Preserving our literary heritage

Emeritus Professor Ken Ramchand of the University of the West Indies at St Augustine, eminent scholar and literary critic, the other day sent me the address he gave as Chairman of the Project Committee at the opening of The Naipaul House in St James, Port-of-Spain, on 10th February. His address records the culmination of the tenacious, long-term effort to preserve “the enduring literary achievements of Seepersad Naipaul, his sons Vidya and Shiva, his grandson Neil Bissoondath and other descendants in the writing line like the poet Vahni Capildeo.”

This is a tale of the dedication and commitment it took to get this deed of cultural preservation done. It was seen as an essential national task. Ken Ramchand sums up the purpose:

“In this age of dissolving and confused values, the spirits in this house, the writers it nurtured, and the standing appeal it makes to us to absorb the values of the literary arts are more than ever necessary to teach us how to live as if life matters, and how to respect the work of mind and body.

ian on sunday“This house is a heritage building. We have begun the process of having it listed by the National Trust as a heritage site. We hope to assemble in it mementos and memorabilia such as you would find in a conventional museum. As we commence our programme of activities we will continue to collect the scattered bones. Soon, Seepersad’s famous typewriter may take up its place, and maybe even his bookcase with the books he read. We hope members of the public might have lamps, four poster beds, a safe, a hat stand, and furniture of the 1950s they might wish to lend or give; or even books by any of the Naipauls they would like to donate to the library.

“It is the house itself, however, that is the museum. And one of our Sisyphean tasks is to preserve it from drought and flood, from weeds and the invisible worm, from the teeth of termites and human destroyers, and from the inevitable tensions that arise when different personal, societal, and philosophical interests seek accommodation.”

Ken Ramchand then promises on behalf of himself, the people he has gathered around him for the task, and also the Naipaul family who have been closely involved with the project from the start, that during their watch “the house shall not fall. And it will not fall because it will be both the family home of the Naipaul-Capildeo clan and the centre from which we seek to pass on heritage by nurturing literature and the literary arts in Trinidad and Tobago.”

The Naipaul House is not to be simply a display case for Naipaulian memorabilia. Ken Ramchand in his address inspiringly set out a larger objective:

“Today, we are at the point where the most important part of our work can begin. We are ready to turn the house into a house of writing and reading for new writers and for a generation who need inspiration and example.

“Our strategic plan for the period 2013 to 2015 and the year by year implementation programme include restoring and establishing the house not as a static showpiece but as a living museum and using it as the base for a number of activities involving schools and communities. Our purpose is to spread the gospel about what literature and the arts of the imagination can mean to ordinary people in villages and cities. We will show the Naipaul House, the social history it contains, the achievements it inspired, and say ‘These are people like you, you can do it too.’”

The work is not going to be easy. Ken Ramchand concludes his address with the following words:

“The price we pay for our 99 year lease and the power to regulate our own activities is that we must become revenue earning. It is one of our most important strategic goals. I want to give the assurance that Friends are determined not be buyers and sellers of imported substances but to make and own special products, revenue-earning activities and objects spiritually connected to our work as preservers of the house and spreaders of the literary heritage. Our work is aimed at every creed and race in our society, and as it develops it will spread from the writings of Seepersad Naipaul and his immediate descendants to the work of all the writers of Trinidad and Tobago who are his descendants too.”

I confess the information which Ken Ramchand sent elates me – because I am delighted that such a venture has been attempted and driven through in our sister Caricom country – but it also depresses me because here in Guyana we seem to lack the resources, the personnel and the resolve to summon forth similar efforts. Recently I had much the same experience after visiting the remarkable Cricket Museum at the Queens Park Cricket Club and then reflected on what might have been at Bourda. Now I am told of The Naipaul House in Port-of-Spain and I reflect on what, for instance, I can only hope might one day be The Carter House in Lamaha Street in Georgetown.

I walk with bowed head and averted eyes down the long avenues leading to the past which in Guyana lie barren now. We are suffering from a national affliction. We have become accustomed to neglect the legacies we have been left. I dread to visit Bourda because of the dilapidation and neglect of greatness I fear I will encounter. I dream of The Carter House preserved to honour our greatest poet and even one day converted into a living museum to foster Guyana’s literary arts – but when I wake cold reality takes the place of dream. “What can be done?” In my eighties now I can only ask the question.

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