Letters between father and son


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Category: Profiles 14 Mar 10

“She” (my mother) “had this to say: When you get to England, don’t get lost in the English crowd like The Boy. Always remember you have family here, and the whole village loves you.”

Balkrishna Naipaul, writing in his recently-released novel, “The Mansion”

Balkrishna Naipaul is first cousin to VS Naipaul. Balkrishna, has written a rejoinder to The House of Mr Biswas, called The Mansion.

Outside: Under dry branches and a parched earth, footfalls of the lethargic trudge of passers-by crunch over leaves baked under a relentless egg yolk midday sun. Inside, in the relief of a cool green room, and over four hours of a seamless conversation with Balkrishna, who is first cousin to VS Naipaul (their fathers were brothers), and his clever wife and editor Gita, I am drawn into the childhood of a man who is recognised as the finest living writer in English today, and his relationship with his father (Seepersad Naipaul), who died in 1953. Balkrishna, who has written a rejoinder to The House of Mr Biswas, titled The Other Side of The House, says: “I show the other side of Biswas,” (Seepersad Naipaul) “kind, compassionate, a family and community man who loved children, not the callous, narrow-minded, irresponsible person portrayed by ‘Vido.’

The family resemblance between Vidia and Balkrishna is unmistakable: full faces, sharp features, perpetually alert eyes which nevertheless remain deeply reflective. But the similarities end there. Their fastidious Brahmin upbringing manifests itself in opposites. Whereas the sacred thread breeds a lip-curling contempt in Sir Vidia (who, despite his obsession with India, which he has chosen to adopt as his preferred motherland, has rejected all forms of its mysticism and philosophy), it brings a kindly serenity to Balkrishna’s face who, despite his hugely-successful career as an educator, diplomat, and adviser to the UN, and several prime ministers, including Indira Gandhi, trusts and develops the intuitive, the “vibrational” around him.

Whereas Sir Vidia once told a BBC reporter (I remember watching this interview myself in London a decade back), who asked him the meaning of the “dot” (bindi) worn by Indian women on their foreheads, replied: “It means they are pronouncing to the world “My brain is empty,” Balkrishna, in all his books, including The Yoga of Love, Suwan and The Circle of Seven, Arc on the Horizon, and Legends of the Emperor’s Ring) has delved deep into his Indian and Brahmin heritage, through yoga, mysticism, meditation, and ancient Sanskrit ceremonies. In The Mansion, the protagonist (a thinly-disguised Balkrishna) writes of Vidia’s father, who “spills” his heart to his young nephew about his dashed hopes about getting his manuscript published. Now, as the afternoon shadows lengthen, and a mild breeze ruffles dry branches outside, Balkrishna speaks: “I knew what my uncle was doing. He wrote a huge novel. I helped him parcel this and mail it to Vido.

I remember my uncle Seepersad writing this long letter: “Please try to do something. He suggested big names, writers he had met, or been referred to, people from the BBC. They were expecting his book, but it never arrived, or if it did we don’t know what became of it. “The world got A House for Mr Biswas. Vido admitted he had cannibalised the opening of the story.” Gita adds: “His father died of heartache, waiting and waiting.” Vido never came home after his father’s death to conduct his father’s funeral rites, prompting his late sister Kamla to write to him on 22nd October, 1953. “There are few things which haunt me. He didn’t see you, who he so much wanted to see: to see England, and most of all, to have his book published. “As usual, why haven’t you written yet? You have Ma very worried. Think of her” (Letters between a father and son).

Balkrishna and Gita agreed with me that Sir Vidia’s greatness is partially achieved by what critics perceive as shrewd realism, his grasp of the stupid, corrupt, calamitous, ignorant, sordid lives of people of the world from Africa, Europe, to Trinidad and India. His undisputable command of the English language gives his harshest pronouncements credence. But even as Sir Vidia is assured of literary immortality, there is a backlash by strong voices that refuse to let his version prevail. Poet Laureate Derek Walcott told me in an interview, last January, that he felt Naipaul “made a career out of being nasty” and he “could only have contempt for that.” His former friend and author, Paul Theroux, has written an entire book damning the Nobel Prize-winning writer. Balkrishna’s backlash has come in the form of his own books, which tell the other side of the story of Trinidad.

He is outraged in particular by VS Naipaul not coming home to do his father’s funeral rites, further reducing Trinidadian Brahmin pundits to one-dimensional caricature in his book, The Enigma of Arrival.

Balkrishna believes this cousin’s view of the world has been distorted by his complexes, both of superiority and inferiority, which go back to his childhood. “When my uncle (Vidia’s father, Seepersad) got his car, Vido would sit in the back, read his book and smoke his pipe (He was 15 or 16 then), and ignore us. “He was a self-proclaimed young lord, a Nawab. “He considered himself ugly–he felt he would never find a woman. In Oxford, he was cloistered, and when he mixed it was a show to impress others, so he could make his own way in the world.” Still, Balkrishna shows immense respect for his cousin, who advised him to write only when “you have something to say.”

“When you speak to Vido on a serious matter, he raises his finger in deep thought. You can see the clash between his rational mind and intuitive self. He writes beautifully, but lacks soul. “Shiva (his late brother) wrote through the heart, and soul, and Vido suppresses that. He trusts the rational.” Balkrishna Naipaul’s many worlds, one swirling within the other, are reflected in the green gold light which floods the room on this sweltering afternoon, in this dry season in Trinidad. The Mansion will be launched on the 9th of April in Trinidad in the National Academy for Performing Arts.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur