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Category: Profiles Date: 14 Oct 01

I must have been 13, not long arrived from India, when I first read VS Naipaul’s short stories from ‘A Flag in the Island’ in the English literature class, Bishop’s High School in Tobago. For a teenager who had crossed continents, it was to be as potent an introduction into the culture and history of this island as those carefree days in Scarborough.


As an adolescent who, up to then, had spent almost her whole life moving around India - shifting between civilian and army life, Hindu and Muslim family, colonial and nationalist India - Naipaul’s stories resonated. It was another splintered world of contradictions.


After getting through ‘A House for Mr Biswas’, I didn’t need a history lesson to understand the cultural space occupied by the Indians in this country. Hanuman House and its inhabitants, and Nepaul Street must have entered my psyche as unconsciously as the taste of seasalt in my mouth and hair as I walked home from school.


Naipaul’s characters were universal as they were in any of the other classics we read at school. But it was his recurring themes of sense of loss of identity, of searching combined with the domineering reality of British colonialism resulting in the schizophrenia (superbly climaxed in the final paragraph of The Mystic Masseur) struck a corresponding cord in me (as it must have in millions of diaspora hybrids like myself).


In ‘My Aunt Gold Teeth’ (1967) - the story of a Trinidadian woman who adds Christianity to her Hinduism - the incongruous clash of several continents, religions, superstitions, takes place in the colonial pantry. Naipaul gets that. It tortures and haunts him, deprives him of a sense of place and self, but rewards him richly in writing material.


Naipaul slipped between worlds, rejecting Trinidad and India outright but, by claiming none, he has conquered many. Striding through Africa, India and Central America with the omniscient writers “I”, he demolished the Trinidadian, Indian, African and English psyche in ‘An Area of Darkness’, ‘The Mimic Men’, ‘Guerrillas’, ‘A Bend in the River’... in almost all of his 24 major works.


He has been loathed as intensely as he has been lauded in four continents for his merciless and ruthless observations of people’s ignorance, vanities, lack of self-awareness, foibles, struggles to create a new world and inhabit ancient cultures. Even his humour is grim, but priceless because its razor penetrates into the heart of human weakness.


I leapt at the chance to interview him in 1989 at the airport when he came here on a short visit when he demolished my questions with so much contempt. My favourite answer (now that my humiliation at that episode has faded) to a question about our political situation was: “The politics of a country of one point one million people, does not interest me.”


The story I like best about him is when he was asked to judge a poetry contest. He didn’t think anyone was good enough for first and second prize, but he did award a third prize to a young man with whom he pleaded over the microphone to a packed audience, “Promise me you will never write any poetry again.”


The most recent news of the quintessential Sir Vidia came from a friend in England who attended one of his readings earlier this month in London.


He wrote: “Sir Vidia was good value! He dismissed the whole of African literature as thin and shallow, said Indian civilisation had been ruined by the Muslims, dismissed all contemporary literature and, responded ‘next question’ when asked if he’d be watching the Merchant/Ivory film of The Mystic Masseur.”


“Mainly, he read from his new book (Half a Life), which was funny, and he was amusing talking about how he came to sex late, and with great difficulty. However, the most revealing moment came at the end.

“Naipaul had been talking about how converting people’s religion was a terrible thing because it robbed people of their culture and their history, and then a girl (Trini, judging by her accent) got up and said, ‘You say being converted is such a bad thing, but it seems to me you have converted from being a Trinidadian to being an Englishman.’

“His response was to tell her she was just asking this to hear the sound of her own voice and didn’t understand him or his work.”


There are many, including his fellow writers, who believe his work is characterised by self-loathing, contempt and lack of humanity. A visceral response to Sir Vidia is to miss the point. It is the very aspects of Sir Vidia that we find objectionable: arrogance, contempt, clarity of observation so piercing it is brutal that has given us the greatest literature of his time and him, the greatest accolade any writer could hope to achieve in his lifetime, the Nobel Prize for literature.


Naipaul is known as the greatest living writer in the English language. The accolades he already has received for several of his 24 major works (Somerset Maugham Award, Hawthornden Prize, WH Smith Prize, Booker Prize, John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize) and a knighthood has guaranteed him immortality as a writer.


The Nobel Literature Prize is simply the seal. It would be churlish of us in T&T not to acknowledge and applaud the ultimate accolade to a Trinidad-born writer.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur