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.
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.
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.
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).
‘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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.’
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.”
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.
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.
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