I wrote my
book; I wrote another. I began to go back.
"Prologue to an Autobiography" in Finding the Cen-
*Published in Sunday Guardian, Trinidad, October 14, 2001
In search of Naipaulian Depths of Satisfaction*
THERE'S a revealing story by Professor Ken Ramchand. He once asked the
Nobel Prize Laureate, if he felt so bitter about all the ills of the world, why not just kill
Naipaul replied. "I have my writing.
It is that relentless desire to write that has produced 28 books from short stories
to travelogues, and in the days following the Nobel announcement it was to these works
that people would turn in celebration or condemnation. This was a time for pulling out
cobwebby school texts or revered first editions, rereading the old favourite or most
offensive passages and entering into unresolved discussions about his loyalty to Trinidad.
All he had to do was say the word, ran the argument.
Still, none of the proponents of the "Trinidad exclusion" issue had the temerity
to properly broach the subject, since it was never raised at the three public forums
celebrating the Nobel Prize. For those who were there, they would have heard another
writer, Michael Anthony, in a letter to the Mount Hope celebration, reminding the
audience that we do not remember the great writers for how they lived their lives, we
remember their works.
The Mount Hope celebration by the Friends of Mr Biswas featured elder sister,
Kamla Tewarie, who, judging from her delivery, may have been an even more potent
force than the Laureate himself. She told the large gathering that her brother had once
told her, "I don't write for today, I write for the future." She pondered his earlier writings
and related them to current global situations. She then asked the audience to think of of
Suffrage of Elvira (written in 1956) and consider Trinidad today. The audience chuckled.
Also at the celebration was veteran journalist, George John, who recalled the
opening line of an article he had written some 15 years ago, "In Defence of Naipaul" It
suggested that the psychiatrist probably had a name for the critics of Naipaul "pen
Still, the issue of Naipaul's Trinidadian identity remained a niggling problem.
Even his most faithful laymen defenders were beginning to need a better response than
"Anyone who is saying he's not Trinidadian, hasn't read Naipaul"
So when the University of the West Indies announced last Friday's panel
discussion on "An identity we can claim?" there was hope there would be some kind of
all-out confrontation. After all, on the panel were Professor Emeritus Ken Ramchand and
his literary opponent Professor Gordon Rohlehr. No such luck. It was dissappointingly
People were so polite. An indication of the tolerance we hold for differing
points of view? Sir Vidia should investigate this.
There had been an afternoon session, "Celebrating Naipaul" involving school-
children, who, apart from one young man who seemed to be seeking answers to essay
questions, did not query the panel. The majority of questions came from learned adults.
Those seeking answers to the identity question learnt from the affable "Miss Merle"
Hodge that the use of Creole language was an indication of Naipaul's belongingness; Dr
Funso Aiyegina politely pointed out that Naipaul consistently mimicked the Caribbean
landscape; and the eminent Professor Rohlehr observed that Naipaul has not found his
centre but "can't get the Caribbean out of his system"
Even feminist Dr Sheila Rampersad was unusually conservative in her presenta-
tion on Naipaul's female characters, bewildering the young audience with feminist
theories that may be needed to explore that aspect of Naipaul's works.
The evening session was no less civil. Apart from a couple of pointed questions,
adeptly dealt with by the panel, it was a respectful crowd. One usually vocal MPhil
student said she was just there to listen. Perhaps it was in deference to the occasion.
This was a distinguished panel, and Mr Vishnu Singh, who fortunately has a
copy of Naipaul's latest work Halfa Life, gave Naipaulian defenders a bit of weaponry.
He revealed that in his latest work, Naipaul seems to have come to terms with his
sexuality, echoing his Biswas lines "how terrible to have died without this depth of
satisfaction" Ammunition. This could prove useful to Bend in the River critics.
Professor Rohlehr's contribution touched on Naipaul's literary journey from
delight to darkness and hopelessness, but raised more questions than answers. He noted
that in Naipaul's travelogues there is his "famous honesty" but "honesty as articulated
bias" Should then the reader be permitted the same bias as the writer? Also, can
students of literature continue to separate the author from the protagonist in these works?
No time for head-scratching. Dr Patricia Ismond, the famed scholar of the
works of Derek Walcott, is presenting a paper on, of all things, Naipaul's Islamic
explorations. Dr Ismond felt Naipaul's Islamic works reveal a post-colonial concern, a
"sensitive concern (that) balances irony with sympathy" in that he is coming from a
people who are best placed to make an assessment of Islam. She hinted at a link between
the Nobel Prize and this year's global events.
Next up was one of the chief friends of Mr Biswas, Professor Ramchand and the
defenders waited for true ammunition instead, he skirted the issue by identifying a
recurring motif in Naipaul's works, that of "reading and writing".
He noted the struggle Naipaul must have gone through coming from a colonial
literary background, then having to shape his writing to the complex material that a
Caribbean society presented to him.
His variety as a writer and the dissolution of forms and genres could only come
out of a society such as Trinidad and Tobago. Ultimately, what his writing does is to take
us to the realm of philosophy how necessary is it to be constantly making and re-making
ourselves. What does it mean to "Get a Life"
The defenders sighed.
But earlier, in his opening remarks to the gathering, newly-appointed principal
of the university, Dr Bhoe Tewarie, had managed to give Naipaulian's some degree of
satisfaction. He suggested that the driving force behind Naipaul's early works was "the
fear of extinction" It was a fear inherited from his father, Seepersad Naipaul, and
articulated in A House for Mr Biswas as the "unaccommodated man" dying without his
portion of earth.
The fear is also there when the young protagonist returns to Miguel Street
because his flight had been delayed and realises everything had gone on without him,
"there was nothing to indicate my absence" That fear, says Dr Tewarie, dogs Naipaul
until the novel, A Bend in the River, when he comes to the understanding that he has
Today, after 28 books and all the literary awards already on his English
mantelpiece, comes the Nobel Prize, and there will never be a need, ever again, to fear
extinction. His books now ensure his immortality, loyalty to Trinidad seems a hollow
point. He now belongs in the firmament of the literary world and ultimately, all that we
can claim of him is that he, like Walcott, found his consciousness here.
* Reproduced with permission, Sunday Guardian,Trinidad, October 28, 2001
Making a Way in The World*
The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to V.S. Naipaul is testimony to the
the glory of the our region and due reward for over forty of a man's dedication to the
unrelenting demands of his craft and calling. He has continued to be naked to his
enemies. He has never compromised his opinions and his feelings to satisfy local
demands. He has walked a long lonely road, avoiding the pain of living in these islands,
but also denying himself the immediate pleasures of being here physically and enjoying
the status of a culture hero, the person looked up to and cherished by the society.
I had given up hoping. He was first nominated in 1972 when he had already
written ten books including the classic West Indian novel, A House for Mr Biswas; the
most original historical work on Trinidad The loss of El Dorado; The Mimic Men a
subtle fictional study of African-Indian politics and of the colonial mentality; an account
of a visit to India, An Area of Darkness, by a Trinidadian of Indian origin; and the
delightful stories and sketches in Miguel Street whose characters are a cross-section of the
population of multi-ethnic Trinidad. People have won the Nobel for less and for far less
Sometime in the seventies Naipaul began worrying about the capacity of the
novel to keep up with and interpret our rapidly changing world. This coincided with the
fact that he was now building upon his experience of colonialism and post-imperial
trauma in his native island and looking at the crises of identity and social construction in
all the sites of dying colonialism and fallen imperialisms in the world.
He began travelling, producing three books about India that analyses some of the
key problems in that sprawling miscellaneous country and exploring his affinities with
the land of his ancestors. He also visited Islamic countries producing Among the
Believers and Beyond Belief. Thank God for illiteracy, no Ayatollah realized that his
critique was more devastating than that of Salman Rushdie on whose head a fatwah was
But these two books are less about the religion Islam than about imperialism and
about the horror and terror waiting to be unleashed upon the world by fundamentalism
and fanaticism of any kind. As usual this clear-sighted and thinking writer writes about
1993 catastrophe years before the explosions come.
Making an artistic response to own perverse view that the novel was dead,
Naipaul brought to travel writing a concern with ideas about and interpretations of the
world as well as novelistic techniques that made the travel book a more searching medium
than it is in the hands of less driven writers. In The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the
World, he went further, crossing and re-crossing the boundary lines between fiction and
non-fiction sometimes taking advantage of the confusion to make 'fictional' statements
that readers swallow as if they were non-fiction, and vice-versa. He must have been
nominated for the Nobel almost every year after 1972.
So confident was Newsweek magazine that he would win it in 1980 they put him
on the front cover as 'The Master of the Novel' He came close again in 1992 when the
prize went to Derek Walcott. My opinion then was that if ever there was a time for a joint
award for Literature, 1992 was the year because it would be some time before the Prize
Committee would want to award it to someone in our region again. In 1993 he became
the first recipient of the David Cohen British Literature Prize "to honour sustained
achievement by a living writer" But when the nineties ended, the Nobel seemed to be a
He has been attacked again and again on ideological and personal grounds. He
has been seen as a kind of spokesman for the Metropolis against Third World culture. He
has been criticised for having said that nothing was ever created in the West Indies. He
has been accused of anti-Negro prejudice and for saying that Africa has no future,
although no one has written more feelingly about the disruption of African traditional life,
the patronising attitude to their culture and values, and the ways in which Africans are
strangers in their own cities.
There is a substantial negative commentary on his presentation of women.
Women are never central characters, and in Guerrillas, In A Free State and A Bend in the
River there seems to be a misogynist streak. But the attitude to women in Naipaul's
writing cannot be described simply as anti-feminist. Here are some of the clues to think
about before we make up our minds: the greatest animus is directed against White women
of a colonialist or liberal bent; the attitude to female sexuality is accompanied by hints of
some kind of intellectual engagement with homosexuality; there is some political allegory
floating around; and the attitude to the female is an acute expression of an attitude to the
flesh as against spirit.
All I can do here is state again that although it is possible to be critical of certain
aspects of Mr Naipaul's work we should concentrate on the work, not the man. Who can
read Biswas, Miguel Street, Finding the Centre, The Loss of El Dorado, The Enigma of
Arrival, and Letters Between A Father and Son and tell me that the work is not
Trinidadian? Not even Naipaul. He can say he is British but his work is West Indian.
His experience of colonialism, mimicry and post-imperial destitution in Trinidad, and his
stubborn desire to become a writer in an arid place are the base and foundation of
everything he has written His comic sense was born out of his suffering the incongruities
in our world.
Of his stature as a writer no one seems to have any doubt. But we should also
notice that a man who keeps engaging critically with people and a place is a man who
suffers and cares no matter what he says outside of his writings. His vision a pessimistic
one, but man who keeps on creating cannot be a man who does not believe in human
His work is comic, provocative, and intellectually stimulating. In an article
entitled 'Partial Truths' I suggested that because Naipaul is such a brilliant and persua-
sive writer he can overwhelm us into feeling he is telling the whole truth. But no one
offers the whole truth and there are many omissions in the world he presents. If we hold
on to this attitude we will cherish Naipaul someone who is constantly forcing us to
question values and beliefs, someone who is able to shatter complacencies and make us
abandon many of our half-truths. I find reading him a chastening and humbling
experience. On top of that he makes me laugh.
*Reprinted with permission from Trinidad and Tobago Review, November 2001, p.21
V.S. Naipaul: A Life in Full*
In a review of VS Naipaul's latest novel, Halfa Life, in the London Guardian a
few weeks ago, one-time Naipaul protege, Paul Theroux, concluded sardonically: "With-
out Naipaul's name on it, Halfa Life, would be turned down in a flash. With his name
on it, of course, its trajectory is certain: great reviews, poor sales, and a literary prize."
Well. even a stopped clock is right twice a day and Theroux must be decom-
posing atom by atom in horror right about now, and he'd have plenty company. With the
award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Sir Vidia Surajprasad Naipaul would have
received every literary award of importance open to him, from the Booker to the W.H.
The Nobel had been long seen as his Waterloo, given the conservatism of the
judges in favour of political correctness and Naipaul's life long refusal to be politically
correct. Not to mention that with the award to Dario Fo (no one was more surprised than
he was so the reports went), the prize lost some of its elan for a few people. But whether
this signals a change in selection politics or is just a spike in the graph it is one of the
better choices the academy has made in several years and one of the more controversial.
There is hardly a corn on the feet of the denizens of this brave new world of
globalist political correctness that Naipaul hasn't stomped on. The feminists, the post-co-
lonialists, the Afrocentrists, the Islamicists, the entire sub-continent of India, most of the
Caribbean, and intellectuals of virtually every stripe and proclivity who do not relish their
theories being blemished by mere facts all have formed an unordinary consensus in their
But several things make Naipaul's award particularly appropriate. As an ob-
server of global consciousness, his prescience, and its precise translation into prose, is
astounding. In his Islamic travel books, Naipaul presented the Islamic world as backward
and isolationist, a view which armed him the disdain of critics like (Palestinian) Edward
Said until the September 11 attacks made those sentiments seem prophetic. His views on
Africa (Africa has no future) have been bitterly criticised, but not refuted. And the same
could be said for his views on the West Indies "unfinished societies" where "power was
recognized, but dignity was allowed to no one"
As a writer of prose fiction, his mastery and departure from the conventional
novel might not have been entirely original, but is certainly one of the most successful
attempts of the century to force the traditional nineteenth century novel to evolve. This is
something Joyce had the final word on with Ulysses, but which only a few other artists,
Nabokov with Pale Fire, and Milan Kundera with his entire oeuvre have seriously
After the early picaresque works, beginning with Miguel Street, Naipaul mas-
tered the nineteenth century novel form (linear narrative, conventional characters, and
requisite social-political base) with A House for Mr. Biswas, and thereafter produced
Mimic Men, Guerillas, A Bend in the River, and a few other novel-autobiographical-his-
torical narratives, like In a Free State, The Loss of El Dorado and the travel works.
But it was not until 1987 that he produced his most permanent masterpiece The
Enigma of Arrival which apart from containing some of the most beautiful prose in
English blends pastoral fantasy, autobiography, essay, and social critique into a form
that is and is not a novel.
The experimental sequence of A Way in the World was an enigmatic work whose
secrets are perhaps not for this age and with this final novel, Naipaul has returned to the
conventional novel in triumph or perhaps just exhaustion.
But more than particular artistic achievements, what is more fascinating is
Naipaul's state in the world. He lives several mutually exclusive positions: he occupies
pre-eminence in the literary world but denounces most contemporary literary activity as
tripe; he's a former colonial who denounced his place of birth because it is the home of
stupidity, theft and a place where nothing is created; he's an emigrant who's denounced
his adopted home, calling British Prime Minister a cultural vandal. And as an artist he has
always held his position to be one of dedication to the uncompromised truth a Utopia if
ever there was one in its literal meaning.
These qualities a self imposed exile, a permanent dissatisfaction with the
world's idea of itself and impatience with those unable to keep up perfectly illustrate the
post-modern condition: living in a state of permanent uncertainty, a disdain for atavism,
and an unquenchable urge for the future. And hence the crux of Naipaul: the boundaries
between Sir Vidia and his art are permeable and infinitely elastic.
In each of the novels there is the resurgence of autobiographical themes what
Caryl Phillips,reviewing Letters to a Father and Son in the New, York Review of Books
last year, called "self-aggrandizing, and frankly embarrassing narrative into the literary
conscience of the West"
Or maybe Naipaul's just as hard on himself as he is with everyone else, and
might even have a sense of humour about it. A very dark sense, let it be said.
His celebrated admission that he was a "great prostitute man" to the New
Yorker's Stephen Schiff in 1995 brought up a history of his poor treatment of his
long-suffering wife, Pat. His unwillingness to pick up a cheque at restaurants (and many
other petulant revelations) were revealed in Theroux's stinky tell-all last year. He is
well-known for being a demon about money, and reducing unprepared interviewers to
tears, as he did to a Trinidadian journalist who's since gone on marry well and win
Which brings us to Trinidad. Most bookstores here carry his books, and I
believe the poor Carnival-loving youth are even coerced to read them for exams. How
much of the books they (and their teachers) actually understand, is another matter. How
much of Nepal Trinidadians understand is also a thing in itself.
The decadent classes at least know him; but it's fashionable, if not de rigeur, for
black intellectuals to revile him. As for the Indians, well who knows if the average Indian
businessman even owns a book other than a receipt book This is not entirely without
cause. In his career Naipaul has made some harsh statements about Trinidad and harsh
is a way of saying truth we do not want to hear but his most incisive work about Trinidad
remains The Middle Passage.
Writing in the 1960s, Naipaul talks about second rate newspapers, about a
cinema-going audience who respond to the action on screen, about television advertise-
ments featuring very light browns and whites, and most damningly, "the only convention
the West Indian knows is his involvement with the white world"
That this is all still true 40 years later hasn't made him the darling of those who
talk the talk, but who walk great white way. These criticisms, however, were by no
means his alone. Many of them were echoed with considerably more virulence by Derek
Walcott in his autobiographical Another Life and his essays What the Twilight Says and
The Muse of History, in the 1970s.
With the award of the Nobel Prize,though, hopefully, more Trinidadians and
people all over the world. might look again at the first Trinidadian (and we're claiming
him, (dammit) to win the honour.
* Reprinted with permission from Trinidad Express, October 12, 2001
In rural England, where he lives, Naipaul responded graciously to the news of
his award. He acknowledged England (his "home"), India (the country of his "ances-
tors"), and his literary agent. He had not thought of himself as a "suitable candidate", he
explained (though he had been nominated for the prize every year since 1972). He
neglected to mention his birthplace.
In Trinidad, the new National Library was named after him. The house in St.
James where he spent some of his adolescence was handed over to "The Friends of Mr.
Biswas" to be developed as a centre of research into the writings of the Naipaul's and
other West Indian authors. Letters in the newspapers debated whether the quality of his
books could excuse the hurt of his disdain. They carried headings like "Naipaul Misses
V.S.Naipaul has not been much liked in Trinidad since he published his first
travel book, The Middle Passage, in 1962. Trinidad, he wrote, was "unimportant,
uncreative, cynical." Trinidadians substituted intrigue for talent. In the entire British
West Indies, "nothing was created no civilization as in Spanish America, no great
revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity,
decline, neglect These judgments were remembered; his kinder observations were
Naipaul does not temper his judgments or his language. He is not in the business
of sparing anyone's feelings. Over the years, he has called people monkeys, infies
(inferiors), bow-and-arrow men, potato eaters, Mr. Woggy. He has described whole
countries as "bush" Oxford University, where he earned his degree in English, was "a
very second-rate provincial university" Africa "has no future" and as for African
literature, "you can't beat a novel out on drums" He once recommended that Britain
should sell knighthoods through the Post Office (this was before he became Sir Vidia
He can make interviewers squirm; his intolerance of unprepared questioners is
legendary. He has trashed many of the great names in literature, from Jane Austen to
James Joyce. He savaged British Prime Minister Tony Blair for cultural vandalism. "He
has this image of being irascible," says his second wife Nadira, "but that really isn't
Naipaul's many detractors have accused him of racism, snobbery, misogyny,
eurocentricity and perfidy, among other grievous crimes. Derek Walcott, who won the
Nobel in 1992, complained about "that self-disfiguring sneer that is praised for its
probity" Jamaica Kincaid cried, "He just annoys me so much, all my thoughts are
intemperate and violent" Edward Said called him "a purveyor of stereotypes and disgust
for the world that produced him"
The sharp-tongued celebrity is only one of Naipaul's traits, He can reduce an
audience to helpless laughter with his musings. He can play the charming and cultured
English gentleman with his cottage in the Wiltshire countryside, his apartment in London,
his ripe English accent and his pipe, his "beautifully accented French" He knows about
fine wines, snuff, 1940s movies, Indian art, printing and lithography.
He professes to hate Trinidad's Carnival and the source of pan, but he can sing
Sparrow and Invader calypsos. He can be a marvelous friend and teacher, and a ruthless
enemy. He suffers from asthma, insomnia, anxiety, bad dreams and bouts of depression.
The American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux met Naipaul in Africa and
was close to him for 30 years recalls many stories about him: "When two Chinese, both
named Wong, were deported from East Africa at a time when Europeans were getting
preferential treatment, Naipaul commented, 'Well, two Wongs don't make a white."' In
Africa, Naipaul deliberately distorted names: 'Mah-boya' he said for Mboya, 'Nah-
Googy' for Ngugi, and an Englishman called Cook he called Mah-Cook, because the man
wore an African shirt and was full of enthusiasm for bad African poems.
Even then, he had no time for bad writing. "'Is this your poem?' he asked an
African student who had submitted a hand-written piece of verse - 'Yes? Well, I've read
it and I want you to promise me to give up poetry immediately. Don't be depressed.
Look at me, I've never written a poem in my life. I'm sure your gifts lie in quite another
direction. But you have beautiful handwriting.
But a writer does not win the Nobel Prize for rudeness or political incorrectness.
Naipaul has produced 26 extraordinary books, many of them of real greatness. Yet the
Nobel prizewinner is the same man who, asked by an interviewer what the red dot means
on a Hindu woman's forehead, once replied that it means "My head is empty"
Welcome to the complexities of Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul.
Naipaul's huge output spans 44 years: fiction, history, autobiography, travel, of
reportage, and various mixtures of these genres. His settings range across the planet: the
Caribbean, South America, the United States, England, East and Central Africa, the
Ivory Coast and Mozambique, Iran, Pakistan, India, Malaysia. Few writers have at-
tempted so thoroughly and so bleakly such an epic journey. None has explored the
distress of the "Post-colonial world" (an idea which, since September 11, has become
rather more than an academic cliche).
"Tranquillity recedes, he wrote from Mauritius in 1972. "The barracoon is
overcrowded; the escape routes are closed. The people are disaffected and have no sense
of danger," The frailty of "half-made societies" their potential for disruption and
violence; the dislocated and dispossessed, the migrant, the exile, the half-breed this
dark side of the "globalised" world has been Naipaul's habitat. He has conducted a
guerrilla war against the second-rate, against confusion and inertia: freedom and respect
must be earned by action. Naipaul does not offer solutions:he sees himself as a diagnosti-
cian, not a therapist. You can disagree with him, deplore his manners, dismiss his more
outrageous opinions; but there is no escaping his work.
Naipaul is one of those writers who are driven to write for their emotional
His Trinidad childhood was turbulent. His mother Droapatie Capildeo belonged
to a Hindu family of pundits and property owners presided over by his matriarchal
grandmother in Chaguanas, Central Trinidad (The 1920s North Indian-style house is still
there, newly renovated.) His father Seepersad Naipaul was a loner: he was expected to
become a pundit, but turned away, supported Hindu reform, and became a journalist.
Both families had Brahmin roots: both had left India only two generations earlier, in the
1880s as indentured labourers. Vidia was the second of the seven children born to
Seepersad and Droapatie between 1930 and 1952.
When he was seven, Vidia was taken from the Indian world of Chaguanas, with
its supporting Hindu networks, to the creole world of Port of Spain. His parents lived in
his grandmothers cocoa estate outside the city in Petit Valley, then back to town. Finally
his father alienated from the Capildeos, depressive, frustrated bought his own house in
1946, at 26 Nepaul St. in the suburb of St. James. Vidia attended Queens Royal College.
"Our last two years in that home", he wrote, "were very bad indeed"
Seepersad Naipaul longed to be a writer, and produced a number of good short
stories, some of which were broadcast by the BBC in London. He served two stints with
the Trinidad Guardian, the first under the editor Gault McGowan who modernised the
paper and gave him valuable advice and support. His stories dealt with Indian village life
and "the Hindu rituals that gave grace and completeness to that life" He read The
Adventures of Gurudeva to young Vidia as it took shape. "He had the journalists' or
writers' vocation" Vidia wrote later; his writing was "a version of the pundit's voca-
tion" though it was never fulfilled.
A fractious and disordered family life, constant moves, the Indian world
enclosed within an alien creole world, his father's unhappiness all this shaped Vidia's
perception of Trinidad and life: "Only my school life was ordered" Family life was a
microcosm of the authoritarian state, where power is all-important. I withdrew. It was
"an early introduction to the ways of the world, and to the nature of cruelty. It had given
me...a taste for the other kind of life, the solitary and less crowded life, where one had
space around oneself'
Out of this childhood stress sprang all the themes and concerns of Vidia's adult
He learnt to wear the mask of aloofness and distance. He felt a desperate need
for order, rationality, privacy, solitude,. He inherited his father's "hysteria" "the fear of
extinction...a panic about failing to be what I should be." Like his father, he discovered
that "the fear could be combated only with the exercise of the vocation". By the time he
was eleven, though he had "given no sign of talent" "it seemed to be settled...that I was
to be a writer" To be a writer, he saw, was "to triumph over darkness. He learned
that survival meant making your own mark on the world: it meant applying all the
resources of intellect and will towards individual achievement.
By the late 1940s his greatest need was to escape from Trinidad. He told an
interviewer in 1983: "I didn't like the climate. I didn't like the quality of light. I didn't
like the heat; I didn't like the asthma that it gave me. I didn't like the racial tensions
around me...I didn't like the music. I didn't like the loudness. I just felt I was in the
wrong place. He developed the graphic image "the bush" to describe anything that was
decaying and in decline: "the breakdown of institutions, of the contract between man and
man...theft, corruption, racist incitement"
He did escape in 1950, on a scholarship to University College, Oxford. He
wrote confident letters home and to his elder sister Kamla, who was studying in India. He
made a few friends (though "there are asses in droves here"), had a succession of
short-lived girlfriends, worked on the university paper Ibis and the Oxford Tory; He
played cricket (he once recorded bowling figures of 11-3-25-3 and was selected for his
college First Eleven). He sketched and did oil paintings. He visited Paris. He was
elected secretary of the "college intellectuals group" The Martlets.
He steadily gained confidence. "Whenever I go into a new town, I go into the
best hotel, just to feel comfortable, sit in the lounge, read all the newspapers and drink
coffee. I like comfort. And, whereas in Trinidad I was tremendously shy over going
even into a Civil Service office, now I go everywhere firmly believing that I have as much
right to be there as anyone else. That is one good thing that Oxford has done for me."
He wrote a novel at Oxford The Shadow'd Livery. "I am afraid I have become a
writer," he reported. "The more I write, the more I want to write." He remembered to
add: "And I don't enjoy writing.
But after his novel was rejected for publication in November 1951, he sank into
a prolonged depression, "quite indifferent to everything" By the following March his
stories were being broadcast by the BBC, but he was "extremely depressed and feeling
intensely homesick intolerably lonely" In April he admitted to his family he was
having a "nervous breakdown" "Of course I know the reason for my breakdown:
loneliness, and lack of affection... I couldn't bear to see anyone. I couldn't bear to read,
because it made me think of people; I couldn't go to the cinema; I couldn't listen to the
radio it has been a near-miracle that I can walk the streets without being afraid.
This phase lasted for several months, though by September he had seen a
psychologist and had also met Patricia Ann Hale (he married her in 1955); she "be-
friended me at the height of my illness, put up with all my moods" He was still reporting
"periods of black depression" when he earned his BA in English in 1953. He was only
Seepersad died in October 1953, but Vidia resisted the pressure to return to
Trinidad to help support the family. "I don't see myself fitting into the Trinidad way of
life. I think I shall die if I have to spend the rest of my life in Trinidad. The place is very
small, the values are all wrong, and the people are petty. Besides, there is really very
little for me to do there. Instead, he worked on a farm, he sold encyclopedias, he applied
for a job in India. He went to London, with about 6 to his name, did part-time work
with the BBC, wrote copy for the Concrete and Cement Association. "Look, I am going
to be a success as a writer," he wrote in April 1955. "I know that. I have gambled all
my future on that possibility." And in October: "Frankly, you see, I am expecting
something fairly big to come from my writing.
The breakthrough came in 1955, when the Trinidad material in his head
suddenly focused, and he wrote the stories in Miguel Street in six weeks. They were
about the people of the Docksite Street where he had lived, strongly-coloured Trinidad
"characters", funny, sad, vivid, eccentric. But already the comedy was soaked through
with Naipaul's own concerns: transience, ethnicity. This was a genuinely new voice in
Caribbean writing: a brilliant comic surface, sharp clear dialogue, clinical sentences, and
a dark ironic undercurrent.
In December, the publisher Andre Deutsch accepted Naipaul's first novel The
Mystic Masseur for publication, which was followed by The Suffrage of Elvira and Miguel
Street. He would never again work for anyone else, or be beholden to people. "That
has given me a freedom from people, from entanglements, from rivalries, from competi-
tion. I have no enemies, no rivals, no masters. I fear no one.
After Miguel Street, four more books drew on Naipaul's Trinidad material. The
Mystic Masseur and The Suffrage of Elvira were sharp social comedies set in 1930s and
1940s Trinidad: their protagonists rise to fame and fortune through cunning, fraudulence,
vote-buying, intrigue, magic or pure chance. Later, A Flag on the Island collected some
of Naipaul's funniest stories from this period.
But his early masterpiece was A House for Mr. Biswas, a big realistic novel
reworking his childhood,experience. Poor bemused Mohun Biswas stands in for Seeper-
sad Naipaul, yearning for a house of his own, both literal and metaphorical; the
tumultuous Tulsis stand in for the Capildeo's, and young Anand Biswas is like Naipaul
himself ("His satirical sense kept him aloof... satire led to contempt, and contempt,
quick, deep, inclusive, became part of his nature. It led to inadequacies, to self-awareness
and a lasting loneliness. But it made him unassailable").
This early phase was completed by The Middle Passage, a Caribbean travel book
suggested by the then Trinidad and Tobago premier, Dr. Eric Williams. Naipaul visited
Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname, Martinique and Jamaica, observing with an outsider's eye,
in the tradition of English travellers. His editor at Andre Deutsch was privately dismayed
at the "desperately negative view of the place, disregarding a good half of the picture"
But it was an important advance: here Naipaul made it clear, without the mask of fiction,
exactly what he meant by "half-made societies"
These early books would have been a solid achievement for any author. But they
were not commercially successful. Naipaul complained in 1958 that he had written three
books in five years and had earned 300 from them. He was to struggle with poverty for
some years yet, and did not make his reputation in the United States until 1975, with
Guerrillas. And now he found his Trinidad material exhausted. He was that desperate
thing, a writer without a theme.
He began to scrutinise other pans of the developing world. He spent a year in
his ancestral home, India, and wrote An Area of Darkness, exploring both a country and
his own Indianness. His grandfather had eventually returned to India from Trinidad,
though he died before reaching his old home, Naipaul found the village, and wrote:
"This village was the place. Trinidad was the interlude, the illusion." He found much to
berate in India. Chaos, corruption, incompetence, dirt, unthinking habit and ritual,
irrationality, decay, meaningless mysteries. He told an interviewer in 1981: "What I
want is for India to regard itself as a big country. It should be doing something in the
world. It should have high standards of achievement. A country with 600-700 million
people which is now offering the world nothing but illegitimate holy men should be
ashamed of itself."
Naipaul had hesitated to write about England: he saw it as a closed, private
society, largely inaccessible to an outsider. But he felt that he had to be more than a
"regional writer" and establish himself in the literary mainstream. In Kashmir in 1962
finished his first "English" book, the sombre and reflective Stone and the Knights
Companion, with its completely English setting and cast. The elderly Mr. Stone and his
thwarted dream in dreary, grey England were a radical advance, though the novel
remains little-read and underrated.
But neither of these books solved the problem of finding a personal centre.
Naipaul felt an outsider in the land of his ancestors as well as the island of his birth: too
western in India, too Indian in the west. Emotionally, both India and Trinidad seemed
barred to him. He returned to London "facing my emptiness, my feeling of being
In the mid 1960s Naipaul spent several months in East Africa. He befriended the
young American Paul Theroux who has provided the most telling and vivid portraits of
the young author. Although he was attached to the University of East Africa, Naipaul
never gave a lecture, according to Theroux, and soon left the campus to finish a new book
at a hotel in western Kenya. Theroux wrote:
He was one of the strangest men I ever met, and
absolutely the most difficult. He was contradictory,
he quizzed me incessantly, he challenged everything I
said, he demanded attention, he could be petty, he
uttered heresies about Africa, he fussed, he mocked,
he made his innocent wife cry, he had impossible
standards, he was self-important, he was obsessive on
the subject of his health. He hated children, music
and dogs. But he was also brilliant, and passionate in
his convictions, and to be with him, as a friend or a
fellow writer, I had always to be at my best.
The two traveled together, Naipaul decked out in bush shirt, bush trousers and
floppy hat, and carrying "a stout walking stick that doubled as a club, should he wish to
disable or brain an attacker" Naipaul instructed Theroux in writing. He rejected
anything false or showy or mannered; he insisted on clarity and simplicity and hard work.
"The truth is messy, he told Theroux. "It is not pretty. Writing must reflect that. Art
must tell the truth." Theroux wrote:
He was the most wide-awake person I had ever trav-
elled with. No-one I had ever met was so devoted to
the art of writing for him literary, creation was a
form of prayer, a disturbing prayer. He was not the
writer as equal, the reader's buddy but rather the
writer as priestly figure
The book that Naipaul was finishing in Western Kenya in 1966 was The Mimic
As Naipaul worked at his craft, he seemed to see less reason for tolerance or
tenderness; the social comedy of the earlier books was turning bleak and dark. In the
book, a failed Caribbean politician, exiled in London, reflects on his career and tries to
make sense of himself by writing. He sees that his Caribbean island is too small for real
independence; he muses on ethnic hurts, the politics of resentment, the wounded culture,
the loss of Indianness, the failure of rationality. Washed up 4,000 miles from home, he
finds that writing is his only defence against apathy, withdrawal and collapse.
The Mimic Men took Naipaul almost two years to write. But almost immediately
he started a new book. The Loss of El Dorado contains two juxtaposed narratives that
delve into Trinidad's darker history. The project took more than two years of primary
research and writing; Naipaul learned that "history" is not just there on the shelf waiting
to be used, but must be created, excavated, re-imagined. The narratives, about Raleigh's
quest for El Dorado and the torture of a young girl in the Port of Spain gaol, deepened
the idea of futility, fantasy and the seeds of collapse.
El Dorado was a massive accomplishment, But it triggered one of the biggest
crises of Naipaul's career. The publisher who had commissioned it lost interest he had
expected a popular history suitable for visitors. In this rejection, Naipaul felt a grief too
deep for rage or tears" He had expected big things of this book; he had planned to leave
England and settle in Canada or even Trinidad. Now that was out of the question.
This bitter experience, however, focused what was to be Naipaul's new material.
He saw himself even more as an enforced expatriate, a stranger and outsider wherever he
went. "I belong nowhere I have no home I am an exile." He wrote: "Nearly all my
adult life had been spent in countries where I was a stranger. I couldn't as a writer go
beyond that experience. To be true to that experience I had to write about people in that
kind of position.
By the early 1970s, Naipaul had retreated to the English countryside, to a small
cottage in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge the setting he described later in The Enigma of
Arrival. The outer defensive crust hardened. He often traveled between books some-
times on commission for magazines. A visit to Trinidad produced a long essay on the
murderer and Black Power apostle Michael X, and a study of messianic fantasy in the
novel Guerrillas. Central Africa produced essays on Mobutu's Congo and the novel A
Bend in the River. Public prestige and endorsement came with the Booker Prize in 1971
(for In a Free State with its complex world of rootlessness the title story drew on his
East African sojourn). Exploring Argentina, Naipaul was briefly arrested, and was
probably lucky not to suffer worse.
Naipaul's protagonists in this period are preoccupied with the making or
re-making of themselves and establishing a place for themselves in the world. They battle
against doubt, passivity, fear of the void. They find themselves adrift, without the
support of family, community or government. Societies crumble around them, sliding
into violence and tyranny. People are uprooted, dislocated, and follow bizarre and
fantastic dreams, and come to appalling ends, like Jane in Guerillas. They are at the
mercy of brutes and exploiters. Well-meaning white liberals and post-colonial experts
(like Bobby and Linda in In a Free State) meddle in other people's societies, dragging
their emotional baggage into unwanted places, just as their colonial predecessors did. All
that remains is the bid for freedom and authenticity in the face of a perilous world; to
make a mark through action and accomplishment.
In this way, Naipaul successfully "globalised" the themes he had developed in
Trinidad and in India. In Wiltshire, after the pain of El Dorado, he had the sense of a
new start. "I had no means of knowing that the landscape by which I was surrounded was
in fact benign, the first landscape to have that quality for me. That I was to heal here
have something like a second life here." He saw his writing as something utterly new and
unique, to be defended at all costs.
He has often referred to the difficulty of writing, the exhaustion and despair that
followed each book, the futility of fiction. But. according to Pat Naipaul in 1979: "I'll
tell you something about him. He believes it has to be agony to work. In fact, it is
Vidia's supreme joy.
A second book on India, A Wounded Civilisation, appeared in the mid 1970s,
revising the insights of An Area ofDarkness; and now, Naipaul started to extend his travel
writing. In 1979 he spent several months travelling in the "converted" Islamic countries
Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia. The result was Among the Believers, which he
finished in 1981, and which began to explore a new approach to travel writing and
He had always had a problem with the traditional approach treating a country
as an exotic backdrop for the adventures of a western traveller and had been searching
for a less condescending way of travelling and seeing. "Now I feel that when you
travel in a country, you, the traveller, are not the most important person; the important
ones are the people you're travelling among."
So the narrator stands back, and a chorus of individual voices emerges on the
page. This technique was steadily developed in the American south (A Turn in the South),
a third exploration of India (A Million Mutinies Now), and a return visit to the Islamic
world d (Beyond Belief).The result was a more objective portrait, denser, without the clear
focus of authorial control, and as many readers objected much harder to read.
In other books, though, Naipaul was focusing more and more closely on himself,
looking inward for meaning and order. In Finding the Centre, The Enigma of Arrival and
a Way of the World, public issues of freedom and rationality gave way to an exploration
of inner realities ways of seeing, ways of understanding history and culture, the process
of writing, the nature of reality. Fiction and travel started to merge with autobiography.
Naipaul returned repeatedly to key experiences in his own life, reworking them from
changing points of view: the memory of starting to write, his father, leaving Trinidad,
early months in England. Building on the structural techniques of El Dorado and In a
Free State, he used juxtaposed narratives to break conventional barriers between fiction
and autobiography, history and travel, setting up a complex web of resonance and
connection across time and space.
The Enigma of Arrival, for example, a book cited by the Nobel committee, is a
meticulous, detailed description of beginning a new life in Wiltshire, and learning to read
and interpret a new culture and landscape ("like a Soviet dissident going home to Gorky,"
joked Walcott). It is about refocusing perception, the constant adjustment needed to
pursue the truth. The title comes from a de Chirico painting: the traveller's arrival in a
nameless place, stripped of context, the journey with no return. Naipaul saw himself now
- the Indian Trinidadian exile, washed up in post-imperial England, writing about African
and Asian and South American distress as part of a vast historical canvas of change and
flux, decay and rejuvenation, affecting everyone and everywhere, even the seemingly
timeless world of rural England. The decayed estate on which he settled in Wiltshire,
with its tenant cottage and deranged aristocratic landlord, provided a perfect image of
People could find their space in this world; could survive, achieve, struggle for
individual identity and security, against illness and mortality, age and chaos. In a way,
"Enigma" is a counterpart and sequel to Mr. Biswas. In it, Biswas junior rides another
wave of exile, but finds and creates a house of his own.
Naipaul told an interviewer in 1981: "Someone asked me many years ago what
I enjoyed best this was before my sensual life really kindled, and I named three things:
I like meeting new people, I take great delight in landscape, and I like a nicely arranged
dinner party where one feels cherished.
Naipaul's "sensual life" apparently kindled in Argentina during the 1970s. It's
a subject that strikes many readers of his books the complaints of sexual awkwardness,
the idea that sex and romantic love are dangerous distractions, the joyless and even brutal
sexual encounters of A Bend in the River and Guerillas, the sense that attachment is
dangerous and that love cannot last. "Wife is a terrible word," he once remarked. He
told an American interviewer in 1995 that he had once been "a great prostitute man" "To
me," he once said, "one of the ugliest sights on earth is a pregnant woman.
When Patricia Naipaul died in 1996, after 41 years of marriage, Naipaul quickly
married again a Pakistani journalist many years younger than him while he was
working on Beyond Belief, his second Islamic book. The only other books to appear for
the rest of the 1990s were two short essays under the title On Reading and Writing, and
a collection of letters between Vidia, Seepersad and his sister Kamla, dating from Oxford
days and put together by his agent.
But in March 1999 he started on a new novel, which appeared shortly before the
Nobel award last year. Half a Life, on the face of it, seemed to be a return to straight
fictional narrative, despite the obvious autobiographical echoes. Its Indian protagonist,
Willie Chandran, has a self-made but inadequate pundit father, who marries a low-caste
"backward", so that Willie and his sister Sarojini are cross-caste and by definition
dislocated. Willie escapes to London, goes through some grim and joyless sexual
experiences, and complains bitterly about his sexual naivete. He soaks up knowledge
hungrily, discovers how to recreate or re-present himself to other people as the occasion
requires. He writes for the BBC, publishes a book of stories. He meets a kindred spirit
in Ana, a student from Mozambique, and goes back to Africa to live with her and her
family. He stays there for 18 years, works on his sexual skills, and has a satisfying affair.
How awful, he thinks, to have died without "this depth of satisfaction, this other person
that I had discovered within myself. It was worth any price, any consequence"
But Ana's Portuguese world is closed and crumbling; a guerrilla war is in
progress, people are leaving. Nothing lasts. Willie concludes that he has failed to live
his own life; instead of accomplishing, something and making his mark on the world,
"The best part of my life is gone, and I have done nothing. I've been hiding for too
long." He leaves Africa and joins his sister, who has married a German and lives in
Germany; he wonders what would have happened to her without the German "to take her
away" from India. He tells her that he has been living Ana's life, not his own. "I
depended on her for my idea of being a man" Ana's final comment to him had been:
"Perhaps it wasn't my life either."
There the book ends, not with a bang but a whimper. This, Naipaul seems to
say, is what happens if you compromise yourself instead of using every reserve of
intelligence and will to achieve:you live a pointless, futile half-life in a crumbling world.
Paul Theroux, now estranged from Naipaul, denounced the book as "the
slightest [he] has ever written, and unquestionably the weirdest. It is certainly sad,
bleak, stark; everybody is adrift, nobody has a whole life. But it is entirely consistent.
"If you don't strive," Naipaul said in 1983, "then the mind is unengaged, and if the mind
is unengaged, then life must be a little worthless...It is open to anybody to do, to act. I
think it is wrong of people to say that they don't do, they don't act, and that therefore they
are entitled to consideration just because they are"
The thought and writing in Half a Life are as clinical as anything Naipaul has
done. It is hard to connect this rigour with the flippant provocations Naipaul offered the
public last year in the course of promoting the book, wading into everything from the
"calamatous" effect of Islam to the sexual habits of E. M. Forster and John Maynard
Anger, Naipaul has said, "unhinges judgement and almost physically limits
vision" but creates a "moment of exalted shrinking lucidity" As early as 1971, he
confessed, "I may sit down in an enormous rage to write something; I might even begin
in terms of caricature and animosity; but in the course of writing something will happen.
That side of me, that comes out in writing, is the better side, and better not because it's
nicer because it's truer.
Naipaul rarely gives interviews, and has always insisted on being judged by his
work. "I do not believe in natural genius," he told Derek Walcott in an early interview
(1965). "I do believe in the spontaneous outpouring of soul." Critics who praise his style
soon discover their mistake. Style is merely a matter of hard thinking; it is knowing
exactly what you want to say "Style in itself has no value. I just try to write as clearly
as I can to let those thoughts appear on the page I don't want the style to stand out, I don't
want the word to get in the way
Four hundred words, he said in 1994, constitute a good day's writing. He drafts
in longhand, transfers text to the screen, and prints it out so he can "play with it" There
might be two or three good days a week, with luck. When travelling he concentrates hard
to remember what people say. "I have always used a little notebook, which I write in
later. With a tape recorder the conversation would not be concentrated. One would
babble. One would not get the exercise of mind and memory that the need to write would
give you. And truthful writing is bound to hurt. "I think that unless one hears a little
squeal of pain after one has done some writing, one has not really done much. That is
gauge of whether I have hit something true.
What upsets the Caribbean about Naipaul is the sense of being weighed in the
balance by a man who couldn't stay in the region, who identifies himself with a
metropolis; and the implication that nothing the Caribbean does can stand beside the
metropolitan way of doing things. Although it is based on a misunderstanding, that hurts,
and the hurt is real.
But everyone has to find their own comfort zone. Those who are adrift in the
world can run aground in an unexpected place so it is futile to fault Naipaul for embracing
a "benign landscape" to judge his work by his public provocations and indiscretions, his
trampling on nationalistic sanctities, his insistence that people and places should be
different from what they are. Comfort and encouragement are not Naipaul's calling. In
his work he made himself naked before his readers. He decided that a writer's duty is to
be wholly honest with himself, without compromise, and to tell the truth as he sees it,
never mind the consequences.
Like it or not, that is what he has done.
*Reproduced with permission from BEAT Profile from BWIA, Carbbean Beat,
BWIA's in-flight magazine, Jan-Feb. 2002
Three News Items
In an interview with the Trinidad Express yesterday, V.S. Naipaul's sister
Kamla Tewarie embraced the award to her brother as a tribute in honour to their father
The extraordinary, mentoring relationship that VS Naipaul shared with his
father, journalist-writer Surujprasad Naipaul, is captured in 'the amazing collection of
letters'that passed between two of them and Kamla from 1950, when Naipaul went to
Britain, and 1953, when his father died of a heart attack. Surujprasad Naipaul was 47.
The letters are published in V.S.Naipaul: Letters Between a Father and Son
Following are exerpts from two letters,the first from the father, the second
from Vidia Naipaul.
I have done a long short story- A thing I had worked
on spasmodically a long time ago. I think I begin
to see how the great writers go to work-when there
is nothing else to do but to write; and when they
know that editors are actually anxiously waiting for
their stories, novels or articles. You feel lazy only
until you approach the task.
Then you get absorbed. Literary work is a matter of
single devotion. You type or write till noon. Then
you eat and relax or mooch around the microscopic
flower patch; or sleep. When you get up you are
ready to have another go. That's how it has been
with me. I feel so darned cocksure that I can
produce a novel within six months if only I had
nothing else to do.
This is impossible. But I want to give you just this
chance. When your university studies are over, if
you do get a good job, all well and good; if you do
not, you have not got to worry one little bit. You will
come home and do what I am longing to do now: just
write; and read and do the things you like to do.
This is where I want to be of use to you. I want you
to have that chance which I have never had: some-
body to support me and mine while I write. Two or
three years of this should be enough.
If by you have not arrived, then it will be time enough for you to see about getting a
job. Think over this thing. I mean every word of it. I doubt you will ever be satisfied
with a mere job. I know nothing else will make you happy. I mean nothing but literary
success will make you happy.
(From a letter to VS from his father Surujprasad Naipaul, 8 March, 1952)
"Peace of mind is the most thing one can have in this
world, ambitions have to be abandoned it is desirable.
I cannot tell you what my three-month illness brought
me. I have to take things easily. It is like muddy
water that must be left so that the mud sinks to the
bottom leaving the water clean on top. When, at the
beginning of April, I slowly pulled myself out, I had
to pause and look at the debris around me. I have
been clearing it away this term.
Of course I know the reason for my breakdown:
loneliness, and lack of affection. You see, a man
isn't a block of wood that is sent abroad and receives
two notches as a sign of education. He is much more.
He feels and thinks. Some people, alas, feel more
and think more than others and they suffer. It is no
good thinking that the sensitive man is happier or
greater. No one cares for your tragedy until you can
sing about it, and you require peace of mind to do
From a letter by V.S. to his family, June 2, 1952
* Reproduced with permission, Trinidad Express, October 12, 2001
"I thought I was no longer running".
NEW YORK (AP) In an interview after the announcement of the Nobel Prize
award, Naipaul commented: "I thought I was no longer in the running, you know, I
thought I had fallen away.
Long rumoured as a Nobel candidate, Naipaul is the first writer of Indian descent
to win since Rabindranath Tagore.
British author Martin Amis said yesterday he was delighted by Naipaul's win.
"His level of perception is of the highest, and his prose has become the perfect instrument
for realizing those perceptions on the page" Amis said, adding that Naipaul's travel
writing "is perhaps the most important body of work of its kind in the second half of the
The Nobel Literature prize, first awarded to French author Sully Prudhomme in
1901, is worth US,$943,000 in this centennial year.
The Head of the Swedish Academy, Horace Engdalit, conceded that this year's
choice might be seen as political in the wake of terrorist attacks in the United States and
the American retaliation. "What he's really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it
has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along that it tends to obliterate the
proceeding culture," Engdahl said.
At a reading in London last week, Naipaul condemned what he called the
"calamitous effect" of Islam and compared it to colonialism. "To be converted, you have
to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say, 'My
ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter," he said.
Asked by The Associated Press how he would celebrate winning the Nobel,
Naipaul replied: "I don't have the talent for celebrating. Maybe Ill lust stop worrying for
a day or two.
Naipaul has been in the news lately, and not just because of his views on Islam.
In a recent interview. He mocked EM Forster, author of A Passage to India and
other novels. "He just knew the court and a few middle-class Indians and a few garden
boys whom he wished to seduce," Naipaul told the Literary Review. He also took on
James Joyces Ulysses, saying that "Joyce was going blind" and I can't understand the
work of "a blind writer."
Like Joyce, Ireland's famous exile Naipaul has an uneasy relationship with his
native country. As a student at Oxford, he wrote to his family: "I shall die if I had to
spend the rest of my life in Trinidad." Referring to the English, he vowed "to beat them
at their own language"
Naipaul has never written a full length memoir, but his books document a
personal and literary journey.
There is nothing romantic about Naipaul's travels and his books question those
who can't differentiate between the 'gold" of the mind and the "lead" of reality: rebels in
Africa, clerics in Iran and explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh, who set sail for the New
World and caused great bloodshed in search of the nonexistent El Dorado. Naipaul told
the AP in 2000.
"If you come from the New World, as I in large
measure do, you see all the absurd fantasies people
have taken there and the troubles they have wrought
as a result,
(from, "A Tribute to Naipaul" The Trinidad Express, 12 October, 2001)
Professor says Naipaul can find his identity in Trinidad and Tobago
Prize winner, V S. Naipaul's quest for identity might lie right here in Trinidad. This was
the view expressed by panellist Professor Gordon Rohlehr at a function held by the
University of the West Indies Learning Resource Centre (St. Augustine) yesterday to
celebrate the renowned success of the Trinidadian born author who was viewed in
Caribbean and a global context.
"What lies at the route of the love-hate relationship Nauipaul has with Trinidad and Tobago
is his constant quest for identity and his quest for an ancestor. He is constantly trying to
locate himself" Said Rohlehr. "He is searching for a kind of wholeness which he has not
seemed to have found in Trinidad, but he does not want to entertain the possibility that his
quest for a search can be right here", he added.
In references to his homeland, Naipaul's hate as apposed to his affection for Trinidad and
Tobago is more evident, Rohlehr indicated. He compared it to a family squabble. In a
statement issued by publishing agency Colman Getty earlier this month, Naipaul paid
tribute to both "England my home, and to India, home of my ancestors"
Rohlehr also noted that some of Naipaul's novels convey an "almost anti-feminist
streak", where the female characters are usually portrayed as shallow and empty headed.
And always in search of high profile men to fulfil them.
However Naipaul, who left Trinidad in the 1950s, was commended for his respect of
the Creole language as evident in his literature.
"There are so many people still living in the Caribbean who cannot write Creole as
proficiently as Naipaul", indicated panellist Dr. Merle Hodge, who described Naipaul as
a "closet Creole speaker" The Creole influence has inhabited him since he has left
T&T, and this itself is evidence of his belongingness, she added. "He did not find that
kind of identity he was looking for in India," said Rohlehr. He noted that when Naipaul's
characters speak Hindi, it is translated into well-pruned Standard English, but when
creole is used for dialogue, it is not translated in his books. (Newsday, Sunday,Oct. 28,
Extracts from Two Letters to the Editor.
Perhaps some of us in Trinidad and Tobago and the developing world who
hold VS Naipaul in such high esteem are disappointed that in this, his momentous hour,
he pays tribute to Britain, his adopted land, and the land of his ancestors, India, instead
of heaping accolades on his native Trinidad and Tobago, the land that nurtured his earliest
ambitions and hopes, the land which gave him the nation's highest award.
Read carefully, I have not blamed Naipaul, the revered son of Chaguanas, who
once described us as a nation of mimic-men, mind you, in the most profound British
accent. Yes, I can understand Naipaul paying tribute to the land of his ancestors and his
domicile but at least he could have recognized Mother Trinidad and Tobago as the place
which gave him that initial step towards a life filled with international admiration and
respect. If anything, we must all congratulate Naipaul for demonstrating so visibly his
true impressions of this motherland of his.
...I am sure Trinidad and Tobago's nationals the world over are happy over this
achievement but will most certainly condem the great writer for his absolute disrespect
and disregard for Trinidad and Tobago. Maybe if we had remained a bhagi and dhal
nation always, Naipaul may have found some comfort in us as a people worthy of sharing
in his Nobel prize"
"The Nobel prize and US$943,000 are not to be sneered at, and Vidia Naipaul
must be congratulated for receiving such a hefty pension after a life-long devotion to his
craft. However, Naipaul is a tragic figure. He is undoubtedly a talented writer of prose
but, curiously, his writing provides no rich or new insights into the human condition or
the dynamics of particular societies. It reflects a pervasively negative perspective on the
world, one which reflects, I think, a certain self-loathing for being a marginal man,
neither here nor there, but wishing to be more there than here. It says more about the
author than the subject.
It is his tragedy that he left for England at too early an age. Had he lived in
Trinidad longer, he might have had the more mature view that it was not "lacking in
culture and creativity", that it possessed a richness and depth only Trinis could know. As
a well-taught colonial, he views the "culture" of England as the supreme standard.
Inevitably, he is unable to explore and appreciate the content and dynamics of Trinidad's
culture, an exploration that would have given his work meaning and depth.
Ashamed of his origins, disdainful of the land of his birth, and rejected by his
chosen country, he became a resentful outsider with a prickly personality On one hand,
he is unable to write with passion and deep insight into the human condition of
Trinidad: On the other hand, he does not enjoy the longed-for sense of belonging or
acceptance as one of us" by the English, nor can he provide the feel of England that only
native-born English writers (irrespective of ethnicity) can provide. He must, of neces-
sity, write as an outsider, a carping foreign observer... "
RESPONSE ii. From the International Press
The announcement that the Trinidadian-born author V S. Naipaul had been
awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature came only 36 days after the events of
September II. Those who would ordinarily have taken an interest in this decision by the
Swedish Academy were, like nearly everyone else, still blindsided by shock, grief and
fear; press coverage of Naipaul's laureate felt perfunctory and cramped, hemmed in by
the crush of breaking news. What would certainly, in a normal October, have prompted
a fractious literary and political controversy was swamped by events.
It may yet erupt, given time. For Naipaul is the first Nobel author in many years
with whom it is possible for readers and critics to disagree: not just about whether he is
good enough to deserve the prize (the usual, bootless debate over academy choices) but
about his central interpretation of the world. Had he stuck to the novels on which his
reputation grew during the 1960s and 1970s, Naipaul could claim immunity from all but
aesthetic judgments of his work. But he began devoting ever more of his time and energy
to nonfiction, to recording his travels through the postcolonial worlds of Africa, South
America and India, the home of his ancestors. Born in a backwater of the British Empire,
Naipaul wanted to see what people newly liberated from European dominance would
make of themselves and their societies. He hoped to bring a novelist's eye to a vast story
with a cast of hundreds of millions unfolding in real time: "I have no unifying theory of
things," he has said. "To me, situations and people are always specific, always of
themselves. That is why one travels and writes: to find out."
What he found out, and recorded in book after book, appalled him, and many
critics: "The new politics, the curious reliance of men on institutions they were yet
working to undermine, the simplicity of beliefs and the hideous simplicity of actions, the
corruption of causes, half-made societies that seemed doomed to remain half-made...
Outsiders, of course, were not supposed to say such things about the Third
World. Western liberals had developed a new orthodoxy-cultural relativism-which
outlawed judgments of one society based on the standards of another. Naipaul evidently
missed this news. In 1979, prompted by the revolution in Iran, he began travelling
through non-Arab Muslim countries, tracking the eastern spread of Islamic fundamental-
ism though Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia. In the book that followed, Among the
Believers (1981), he unembarrassedly referred to "The West, or the universal civilization
it leads" and argued that the rejection of Western values is "a way of ceasing to strive
intellectually, it is to be parasitic; parasitism is one of the unacknowledged fruits of
Such assertions of cultural supremacy are anathema among educated Western-
ers. Did members of the Swedish Academy understand just how reactionary Naipaul's
views are, given the current climate, and then courageously award him the prize anyhow?
It would be pretty to think so, but the evidence suggests that the members misunderstood
or misread Naipaul's message. The Nobel citation singled out the author's novel/memoir
The Enigma of Arrival (1987) for special praise and described it as "an unrelenting image
of the placid collapse of the old colonial ruling culture and the demise of European
neighborhoods. This summary suggests that Naipaul is somehow celebrating that
colonial "collapse" and "demise" from the perspective of a onetime outsider who has
lived to see the interments of the old oppressors.
The burden of this melancholy book is precisely the opposite. Having made the
physical and intellectual journey from Trinidad to England, "traveling," as he has often
described it, "from the periphery to the centre," Naipaul settles in a cottage on an estate
near Stonehenge and then watches as, over the years, the landscape and society around
him decline and diminish. The Enigma of Arrival is not a celebration but a dirge for a
vanishing order that Naipaul loves.
Defending Naipaul isn't always easy; even his champions sometimes find him
unsympathetic. His comments on other writers have tended toward the vitriolic, whether
he is assailing the "nastiness" of E. M. Forster's homosexuality or dismissing the author
of Ulysses: "Joyce was going blind and I can't understand the work of a blind writer."
After a friendship of 30 years fell apart in 1966, Paul Theroux wrote a stinging
denunciation of his former mentor in Sir Vidia's Shadow. Theroux's Naipaul emerges as
egotistical, stingy and given to racist slurs, in private referring to Arabs as "Mr.Woggy"
and Africans as "bow-and-arrow men."
Assuming this is accurate: So what? Great writers need not be, indeed regularly
aren't, nice people. It is through his books that Naipaul's true value emerges: through the
supple, unobtrusive power of his prose, through the accumulation of scrupulously precise
details into a pattern of aesthetic and moral authority. If he is thoughtless or cruel in his
personal dealings, he always treats the people in his books with respect; he manifestly
wants for them the best they can make of themselves and grieves when he senses that they
will not succeed in transcending their constrictions
Finally, Naipaul has undertaken arduous journeys that most of the rest of us will
not or cannot make. His reports back from these remote regions may have angered those
who saw jingoism in his advocacy of Western values: the enlightenment ideals of the free
play of inquiring minds and the disinterested pursuit of the truth. Without a hint of
modish irony, Naipaul said of the notion of the pursuit of happiness that "it fits all men....
It is an immense human idea.' Those who found his views uncritical or naive might, in
the aftermath of September 11, want to take another look.
*Reprinted with permission, The Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., Feb.2002
Nobel in Literature Goes to Naipaul, an Explorer of Exile
V S. Naipaul, the eloquent Trinidad-born English writer who uses fiction,
nonfiction and sometimes a fusion of the two to explore themes of exile, dislocation, and
the agoilizing dilemmas of postcolonial societies, was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in
Literature today by the Swedish Academy in Stockholm.
In its citation for the award, worth $943,000 this year, the academy praised Mr.
Naipiul, the author of more than 25 books, for "having united perceptive narrative and
incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.
Mr. Naipaul, 69, likes to be left in peace, and was reluctant to take today's
telephone call that turned out to be from the Swedish Academy president informing him
that he had won the prize, he said in an interview. It was not until his wife Nadia, told
him that "a desperate Swedish man wants to speak to you" that Mr. Naipaul agreed to
get up from his desk and come to the phone.
Speaking by telephone from his house in Salisbury, Mr. Naipaul said the news
had caught him unawares "I had a gloomy night, and when I got up this morning, I was
trying to get energised," he said. "All I wanted was a piece of luck in my life." He asked
the Swedish caller whether the call was a hoax, and was told it was not.
"I said it was unexpected, completely unexpected," Mr. Naipaul said. "I don't
stand for any country he acknowledged that and said they were honoured that I would get
the award in the 100h year of the Nobel prizes That moved me It is a very gracious gift.
Mr. Naipaul's works are set in many places, and explore many themes, but he
is best known for his knowing depictions of Trinidad, where he was born and reared; for
his explorations of modern day India, his ancestral land, and for his bleak, unsparing,
portraits of postcolonial countries in Africa, Asia and South America. His fiction is often
highly autobiographical, returning again and again to the themes of alienation, the
burdens of the past, and the confusions of the future.
On several occasions he has announced that the novel is dead, but last month
he Published in Britain a new novel, "Halfa Life, his first in seven years. (it is to be
published later this month in the United States).
Many critics have lavished praise on Mr. Naipaul's elegant prose style and his
ability to address big issues through the accretion of telling detail. "Though he is a
marveollous technician, there is something finally modest, personal, openly committed
about his fiction, a frankness of personal reference that removes him from the godlike
personality of the novelist, Alfed Kazin wrote in a review of In A Free State (1971) in
The New York Review of Books.
Known for his surliness toward journalists and his penchant for sweeping,
bad-tempered statements about topics from the welfare state, (he is against it) to the works
of contemporary novelists (he is against them, too), Mr, Naipaul found himself the
subject of a bitter attack by the writer Paul Theroux once one of his closest friends, in
1998. In "Sir Vidia's Shadow," a book about the breakdown of their friendship, Mr.
Theroux portrayed Mr. Naipaul as cheap, vain, misogynistic and misanthropic.
Mr. Naipaul's detractors accuse him most frequently of being an unconstructed
pessimist who writes with contempt and score about the third world and its problems.
The poet Derek Walcott, another West Indian and Nobel laureate, has criticized him for
what Mr. Walcott calls his "abhorrence of Negroes."
Not everyone agrees.
Half a Life confirms Naipaul's stature as the greatest living analyst of the
colonial and postcolonial dilemma," the critic James Wood wrote recently in The New
Statesman, "Those who have never approved of that analysis, and have objected over the
years to what they see as Naipaul's fatalism, snobbery or even racism may find in this
book the surprise of a submerged radicalism, a willingness to see things from the eyes of
In several books, most recently Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the
Converted Peoples, Mr.Naipaul has written unflatteringly about the rise of Arabic
fundamentalism basing his views on travel in non-Arabic places like Indonesia, Iran,
Pakistan and Malaysia. In a recent reading in London, he condemned Islam's "calami-
tous effect" and compared it to Western colonialism. Some critics have said that his view
of Islam is simplistic and wrong.
The Swedish Academy has often given Nobels to writers with decidedly political
agendas it gave the 2000 prize to Gao Xingjian, a Chinese dissident and exile but
Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the academy, said that Mr. Naipaul's
conclusions in Beyond Belief were more subtle than perhaps he had been given credit for.
"What he's really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it has in common
with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding
cultures," he told The Press Association. "To be converted you have to destroy your
past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say, 'My ancestral
Culture does not exist, it doesn't matter.'"
Doubly displaced, Vidiadhar Surijprasad Naipaul has spent a life-time pondering
his place in the world, trying to square his own ancestral culture with that of his birthplace
and that of England, the country he adopted as his home. He was born in Chaguanas,
Trinidad, in 1932, the grandson of a Hindu in the Brahmin caste from the north of India
who had moved to Trinidad to work on the sugar plantations. His father Seepersad,
desperately wanted to be a fiction writer but had to settle for working at the local
newspaper, The Trinidad Guardian.
The young Mr. Naipaul grew up poor but with a burning desire fully
supported by his ambitious father to succeed in the wider world, and when he was 18 he
went to England on a Trinidad government scholarship to University College, Oxford.
Mr. Naipaul felt lonely and isolated, and his alienation was not helped by the rejection of
several early attempts at fiction. But he had more success with a series of satirical novels
set in Trinidad, including "The Mystic Masseur" (1957).
He had his first great success with "A House for Mr. Biswas" (1961), a novel
which was also set in Trinidad and in which the protagonist was based, very affection-
ately, on Mr. Naipaul's father. He then turned his attention outward, describing with
increasing dismay the effects of colonialism and emerging nationalism.
Among his other best-known works are In a Free State (1971), an acid portrayal
of exiles in Africa which won the Booker Prize that year; "A Bend in the River" (1979),
another novel about Africa and the dislocation and chaos brought by post-colonial power,
struggles; and The Enigma of Arrival (1987), an autobiographical novel set around a
decaying native English estate and its ailing landlord.
Mr. Naipaul has also been acclaimed for, A Way in the World (1994) a
sprawling work that attempts to fuse many of his favourite themes, freely mixing fiction
and non-fiction novel and memoir, history and imagination. "At its heart, this novel is a
probing meditation on the relationships among the personal, national and world histo-
ries", wrote Brent Staples in a review of the book in The New York Times.
In 1990 Mr.Naipaul, the ultimate outsider, received the ultimate insider's
accolade: a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, although he doesn't officially, use his title.
His first wife, Patricia died in 1996; soon afterward he married Nadia Khannun Alvi,
a Pakistani journalist. He has lived in Salisbury, near Stonehenge since the 1970's, but
has never admitted to belonging anywhere. He prefers to describe himself as "the
world's writer," unattached to any one tradition. "It came to me that the great novelists
wrote about highly organized societies" he wrote once in an essay. "I had no such
society; I couldn't share the assumptions of the writers; I did not see my world reflected
In its citation, the Swedish Academy praised Mr. Naipaul for using that
quality to his advantage: "V S. Naipaul is a literary circumnavigator, only ever really at
home in himself, in his inimitable voice."
*Reprinted, with permission, The New York Times, International, October 12, 2001
Strange News From Sweden:
The Nobel Prize goes to a writer of actual merit *
The V in V.S. Naipaul, this year's Nobel laureate for literature stands for
Vidiadhar, a Sanskrit compound word that translates literally into English as a bearer of
learning or more effectively erudite. The name is fussy and uncommon I have met only
one other person so called in all my years, and he was a most unpromising boy in my
grade school in India and, as such, is rather appropriate for Mr. Naipaul, who is fussy,
and uncommon, and undeniably wise.
For the Swedish Academy, Mr. Naipaul was an odd and unexpected choice, and
one is tempted to ask, on hearing of his success, what the academicians have been puffing
in their pipes of late. After all, the writer recently administered a very public spanking
to both E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes for being homosexual. This must,
surely, have counted against him in the collective consciousness of a corps whose record
shows a marked bias in favour of the liberal and the leftist, not to mention the
meritricious -one that has given us such tawdry laureates as Dario Fo and Toni Morrison.
And a week ago, as the West paused briefly on the brink of war in Afghanistan, Mr.
Naipaul spoke out loud, with exquisite political incorrectness, of the "calamitous effect"
of Islam on the peoples who converted to that religion in the course of its history.
A Brave Decision
The award of the Nobel to Mr. Naipaul is the academy's bravest decision since
1981, when Elias Canetti was plucked from a wholly unmerited obscurity and given the
global gleam he deserved. Yet the bravery is here greater than in Cantetti's case. An
academy must expect to cope with indeed, can be expected to relish an inquisition of
the "Elias who?" variety. After all, there is a romance in being able to exhort people to
read someone they have not, as yet, read. But choosing Mr. Naipaul as laureate at a time
when Western civilization is under assault by the forces of barbarism is an explicit act of
affirmation, a clear expression of preference for a particular philosophy. One might call
it an act of cultural celebration or, just as easily, an act of defiance.
A decade ago, in a lecture to New York's Manhattan Institute, Mr. Naipaul
referred to western civilization as "our universal civilization. His manner was not
triumphal, and the tone of his words was quiet, even gentle. The beauty of this
civilization is that it enshrines "the idea of the pursuit of happiness the idea of the
individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and
perfectibility and achievement." Such a society, be said, "cannot generate fanaticism: To
be fanatical, after all, would be to be intellectually dishonest, and sterile".
There is a flavour of this idea in the opening lines of A Bend in the River, his
novel from 1979. The lines echo the chilling admonition in King Lear, in which Lear
tells Cordelia that "nothing can come of nothing": ,The world is what it is; men who are
nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it." Mr. Naipaul has,
in, fact, courted great unpopularity with this idea, especially in its extension to entire
societies, which he often condemns for their sterility and dys-function
In a refinement of this idea (made in the Manhattan Institute lecture), be laments
the case of a young poet in Java, whose mother does not understand her son's vocation.
How could he write poetry, she wonders, if the epics have already been written, What
more is there to say? Indeed, the sacred texts note, here, the inability of some societies
to take seriously the idea of a text that is not literally sacred already existed. They had
"only to be learnt or consulted.
This our respective approaches to texts and words is at the heart of Western
civilization's differences with the Islamic world and the place where the greatest chasm
lies- Mr. Naipaul, for whom the word is a vocation, is disturbed by Islam's textual
rigidities and by its inability to allow the word to slip into secular grasp. Above all, he is
disturbed by that religion's tendency to turn men into "nothing" and by the willingness of
that religion's adherents to allow themselves to become nothing.
This nothingness, this embrace of cipher status, extends also to the erasure, as
Mr. Naipaul sees it, of history in Muslim lands. He has written in Beyond Belief: Islamic
Excursions Among the Converted Peoples that the conquests, and conversions to Islam,
conducted by Arab armies in lands to the east of Arabia were more destructive of local
histories, and of local self-images, than even the worst excesses of Western colonialism.
it is not uncommon to hear Pakistanis, for example, describe dates as their favourite fruit,
instead of the local mango. In this cultural genuflection to the desert lands of Arabia, one
sees trivial, but telling, evidence of what Mr. Naipaul detests the de-racination by Islam
of "converted peoples."
A Ruthless Geometry
For telling this truth, Mr. Naipaul has been attacked in the Islamic world, as well
as in the West by liberals who see no harm in projecting all societies as equal and as
equally "valid. But the latest Nobel laureate is not an easy man to dislodge. The
precision of his language and thought are inseparable, and since his assertions are not
made for effect but are the product of a brahminical rigour he is hard to fulminate against.
One may not like Mr. Naipaul's conclusions or agree with them, but one cannot deny the
ruthless geometry of his methods and his skill in the arts of disconnection.These
intellectual strengths are also like literary forte. Overt displays of erudition are not his
style which is, instead, to convey in his writing a deeper, slower accumulation of
His literary method, even so, ranges widely, from the palpable menace of
Guerrillas to the serene story-telling of his masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, where
his scrupulousness of observation is shown in all its elegance.
Perhaps Mr. Naipaul's greatest achievement in an incontinent age, has been to
add a layer of orthodoxy to the tradition of English literature. He is not experimental, not
obsessed with form, and hence cannot be given distracting labels. Comparisons with
Joseph Conrad are made, and are useful, because Conrad was a Pole who was in love with
the English language and literature. Like Conrad, Mr. Naipaul came to live in Britain -
"from the periphery to the centre, to use his own words, the periphery being his native
Trinidad and made good by absorbing the great, solid virtue of Western values as
practiced (and preached) in that country. He was once much hated for taking that
metropolitan position by Third World, postcolonial intellectuals, but how wise it all
*Reproduced with permission from The Wall St. Journal, October 12, 2001.
Naipaul: More Right than Wrong*
Since I had met V.S. Naipaul several times in Trinidad and have admired his
work for many years, I was pleased when in October he got the Nobel Prize for
Literature. It should have been no surprise, however, that the announcement re-awak-
ened many of the controversies that swarm around this singular writer.
Although Naipaul's brilliance with words and ability to see below the surface are
well recognized, critics contend that he unfairly imposes on his subjects the dark vision of
poor societies that is a residue of his youth in Trinidad.
In fact, Naipaul has left a trail of resentment in the wake of books on a number
of countries and peoples.
Start with his own Trinidad, the setting for the author's greatest work, A House
for Mr. Biswas (1961). The hostility there toward Naipaul came home to me in 1990 as I
listened to a government Minister tout Trinidad's virtues to a group of potential foreign
investors. The Minister listed a handful of Trinidadians who had achieved international
renown, including beauty queens and sports stars. The name V.S. Naipaul, easily the
best-known and most widely acclaimed Trinidadian in the world, never escaped his lips.
Then there is Africa. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (1979), a pessimistic story
about an East African country being run into the ground by a home-grown dictator,
alienated many. Some seemed to find in it a mean-spirited rejection of the efforts of
ex-colonies to emerge from a troubled past, offering no hope for the future.
And then there is radical Islam, the subject of a withering depiction in Among the
Believers (1981). I thought the book made it clear that Naipaul was directing his disfavour
not at a country or a religion but at extremist Muslim minorities in various countries with
pretensions to secular power. And he criticised them not so much for their violent
tendencies as for their repressive views on women and their lack of ideas on how to attack
real problems like poverty and poor education.
But that didn't stop his critics from labelling Naipaul anti-Muslim. In fact, one
commentator wondered whether the Nobel Committee's conferral of the prize on Naipaul
might be seen as a slap in the face of Muslims everywhere at a time when Western
governments badly need Islamic co-operation for the war on terrorism.
At a small dinner party in Port-of-Spain a decade ago, I asked Naipaul whether
he was not worried that Among the Believers might expose him to the same kind of threats
from certain Muslims to which The Satanic Verses had exposed Salmon Rushdie. He
said no, that he had merely recorded what those he interviewed had told him, and that
there had been little criticism of his book by the subjects themselves.
My own view is that Naipaul has been proved much more right than wrong. He
has argued that a government based strictly on the Koran, the kind of theocracy attempted
by the mullahs in Iran, will be backward and oppressive.
He has made his point by asking what he told me were "naive questions" and
letting the pretenders themselves describe the kind of society they wanted.
The conclusion seems unassailable. It ought not to be news that theocracies,
whether Islamic or Christian or of any other stripe, don't work. Similarly, the West
needed someone to point out, in the 1970s and 1980s, that dictators like Idi Amin and
Mobutu Sese and other well-known but less egregious strongmen were doing a horrible
disservice to their peoples, often under a cloud of socialist rhetoric. Naipaul blazed the
way in exposing them. But, Naipaul's critics charge, the author is purely negative. He
lays bare corruption and bad governance, but offers no solutions. I imagine Naipaul's
reply would be, "I'm a writer. That is not my department.
Naipaul's well-known tendency to be contemptuous of the Caribbean is less easy
for me to defend. The facts of which his own success is one don't support him. I
notice, however, signs of that over the last decade, including Trinidad's offer, and the
writer's acceptance, of the Trinity Cross in 1990. And I was pleased to read in the
Sunday Gleaner of October 21 that Rex Nettleford, acting in his capacity as UWI Vice
Chancellor, had fired off a warm letter of congratulations to the new Nobel winner on the
day of the announcement.
Let all eyes now be on December 10, the day of Naipaul's acceptance speech in
Stockholm.It will be a chance for him to acknowledge his ties to Trinidad and to the West
Indian culture that helped form him. Will he? Let's be optimistic.
*Reproduced with permission, The Daily Gleaner, November 23, 2001, A4. (Lacy
Wright is a U.S.Diplomat who was posted in Jamaica. He writes from Washington D.C.)