On the morning of my last day in Germany, in West Berlin, I went to the Egyptian Museum. I returned to Wiltshire to the news that my younger sister, Sati, had had a brain hemorrhage in Trinidad that day: just at the time I was leaving the museum. She was in a coma; she was not to recover. For more than thirty years, since the death of my father in 1953, I had lived without grief. I took the news coldly, therefore; then I had hiccups; then I became concerned.
When I had left Trinidad in 1950, when the little Pan American Airways System plane had taken me away, Sati was seven weeks short of her sixteenth birthday. When I next saw her and heard her voice she was nearly twenty-two, and married. Trinidad had since become almost an imaginary place for me; but she had lived all her life there, apart from short holidays abroad. She had lived through my father’s illness in 1952 and death in 1953; the political changes, the racial politics from 1956, the dangers of the street, the near-revolution and anarchy of 1970. She had also lived through the oil boom; she had known ease for many years; she could think of her life as a success.
Three days after her death, at the time she was being cremated in Trinidad, I spread her photographs in front of me on the low coffee table in the sitting room of my new house in Wiltshire. I had been intending for years to sort out these family photographs, put them in albums. There had always seemed to be time. In these photographs, while she had lived, I had not noticed her age. Now I saw that many of the photographs—her little honeymoon snapshots especially—were of a young girl with slender arms. That girl was now someone whose life had been lived; death had, painfully, touched these snapshots with youth. I looked at the pictures I had laid out and thought about Sati harder than I had ever thought about her. After thirty-five or forty minutes—the cremation going on in Trinidad, as I thought—I felt purged. I had had no rules to follow; but I felt I had done the right thing. I had concentrated on that person, that life, that unique character; I had honored the person who had lived.
Two days later I went to Trinidad. The family had wanted me to be with them. My brother had gone on the day of our sister’s cremation. He had arrived six hours after the cremation; he had asked then to be taken to the cremation site. My elder sister drove him. It was night; the pyre after six hours was still glowing. My brother walked up alone to the glow and my sister, from the car, watched him looking at the glowing pyre.
Two weeks before, my brother had been in Delhi for Mrs. Gandhi’s cremation. In London, then, he had written a major article; now, that writing barely finished, he had come to Trinidad. Modern airplanes had made these big journeys possible; had exposed him to these deaths. In 1950, when I left Trinidad, airplane travel was still unusual. To go abroad could be to fracture one’s life: it was six years before I saw or heard members of my family again; I lost six years of their lives. There was no question, in 1953, when my father died, of my returning home. My brother it was, then aged eight, who performed and witnessed the terrible final rites of cremation. The event marked him. That death and cremation were his private wound. And now there was this cremation of his sister: still a pyre and a glow after his airplane flight from London. Soon an airplane took him back to London. And airplanes took other members of the family to other places.
I stayed on in Trinidad for the religious ceremony that took place some days later and was complementary to the cremation. Sati had not been religious; like my father, she had had no feeling for ritual. But at her death her family wished to have all the Hindu rites performed for her, to leave nothing undone.
The pundit, a big man, was late for this ceremony. He had been late for the cremation as well, I had heard. He said something now about being busy and harassed, about misreading his watch; and settled down to his duties. The materials he needed were ready for him. A shallow earth altar had been laid out on a board on the terrazzo of Sati’s veranda. To me the ritual in this setting—the suburban house and garden, the suburban street—was new and strange. My memories were old; I associated this kind of ritual with more country scenes.
The pundit in his silk tunic sat cross-legged on one side of the altar. Sati’s younger son sat facing him on the other side. Sati’s son was in jeans and jumper—and this informality of dress was also new to me. The earth rites the pundit began to perform on the veranda appeared to mimic Sati’s cremation; but these rites suggested fertility and growth rather than the returning of the body by way of fire to the earth, the elements. Sacrifice and feeding—that was the theme. Always, in Aryan scriptures, this emphasis on sacrifice!
There was a complicated physical side to the ceremony, as with so many Hindu ceremonies: knowing where on the altar to put the sacrificial flowers, knowing how to sing the verses and when, knowing how and when and where to pour various substances: the whole mechanical side of priesthood. The pundit led Sati’s son through the complications, telling him what offerings to make to the sacred fire, to say swa-ha when the offerings were placed with a downward gesture of the fingers, to say shruddha when the fingers were flicked back from the open palm to scatter the offering onto the fire.
Then the pundit began to do a little more. He became aware of the people on the veranda who were his audience and he began, while instructing Sati’s son, partly to address us in a general religious way. He told Sati’s son it was necessary for him to cool his lusts; he began to use texts and words that might have served on many other solemn occasions. Something else was new to me: the pundit was being “ecumenical” in a way he wouldn’t have been when I was a child, equating Hinduism—speculative many-sided, with animist roots—with the revealed faiths of Christianity and Mohammedanism. Indeed the pundit said at one stage—talking indirectly to us as though we were a Trinidad public assembly and many of us were of other faiths—that the Gita was like the Koran and the Bible. It was the pundit’s way of saying that we too had a Book; it was his way, in a changed Trinidad, of defending our faith and ways.
In spite of his jeans, Sati’s son was serious. He was humble in the presence of the pundit, not a formally educated man, for whom—on another day, in another setting—he might have had little time. He seemed to be looking to the pundit for consolation, a support greater than the support of ritual. He was listening to everything the pundit said. The pundit, continuing to add moral and religious teaching to the complicated ritual he was performing with earth and flowers and flour and clarified butter and milk, said that our past lives dictated the present. Sati’s son asked in what way Sati’s past had dictated the cruelty of her death. The pundit didn’t answer. But Sati’s son, if he had been more of a Hindu, if he had more of a Hindu cast of mind, would have understood the idea of karma, and wouldn’t have asked the question. He would have yielded to the mystery of the ritual and accepted the pundit’s words as part of the ritual.
The pundit went on with the physical side of his business. That was what people looked to a pundit for; that was what they wished to see carried out as correctly as possible—this pressing together of balls of rice and then of balls of earth, this arranging of flowers and pouring of milk on heaps of this and that, this constant feeding of the sacred fire.
Afterwards the pundit had lunch. In the old days he would have eaten sitting cross-legged on blankets or flour sacks or sugar sacks spread on the top with cotton. He would have been carefully fed and constantly waited on. Now—sumptuously served, but all at once—he ate sitting at a table in the veranda. He ate by himself. He ate great quantities of food, using his hands as he had used them earlier with the earth and the rice and the sacrificial offerings of the earth altar.
Sati’s husband and her son sat with the pundit while he ate. They asked him, while he ate, and as though being a pundit he knew, what were the chances of an afterlife for Sati. It was not strictly a Hindu question; and it sounded strange, after the rite we had witnessed.
Sati’s husband said, “I would like to see her again.” His voice sounded whole; but there were tears in his eyes.
The pundit didn’t give a straight reply. The Hindu idea of reincarnation, the idea of men being released from the cycle of rebirth after a series of good lives—if that was in the pundit’s mind, it would have been too hard to pass on to people who were so grief-stricken.
Sati’s son asked, “Will she come back?”
Sati’s husband asked, “Will we be together again?”
The pundit said, “But you wouldn’t know it is her.”
It was the pundit’s interpretation of the idea of reincarnation. And it was no comfort at all. It reduced Sati’s husband to despair.
I asked to see the Gita the pundit had been using during the ceremony. It was from a South Indian press. After each verse there was an English translation. The pundit, in between his ritual doings and his chanting of a few well-known Sanskrit verses, had made use of the English translations from this Gita.
The pundit said he gave away Gitas. Then, using an ecumenical word (as I thought), he said he “shared” Gitas. People gave him Gitas; he gave people Gitas. One devout man bought Gitas a dozen at a time and passed them on to him; he passed them on to others.
And then, his pundit’s duties done, his lunch over, the pundit became social, expansive, as, from my childhood, I had known pundits to be when they had done their duties.
He began to tell a story. I couldn’t understand the story. An important man in the community had asked him one day: “What do you think is the best Hindu scripture?” He, the pundit, had replied, “The Gita.” The man had then said to somebody else present, “He says the Gita is the best Hindu scripture.” There should have been more to the story. But there was no more. Either that was the end of the story so far as the pundit was concerned—a mentioning of famous local people, a bearing of witness in the presence of famous people. Or he had found that the story was leading him into areas he didn’t want to go to; or he had forgotten the point of the story. Or in fact the point was as he had made it: that he thought the Gita was the most important Hindu scripture. (Though, at the very end, just before he left, he said that his pundit’s duties left him little time to read the Gita.)
And to add to the intellectual randomness of the occasion, the pundit began without prompting to speak, and with passion, about the internal Hindu controversy between the conservatives, on whose side the pundit was, and the reformists, who the pundit thought were hypocrites. I had thought that this issue had died in Trinidad fifty years before and was part almost of our pastoral past, when the life of our community was more self-contained. I could not imagine it surviving racial politics and the stresses of independence. But the pundit spoke of it as something that still mattered.
The pundit was a relation, a first cousin. And the great irony—or appropriateness—of the situation was like this. I had discovered through the adventure of writing—curiosity and knowledge feeding off one another, committing one not only to travel but also to different explorations of the past—I had discovered that my father had been intended by his grandmother and mother to be a pundit. My father hadn’t become a pundit. He had instead become a journalist; and his literary ambitions had seeded the literary ambitions of his two sons. But it was because of his family’s wish to make him a pundit that my father, in circumstances of desperate poverty before the first war, had been given an education; while my father’s brother had been sent to the fields as a child to work for eight cents a day. The two branches of the family had been ever after divided. My father’s brother had made himself into a small cane farmer; at the end of his life he was far better off than my journalist father had been at the end of his. My father had died in 1953, impoverished after a long illness; my father’s brother had contributed to the cremation expenses. But there had been little contact between our families. Physically, even, we were different. We (except for my brother) were small people; my father’s brother’s sons were six-footers. And now, after the ups and downs of fortune, a pundit had arisen in the family; and this pundit, the heavy six-footer who had performed the rites on my sister’s veranda, came from my father’s brother’s family. This pundit had served my father’s family, attended at the first death among my father’s children. Some of the pundit’s demeanor would have been explained by the family relationship, his wish to assert himself among us.
The other, internal irony was that my father, though devoted to Hindu speculative thought, had disliked ritual and had always, even in the 1920s, belonged to the reformist group the pundit didn’t care for and dismissed now as hypocrites. My sister Sati had no liking for ritual either. But at her death there was in her family a wish to give sanctity to the occasion, a wish for old rites, for things that were felt specifically to represent us and our past. So the pundit had been called in; and on the terrazzo floor of my sister’s veranda symbolical ceremonies had been played out on an earth altar, laid with a miniature pyre of fragrant pitch pine and flowers and sugar which, when soaked with clarified butter and set alight, made a sweet caramel smell.
We were immemorially people of the countryside, far from the courts of princes, living according to rituals we didn’t always understand and yet were unwilling to dishonor because that would cut us off from the past, the sacred earth, the gods. Those earth rites went back far. They would always have been partly mysterious. But we couldn’t surrender to them now. We had become self-aware. Forty years before, we would not have been so self-aware. We would have accepted; we would have felt ourselves to be more whole, more in tune with the land and the spirit of the earth.
It would have been easier to accept, too, because forty years before, it would have been all so much poorer, so much closer to the Indian past: houses, roads, vehicles, clothes. Now money had touched us all—like a branch of a tree or a twig dipped in gold, according to some designer’s extravagant whim, and made to keep the shape of the twig or the leaf. Generations of a new kind of education had separated us from our past; and travel; and history. And the money that had come to our island, from oil and natural gas.
That money, that unexpected bounty, had ravaged and remade the landscape where we had had our beginnings in the New World. When I was a child the hills of the Northern Range which I looked at when I traveled up to Port of Spain on the ten-mile-an-hour train were bare—primary forest still in parts. Now halfway up those hills there were the huts and shacks of illegal immigrants from the other islands. Small islands surrounded by sea: plantation barracoons, slavery and Africa quarantined and festering together for two centuries: immigrants from those islands had altered our landscape, our population, our mood.
Where there had been swamp at the foot of the Northern Range, with mud huts with earthen walls that showed the damp halfway up, there was now a landscape of Holland: acres upon acres of vegetable plots, the ridges and furrows and irrigation canals straight. Sugar cane as a crop had ceased to be important. None of the Indian villages were like villages I had known. No narrow roads; no dark, overhanging trees; no huts; no earth yards with hibiscus hedges; no ceremonial lighting of lamps, no play of shadows on the wall; no cooking of food in half-walled verandas, no leaping fire-light; no flowers along gutters or ditches where frogs croaked the night away. But highways and clover-shaped exits and direction boards: a wooded land laid bare, its secrets opened up.
We had made ourselves anew. The world we found ourselves in—the suburban houses, with gardens, where my sister’s farewell ceremony had taken place—was one we had partly made ourselves, and had longed for, when we had longed for money and the end of distress; we couldn’t go back. There was no ship of antique shape now to take us back. We had come out of the nightmare; and there was nowhere else to go.
The pundit gave his last instructions. One brass plate with consecrated food was to be placed somewhere; another plate of food was to be cast into the river that had borne away her ashes: a final offering. Then, a big man dressed in cream-colored silk, the silk showing the heaviness above his waist, the pundit got in his car and drove away. (Such memories I had of Sunday visits, holiday excursions, with my father to his family house—my father’s brother’s house—forty years and more before: flat sugarcane fields all around, grass tracks between the fields, scattered huts and houses on stilts and tall pillars, dimly lit at night, animals in some yards, bonfires of grass to keep away mosquitoes, grocery shops with pitched corrugated-iron roofs, and silence.)
A visitor, an old man, a distant relation of my sister’s husband, began—perhaps because of the ceremonies that had taken place—to talk of our past, and of the difference between us, originally from the Gangetic plain, immigrants to the New World since 1845, and the other Indians in other parts of the island, especially in the villages to the northwest of Port of Spain.
This man said, “Those other people haven’t been here since 1845, you know. They’ve been here long, long before. You’ve heard about Columbus? Well, Queen Isabella opened this place up to everybody, provided they was Catholics. And that was when the French came in. They was Catholics, you see. Now, you hear about a place in India called Pondicherry? That was the French place in India, and that was where they bring over those Indians near Port of Spain from. So those Indian people up in Boissière and places like that, they not like us—they’ve been here four, five hundred years.”
History! He had run together the events of 1498, when Columbus had discovered the island for Queen Isabella on his third voyage; 1784, when the Spanish authorities, after three hundred years of neglect, and out of a wish to protect their empire, opened up the island to Catholic immigration, giving preference and free land to people who could bring in slaves; and 1845, when the British, ten years after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire, began to bring in Indians from India to work the land. He had created a composite history. But it was enough for him. Men need history; it helps them to have an idea of who they are. But history, like sanctity, can reside in the heart; it is enough that there is something there.
Our sacred world—the sanctities that had been handed down to us as children by our families, the sacred places of our childhood, sacred because we had seen them as children and had filled them with wonder, places doubly and trebly sacred to me because far away in England I had lived in them imaginatively over many books and had in my fantasy set in those places the very beginning of things, had constructed out of them a fantasy of home, though I was to learn that the ground was bloody, that there had been aboriginal people there once, who had been killed or made to die away—our sacred world had vanished. Every generation now was to take us further away from those sanctities. But we remade the world for ourselves; every generation does that, as we found when we came together for the death of this sister and felt the need to honor and remember. It forced us to look on death. It forced me to face the death I had been contemplating at night, in my sleep; it fitted a real grief where melancholy had created a vacancy, as if to prepare me for the moment. It showed me life and man as the mystery, the true religion of men, the grief and the glory. And that was when, faced with a real death, and with this new wonder about men, I laid aside my drafts and hesitations and began to write very fast about Jack and his garden.
This is from the final section of V.S. Naipaul’s new novel The Enigma of Arrival. The first section is entitled “Jack’s Garden.”
February 12, 1987