A place of his own

By Ryhaan Shah

Last Saturday, we lost a family member with the death of Sir Vidia Naipaul. For the Indian Caribbean especially, the earliest writings of V. S Naipaul were our stories. We all laughed and cried with Mr Biswas as he pursued his dream of building a house. That aspiration of wanting to set down roots in a new world still eludes us as our journey continues to northern cities. So, too, was Naipaul himself stateless and homeless until he found a place of his own through his writings, and, from that vantage point, produced a body of work that won him just about every literary award, including the Nobel Prize in 2001.
One of his earliest books, “Miguel Street,” continues to delight each new generation. It is a Caribbean classic. We all know the characters, and I felt privileged to hear Naipaul read from the book when he was the guest of honour at UWI’s St Augustine campus as Trinidad celebrated their most famous son in 2007. With his sonorous voice and Trini accent, he brought to life the characters – Hat, Bogart, Man Man – who will inhabit Miguel Street forever.
Naipaul also did a signing, and I got my copy of “The Enigma of Arrival” autographed. I treasure it. The opening lines of this book, an autobiography of sorts, are pure poetry: “For the first four days it rained. I could hardly see where I was. Then it stopped raining and beyond the lawn and outbuildings in front of my cottage I saw fields with stripped trees ….”
The easy flow of words is lyrical. As someone who writes, I know what talent – and work – it takes to make any writing appear so effortless and to bring the reader along with each sentence as you build the story.
Naipaul always used simple, direct prose. His choice of words was precise, and his sentences clean and crisp. He wrote with a surgical precision that left no doubt as to the meaning or intent of his words. There was no subterfuge, no evasiveness to his writing, and his insights were often startlingly new and sometimes harsh, and earned him a reputation for being dispassionate and even cruel.
When he wrote in “The Middle Passage” that “History is built around achievement and nothing was created in the West Indies” he was roundly criticised, but Naipaul never compromised his position on anything. And is there not truth to his statement? For how many decades have we been talking about Guyana’s potential, and where are we today? Is it that some cannot bear the truth and prefer to be lulled into contentment by comforting evasiveness?
He did not suffer fools gladly, and at that UWI celebration, an academic posed a question to which Naipaul, smiling and in an avuncular tone, said: “That’s not a very good question. Do you have another?” It was classic Naipaul. He took an impish delight in answering ridiculous questions with an equally ridiculous answer, and his earliest works drew on the often comic absurdities of life, love and politics, especially in the West Indies.
But he accepted that he, too, was part of the world’s flawed humanity. In his authorised biography, “The World is What it is”, Patrick French gives us the writer’s warts and all, especially with regard to his relationships with women: his wife, mistress and his second wife, a Pakistani, whom he courted while his first wife, Pat, was dying of cancer.
Naipaul read French’s manuscript and changed nothing. He accepted that his genius did not preclude him from being flawed and from being presented to the world as imperfect. This was his truth, and he did not flinch from it. Perhaps he wrote with an uncompromising honesty, always believing that the world should regard its truths with that very same fortitude.
I was one of the letter writers who defended Naipaul when “Stabroek News” published a mean-spirited editorial on his Nobel Prize win. But Naipaul himself was hardly ever troubled by his critics. Despite their barbs and stinging critiques, he won the Nobel Prize, and “A House for Mr Biswas” will stand forever as one of the best books of the 20th century.
At that UWI celebration in 2007, the audience was almost all Indian – Trinidadian, and, like myself, Indians from other Caribbean countries. Naipaul had given us a voice and a presence, and helped shape our consciousness as Caribbean people through his remarkable, imaginative expression. We were there to honour him for, in a sense, he had built us a house we can call our own.