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The House of Mr. Naipaul

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.”

The appropriation of a writing personality, a perspective and tone unrelated to the writer’s past and present circumstances, occurs a lot in writing from Britain’s former colonies. It is a colonial tendency, this random borrowing from more accomplished literatures and civilizations, the first reflex of people just beginning to emerge into the light after centuries of intellectual darkness. In Naipaul’s case it kept him from discovering that the complicated past—the Hindu-peasant ancestry, the lower-middle-class upbringing in a racially mixed Caribbean colony—he found shameful and wished to hide behind his borrowed metropolitan personality was really his truest subject. As he wrote in The Enigma of Arrival, “Man and writer were the same person. But that is a writer’s greatest discovery. It took time—and how much writing!—to arrive at that synthesis.”

Man and writer, united when Naipaul was in Trinidad, were to be sundered by the shock of the new world he found himself in. In his letters to Kamla, his elder sister in Benares, written when he was waiting to go to England, the jauntiness and confidence—the swift dismissals of Nehru (“first-class showman”) and Jane Austen (“a writer for women”)—is of the precocious reader-writer impatient to plunge into the world and gain some real experience: “As yet I feel that the philosophy I will have to expand in my books is only superficial,” he writes. “I am longing to see something of life.”

Soon he would see something of life, but he wouldn’t know what to make of it, and he would only have the feeling, as he did on his first day in New York, of “being lost, of truth not fully faced.” In New York, he is cheated by a taxi driver; in his hotel room, he eats, peasant-fashion, the roasted chicken packed by his mother, without a plate, knife, or fork; he is almost scalded by the hot shower. He is beginning to feel a “rawness of nerves and sensibility” that will be with him for many years. But in his letters he only reports that he is “deeply happy.” In London, he is very lonely, and his walks around the city are “ignorant and joyless.” In his letter, the bright scholarship student, attempting enthusiasm, reports to his parents and sister that “England has been proving very pleasant.”

He will maintain the small deception in his letters home—and not only because he wants to keep his family from worrying too much about him. The deception is almost forced upon him by the unresolved conflict between the lonely and fearful young man and the aspiring writer who has to show himself to be aloof everywhere, unsurprised, and immensely knowing. “Understanding oneself,” as he wrote after a nervous breakdown that lasted several months, “is the biggest problem.”

For the first four weeks in England, Naipaul (or Vidia, as he shall be referred to in order to avoid confusion) does not write home at all. And then when he summons up the energy to do so, he is scolded by Kamla for his “impersonal manner”: “You are fully aware that now Pa is left alone at home. You were his lifelong friend…. Do feel for them, Vido, and write them as they deserve. At least do that much.” Vidia recovers enough from his gloom to write a spirited letter that describes the social intricacies of Oxford (“the 1948 people stick mostly to themselves and so on”) and his own success (“the people here accept me”); he quotes a few Prufrockian lines from a poem he has been working on (“In a yellowing world/Of Yellowing leaves/and Yellowing men”); he praises his father (“what a delightful father to have”).

Seepersad does seem like a delightful father: patient, kind, enthusiastic. As Gillon Aitken points out in his elegant and perceptive introduction, his “deep concern for Vidia is a generous and never-failing tribute to the fine intelligence, and the responsive and sensitive spirit, of the younger man.” He gently counsels Vidia to “keep your centre”: “I am glad to know you feel confident; but don’t underestimate people and problems.” He keeps asking for descriptions of Oxford; he asks Vidia to send him R.K. Narayan’s fiction, The Author’s Handbook, and various British newspapers; he encourages him to contact “big shots in the writing and film business.” He offers some excellent literary advice: “Only see that you have succeeded in saying exactly what you want to say—without showing off; with utter brave sincerity—and you will have achieved style because you will have been yourself.” He works hard and thanklessly at his journalist’s job, and complains about his inability to do his own writing: “This is the time I should be writing the things I so long to write,” he writes. “When shall I get the chance?… The Guardian is taking all out of me—writing tosh.” At the same time, he wonders: “Are you quite happy? You must tell me frankly. Barring illness, there is no earthly reason why you shouldn’t be.”

It is to Kamla—and he is always franker with her—that Vidia confesses: “A feeling of emptiness is nearly always on me. I see myself struggling in a sort of tunnel blocked up at both ends. My past—Trinidad and the necessity of our parents—lies behind me and I am powerless to help anyone. My future—such as it is—is a full four years away.”

In the limbo that Naipaul finds himself in at Oxford, waiting to be a writer, waiting to help his parents, lack of money is one of his biggest problems. He rarely makes enough to be able to send some to his parents; he barely has enough to spend on himself, and is constantly borrowing from his sister and father. Seepersad, on the other hand, rarely stops worrying about not being able to help his son; he frequently apologizes and at the same time enumerates, in the fussy anxious way of people who have known real deprivation, his continuing expenses and debts and small incomes. (“I got back my $90 from the shipping Co. I am sending you $25 out of it, and the remainder returns to my creditor.”)

Later during his stay at Oxford, Vidia scoffs at an Indian from Trinidad: “Can you imagine a man coming to Oxford for the first time and not looking at the buildings, not looking at the bookshops, but just talking about money—how much he wanted, how little he had?” Being at Oxford and talking about money: it is not how Vidia sees himself. Indeed, he reports to Seepersad that he has discovered in himself “all types of aristocratic traits…. That is the one good thing Oxford has done for me.”

It is part of his growing self-discovery in the West: the awareness that he has as much right to the richness of the world as anyone else. There are several colonial characters in Naipaul’s books who arrive at that same realization—people who acknowledge the injustice of colonialism, but are unwilling to define themselves as “victims,” who wish to be active participants in the new world colonialism has exposed them to. There is Indar in A Bend in the River, who has turned his back on the passive life of his Indian community in Africa, and wishes to make a name for himself in the West—the outside world he thinks his people have become incapable of understanding: “We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is all that most of us do. It never occurs to us that we might make a contribution to it ourselves.”

At Oxford, Vidia is beginning to understand his own relationship to that world in ways very different from those offered by his limited colonial background or the rhetoric of victimhood. He can now see the “phoney sophistication” of the West Indian upper class, several of whose members are at Oxford, and hopes his father would write about it. He can see that there are “asses in droves” at Oxford; he has the confidence to speculate that the English are a “queer people.”

But behind this “cynical flamboyance,” which makes him popular at Oxford, there is uncertainty and fear, and Vidia himself senses it. “I find myself posing even when I am sincere,” he tells his sister. He also has come face to face with his own ignorance, and finds it difficult to know what his own contribution to the world he is in would be. “What happens,” he asks his sister, who has “taken him for an intellectual giant,” “What happens when a man discovers that he has been lying to himself all the time?”

Writing this in April 1951, Vidia is some months away from a nervous breakdown, of which he would give at first only the broadest hint to his sister and father. It is the lonely fearful young man, not the cynical flamboyant writer, we hear in these words to Kamla immediately after his breakdown: “Oh, it is so difficult to grow up!” To his family, he writes, “I find I have little to tell you”; he goes on to describe in the affectless way of the depressive how he will spend the rest of the day; he says he misses Trinidad and wants to come home for the summer. It is much later that he reveals the full extent of his nervous illness: “I couldn’t bear to see anyone, I couldn’t bear to read, because it made me think about people; I couldn’t go to the cinema; I couldn’t listen to the radio.”

His father picks up the signals: “I have been thinking a great deal about you…. Your last two letters had a pathetic tone about them. You seem to be lonely, even sad.” He worries about the “skimpy” food Vidia has been having, and adds, thinking of his own financial constrictions, “I know I haven’t been of much use to you; so painful is this thing that I rather not dwell on it.” But he wants to offer help nevertheless, and this is how he will do it if Vidia fails to get a job after finishing university: “You will come home—and do what I am longing to do now: just write; and read and do the things you like to do…. I want you to have that chance which I have never had: somebody to support me and mine while I write.” There would be jobs in Trinidad, but Seepersad knows his son “better than anyone else”: “Nothing but literary success will make you happy.”

Seepersad sets about collecting money to pay some part of his son’s trip to Trinidad. But Vidia can’t make it; he has run out of money yet again. Seepersad is disappointed. He again tells his son not to worry. In the middle of his own mental illness, when Vidia was barely four years old, he had presented an anthology of poetry to his young son, exhorting him to “live up to the estate of man.” He now says he is sending him another book: You and Your Nerves. He also plans to send some stories, hoping Vidia will help him find a publisher. He mentions his plan again: “Either you support me after you are through with Oxford, and let me devote myself wholly to writing the things I want to write; or I support you so you devote yourself to the same thing.”

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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