The curmudgeon-y old West Indian known as V.S. Naipaul died last week. I suppose that description could be applicable to many of my acquaintances, including my own father. When first we landed in Miami in the late 70’s, I and my siblings were exposed to the writings of Naipaul and Selvon and a few others my father felt we needed to read to ensure we didn’t forget our roots in the West Indies.
Although I later read a number of his novels, “Miguel Street” remains my bittersweet favourite and “Among the Believers” caused me to question the undeniably negative influence of Arab “culture” on a religion that spans every corner of the globe. One that rejected monarchies, encouraging instead a type of benevolent socialist egalitarianism while embracing the Abrahamic traditions and prophets of older, established religions.
The West Indian in Naipaul probably died a long time ago. His prolific erudition and claims of being a travel writer aside, the incisive sarcasm inherent in his writing speak of a mind that queried, questioned and eventually dissected everything and everyone. To describe him as a ‘self-hating Trinidadian’ might be too mild. That intellectual tension must have weighed on him; knowing that there existed a seemingly buffoon-esque-ness of one’s homeland versus the more ‘serious’ nations of the world.
As a born Guyanese, I suppose in my older years I can relate to this, as I often wonder why we do not take ourselves more seriously. Why is it that those who do take themselves seriously are usually the ones preaching about some worshipfulness or the other? The pretensions we take for granted as ‘civilizing’ disappear when we look at our country’s statistics on crime, suicide, road violence, domestic abuse, rape, gender inequality, etc. The list goes on. I wonder if Naipaul, in his time, also looked at these rampant ‘uncivilized’ tendencies about the region he was from, or whatever it was that ran contrary to the social evolution of his homeland’s society? ie the caste system.
I remember well his tome “India: A Wounded Civilization” as my father spoke about it constantly. He argued with West Indian friends about it, especially noted Trinidadian agronomist, Dr. Earl Chandool. The plight and position of the descendants of those that came from India was a peculiar one. Not “Indian” exactly (we spoke no subcontinent languages), we aped what was to be found in the pirated Indian movies found in the region, adopting a sort of stylized “Indian-ness” that was neither stylish nor truly “Indian”. Accepting that we are “West Indian” and not “Indian” is truly difficult. It feels like one is rejecting one’s ancestors, but the truth is: I, like my parents and children, and Naipaul; we have never had to leave India. But, we have always remained West Indian, no matter where we went. And a significant set of our ancestors remain ‘Indian’ no matter what we culturally evolve to become.
This is what I most gleaned from reading Naipaul, from the droll tragedy that is “Miguel Street” to the weirdness of the “Suffrage of Elvira”. West Indians remain a betwixt people. We remain a squabbling bunch, and Naipaul (clearly) never thought we would go much beyond that.
The funny thing is, West Indians are over-achieving all throughout the world, including Sir Vidya. We are a brilliant people, a creole mixture of cultures that has proven to be enduring, beautiful, querulous and intellectual. When we choose to be…
Sir Vidya put us all on the map, and for that I am personally grateful. His brutal, scathing view of us is possibly the most honest one we know, from one that knew us well. While I much prefer the imaginative creativity of our local boy, Wilson Harris, I remain in awe of a writer whose sharp gaze was equally cast, wherever he went.
RIP, Sir V.
Scheherazade Ishoof Khan