Three Naipauls Conference Day 1

Keynote Address by Professor Kenneth Ramchand

In the name of Friends of Mr Biswas, I welcome you and thank you for attending the Opening Ceremony of  the Conference  called  ‘Seepersad and Sons: Naipaulian Creative Synergies.’ 

I begin with a restrained statement about the state of our society and the  necessity of the Arts and Sciences 

I meant to call this address  coming home to ourselves and to the place or places that make and sustain us, since that is one of the dramas we see played out in the writings of the three Naipauls. 

Given the condition of our society, that is a journey all of us need to make. 

The talk  would have been a defence of the Arts and Humanities in these materialistic  times when all value is economic value, when the aim of education is to push children to come first in examinations, and when Universities all over the world have been  driven to the treason of selling out to the marketplace.

The Arts and the Humanities have a major role to play in the humanizing of society, and in stimulating persons to feel the immensity and beauty of the Universe of which they are a part,  to believe in life’s possibilities,  and to see happiness as the prime  goal of life. 

An education that gives scope to the self-expression and self-discovery facilitated by the Arts and Humanities may be our best hope to arrest our society’s unfeeling drift into crime and violence,  and the  unholy self-slaughter of crimes against the person. 

To summarise, our society desperately needs to rediscover  the promise of the arts of the imagination. This Conference is timely.

My next section identifies two key motifs in my presentation.

Over the next two days we will be exploring themes and issues that are important to  how we relate to ourselves,  to one another,  and to the world. These themes include: ethnic relations; sex and sexuality; gender issues; family relations; religion; race and politics; immigration; and globalization. 

Arising out of these themes are two key motifs. The first is the  three writers’ lifelong struggles through their writing to come home to themselves:  to come to some kind of understanding of who they are, to acknowledge their different selves, and to explore  how their different selves might relate to their social identities and to their being. 

The second motif running through  my overview is a sense of a  continuous striving against self-inflicted  dislocation and placelessness. Seepersad’s sons can be seen in their works to be in the throes of rejecting any   ‘home’ that is connected with the political agendas of  a specific nation. At the same time, they are re-defining ‘home’ as a commodity that you can hold in your head regardless of geography or political nation, and sometimes against your will.  The question is important: what and where is home and can one belong to more than one country? More extremely, can home be any country but the country of your birth and growing up?

My third movement lists four major observations that need to be made early  about this conference. 

i. The Conference  brings together three writers from Trinidad and Tobago, each of whom has made a contribution to the literature of the island and the wider region. These are Trinidadian writers.

ii. The three writers originate from an ethnic group that found itself placed among other ethnic groups and the ghosts and relics of the first peoples   in the landscape. But I want to make it clear: their works help us to understand the development of Trinidad and Tobago as a fusion society where the mixing of multiple heritages has caused much stress but has  released incredible energy and creativity. Like most of our other artists, the Naipaul  writers offer insights into the seepages between the cultures of different ethnic groups in the island that helped to make the fusion society. 

Seepersad knew all of this but did not know he knew it. He was not afraid of contamination by the Western works of philosophy and literature that formed part of a colonial education; he saw no mimicry in taking an interest in fiction and seeking to learn from accounts of the lives of leading men and women from India; he looked around him  at the community out of which he came and saw institutions dying, and people changing, and wrote what he saw. They were all part of him. His short stories are not the idyllic evocation of “ the Indian community” that VS tends to suggest. These stories are of a piece with the social and cultural criticism of his journalism.

His journalism was multi-cultural, that is to say Trinidadian. It covered  pan-making and pan-tuning, the calypso, survivors of slavery, time-expired indentures, rice-growing, remarkable persons, local politics and political intrigue   cultural and religious commonalities and differences,  Ramlila,  and  Sonny Ramadhin. His accounts of politics in the Indian community are the stuff that could have inspired a prototype of VS’s  The Suffrage of Elvira .

He had an instinctive  way of seeing the society and its cultures and he encouraged Vidia to cultivate it.  

VS did it his own way. In his self-presentations he describes his growth as a writer as a process running parallel with his discovery, through selective travel to India, Africa, Europe and America, of the sources of a complex heritage that was present but dark in the islands of his childhood. To the child, all that lay outside his grandmother’s house was in darkness, and  as a writer he made it his mission to light up these areas for the sake of constructing his true self: “When I became a writer,  those areas of darkness around me as a child became my subjects. The land; the aborigines; the New World; the colony; the history; India: the Muslim world, to which I felt myself related; Africa; and then England where I was doing my writing.” 

His island and region were ancient and  global though he did not know it at first. He came to discover  through research and what he called his travel  “missions” the antiquity of his civilization and the  submarine  globalism of the region of his birth. 

iii. The works of these three writers express dramatically the complex and sometimes confused  evolution of descendants of Indians in Trinidad  from the early 1900’s up to the early years of the 21st century: we see diasporic figures clinging to and losing touch with the realities of their original culture; bruised souls responding to and being bewildered by the changes taking place in the island and in the larger world  over the same period. Once again it was the patriarch who first stumbled upon the theme of the enigma of arrival . In his journalism he wrote about the plight of  Indian castaways in the city after the first journey; the hopes of many to board the ship for the return; and their puzzled arrival at a place grown unfamiliar. They wanted to get on the ship and come back. In Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales the Presbyterianised head master Sohun is used by the constructive  Seepersad to spell out the crisis of the descendants of Indians who cannot be entirely Occidental nor entirely Oriental and who, Sohun confidently affirms, will arrive at being distinctly West Indian. 

iv. Much of the impetus of the Conference comes from a phenomenon: the three writers, Seepersad, Vidia and Shiva belong to a single family, the Naipaul family. The general effect of the family relationships on the Naipaul writings bear deep exploration. Family relationships are a felt presence in  A House for Mr Biswas;  and in The World Is What It Is , Patrick French observes that while VS was writing A House for Mr Biswas , he tapped deliberately into family memories and family sensibility: “Vidia kept in close touch with his family, the letters feeding the book and Vidia’s own attitudes feeding the letters his siblings sent him” (202).  Is it too wild to notice that the older brother in ‘Tell Me Who To Kill’ is like a mother to his younger brother and to think that this is an unconscious reflection of the kind of mothering in the family and an ironic comment on the negligible role of males in the caring of children? 

Be that as it may, the close relationship between Seepersad and Vidia in  the Port of Spain years between 1938 and 1943, the year when Seepersad self-published Gurudeva and other Indian Tales was crucial in pointing Vidia to his vocation as writer; and in the letters between Seepersad and Vidia in  Letters Between a Father and Son , father and son praise, encourage and stimulate  each other. It should be noticed for future exploration, however,  that for all the exchanges between father and son on writing and getting published, it was over twenty years after his father’s death that Vidia felt ready to push for publication of Gurudeva and Other Stories. On October 22, 1953,  the day of Seepersad’s cremation, Kamla wrote to Vidia about getting Seepersad’s book out at once; nearly nine months earlier (February 2, 1953) she had pleaded with Vidia: “According to Ma and Satti, Pa’s greatest worry is that he cannot get his stories published. Satti wrote saying that he sent you one but you have done nothing about it so far. Now something  immediate regarding the publishing of his stories means life or death for him and consequently life or death for us…” Although Henry Swanzy, editor of  Caribbean Voices and a British person,  had praised Seepersad’s writing highly, Vidia held that Seepersad’s stories would not go over well with British readers. It may well  be that  Vidia’s fixation on getting his  own  first book published and establishing his literary career did not leave much room for helping anybody.    

To Shiva, the 13 year age gap between himself and Vidia (b.1932) almost made them different generations. The tensions this brought to their personal relationship  is explored in Shiva’s essay ‘My Brother and I’ (An Unfinished Journey, 1986, p.23-29) Vidia’s love for Shiva was never in doubt but he behaved towards him like an exasperated father .  As an author, Shiva sought encouragement and  writing advice from Vidia  and got some editing help with at least one manuscript. But Vidia was not his brother’s mentor. Between the brothers there was the anxiety of influence with Shiva striving to move out of the shadow of “the Absolute” whose role as example and exemplar he readily acknowledged. And there was the anxiety of influencing. Nearly twenty years after Shiva’s death Vidia expressed the anxiety of influencing: “I was really hoping when my brother came along – before I was told of his alcoholic idleness -  that he would, as it were, show me a new way. But he was just using me as a template. He was patterning himself on me.” 

Shiva did not have the kind of dialogue with Seepersad that Vidia had, but one day, at the age of fifteen he discovered the riches of his father’s bookshelves, and in the sun-drenched sitting-room of number  26 Nepaul Street he entered imaginary worlds larger and more stimulating than the  immediate environment which he considered “poor in possibility”, and so “tawdry and confining”. This was a turning point in the life of the previously unmotivated  QRC student. Seepersad’s  reading and writing which gave Vidia the ambition to be a writer had returned to arouse the second son. 

There have been  notable literary and artistic colonies in the island, but none of them lasted long, and none of them was a nurturing literary community. As I have hinted, the literary community that was the Naipaul family was a source of creative tension even as it  provided recognition and the  support that our society still seems to be unable or willing to offer to artists. It was the nearest we have come to having a literary community. Naipaulian studies will need to look more closely in future at the visible and invisible, conscious and unconscious influences of family on the works of the three Naipauls. 

In passing, it should be noted that V.S. Naipaul’s time with West Indian writers at the BBC  Caribbean Voices where he also served as presenter/editor was a period when he was part of a literary community. It could be argued that the immediate cause of his re-discovery of his life at Luis Street and his first experience of Port of Spain as the raw material with which his fiction could begin  was his fraternizing with these writers and reading so many scripts by would-be West Indian writers. In 1955, he was sitting at a typewriter in the freelances’ room when the now famous sentence came to him: “Every morning when he got up, Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across,’What happening there , Bogart?’ When he finished the story his colleagues in the freelances’ room were enthusiastic and encouraging. Other stories came fast. This was the making of Miguel Street

I would like now to look at the writers themselves, to point them in the direction of the Conference  and to show in their contexts some of the issues that arise in the Naipaul writings. 

To Seepersad Naipaul (1906-1953), the founding father of the literary line, his first son V.S. Naipaul wrote in July 1951: “You are the best writer in the West indies, but one can only judge writers by their work” [Letters Between a Father and Son, 1999 p. 116] Vidia was saying that Seepersad had all the strokes but he was not playing a Test match innings. When was he going to make a book? This was a hard thing to tell a man who had such an impressive journalism portfolio and had published a collection of stories in 1943.  But Seepersad  took it to heart because because he was as obsessed with his son was  with the idea of producing a book. Seepersad tried to fulfill his writerly ambitions in more dispiriting circumstances than his sons,  though to hear Vidia bemoaning what he went through you would not think so. 

 In spite of Vidia’s encouragement , Seepersad never had the time to get around to writing the novel or autobiography he desperately wanted to deliver: “This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write. This is the time for me to be myself. [my italics] When shall I get the chance? I don’t know. I come home from work, dead tired. The Guardian is taking all out of me…” (Seepersad to Vidia, 5/10/50).  On April 5, 1951 he complained to Vidia again about how working for the Guardian made it hard for him to do any sustained writing: “In this struggle for existence, I feel hemmed in by hard, unescapable facts and forces.” It wasn’t only the Guardian. He was a selfless provider for his family and tended to put their needs and dreams above his own.. He was full of anxiety. About the book. About being himself.  About He felt trapped. His sons were the same. All three writers suffered from depression and  anxiety and all three had nervous breakdowns. It was like a trademark.

My next two points are that it was Seepersad who first built the bridge between journalism and fiction; and that Trinidad never left the consciousness of Seepersad’s sons. 

In spite of the demands made upon him by the necessity to earn money for the family, he accomplished much in his stress-shortened life. Seepersad was an insider who was able to stand outside of his society and write about it.  In his first brilliant period of journalism (1929-1934), Seepersad brought the techniques of the fiction writer, a wicked sense of  fun, a little malice, and a focus on character and situation to his work; in his second period (1938-1946) when he did not have so much of a byline, he had more time to work on his short stories at home and make an acolyte of Vidia. All of this led to the publication of Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales in 1943. In his third period  (1950-1953) he continued writing non-fiction articles on a wide variety of subjects ( abuse of Indian women, education for girls, non-Hindu persons and cultural expressions, local government, and national politics) while doing all he could to get out a book of his collected stories and begin a novel or an autobiography. The crossovers between fiction and journalism that became marked in the work of Vidia and Shiva began intuitively and naturally with Seepersad. He did not have to talk the kind of nonsense his older son did about journalism being a better form than the novel  for capturing our fast-moving times. Who ever said that the purpose of the novel was to catch the world as it jumped about from day to day? It needs to be recognized that it was with Seepersad that the crossovers between fiction and journalism began. He did it naturally and instinctively. Vidia was to make a fine self-promoting  art of fusing fiction, journalism, autobiography and biography, emphatically so  in later works like The Enigma of Arrival and A Way in the World which he preferred to call ‘Sequences’. 

Seepersad was an early outstanding man of letters in Trinidad and Tobago, the first person of Indian origin to achieve that status. He was a writer all his life but he did not have the required ruthlessness or irresponsibility. He did not allow himself to be a failure. But he was no vivisector. This artist was no vivisector. I wonder how he would have felt about the callous  opening sentence of A Bend in the River  (1979): “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”  

In Shiva’s  third novel (Love and Death in a Hot Country 1984)  there is an extreme statement of the issues and  anxieties that wasted Shiva and that underlie the work of all three writers.  Dina with the English surname Mallingham is a passive, depressed , educated light-skinned woman (part Portuguese, part Indian) for whom the country is sinking to a bottom that has no bottom and to whom life itself has no meaning or purpose. Her grandfather Mahalingam (Shiva is being a little naughty here.) had surrendered his name, religion and anything he could have called his own when he became a Presbyterian. In the next generation, Dina’s father learned to live with the sense that he had been misguided and he even progressed further upon the weary road to false identity.  Dina suffers as a child from the void in which her father lived with his Portuguese wife, and she finally puts words to the condition that has sapped her of vitality: “I grew up, you know, without allegiance to anything. I’m nothing but a mongrelized ghost of a human being  living in a mongrelised ghost of a country. There’s nothing holding me together. Every day I have to re-invent  myself.” P.160 Shiva was the bleakest of them all.

I turn now to Trinidad in their consciousness.  Seepersad never left Trinidad, but Vidia and Shiva shook the dust . Among the pieces in Shiva’s  posthumous collection An Unfinished Journey 1986 there is a long item that suggests he was doing a travel book about Sri Lanka. The last paragraph Shiva wrote is the last paragraph in the Sri Lanka fragment. 

In this paragraph, his new friend Tissa is talking about his admirable mother-in-law: “All the men in her family have made nothing of their lives. Not her father, not her husband, not her brothers, not her sons-in-law. The women have been the strong ones. It is often like that in Lanka.” Shiva narrates: ‘Tissa lopes along beside me. Holding up the blade of grass, he lets a gust of wind sweep it away from his fingertips. He buries his hands in his pockets. “Is it like that in your island as well?” This is the last sentence Shiva wrote. 

Like Vidia he insisted that he would not return to little folks Trinidad.  But however far they wandered  Trinidad never left them alone. ”Is it like that in your island as well?” I think that question literally killed Shiva. Trinidad nagged the brothers. On the occasion of his accepting the Trinity Cross, Vidia was asked questions aimed at finding out if he still considered the region a backward place. He did not answer directly.  “These are immense questions”, he said, “my life’s work is about that.” The island that exasperated the man was in the writer’s blood. In 1956, the writer in him spoke: “From the writing point of view, this land is pure gold. I know it so well, you see. Pure, pure gold…” 

Each of these writers is worth reading in his own right . But, obviously, they were not passing ships. They were all three heading in the same direction. Being a writer. 

At first they carried the same freight and baggage.  The social and cultural context out of which they came. 

Then Seepersad got stranded. In August 1951, in the middle of describing to Vidia  how he was trying to cope and how hard it was to really go to work after work, he  couldn’t hold back: “The fact is, I feel trapped.” Some of the pain this stoic man kept swallowing back may be seen in something he wrote to Vidia: “ Perception is rare and intelligence is by no means widespread. Those who have it to any unusual degree often suffer terribly: they are the most lonesome creatures in the world…  Yet, more often than not it is from such people that the world derives its true greatness…Sometimes in  our very loneliness you will produce that which will be something new and which you otherwise could not produce… And do not say you resign yourself to obscurity. Or if you do , say that in obscurity you will do your work. “     24/2/51.

This is so autobiographical. Seepersad never used the word ‘shipwreck’ but he conjured the image. The shipwreck that was the aftermath of the voyages into indenture was his unconscious  theme.  

The sons were able to escape . On the new ships they  travelled beyond the bounding main, taking on board new material and new understandings as they strove to fulfill the vocation as writer that had chosen them.  They wanted to believe they were full-blooded global creations (  as if anything global has any blood); they were  haunted nevertheless by the undeniable fact that memory can eject neither the island and the native shores, nor the first immigrant experience,  the ancestral journey that brought them from that other place that became an area of darkness. 

I have said that the writings of all three Naipauls are driven by anxiety. In the writings of all three there is also  yearning and nostalgia coming from they know not where. In all there is the fear of extinction. To the three of them to write was to live.

On reading Shiva’s second novel The Chip Chip Gatherers (1973), Diana Athill, an editor at Vidia’s first publisher Andre Deutsch,  felt that there had to be “some very rare and awe-inspiring gene roaming about among the Naipauls”. If there is something genetic in the case  we shall probably hear about it in some form during the Conference.  

This Conference attempts to give the kind of lead that could only come from our perspective as inhabitants of the country and region that formed and  tested these three writers, and gave them their themes and obsessions. For too long we have evaded our responsibility to think of our writers first of al in terms of what they mean to us in  whose language they write. Writers make noises that can only be heard by those whose language they write in. If there are to be new directions in West Indian literary studies it is with this realization that we must begin.  

The ghostly influence of Seepersad  when  Shiva  came upon his father’s eclectic and purposeful collection of books; the uncanny interpenetrations between  Vidia and Seepersad seen and felt in the overpowering Letters Between A Father And  Son and in Vidia’s sometimes invisible absorption of so much of Seepersad’s sketches and hints. 

It is the unique purpose of this  Conference not just to point to the obvious connections and differences, but more daringly to probe the mysteries of place and person and heritage, the nebulous conjunctions and influences between the three writers and  their family.

It is our hope that this first inquiry will offer unique insights into the work of three important Trinidadian writers and  make an inspiring contribution in Naipaulian and West Indian Literary Studies.

Friends of Mr Biswas

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