In an essay called “Prologue to an Autobiography,” V.S. Naipaul tells a story about Indian immigrants in Trini-dad. These immigrants had wanted to escape the general dereliction of late-nineteenth-century North India, and they had gone out to another British colony, Trinidad, to work there as indentured laborers. Many of them would have been attracted by the promise of a small grant of land after the end of their contract, or a free return trip to India with their families. But the promise had been fitfully redeemed by the colonial administration; and there were destitute and homeless Indians everywhere in Trinidad, people without land, or hope of returning to India.
Then, in 1931, a ship called the SS Ganges took a thousand Indians back to India. It returned the next year, and could take only a thousand among the many more who wanted to go. But when the SS Ganges reached, on this second trip, the port of Calcutta, it was stormed by hundreds of immigrants it had brought on the first trip—immigrants who now wanted to go back to Trinidad, because whatever little they saw of India had proved to be a nightmare.
When you travel now through the part of North India that many of the ancestors of Trinidad Indians, including Naipaul, originally lived in—the eastern wing of the state of Uttar Pradesh—you can still see the India the first immigrants to Trinidad left behind: the India of immemorial poverty and desolation, of dusty country roads, mud huts with low thatched roofs, and buffaloes tethered in cow dung-paved courtyards. You can still see children in rags, the long-veiled women hunched over cooking fires, and the shrunken human figures toiling in flat wheat and rice fields.
From this India, Naipaul’s grandfather had been brought to Trinidad as a baby in 1880, an India that the poor Indian community re-created in rural parts of Trinidad; and it was to this India that Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, born in 1906, almost went back as a boy. He and his mother had gone through the formalities for repatriation, but then at the immigration depot Seepersad panicked and hid himself in a latrine overlooking the sea until his mother changed her mind.
She, if not Seepersad, would have had some regret about that. Things hadn’t gone well until then for this family of Brahmin immigrants in Trinidad; and they weren’t going to improve much for Seepersad’s mother. Seepersad’s father, a village pundit, died young, and the sudden destitution forced his elder brother, while still a child, to work in the sugar-cane fields for eight cents a day—half a century later, the memory of his destroyed childhood made him weep before Naipaul, his nephew. Seepersad’s illiterate sister was sent away to work in the house of a relative; she suffered two unhappy marriages. Seepersad’s early life, too, was hard; he lived with his mother’s sister, went to school during the day, and …