”You should have put on a skirt,” Kim says. “Naipaul doesn’t like women wearing trousers.”
“I look fine! Have you seen his nieces? They wear shorts.”
“Yes, but he lets his family get away with things he’d never accept from an outsider.”
We’re on our way to the house of V S Naipaul’s sister Kamla, where he usually stays when he’s visiting Trinidad. The second viaduct to the left, Naipaul said. Maybe I should have put on a skirt. But when I look over, I see Kim grinning. “I was only teasing.”
Kim is writing a book about the history of Trinidad. He knows Naipaul’s work well; we’ve spent hours talking about it in the past few days. I’m glad he’s driving me, because my palms are all sweaty.
“Vidia has his father’s imagination, his mother’s toughness,” Kamla had said. The toughness – that’s what scares me.
“What if he shows me the door after 15 minutes?”
“Try to stretch it to an hour. One hour – you could write something about that.” And with that advice, Kim drops me at the sandy road leading to Kamla’s house.
The Sunday before, Kamla had picked me up for a drive on the island. It was a glorious day. I woke to the sound of singing from the church, and as we drove along, women in fancy hats and little girls in white dresses and with red ribbons in their hair were walking by. On the radio, converts – egged on by the preacher’s zealous shouts – were telling of miraculous healings.
The charlatans from Naipaul’s early novels are alive and well in Trinidad. The island is littered with mosques, Hindu temples, churches and sectarian meeting halls. Even the most humble fruit merchant has slogans such as “Rejoice in the Lord” and “Are you hurting? Try Jesus” nailed above his stand, and the papers are full of advertisements saying, for example, “Thank you, St Jude” for favours granted.
We drove to Chaguanas, about 20 kilometres outside Port of Spain, once the home of the Capildeos, the family of Naipaul’s mother. They’d lived in the middle of the “sugar belt” where the indentured Indian labourers had settled. The main street was dominated by the old family house, a stately stone fortress three storeys high, with arches set on lotus-capped pillars, a fabric shop at the front, a beehive of people at the back. It was into this family that Naipaul’s father, a poor Brahmin once destined to become a pundit, had married.
But now the house was in a sorry state. The white walls were covered in a layer of black mould, the proud red lions on the upper arcades had faded, the arches cracked. The ceilings were stained with moisture, the elephant god Ganesh in the courtyard was badly damaged, his trunk broken.
Still, the Lion House had kept something of its old grandeur, and it wasn’t hard to recall the halcyon days of A House for Mr Biswas, when the shop was hung with holly and berries, and Mrs Tulsi – the dreaded mistress of the house – waited on customers herself; when the whole house buzzed with mysterious activity and all the children looked forward to the morning when they would find apples in blue wrappers, tin whistles, rubber dolls and balloons in their red felt stockings.
“I couldn’t read that book for the first few years,” Kamla said. “It was too familiar, too painful.”
Christmas in a Hindu family – it was only one of the contradictions with which the Lion House had burst at the seams. On Good Friday, Kamla recalled, they ate rice and salmon. “It was the kind of house that absorbed every newcomer,” she said. “Pa fought against that; he didn’t want to be pressed in a mould.” I thought about Biswas, who had been so disgusted by the food one evening that he’d tossed it out the window, crossed the street in a rage and ate himself sick on oysters and pepper sauce at a stand in the shopping street.
Kamla herself lived in Charlieville, a few kilometres from the Lion House. Ten years ago, her house stood on its own; now the whole street had been built up. All the gardens were decorated with flapping jhandis, colourful pennants that are stuck in the ground during Hindu ceremonies. The pennants are removed only when they are faded and rotten.
We drank rum punch on the veranda and leafed through old family albums. In them, the legendary Mr Biswas was reduced to what he actually was: a worried-looking man in suit and tie, not particularly attractive, with a nose a bit too broad for his face.
“I inherited that nose from him,” Kamla said, looking critically over my shoulder. Naipaul’s mother looked the way I’d expected: dark, flashing eyes in a stern face, dressed in a white sari. I could almost smell the cloud of incense that must have enveloped her.
Now and then, Naipaul himself popped up in the albums, during his sporadic visits to Trinidad: a serious-looking young man in light cotton trousers and shirt, standing next to his younger brother Shiva, who was also to become a writer. And, later on, with his British wife Pat, a pale, thin girl in a simple dress who seems somewhat uneasy amid the lavishly dressed Indian women.
The last picture of Vidia and Shiva together was taken when their sister Sati died. They are standing uncomfortably in the middle of the street in front of Queen’s Royal College, where they both went to school. Shiva, who had been tall and thin as a young man, was fat and balding in this picture. Less than a year later, he died of a heart attack. “Those two deaths, one right after the other, came as a great blow to Vidia,” Kamla said. She was about to add something, but seemed to hold herself back. “Should I be telling you this?”
Something inside her was telling her to be silent; I’d noticed it before. I understood her caution. Although Naipaul has regularly written about himself, he is known as a very private person. During interviews, he’s often fractious – he’s been known frequently to cut them short. It’s one of those sensitivities he took with him when he left Trinidad, a “rawness of nerves”, as he put it somewhere.
A slender man emerges from the shadows of the veranda. He’s wearing a green sweater and beige cotton trousers; he has small hands with closely cut nails, and dark, soft skin. He’s so different from the recent photos I’ve seen, so much more relaxed, that I blurt out: “You’re looking well!” He smiles. “And why shouldn’t I be looking well?”
Kamla has brought us tea and pineapple on the veranda. There we’ll sit until sudden nightfall – the hour of the mosquitoes – drives us inside, where Kamla is busy decorating the Christmas tree.
At first, Naipaul is closed and easily perturbed. The game has to be played by his rules; he is highly skilled at throwing up new obstacles. But behind all that, I gradually detect something lenient, a willingness to give in.
At his request, I didn’t bring a tape recorder. After a while, though, I confess that I won’t be able to do without one. “Oh, you just want to chat,” he says sarcastically, stands up, walks through the house, disappears into the bedroom of Kamla’s daughter Roshni, and comes back with a ghetto blaster, holding it at arm’s length as if it were some infected object.
But when he starts talking, I forgive him everything. He’s equally hard on himself; he has an almost painful capacity for dissecting his own shortcomings. And yet, he has remained full of enigmas and complexes – a man fighting against his own limitations, and not always succeeding.
He came to the Caribbean to take another look at the landscape of his first travel book, The Middle Passage. “One comes back every few years and hopes to see something new,” he says.
Since he went away, many sensible people have left the island, and the ones who stayed have been treated to the easy oil money. Material wealth is measured nowadays by the number of times a week you can get drunk, by the volume produced by your sound system.
Naipaul avoids Port of Spain, but in Charlieville, too, the decibels are rising steadily. Calypso, steel bands, carnival – he hates it all. “I have never danced in my life, not once,” he says. Roshni’s dogs are racing behind her car, barking wildly as she pulls out of the drive, and a pick-up truck with megaphone blaring comes down the street. He looks at me, clearly pained. “The noise never stops, you see. I’m tormented by it, but here they love it. They don’t work with the mind.”
All this exuberance must be an onslaught on senses like his. As we talk, he registers everything in detail: the dogs chasing a lizard around the yard, the hummingbird swerving into the thick green leaves of the wild banana tree. In his presence, the anonymous tropical trees around the veranda take on names, one by one: the cashew at the edge of the open field, the mango, the flamboyant – so that, at our next meeting, I can see through the landscape. Only then do I hear the shrill screams coming from the house next door.
“What kind of an animal is that?”
“Oh, that’s the neighbours’ parrot,” Kamla hushes. I see it, sitting on its perch beneath the eaves – it has a long blue tail.
“But there are other animals living there as well,” Naipaul says maliciously, following my gaze, “animals without a blue tail.”
He remembers his first writer’s observation very clearly. He was six. During the weekend his teacher was moving, he was pushing his possessions in a handcart down the main street of Chaguanas. When Naipaul’s father spoke to him, the man said: “Rather than calling in a moving company, I just thought I’d move myself.” A moving company – as though he had enough money for that! The child thought, “That is how poor people behave”, and felt sad.
Not long afterwards, they moved to Port of Spain, where Naipaul’s father worked as a journalist. In Chaguanas, they had lived in an orderly Indian world; in Port of Spain, they found themselves in a Caribbean melting pot of blacks, Chinese and Creoles. It was Naipaul’s first step into the world.
His singular way of looking at things is present in his earliest work. The little boy in Miguel Street sees everything and reports on it with the amazement of an outsider, as if he doesn’t belong in the street where he has ended up.
“My sense of observation is a family characteristic,” Naipaul says. “Intensive observation – it was probably given us by our father. The first thing I saw in a person was his weakness: the meanness, grossness, vanity. I always saw the bad side first.”
Because he came from a family of pundits, everyone treated him with regard when he was a child. “I had a sense of being protected, of being marked out for important things. It’s reflected in my name: Vidiadhar means giver of knowledge – as though that was to be my function. I was aware of that; it gave me immense confidence in the midst of the colonial desolation and poverty I grew up in.”
His ambition to become a writer came from his father. Kamla had told me that their father read to them – Oliver Twist, David Copperfield – but also from his own work. She always fell asleep, but Vidia listened with interest. Many of their father’s stories were never finished – the island had no literary tradition.
At an early age, Naipaul realised that if he was to escape his father’s tragic fate, he would have to go away. Three government scholarships were granted each year to students from Trinidad. “Can you imagine the strain?”
But he made it. Others left to study law or medicine, subjects that guaranteed them a position of prominence on the island later. Naipaul chose English literature, a course of study that barred the road back.
In excitement and anticipation, he had looked forward to reaching his new home base. And then he arrived at Oxford, in August, while lectures didn’t begin until October. The great difficulty of filling the days! “I began to undergo the solitude that travellers endure when they travel for the first time. How do you meet people when you’re in a new place? I’m nearly 60 now, I know how to do it a little bit. At 18, you don’t.”
My questions about his early days at Oxford irritate him. Why do I want to know whether there were any other West Indians? He was in England, not Trinidad. “Unless you understand that, you’re missing the point of many things I’ve said.” Oxford wasn’t a real campus, rather a series of hotels. The terms were very short. Then the holidays came. If you had no family, you were just back in your room, alone.
“I can’t tell you how hard it was. I don’t think you can understand these things. One is not really fully recovered from the isolation, the solitude and the deprivation of those years. Inexperience, lack of money, added to social and sexual inaptitude. And also, I suppose, the understanding that it would be a long time before I began to write.”
How many students broke off their studies when their father died at home, because they were the oldest son and the family needed them? Naipaul’s father died, but Vidia did not go back to Trinidad. Didn’t he feel guilty? Naipaul shakes his head emphatically.
“No, no. My mother kept on writing things about money, but I knew this was to be ignored. Nothing would have been solved if I had come back here. I had no profession; all I could have done was take a job as a teacher. It was a very low moment in my life. One had this grief, but one had nothing to offer, because one’s talent was undeveloped. It was a long way ahead; I still had to discover my subject.”
Soon afterwards, he began to write. About Trinidad. He had a very fine memory, he discovered; he could play it all back, like a movie. He remembered the way the rain fell, the way the water reflected the sky. He saw the faces of people, tried to extract meaning from events.
“I could go into my writing as into a garden. I could forget my pain there. One of my funniest books was written in the middle of a great personal desolation. It was 1956. I was back in Trinidad for the first time. They should have published The Mystic Masseur that autumn, but they didn’t. I was enraged, full of grief. A very cold winter crossing back to England – no book waiting at the other end, despair, stress. And then I wrote The Suffrage of Elvira, about the elections I’d experienced in Trinidad. The dialogue is very operatic – and I’m crying, I’m bleeding!
“People now have forgotten the way the world was made 30 years ago. People were not interested in what I wrote about; the novel dealt with other things. It wasn’t enough just to get it right. I always had to do more than a Frenchman writing in France for the French, or an American in America. One didn’t come to the scene in a welcoming world.”
A House for Mr Biswas, his fourth book, was immediately recognised as a masterpiece, but for Naipaul it heralded a new period of distress. He felt he’d come to the end of a world, that he had drained his material – his childhood years in Trinidad – that he wouldn’t be able to write another book.
For many writers with a similar background, this would indeed have been the end. They would write perhaps one more book about their experiences in England and then it would be over: their background explored, the path to new material cut off.
Naipaul did write a novel about England. It’s an anomaly in his oeuvre, hanging like an unoiled hinge between his early and his later work. The setting is London, the main character a British civil servant who wants to do something important before retiring.
“By writing Mr Stone and the Knight’s Companion, I knew I could go on. The excitement of having a story come alive again! But afterwards, I see the flaws. It wasn’t full-blooded enough. I should have let the claws stick out a bit more. Actually, Mr Stone was a Dutchman in whose house I had rented the top floor. His English wife had gone out to the East Indies before the war. I should probably have introduced myself as someone lodging in the house, but I tried to play down the observer. One wasn’t fully possessed of the gift yet, of looking at a society outside one’s own.”
He looks at me from behind his reflecting spectacles. “I regret wasting the material. It worries me so much I’d almost like to suppress it. Since then, I’ve always tried to identify myself in relation to what I’m writing.”
On Boxing Day, Kamla’s veranda is crowded. Naipaul’s sister Savi is there, down from Canada with her husband and children, and his niece Paula, who lives in Barbados. “Uncle Vido”, as Naipaul is referred to here, is sitting among them in a red T-shirt and beige trousers, the look in his eye somewhere between detachment and interest. “Let’s go for a drive.” Decisions like that he makes quickly, without hesitation. The sky is grey and heavy; it looks like rain, but that doesn’t seem to bother him. He already has his sunglasses and floppy leather hat in hand. Gran Couva, that’s his plan: a short trip inland. Roshni has been studying agriculture; he enjoys driving around with her.
“Do you see that sign? Do you know what it means?” Naipaul peers down the street like a hawk, ready to dive. Chicken, pluck and gut – I’ve seen those handwritten signs before. “They pluck the chicken while you wait. It’s all done with machines these days. The feathers fly all over, and then they remove the intestines.” He makes a face – he’s a vegetarian himself. “And there, for Muslims: chicken halal!”
It’s started raining. The car windows are soon steamed up, and when Roshni rolls down her window the water comes gushing in. Naipaul doesn’t mind; he examines the trees gliding by. “It’s an artificial landscape,” he says. “Almost everything has been imported.” The teak trees come from Burma, the pines from Honduras, the mango and wild rubber trees from India.
The road becomes narrower, the landscape more hilly, and before I know it we’re closed in by a thick jungle of wild banana trees, creaking bamboo, tall ferns and dripping vines. “These are my favourite surroundings,” Naipaul says, “a disorderly landscape, useless trees, deep green colours.”
Mostly Indians live on this part of the island, in houses on stilts. Every once in a while, we see a settlement rising up along the road. A little store, a rum shop, a family on a veranda, watching with curiosity as our car goes by. These are descendants of the immigrants who came to replace the black slaves, after abolition. They never felt entirely at home in the Caribbean, where they were a tiny minority in a sea of blacks. As indentured labourers, they were at the bottom of the social ladder, while in their dreams they came from a grand culture.
From England, Naipaul had gone in search of that Indian past. But India was a disappointment: the filth in the streets horrified him, disturbed his dream of a background grander than Trinidad. More than ever, he felt thrown back on himself. But as a writer, he regarded his first India book as a victory: after his English novel, he had made the leap to new material.
He had not lost the singular vision with which the boy in Miguel Street looked at the things around him, and that was not appreciated. Here was a man who refused to defend his colonialised hinterland. In the west, the left accused him of being reactionary; in the third world, they thought him a traitor.
“I was very particular when I began to write not to use certain emotive words which had become political cliches, like ‘colonialism’ or ‘imperialism’,” he’d told me earlier. “It’s something I got from my father. He always said we shouldn’t blame the others, that we were responsible ourselves. He passed that attitude on to me. In some respects, it’s very Indian. There’s a lot of that in Gandhi; he’s also looking inward, trying to reform Indian society from the inside.”
Brown, muddy streams of water are running across the road, and Roshni is driving more slowly. Through the windows I see a large black man in swimming trunks step out of the jungle, three stakes of bamboo under his arm. The wood he emerges from is steaming like a Turkish bath.
“Africa,” I say. “This is like Africa.” So he knew this landscape when he went to Africa. Salim, the Indian in A Bend in the River who lives in a city in the African interior – it must not have been difficult for Naipaul to see things through his eyes.
In 1965, he went to Africa for the first time. Along with Paul Theroux, he travelled for days from Uganda to Kenya and back. But it was only ten years later, when he arrived in Kinshasa, that he felt he was in familiar territory. The Zaireans reminded him of the blacks in Trinidad. He recognised their feeling for magic as soon as he saw their faces.
One day, he went to the University of Kinshasa, walked into a lecture hall, introduced himself to someone and asked a teacher if he could talk to the students. Wonderfully sharp they were, although culturally so far away from the outside world. “The question was: how did the sharpness cease to matter, how did it become swamped by the world of magic? When you met the older men, the politicians, you felt they originally had that sharpness, too, but something had happened with their minds. I heard it from people who had known the president when he was young: he had impressed them very much.
“I knew the magic from Trinidad, but it remained shocking to me. I always had to remind myself when I was with someone: we’re talking intelligently now, but there’s another side to him; he believes in magic.”
Naipaul is leaning back in his seat, talking, his gaze lost in the drenched landscape. “Dark-green, thick jungle,” he repeats to himself, “bamboo, banana, wild banana. It’s a romantic landscape, don’t you think?”
We’re close to Kamla’s house again. The signs for plucked chickens appear once more, and the rum shops.
“Look at them sitting there. Sitting and drinking.”
“And talking,” I say, because I’ve seen that – the men are always discussing things.
“Talking! They have nothing on their minds.”
In the kitchen, Kamla is busy doing the dishes. “Did you see that storm? My whole veranda is covered in leaves!”
Naipaul stands against the counter, a piece of chocolate in his mouth. “Kamla would prefer trees without leaves,” he says.
There’s fondness in his voice. They are the eldest; when their father died, Kamla assumed the care for the family. His demanding nature is sometimes hard for her to take. “He thinks all the time, and I have to think along with him!” He bombards her with questions: who makes the most noise in Trinidad, the blacks or the Indians? Who does she think reads the most, the Indians, the blacks or the Chinese?
Once he’s finished with the islanders, he turns the spotlight on her. Why does she save his early letters in a shoebox? They’re worth money! Why does she leave the water pump lying about in the garden? Shouldn’t it be covered? And how come the veranda, which was built not that long ago, is already leaking?
It’s almost seven o’clock. The streets are still deserted. All night the rain had hammered down on the corrugated iron roof of the shed beneath my bedroom window, so loudly that I woke up, afraid we would have to cancel our trip to Matelot at the northern tip of the island. But now the horizon is slowly taking on colour.
“Good morning, Pooran!” Naipaul is walking towards us, a spring in his step, and when he shakes Pooran’s hand I have the feeling he has already sized him up, established how he will deal with him. He climbs into the car beside him, self-confident, taking in the interior with slight amusement: the golden edges of the plastic seat covers, the additional radio knobs for passengers in the back, the little statue of Christ.
“Are we air-conditioned?” He examines the dashboard. “That’s nice.”
Then we’re ready to depart.
The asphalt road to the east is full of holes and hummocks. It was built by the former black government, Naipaul tells me. They were in power for 30 years – the amount of money they wasted during that time! “People didn’t mind; they had no objection to corruption, because it was their government, it was money being stolen from the rest of the island. But in the end, there’s always a price to pay. And it’s not this generation that pays, but the next. And then the IMF has to come in . . .”
As we drive on, he loses himself in staring at the landscape. The frigate birds swooping low across the water, the lagoons with mangroves, the creeks. “The more I’ve learned about this landscape, the more I’ve come to appreciate it,” he says. “Once one knows the names of things, they become clear; it’s not just a thick green forest any more. If one grows up with this landscape of forest, rocky beaches and sea, one can’t really get it out of one’s blood. As a child, I had a strong feeling for India, but also for this New World, going into Venezuela, with Spanish extensions.”
Now he feels at home in both worlds and, looking back, he admits he was fortunate – which compensates for the sorrow and difficulties of the early years.
His gaze rests on a distant rock sticking out of the sea. On top of the rock, a tree is growing; the sea water sprays wildly against it. “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off from an anointed king,” he murmurs. He looks back at me and laughs. “Shakespeare. Richard II. You see the associations this landscape evokes?”
At Matelot, the asphalt turns abruptly into a vague, sandy path. “Now we have to go back,” Naipaul says, “because the government didn’t make any more road for us.”
At a shop in Toco, where we stop a bit later, three men are sitting on the benches, talking. The clerk is standing behind a barred metal window with a hatch in it. Beer is the only beverage he has in the cooler. The canned orange juice he gives us is tepid. He shuffles off to the back of the shop to find a can opener, but returns empty-handed.
Naipaul has taken off his hat and sunglasses and looks at me without a word. Kim told me that someone had once said to Naipaul, “You’re the best writer in Trinidad”, to which he had laughingly replied: “The best writer in Trinidad! That’s a bit like the best shopkeeper in Toco, isn’t it?”
The men on the wooden benches have stopped talking and are looking at us inquisitively.
“But you is a known face,” one of them says. “You is Mr Naipaul!”
“Oh, God!” Naipaul grabs instinctively for his hat, ready to flee.
“What makes you think he’s Mr Naipaul?” Pooran has placed himself between the two, like a referee.
“I saw his picture in the paper. They said lots of good about him.”
“Have you ever read one of his books?” Pooran’s voice sounds stern.
“No, but I hope to some day.”
Naipaul turns around. After his initial alarm, his face has taken on an amused expression.
“Give these men a beer, and take one yourself as well,” he says to the shopkeeper. With a “Thanks, old man”, he takes his change. Then we’re outside, our cans of orange juice clutched in a paper bag.
“The price of fame,” I say.
“What can I do? You can’t be rude to them, they would hold it against you.”
We use my pocket knife to open the cans, and drink the juice, leaning against the car. “Did you see that shopkeeper, Pooran? It wasn’t easy to get anything from him, was it? Can you imagine what would have happened had he been an Indian? He would have talked us into buying all kinds of things: nuts, sandwiches, you name it! Blacks have no commercial sense; they think it’s enough to open a shop, that the rest will come by itself.”
Along a little river far below us, an Indian family is having a picnic. The children are playing in the water; the parents sit beneath a banana tree, watching. “Indians are family-minded. That makes them very different from the others here,” Naipaul muses. “Keeping up with the Joneses, an important mechanism in the Indian community, is foreign to the blacks.”
A little later, we pass a group of black boys who’ve had their hair cut in the latest fashion: close at the back and sides, a flat, rigid brush on top. “Everyone here has the latest hairstyle from New York,” Naipaul says, “but having your hair cut in the form of a pancake is not the same as opening a shop. You can want something, but in order to achieve it you must be on your toes all the time. And blacks aren’t good at that.”
At a bridge over a little stream, he asks Pooran to stop. The forest towers up along the steep hillsides. “I smell a snake,” he says, as soon as he steps out of the car. He peers surprisedly into the bushes at his feet. “Do you smell it?” Rotting fruit, wet leaves – I can’t pin down the odour he’s talking about. “It smells of fish,” he says. “When a snake has passed, one can smell it all day.”
Across the road is a deserted cocoa house. We’ve seen many of them along the way: wooden sheds with rusty corrugated iron roofs on wheels, which were rolled away to allow the beans to dry in the sun. Naipaul has taken off his hat and is poking around. The steps to the cocoa house are rotten, and crack beneath his feet. This dark little man beside a house that, despite its decay, still speaks of all the precision with which it was designed – in his green sweater, he almost blends into the foliage behind him, but he holds his hat by the crown, like a British gentleman visiting a museum.
“Look at this.” A green plant with delicate leaves lies at his feet. “Touch it.” As soon as I run my finger along the leaves, they close. He laughs, brushes the sole of his shoe roughly over the plant, and all the leaves snap shut. “You see, that is the ‘sensitive plant’. It will be hours before it opens again.”
copyright: Lieve Joris
Translated by Sam Garratt.
Lieve Joris’s most recent book about the Congo, Dans van de luipaard, is recently published by Meulenhoff in the Netherlands