My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused. I was born in Trinidad. It is a small island in the mouth of the great Orinoco river of Venezuela. So Trinidad is not strictly of South America, and not strictly of the Caribbean. It was developed as a New World plantation colony, and when I was born in 1932, it had a population of about 400,000. Of this, about 150,000 were Indians, Hindus and Muslims, nearly all of peasant origin, and nearly all from the Gangetic plain.
This was my very small community. The bulk of this migration from india occurred after 1880. The deal was like this. People indentured themselves for five years to serve on the estates. at the end of this time they were given a small piece of land, perhaps five acres, or a passage back to india. in 1917, because of agitation by gandhi and others, the indenture system was abolished. and perhaps because of this, or for some other reason, the pledge of land or repatriation was dishonoured for many of the later arrivals. These people were absolutely destitute. They slept in the streets of Port of Spain, the capital. When i was a child i saw them. i suppose i didn’t know they were destitute – i suppose that idea came much later – and they made no impression on me. This was part of the cruelty of the plantation colony.
i was born in a small country town called chaguanas, two or three miles inland from the gulf of Paria. chaguanas was a strange name, in spelling and pronunciation, and many of the indian people – they were in the majority in the area – preferred to call it by the indian caste name of chauhan.
i was thirty-four when i found out about the name of my birthplace. i was living in london, had been living in England for sixteen years. i was writing my ninth book. This was a history of Trinidad, a human history, trying to re-create people and their stories. i used to go to the British museum to read the Spanish documents about the region. These documents – recovered from the Spanish archives – were copied out for the British government in the 1890s at the time of a nasty boundary dispute with Venezuela. The documents begin in 1530 and end with the disappearance of the Spanish Empire.
[…] What was past was past. i suppose that was the general attitude. and we indians, immigrants from india, had that attitude to the island. We lived for the most part ritualised lives, and were not yet capable of self-assessment, which is where learning begins. Half of us on this land of the chaguanes were pretending – perhaps not pretending, perhaps only feeling, never formulating it as an idea – that we had brought a kind of india with us, which
we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land.
my grandmother’s house in chaguanas was in two parts. The front part, of bricks and plaster, was painted white. it was like a kind of indian house, with a grand balustraded terrace on the upper floor, and a prayer-room on the floor above that. it was ambitious in its decorative detail, with lotus capitals on pillars, and sculptures of Hindu deities, all done by people working only from a memory of things in india. in Trinidad it was an architectural oddity. at the back of this house, and joined to it by an upper bridge room, was a timber building in the French caribbean style. The entrance gate was at the side, between the two houses. it was a tall gate of corrugated iron on a wooden frame. it made for a fierce kind of privacy.
So as a child i had this sense of two worlds, the world outside that tall corrugated-iron gate, and the world at home – or, at any rate, the world of my grandmother’s house. it was a remnant of our caste sense, the thing that excluded and shut out. in Trinidad, where as new arrivals we were a disadvantaged community, that excluding idea was a kind of protection; it enabled us – for the time being, and only for the time being – to live in our own way and according to our own rules, to live in our own fading india. it made for an extraordinary self-centredness. We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing.
There was a muslim shop next door. The little loggia of my grandmother’s shop ended against his blank wall. The man’s name was mian. That was all that we knew of him and his family. i suppose we must have seen him, but i have no mental picture of him now. We knew nothing of muslims. This idea of strangeness, of the thing to be kept outside, extended even to other Hindus. For example, we ate rice in the middle of the day, and wheat in the evenings. There were some extraordinary people who reversed this natural order and ate rice in the evenings. i thought of these people as strangers – you must
“What was past was past. I suppose that was the general attitude. And we Indians, immigrants from India, had that attitude to the island. We lived for the most part ritualised lives, and were not yet capable of selfassessment, which is where learning begins.”
imagine me at this time as under seven, because when i was seven all this life of my grandmother’s house in chaguanas came to an end for me. We moved to the capital, and then to the hills to the northwest.
But the habits of mind engendered by this shut-in and shutting-out life lingered for quite a while. if it were not for the short stories my father wrote i would have known almost nothing about the general life of our indian community. Those stories gave me more than knowledge. They gave me a kind of solidity. They gave me something to stand on in the world. i cannot imagine what my mental picture would have been without those stories.
The world outside existed in a kind of darkness; and we inquired about nothing. i was just old enough to have some idea of the indian epics, the ramayana in particular. The children who came five years or so after me in our extended family didn’t have this luck. no one taught us Hindi. Sometimes someone wrote out the alphabet for us to learn, and that was that; we were expected to do the rest ourselves. So, as English penetrated, we began to lose our language. my grandmother’s house was full of religion; there were many ceremonies and readings, some of which went on for days. But no one explained or translated for us who could no longer follow the language. So our ancestral faith receded, became mysterious, not pertinent to our day-to-day life.
We made no inquiries about india or about the families people had left behind. When our ways of thinking had changed, and we wished to know, it was too late. i know nothing of the people on my father’s side; i know only that some of them came from nepal. Two years ago a kind nepalese who liked my name sent me a copy of some pages from an 1872 gazetteer-like British work about india, Hindu castes and Tribes as represented in Benares; the pages listed – among a multitude of names – those groups of nepalese in the holy city of Banaras who carried the name naipal. That is all that i have.
Excerpted from the Nobel lecture, 2001.