The Literary Museum

Seepersad Naipaul: His Own Write

Posted by Raphael Ramlal, Saturday, September 28th, 2013 @ 8:05pm



  •  Matters Arising  Trinidad Guardian  March 25,  1987

    By Kenneth Ramchand                                          

    Seepersad Naipaul:  His Own Write

    'The community in which he had grown up was dissolving into the
    vulgarity and directionlessness of the larger society'

     

    It is fitting to remember the man who, as Chaguanas
    correspondent of the Trinidad Guardian, brought drama to a dull
    job, and excitement to the passive countryside.

    Seepersad Naipaul (1906 - 1953) had been contributing articles  on Indian topics to the Trinidad Guardian since 1929, but he flourished as their man in Central, between 1932 and 1934 when he formed a manic collaboration with the Editor, Gault MacGowan, an
    expatriate brought out to modernise the newspaper, and to make it more competitive with the well-established Port-of-Spain Gazette.

    Seepersad Naipaul's articles included  news of births, deaths,
    accidents, quarrels, woundings, beatings, village feuds and family
    vendettas. (Seepersad was not above using his position to report on people who were troubling him, like his in-laws, for example.) 
    There were also dramatised accounts of courtroom proceedings,
    road board meetings, public gatherings and election battles.

    A character himself, Seepersad was interested in odd or extraordinary characters:  a woman 112 years old who had seen slaves being lashed and shipped; a Hindu doing penance by the river; and a  man they called Robinson Crusoe. This Robinson set out from Chaguanas to discover an overland route to Tobago, reminding those who mocked him (one imagines him as pained by the faithless as is Leroy Clarke in our time) that people had laughed at Christopher Columbus too.

    Using pseudonyms like "The Pundit", "Paul Nye", and "Paul Pyre" and responding to MacGowan's appetite for the manic thrill,
    he elaborated a style that moved jauntily to the comic and the
    macabre; and he indulged in a sensationalist attitude which often
    took liberties with the facts. It went, as they say, like a bomb.  Guardian sales were
    rising.

    The high point was reported in the New York Herald Tribune of June
    24, 1933 in a story under the following headlines: "REPORTER 
    SACRIFICES GOAT TO MOLLIFY HINDU GODDESS:  Writer kowtows to Kali
    to escape black magic death."

    When a clipping of this item was sent to V.S. Naipaul by an American journalist  in 1970, the author explained it, plausibly
    enough, as "probably one of MacGowan's joke stories, with my father trying to make himself his own news." In 1972, Vidia Naipaul checked the back numbers of the Trinidad Guardian and found that it was not a joke. There is some history to recount.

    There was an outbreak of paralytic rabies in the 1930’s, and  Hindu cow- minders 
    found it hard to pay nearly a whole day's wage for a vaccination to
    which, in any case, they had religious objections. Instead, they performed a goat sacrifice to the goddess Kali.

    Young Seepersad Naipaul had already begun to feel that the Indian community was  stagnant
    and backward in some of their practices. He was sympathetic to a
    reforming movement from India called the Arya Samaj, and was encouraged into controversy with local die-hards and ignorant
    conservatives by the thirsty MacGowan. It was as a reformer outraged by "superstitious" practices that
    Seepersad Naipaul filed his critical  Guardian report.

    Ten days later, he received a threatening letter written in
    Hindi:  He would be poisoned on a Saturday, would die on a Sunday, and would be buried on the Monday unless he appeased Kali by carrying out the very sacrifice he had so ridiculed.  He had seven days in which to comply, or else.

    For the whole of the next week, Seepersad  Naipaul was the
    news.  He was given police protection since, clearly Kali didn't
    write the letter. But he was not going to yield to superstition.  His wife urged
    compromise for the sake of the children.  Friends begged him to
    relent. On the Saturday of the deadline, Seepersad Naipaul who knew
    Chaguanas Indians, and who was just that little bit afraid of Kali,
    perhaps, travelled to Curepe and sheepishly made the  sacrifice.

    Gault MacGowan sent a top reporter to cover the event, and Seepersad provided his own insider's commentary.  The following day, by some leak or miracle, The New York Herald Tribune carried
    the story.

    MacGowan and Seepersad seem to have egged each other on from
    the start of their relationship.  MacGowan was a character.  Soon, however, the Guardian could put up with his swash-buckling methods
    no more.

    Besides, he championed causes that clashed with their business
    interests too often.  MacGowan appears to have been persuaded that there was a connection, as postulated by Dr. Pawan, between bats and paralytic rabies. This led to a number of flighty articles about 'mad bats' in
    the place, and this was not the best thing for the tourist trade.

    The Port-of-Spain Gazette took offence:"Scaremongering MacGowan libels Trinidad in two continents."

    The Port-of-Spain Gazette was sued by MacGowan, and they had to pay.  Then MacGowan sued the Chairman of his own newspaper, reporting the proceedings in the Guardian. The  suit was unsuccessful, and when his contract ended, the
    Guardian let him go. With MacGowan's departure in 1934, Seepersad's merry reign came to an end.

    Not long afterwards he became ill.  Vidia Naipaul reports his mother as saying:  "He looked in the mirror one day and couldn't
    see himself.  And he began to scream."

    Seepersad returned to the Guardian later and worked as a journalist up to his death in 1953. He was the first person of Indian origin to be a major writer in a ‘mainstream’ or ‘national’ paper so-called. His journalism records the changes taking place in the Indian community; the errors and confusions into which 
    it was falling in its ignorance about itself and its past, and its
    inability or unwillingness to propel or project itself into the
    future.

    Seepersad Naipaul was disturbed by what was happening to the
    Indian community, and disturbed about his place in it or in the world.  The community in which he was born in 1906 was embedded in
    a Mother India whose rituals and mores it thought it was reproducing in a diverse Trinidad
    environment 
    which excluded them or which they tried to ignore.    

    During his lifetime, hard knowledge of Indian religion and philosophy and even of the language had begun to fade.  At this
    stage, however, many preferred "to grow up as ignorant Hindus than
    as intelligent Christians."

    Later, the younger ones would embrace modernity and become
    scornful of Indian ways.  To many, you could only become a
    Trinidadian if you denied any and all connection with India.

    Ten years after the Kali episode, Seepersad published, at his
    own expense, a collection of stories called Gurudeva and Other
    Indian Tales, and it is in these stories that the nostalgic side of his
    attitude to his community receives emphasis.

    The Port-of-Spain he was writing out of was a new world
    without ritual, custom or ceremony.

    The community in which he had grown up was dissolving into the  vulgarity and directionlessness of the larger society.

    "There are no more elders," intones Walcott's Saddhu in the poem, "Is only old people."  With time roaring in his ears,
    Seepersad Naipaul was finding, like Walcott's Saddhu, that there
    was nothing to turn to anymore.

    So in Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales, he created again the
    older community, celebrating it not because its  rituals and ceremonies were alive but because they subscribed to the idea of ritual and ceremony.  The
    pancahyat settled family disputes; the winding negotiations for an
    arranged wedding often turn out to be the same as the path of true love. And in the story  "They named him Mohun," a story which he read to a
    gathering of the literati in Port-of-Spain, the first Naipaul shows
    the community celebrating the birth of a child.

    Through its participation in an ennobling ceremony, it is able
    to rise above anger of vindictiveness. A welcome is eventually extended to the cruel and stingy father who turns  up to claim his right according to tradition (even though he had expelled the pregnant woman and her young children) :  "Is
    it written in the ancient books,"  he asks, "that at a jubilation
    on the birth of a son the whole village should be invited, except
    the father?  Is it written..."

    But the short story writer had not lost the powers of observation of the journalist.  He writes flatly enough about
    poverty, dispiritedness, and a weary acceptance of Fate in a story
    called "In the Village, " which was written after the publication
    of Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales.

    In the continuation of the Gurudeva epic into the post-war
    period, Seepersad's ironies leave us with no safe ground on which
    to stand.  He satirises caste feeling, uses Schoolmaster Sohun as
    a mouthpiece against fanaticism ("You people want to build a little
    Indian of your own in Trinidad"), and as a voice announcing a
    dilemma ("You cannot be entirely Oriental,  nor entirelyOccidental").
         Yet he turns satire against Sohun, too, as a mimic  man who
    has "turned Christian for his own roti," and who has divorced
    himself ("you people") from other Indians.

    Gurudeva, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to be
    a pundit, and to give up English.  Seeing flaws in every position,
    Seepersad Naipaul cannot help observing that "whereas his (Gurudeva’s) bad
    English would be glaringly patent to many, his bad Hindi would be
    patent to none."

    To this teacher comes a spectacular pupil, Daisy Seetolal, Presbyterian and pretty, with high-heeled shoes, plucked eyebrows
    and painted lips.  This shockingly modern girl ("good looks and
    dutty tricks") despised the local fellows in the day of the
    American soldiers at Carlsen Field.  Now suffering hard times like
    her city sisters, Jean and Dinah, she stoops to the village swains.

    Poor dreaming Guru falls in love, and is bold enough to take
    his case to the panchyat who agree that he can have a second wife
    since his first wife is childless.But they insist that "the woman forthwith gives up Angrezi
    ways."

    They must be nuts, according to the American-trained Daisy.  "Me?  Turn
    Hindu?  Ha!  Man, don't make me laugh.  Me wear ghungri, and ohrani
    and chappals and long hair?  Me give up rouge and lipstick?"

    The author’s sympathy for the woman under the patriarchy makes us admire the courage and independence of Daisy, her repudiation of the patriarchy as  takes the first bus to Port-of-Spain and the unknown,  leaving Guru to
     his games with the panchayat, to the barren Ratni and to his souring dreams of another life.

    Seepersad Naipaul could turn a serious subject into a joke for
    MacGowan because it was easier to do this than to look too deep and too long 
    into the void. But he was too much Naipaul to be able to fool himself either
    about his own dilemma or about the dereliction of his community.  For a frightened man, he was brave. His journalism and his short stories remain an
    accurate and despairing representation of a community in crisis.

    If in the end he was confused by the confusion he saw and held up 
    for posterity to see but  he made it possible for his sons to understand and
    pursue into wider and deeper regions the losses their father first
    started to bear. In choosing to be a writer in Trinidad in the 1930s,  he opened
    up to both his sons the possibility of writing as a reason for
    living.


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