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The House of Mr. Naipaul

A letter from Patricia Hale, Naipaul’s future wife, gets mistakenly sent to Trinidad and is opened and read by the entire Naipaul family. Vidia protests against this invasion of privacy; terms “cynical” the family talk of having been “netted.” He has had a few girlfriends before—Scandinavian, Scottish, English—who he says have “rejected” him (the truth here is that his puritan Hindu background hasn’t really equipped him for the formalities of courtship and the act of seduction). But in Pat, who has befriended him during his nervous illness, he has found qualities he found in no one: “simplicity, goodness and charm”; and he doesn’t want his family to make things difficult for the two of them.

His Hindu parents are disturbed by the thought of their son going in for a “mixed marriage” with a non-Hindu white woman. Seepersad worries about the almost certain rejection his son and his young English bride would face in Trinidad. To this, Vidia responds with unexpected bluntness, which suddenly reveals the growing gap between his own and his family’s ideas about the future: “I don’t want to break your heart, but I hope I never come back to Trinidad, not to live, that is…. [It] has nothing to offer me.”

Meanwhile, Kamla has had enough of Benares and wants to leave India immediately. But Seepersad can’t afford to pay her fare; he’ll have to ask for a loan. Vidia offers to send five pounds to help relieve the situation, but his father tells him to spend it on winter clothing or on Christmas. Vidia writes back to promise that he “shall move heaven and earth to send home a lump sum of money every year.”

Abruptly, Kamla writes from Benares to inform Vidia that their father has had a bad heart attack. He is disabled and unable to work. His “greatest worry is that he cannot get his stories published.” Kamla—who is frantically searching for ways to help ease the financial situation at home—thinks that publishing the stories means “life and death for him and consequently life or death for us.” “Will you,” she asks Vidia, “in the name of Pa’s life, see immediately to his short stories and write him a nice, cheering letter.”

It is hard to think of a literary correspondence full of such rawness of emotion, of such unqualified affection and neediness and aspiration and disappointment; it is even harder to think of correspondents who have made such a large claim on each other’s humanity. It is easier to think of something wholly unlike this volume: Rilke’s ingratiating letters to his various aristocratic patrons, where a self-satisfied “lyricism” suppresses all hints of the spiritual ache and longing we read about elsewhere in his work.

The ache and longing are honestly confessed to here, along with the desperation, and no one expresses them more intensely than Seepersad, the self-taught man from a poverty-stricken community, who has built up a dream of justice and nobility out of the humiliations and deprivations of his life, and hopes to realize it, in the last year of his life, in the publication of his stories in England. The drama of these last few letters lies in Seepersad’s growing dependence upon Vidia—the son to whom he has passed on his dream of justice and nobility, but who is now fighting his own demons, his “fear of failure,” hiding his torment and hysteria from his parents, suppressing it in banter about girlfriends and Oxford and his random travels, venting it only in severe contempt for other Trinidadians and insensitive relatives in England. The son who is unable to assuage his family’s anxieties about his well-being, his English girlfriend, his future and who feels his utter helplessness, himself writes, like his father, but half-suspects his work of being worthless.

Vidia now pleads: “Please have some faith in me. I wish I could be the knight in armour, hastening to avenge you and bring you help. But we have to go about things in a much more prosaic way.” In another letter, he tries to reassure his father, “You should not have thought that I was uninterested in your writing,” and then goes on to dismiss contemporary writers from the West Indies and relates how success and fame came to Joyce Cary when he was over fifty.

He adds at the end of the letter: “Please send your stories as soon as possible. We shall probably place them.” The stories are sent by an anxious Seepersad, along with addresses of various literary agents he wants Vidia to contact on his behalf. In letter after letter, he urges Vidia to do something about the stories: “I think you know what a godsend it would mean to me, if it was accepted…. I know parts would sound rather immature and crude, but it seems that is the sort of thing publishers want these days.” He also muses about publishing a book together with Vidia, with both their names on the cover.

Vidia’s own references to the stories are cryptic: “pretty good stuff and I feel sure it will be placed eventually.” He mentions that the job of typing them is a “big one.” Seepersad keeps urging him: “Do get going with the stuff.” But Vidia is once again going through “periods of black depression.” He has also decided—although he doesn’t say so now—that the stories aren’t “publishable outside Trinidad.” All he can do is encourage his father to write “something really big,” an autobiography.

Writing in August 1953, Seepersad reports having “a terribly miserable time”: Vidia hasn’t been in touch lately about his health and Kamla has arrived in England from India “quite broke.” There has been a bigger setback. The Trinidad Guardian is laying him off work. But his affection for his son at this time of despair is unimpaired: “There is not a day—hardly an hour—when we do not think of you and Kamla.” He writes in another letter: “Do not worry about sending us money. It is bad enough we do not send you anything. What a wretchedly poor lot we are….” He advises his son to take it easy: “You know, you have worked much too hard, from early boyhood to date.” He reports “washing the walls so as to make the home bright for Kamla”; and things do begin to look up slightly as Kamla reaches Trinidad, almost immediately gets a good job, and takes charge of the family. Sati gets engaged to be married to a good Trinidadian Hindu. Kamla sends Vidia some local gossip. Seepersad, in a more relaxed mood, writes a long, considered letter to Vidia, in which he shares his thoughts about the future, hopes Vidia would put off marrying for three or four years, by which time Kamla and Sati and the younger daughters would have taken turns in assisting the family; he also hopes Vidia would consider a teaching job in Trinidad.

This turns out to be his last letter. Three weeks later, he has another heart attack, and dies, only forty-seven years old, and it is Kamla who now writes from Trinidad, out of the depths of a great grief:

There are so many things I want to say but I don’t know how to say them. That Pa is dead—well, I guess I have to reconcile myself to that, but I can’t. There are few things which haunt me—he didn’t see you, who he so much wanted to see; to see England, and most of all to have his book published. What really hurts me is that he worked so hard all his life, all for us.

Vidia can’t bring himself to write at first to his mother. Two weeks pass before he sends his own tribute to a kind, generous father:

Everything I did and did well, as I thought—always prompted the thought, “Pa would like to hear of this.” In a way I had always looked upon my life as a continuation of his—a continuation which, I hoped, would also be a fulfilment. It still is; but I have to abandon the idea of growing older in Pa’s company; and I have to get the strength to stand alone.

The letters speed up now; there is only a small selection here from the three years after Seepersad’s death, and from them you get a sense of Vidia still drifting in England, and even further away from his family. His poverty reduces him to eating cheap food in Oxford; he writes a beseeching letter to Kamla for more money. He fails to get a job in a match factory in India; nothing seems to work out. In a long letter to his mother, he explains why he can’t come back to Trinidad just yet. Despite the lack of success so far, he is confident that he will succeed with his writing. The dream of justice is intact: “The world is a pretty awful place, but our star will shine brightly yet,” he writes. He gets married to Patricia Hale, the English girl who had everyone at home very worried.

The letters are silent about his beginnings as a published writer. Living precariously as a BBC freelancer in London, ten months after leaving Oxford, he writes, still experimenting, the first sentence of his first publishable book: “Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, ‘What happening there, Bogart?”’ Bogart is an eccentric character from a Port of Spain street Vidia lived in as a child, an aspect of his experience that he hasn’t yet thought of as proper material. The sentence sets off a chain of associations. He writes the second sentence—Bogart’s response, something invented, memory transfigured—and then, suddenly, the unexamined, unremembered past begins to yield up its treasures; the man and the writer begin to come together.

Early in 1956, he sends a telegram: = NOVEL ACCEPTED = LOVE. And then after a brief silence he writes to Kamla: “This is the letter I have been longing to write home ever since I left Trinidad. It is about my book.”

The book is The Mystic Masseur, the novel he has quickly written after a publisher said that she would take on his stories about the Port of Spain street, later collected as Miguel Street, if there was a novel to go before them. The publishers paid him twenty-five pounds for an option; they are going to pay him seventy-five pounds more for the finished novel. It is a very modest beginning; Vidia knows that the books may not work—and they didn’t. But it is a beginning nevertheless, after the failures and frustrations of previous years.

Later that year, he visits Trinidad for the first time since his departure six years before. The letters collected here don’t reach that point, and Naipaul hasn’t written in any detail about this reunion with the family. But we do have a record of it from another source: Vidia’s younger brother, Shiva. He is the shy child in the affectionate postscripts of Seepersad’s and Vidia’s letters, who aged eight had lit his father’s funeral pyre and, after a brief writer’s career, was himself to die young, like his father and sister Sati. Vidia missed his early childhood. Shiva, closer to his family’s distress, grew up with very different memories of that time; and when, at the age of eleven, he saw his elder brother again, the latter had turned into an almost mythical figure.

Sometimes, the postman arrived with blue air-mail letters, the cause of much excitement in our household. Occasionally, I would listen with a kind of dazed astonishment to this notional being—my brother—reading a short story on the radio. When I was about eleven, this mysterious figure suddenly arrived among us. Why he should thus manifest himself, I had no idea. Still, it was an interlude of wonder; of intense excitement for me. I would go and stand in the doorway of his bedroom and gaze curiously upon him as he lay on the bed, smoking cigarettes out of a green tin. The tableau revived my father’s fading image. He too, in the warm, quiet afternoons, would lie on that same bed, reading and smoking cigarettes.

Vidia had written, when Seepersad was still alive, of how, as he grew older, “I find myself doing things that remind me of Pa” and how “the more I learn about myself, the more I learn about him.” Here, in this beautiful moment of remembrance and perception, Shiva’s tender curiosity stumbled upon that special bond between his elder brother and father: the intimacy that became a blending of aspiration and personalities; the continuation of the father’s life that in the end turned out be, however partial or lonely, a fulfillment for his son.

Note: Seepersad Naipaul’s stories were printed privately in 1943 and published in a revised, expanded form in 1976, and then in 1995, with a foreword by V.S. Naipaul, as The Adventures of Gurudeva (Heinemann, 1995).

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