Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul, the writer who angered many with harsh public criticism, radical revolutionary ideas and the third Nobel Laureate from the Caribbean passed away quietly at his home in London last Saturday. I am not qualified to discuss Naipaul’s work in detail but having read two of his works: The House of Mr Biswas and The Middle Passage in my teenage days which left a lasting impact on me and being lucky to meet him after he received the Nobel Prize award I will like to add a few words on his intellectual contribution.
Naipaul’s writing was mired in contradiction and any reading of his works can be taken to any extreme. Naipaul’s portrayal of Third World disarray after Independence was seen by his detractors as being an apologist for colonialism yet he exempted neither colonisers nor colonised from his scrutiny. He exposed the arrogance and self-aggrandisement of the colonisers but also exposed the self-deception and ethical ambiguities of the leaders of liberation movements that swept across Africa and the Caribbean (New York Times). Meeting him personally he saw most leaders in the Caribbean as politically opportunistic except for Cheddi Jagan.
My interest in The Middle Passage in my teenage days was hinged to the fact that he visited the then Plantation Port Mourant, my home town and his narrative on the then British Guiana. His impression of Cheddi and Burnham during the heyday of their political activism was quite interesting. Many took offence in this book when he described the West Indies as “half made societies that seemed doomed to remain half made” since they lack the self knowledge or will to reinvent themselves after independence”. He continued “history is built around achievement and creation and nothing was created in the West Indies”. Today more than five decades after this publication and Independence Guyana and the Caribbean still scramble for the spoils of a global process in the most uncertain world environment.
Naipaul was honoured by the Inter-American Development Bank just after receiving his Nobel Prize award in Washington DC. Here, I had the opportunity to meet him in person as he autographed the book Half a Life. I asked him why he was sarcastic of politicians but had a high regard for Dr Jagan. He quickly responded that Cheddi was different, too honest to be a politician. Among his last publications, A Handful of Dust: Return to Guiana gave a telling description of Dr Jagan’s home in Bel- Air village. He also stated that Cheddi Jagan was a man of political cause whatever his background, historical and social bewilderment he may have grown to feel, was submerged in his Marxist ideas of surplus value and universal class struggle; that vision was enough as Cheddi sat waiting for his moment.
The work of Naipaul will always be revered along the work of great scholars: Tolstoy, Dickens and Conrad, etc. However harsh his criticism, it should help a person or society grow and develop. Naipaul’s admiration for Rohan Kanhai another Guyanese non-political hero who hails from Port Mourant is another story that space does not permit me to elaborate on as he predicted the demise of cricket in the West Indies. He wrote “Guyana has always been land of fantasy” based on the novel A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. This is the land of El Dorado that never fails to disappoint. Naipaul apart from being the third Nobel Laureate after Arthur Lewis and Derek Walcott has placed the Caribbean on the map of the world with his scholarship that touched every corner of the globe