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3 September 2001

A notebook for Mr Biswas

V S Naipaul now argues that the welfare state has created an army of thugs. But, once, his enlighten

By Amitava Kumar

I was standing on a street in Chaguanas, Trinidad, with a camera in my hand. In front of me, across the street, was the house where V S Naipaul spent his childhood. It was February, but the afternoon was hot and the air sticky. Two young black men stopped by and asked me questions. They knew about Snoop Dogg but couldn’t place the writer Naipaul. The youths posed for me as I tried to take a picture of the building behind them. It had served as the model for Hanuman House in Naipaul’s epic novel A House for Mr Biswas. The house, which had been built in 1920, now looked uninhabited. Seen from the outside, the rooms of the building lacked the quality of dull oppression that had seeped from them and into the pages of Naipaul’s work. Its reality had departed with its occupants – the fictional Tulsi family, who had been given such memorable form by the writer.

That was in 1997. I was working on a documentary film about Indians in Trinidad. “Chaguanas was in the heart of the sugar area and the Indian area of Trinidad. It was where my mother’s family was established,” Naipaul had written in Finding the Centre. His brief mention in the book of the house had led me there on that particular afternoon.

In the days I spent in Tunapuna and Port-of-Spain, I would also read the Trinidad Guardian, the newspaper for which Naipaul’s father had been a reporter. I had wanted the Trinidad Guardian to give me evidence of the brightness, even the frivolity and the delight in scandal, that Seepersad Naipaul had brought to the newspaper. “Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday when . . .” But the Guardian that I read over breakfast each morning disappointed me. Its pages offered stock phrases with only unintended irony. The newspaper was full of bristling earnestness and small-town posturing. It spoke to me only of a world that Naipaul had left behind. The paper, like the family house that I had visited briefly, appeared shabby.

Perhaps I was approaching them, and the whole of Trinidad, with a sense of fantasy. This was a fantasy nurtured by my appreciation of Naipaul’s ability to give narrative form to his past: now, removed from the pages of his writing, the house and the news-paper lacked drama. My disappointment was rooted in nostalgia. And the nostalgia could not possibly have been served or satisfied by a house or a newspaper. What I was ultimately seeking was the story of the struggle to become a writer – a story that is present in so much of Naipaul’s writing. In Biswas, Burnett, the newspaper editor at the Sentinel, guides Mohun Biswas, who, in turn, instils a love for writing in his son, Anand. The story of transformation that is at the heart of Naipaul’s novel is a narrative of literary awakening. Although Biswas’s pursuit of the house, a grand narrative of anxious striving and failure, is undeniably the book’s central motif, what makes the search meaningful is not the house in itself but the reason why Biswas longs for it. He wants to write. The mismatched pieces of furniture that Biswas carries with him are the props for the stage on which he wants to define himself. This self is a writing self, and it comes into being with the son. This is the strand that unites in Biswas the story of the ambitions of father and son, the writer and his subject.

The single line that comes to Biswas every time he wishes to test a new ribbon in the typewriter is the following one: “At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children . . .” The half-finished sentence lights up momentarily a whole dark universe of desire and futility. And yet, despite the terrible isolation of his ambition, it is also true that Biswas’s haphazard, incomplete actions carry him from the plantation to a life in writing. It is a supreme achievement. Whenever I think of that, the symbolism of the house pales in comparison to those other symbols that represent the writer’s journey: in the beginning, the painting of signs; then fresh newsprint on a page; after that, the writer’s desk made of packing crates, with diplomas from a writing school in London and an unused passport hidden in its drawers; the typewriter with its song of escape and despair, “At the age of thirty-three, when he was already the father of four children . . .”

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I was reminded of all this – my time in Trinidad, my disappointment, my return to what I value in Naipaul – when I read the recent reports about Sir Vidia in London newspapers. He was enraged by English writers and politicians. In the past, he has gone even further. Talking in a highly conservative tone about delinquent youths in England, he is reported to have said: “I see that several generations of free milk and orange juice led to an army of thugs.”

This is not wholly surprising from Naipaul. In his thinking, it is liberalism, and not the destruction of the welfare state, that he blames for many of society’s ills. This is wrong thinking, but it also involves, on Naipaul’s part, a kind of amnesia: he forgets the lessons of mentorship and social nurturing that he once taught us. Consider, once again, the theme of Biswas. Burnett, the news-paper editor, provides Biswas with copies of London newspapers so that he can develop a feeling for journalism. Soon, Biswas is able to turn out presentable prose. Burnett encourages Biswas, stressing precision and clarity (“‘Several’ has seven letters. ‘Many’ has only four and oddly enough has exactly the same meaning.”). He also gives Biswas a sense that the city is populated with stories waiting to be told.

Burnett was drawn from someone whom Naipaul had known as a child – Gault MacGowan, a man from Fleet Street who was brought to Trinidad to revive the Guardian. It was MacGowan who trained Seepersad Naipaul to look at the world as a journalist and a writer.

While Vidia was away in England,where he had gone after earning a government scholarship, Seepersad Naipaul suffered a cardiac illness and died. The death came as a great shock to the son. However, it also liberated Vidia from the close relationship that would have prevented him from writing about his father. Over several years following his father’s death, Naipaul wrote A House for Mr Biswas, which he has described as “very much my father’s book”. The novel redeemed the failure that had haunted the elder Naipaul, who had dreamed of success as a writer. But, first and foremost, Biswas was a tribute to what Naipaul had been taught by his father: “It was written out of his journalism and stories, out of his knowledge, knowledge he had got from the way of looking MacGowan had trained him in. It was written out of his writing.”

Naipaul’s Finding the Centre was one of the first literary auto-biographies I ever read. I was barely out of my teens, and the book appealed to me as a story about a literary beginning. To believe seriously in what Naipaul had written about his influences was to find oneself linked to a wider literary circle. I was living in a tiny, shared room in Delhi at that time; I did not know any writers and was uncertain about my own, vague yearnings. Finding the Centre allowed me to imagine, through Naipaul’s example of mentoring, an idea of a wonderful community of writers and readers.

In the years that followed, I read more of Naipaul. His well-known distaste for third-world radicals exercised my patience, but I read anything new by him with interest, and often pleasure. He said many provocative things (when asked by Elizabeth Hardwick what the dots on the foreheads of Indian women symbolised, Naipaul replied: “The dot means: my head is empty”), and such comments invited both laughter and dismissal.

What he said about writers and writing, however, always held my attention. More than a decade after reading Finding the Centre for the first time, I read an interview with Naipaul in the pages of the New Yorker. As I read the interview, Naipaul showed me how I needed to expand my notion of what I had thought of as mentoring. The act of teaching or communicating a deep purpose could not be limited to the literary members of one’s society. The circle of inclusion needed to be a wider one. This came through to me in the interviewer’s account of Naipaul showing him a portrait of Emperor Shah Jahan from the writer’s private collection in his London flat. Let me quote from the story:

“I think the most important thing about that picture is its condition,” Naipaul said. “The eyes, the lips, the ears – very fine. But then it’s so damaged around the head. And it’s awful to say that within a hundred years of that picture being done and being locked away in the prince’s library, it was plundered. And it was because that prince hadn’t created a state. He hadn’t created institutions to protect the painting, and, in a similar way, he hadn’t protected his people. All that art, all that training, all that talent, and it’s for the prince alone . . . all the energy should have gone into creating a self-aware, analytical society with its own intellectual possibilities.”

Art cannot last in a vacuum. For books to be written, and for them to be read, we need schools. We need an enlightened state. We need institutions of learning, and we also need roads and parks and hospitals. This is not Tory talk, contemptuous of the common people and their needs; it is, in fact, a concept that is both democratic and social. It sees in the provision of free milk and orange juice the promise of a protected people.

Sir Vidia turned 69 on 17 August. He is among the most accomplished practitioners of the art of writing today. He also takes a prized place at the very beginning of the phenomenon that we now call the literature of the Indian diaspora.

An acknowledgement of my debt can come only in the form of a piece of writing: a record of what I have received from him as a lesson about the literary life. It will please him, I think, if I end by providing a very brief narrative about mentoring. The mentor in my story is not a father, but a mother. My own mother, decades after her children left her household in search of their own, separate futures, has begun to hold free classes in a room next to her kitchen. Her students are the poor children of her neighbourhood in Patna. Some are homeless, others live in servants’ quarters. My mother’s class begins soon after most of the children finish their first round of chores as domestics, washing dishes and sweeping floors.

My mother tells me that the students have now learnt to write small words on their slates. The children want notebooks and pens; that is their biggest wish. When I heard this, I thought of A House for Mr Biswas. I thought of small beginnings and a hard life. And how the attainment of desire in that novel is built around the small signs of a writer’s life: the alphabet on a page, a few books, a desk. I wish for a lot of notebooks in the lives of the children in my mother’s school. I wish that the children will be literate citizens who will demand their share from society and the state. And, this September, I look forward very much to Sir Vidia’s latest novel.

Amitava Kumar is the author of Passport Photos (University of California Press, £12.95). He writes regularly for the Nation and Transition

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