Two Worlds

Governance Now - - IN MEMORIAM - Sir vidi­ad­har Su­ra­jprasad Naipaul 17 Au­gust 1932 - 11 Au­gust 2018

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.

Cour­tesy: no­bel Foun­da­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.