October 14, 2001
By Raffique Shah
I EXPECT now that Vidia Naipaul has finally received formal world recognition by being awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, many people, an in particular Trinidadians and Tobagonians, would seek out his books and attempt to read them. Oh, I'm sure sales of his many books picked up since last Thursday's announcement by the Swedish Academy, that God-like body that administers the foundation created in the name of the chemist who developed dynamite and created a smokeless gunpowder. I say God-like because the men and/or women who sit on that committee that dishes out close to US $1 million each to winners in several categories invariably defy public preferences and by-pass what seem to be obvious choices in favour of obscure or non-deserving individuals or groups.
It is not my intention to delve into what appears to be the politicisation of the committee. Like many localised and global institutions that have arrogated unto themselves the right to determine excellence in fields as diverse as beauty and physics, increasingly the Swedish Academy seems to be guided by the politics of the day. Kofi Annan's greatest achievement is to have transformed the United Nations into the United States Nation: for that he and the U(S)N received the Peace Prize.
Still, the world waits with bated breath year after year to hear the pronouncements of these Swedish Gods. As we Trinis say, "better late than never". Naipaul has long deserved the highest accolades for his masterful prose, from his depiction of "Pundit Ganesh" in the Mystic Masseur" to the political charlatans that ruled the rural roost in the 1940s (The Suffrage of Elvira), to Ramlogan's "fat, dutty hand" in "The Mystic Masseur". For those of us who grew up on a rich diet of good literature, mainly English writers, of course, Naipaul's writings came across like the freshness of the constant breeze that caresses the sea front in Mayaro. We could identify many "Ganeshes" and "Bakshs" and "Ramlogans" in our villages, and often dubbed characters as such. And to see vernacular in print was quite an experience, having been tutored strictly within the language parameters set by English writers.
No one who has followed Naipaul's career should be surprised that in his moment of glory, he ignored the land where he was born, nurtured and received his early education-not to add secure material for his early novels-Trinidad. With a kind of arrogance that typifies intellectuals (Eric Williams, CLR James), he summarily dismisses this country which he sees as being an intellectual wasteland. In The Middle Passage, he was severe on a Trinidad that was just emerging from colonialism, In Guerrillas he "took the mickey" out of revolutionaries (like myself). And in A House For Mr Biswas, he didn't spare even members of his family: he appears only to have had admiration and respect for his father, Seepersad, from whom he may have inherited the "writing genes".
But Trinidadians must not feel that Naipaul singled us out for scorn when he omitted mention of this country upon receiving news of the award. In An Area of Darkness (1964), a travelogue set in India, he wrote so many negative things about India, when I eventually went there in 1983 I scoured the banks of various rivers looking for people defecating on them, en masse. I didn't see one. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of that country at the time the book became popular, was scathing in her remarks about Naipaul's perception of India and its people garnered from "a mere visit here". A Bend In The River delved deep into the bowels of Africa, and what the writer saw was far from flattering. And later, even though he had long adopted England as his homeland, he often criticised that country and its people with his trademark contempt for...well, the whole world.
All that I have written take nothing away from Naipaul's mastery of the craft of writing, something lesser mortals like me envy. I believe his books should not just be on the curricula of secondary schools where students view them as "work". They must be read for the pleasures that one experiences from reading good books. Hell, I never did appreciate George Elliot's Mill On The Floss until I had re-read it after studying it for exams, and even earlier in college, Anna Seawell's Black Beauty was a "task" that turned into a lovely tale when I later re-read it. Naipaul's novels are very much in this vein, so one can understand why students might see the Nobel Prize winner as a big bore.
Naipaul's successes and achievements should spur Trinidadians to read his many books. They should also prod their children into so doing, since the latter will benefit immensely, not just from the language, but from his daring to be different. I need add that Naipaul's successes, and now the Nobel Prize, detract from the excellent works of other Trinidadian and Caribbean writers that have been largely ignored. Earl Lovelace, an indigenous writer in every sense of the word (one of the few who have stayed at home to practice their craft), has written some gems that should be compulsory reading. The Schoolmaster is an early classic, and The Dragon Can't Dance and The Wine Of Astonishment give insights into aspects of our daily life and culture that Naipaul will have missed out on because of his lengthy absence from this country. Sam Selvon, too, left us a rich legacy of West Indian literature, and George Lamming continues to do us proud.
I note that Prime Minister Basdeo Panday could not help but inject politics into his message of congratulations to acclaimed writer. I am sure Naipaul will be tickled pink when he gets that letter. He might just use trademark black humour to have Panday read the last paragraph of The Mystic Masseur, in which Ganesh, masseur-turned-politician, having lost the confidence of the sugar workers and the masses, and having further been adopted by the British colonials, turns up in England at a conference. Naipaul, in his epilogue, writes that he was asked by the Colonial Office to entertain a "statesman from my own territory", one G.R. Muir, to which he agrees.
He goes to the railway station to meet Muir, Esq.. He wrote: 'It was easy to spot him, impeccably dressed, coming out of a first-class carriage. I gave a shout of joy. "Pundit Ganesh!" I cried, running towards him. "Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair!" "G. Ramsay Muir," he said coldly (to Naipaul). Shades of one "B. Pan There, Esq.? I think not.
Copyright © Raffique Shah