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 worked in a shop late at night. For some time after his marriage, he was dependent on his wife’s wealthy family. Long after he had worked his way into the temporary security of a journalist’s job at the Trinidad Guardian, his mother was still living, and eventually died, in great poverty.
It is this background—the small unnoticed tragedies of a displaced impoverished people, unprotected in a small agricultural colony, and holding on to their self-enclosed but fragile Hindu world—that makes A House for Mr Biswas (1961) more than just one of the finest twentieth-century novels in English. It is also a valuable historical record of what would have been an intellectually neglected part of the world—neglected because sometimes certain worlds don’t seem important enough, politically or culturally, to be recorded, and more often they don’t produce writers and intellectuals who can note their rise or passing.
That the small Indian diaspora in Trinidad, now more urban-based and mixed, should find its chronicler in Naipaul, that the peculiar dereliction and hurt of a disinherited people and the stirrings, in the midst of that dereliction, of an individual consciousness should be immortalized in what now looks like the epic of postcolonial literature, is in itself extraordinary. That the book should have a precedent is even more so: Naipaul drew some of the novel’s events from the life of his father, but he borrowed more directly from his father’s stories about his Hindu-peasant childhood, about the life of the Indian countryside that the earliest immigrants had returned to in Trinidad, the life that Seepersad himself had barely emerged from when he started writing about it.
The stories were based on his fourteen years of work as a journalist on Indian matters, and they suggest a writer coming into his own, moving away from journalism, feeling his way around a very literary talent. In their broad background—the caste-bound Hindu village community, the small ambitions and delusions, the petty quarrels and rivalries—they remind you of the North Indian writer Premchand, who in the 1920s and 1930s was writing about the cruelties of feudal society. Seepersad’s stories follow the fortunes of a village bully and impostor as he moves from being a stick fighter to a disgraced holy man. The book is titled The Adventures of Gurudeva, but there is no real adventure. The bully’s personality and actions—beating his young wife, lecturing on orthodox Hinduism—are exaggerated by the tameness of his peasant setting; separated from it, he ceases to be interesting, and the writer’s eye, as in all early literatures, is more interested in registering the world opened up by the process of writing and reflection.
The fancy of Gurudeva was born mainly of the stories that old Jaimungal often told on evenings of the dare-devil exploits of dead and gone bad-johns. He would squat out in the open gallery, and the people living near his house—the second biggest in the village, since it was roofed and galvanized iron and floored with board and had jalousies in the doors and windows and was painted in red and blue and yellow—the neighbours would come and squat before him with their dhoti-clad haunches on the floor and their knees going up to their chins; and they would listen entranced to the stories he told.
As a brave one-time venture—lacking all precedent, not to mention publishers, not even accompanied, as writing in India was, by a larger intellectual or political growth—as a purely individual effort, Seepersad’s stories seem miraculous today. His early training as a pundit, the learning of hymns and scriptures, had first awakened him to the power of the word, had attracted him, in the unlikeliest of circumstances, to the idea of writing. But after that he had been on his own, a self-taught man, reading and writing in isolation.
He was struggling to keep afloat most of his life, struggling to define himself, acquire selfhood and culture, and at the same time have a job and possess that small bit of security and comfort that would make the world a less painful place for himself and his large but close-knit family of eight, thrown together by the break-up of the network of extended Hindu families and the rebuffs of wealthier relatives.
Seepersad’s achievement, easily acknowledged today, was then fated to be superfluous in a society still mired in peasant wretchedness. Nevertheless, writing—to which Seepersad was drawn initially by his Brahmanical upbringing—became everything to him even in his unpromising circumstances: it was a promise of individual dignity and nobility, a “refusal to be extinguished,” it also offered an end to the life of constant financial anxieties and deprivations. The wish to be a writer was inherited almost instinctively by Seepersad’s son Vidia; and it was for both, father and young son, a “wish to seek at some future time for justice.”
Poverty, the fear of extinction, the hope for justice, and writing as redemption: these are the themes of the letters exchanged within Naipaul’s family after he first came to live in England in 1950 as a student of English at Oxford on a full scholarship from the colonial government. His father was then almost at the end of his working life; his elder sister, Kamla, was studying at the Benares Hindu University in India, lonely and unhappy but unable to leave. Naipaul, barely eighteen years old, carried not only the responsibility of rescuing his family from financial hardship but the weight of an imprecise and unrealized literary ambition.
In a letter to his younger sister, Sati, some years later, Naipaul uses the word “odyssey” to describe these journeys back to the bigger world, from which Seepersad’s own father had traveled not so long ago to Trinidad; and he isn’t exaggerating. The physical and spiritual trials implied by the word were suffered by all immigrants from impoverished backgrounds, particularly in the days when going abroad was considerably more expensive and time-consuming than it is today, even in places like Trinidad and India. People who left home for better prospects elsewhere stayed away for a long time, sometimes forever, struggling with different climates and foods, sexual loneliness, and financial insecurity; coping, too, with news, often bad, of other struggles at home.
The letters Naipaul wrote to his family contain only small hints of his own private ordeal, the fear and panic and helplessness he knew as an unformed young man in England—things so painful that a fuller reckoning with them could only have been done in long retrospect, as he himself proved, when he returned to the subject of his early years in England in a book he published as late as 1987: The Enigma of Arrival.
This autobiographical novel is suffused with Naipaul’s sense of wonder at his own transplanted physical self in England, at the unlikely achievement of a “profoundly ignorant” Indian from a Hindu-peasant background who not only conceived of, but managed to realize, a high literary ambition; and it takes the reader through all the complex stages—the ignorance, presumption, failure, and slow self-knowledge—of Naipaul’s discovery of his subjects and themes.
In the long chapter “The Journey,” he describes how unprepared he was for the big world he entered soon after parting from his family in Trinidad in 1950, and how, although he was traveling to be a writer, that state of unpreparedness, the fear and loneliness he felt in New York and London on that first trip away from home, the raw unmade self he sensed within, couldn’t become for him a proper subject. Writing seemed to him then a display of sensibility, where the writer had to come across as a serene man of the world. It was an idea Naipaul had picked up from the literature of imperial Britain he had come across as a young reader, from the books of Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley. More than wanting to write like these writers, he wanted to appear to the world as they appeared to him: “aloof everywhere, unsurprised, immensely knowing.”