'Why didn't you tell me about the sacrifice?'
She said simply, 'I didn't remember.' She added,
'Some things you will yourself to forget.'
'What form did my father's illness take?'
'He looked in the mirror one day and couldn't see himself...
And he began to scream.'
V.S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre (1984:82)
At the age of thirty-two, without issue, Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul informed readers of The Times Literary Supplement, in an article entitled 'Words on their Own' (4.6.1964:472) that:
To us, without a mythology, all literatures were foreign. Trinidad was small, remote and unimportant, and we knew we could not hope to read in books of the life we saw about us.1
And he continues:
... as I grew older and thought of writing myself, it made me despairingly conscious of the poverty and haphazardness [a negative reading of Forster's muddle?] of my own society.
This kind of communal silent scream induced by a new awareness of the insignificance of their position in relation to an other (a place well known to women) Paul Theroux reads as:
Poor because it had no mythology or tradition; haphazard because it had never been written about; no literary model existed for his own society.2
And quite obviously, Naipaul had created, in A House for Mr Biswas, the 'literary model' that sold a West Indian minority to the literati masses. They were on the map. But did this prevent any more small children from hanging onto the only available reality, as the world collapsed and howled about them, one of voracious 'literate' ants uniformly over-running outmanoeuvred flying ants blissfully enacting their destiny?
Naipaul significantly phrases his creativity as 'writing myself' not 'becoming a writer' or 'writing' (admittedly this could have more to do with his fine command of English than with slippage). In this essay I hope to explore why he needed to write the 'Indian' subject into the already colonised Trinidadian landscape. If independence came in 1962 (the publishing of Mr B in 1961 being something of a contribution to the celebrations I imagine) then surely it is only the years since then that can technically be termed post-colonial?
Poverty can also mean (perceived) lack - of validity, experience, things lived in relation to some other/other's existence which is imagined to be totally satisfying perfection. There is a consequent sense of inferiority generated by personal experiences that are under valued as lesser and invalid in relation to the basically unknown and therefore over valued imagined 'reality' of others. Dissatisfaction, (the death drive ... extreme dissatisfaction; suicide), is embedded in every consciousness, is possibly the motivating force behind consciousness itself. Perhaps the vulnerability of underlying subjectivity is revealed more tellingly through the erosion of cultural identity inherent to the migrant experience.
I think Naipaul corrects 'an error, not a part of truth'3 in that his writing informs both migrant and other reader's 'valuing', offering the experience of the Trinidadian Indian, particularly as validation to the former. This also works positively in relation to a superior, racist attitude which would habitually respond with extreme under valuation. Surely information can only improve on bigotry or the wild swings of subjective guesswork on anyone's part? Secrets generally point to shame or self repression rather than pride; maybe it was time for the colonised to come out of the closet.
However it is impossible to argue the poverty-in-relation point from A House for Mr Biswas because the other is not admitted, in any sense of the word. As Naipaul acknowledges, consciousness of lack in relation to an other only dawned on him when he started to think of writing, defining himself. Consequently neither the past nor the present other is readily available in the text. While this lack may act in the service of verisimilitude it may also indicate an earlier explication 'Proglogue to an Autobiography' in Finding the Centre. 'Mother' India (besides anything, prey to the contradictions of love/hate that 'mother' engenders) is unvalorised and while the origin, it is not the goal - from the state of 'familiar temporariness' (194) children are sent to America or Canada to become doctors, dentists or to Oxford to read English, but not to India. She is permanently estranged, not cast as a place of becoming. Banning is a rich metaphor for the condition - it's as if unseen forces prevent entry, the stronger perhaps for being mental bars. One is reminded of Naipaul's maternal grandfather who, with what must have entailed inordinate courage, makes a break for India only to die on the last leg of the journey from Calcutta. He, and the 'other woman' who survived both the transitions; 'her India had remained intact; her idea of the world had remained whole'4 appear (two more) remarkable people.
Similarly the distinct break with the old world, whether consciously recognised and desired or not, can be seen in Hindi. RF Moag in his paper 'The Linguistic Adaptations of the Fiji Indians' quotes Peggy Ramesar Mohan's observation that Trinidad Indians consider Trinidad Hindi 'to be a 'broken' or 'corrupted' variety of Standard Hindi' whereas it is in fact 'distinct from rather than derivitive of Standard Hindi'5. It is also significant I think that the SH/TH or SH/FH diglossia has now been overtaken by an English/TH or FH split. This is already evident in Mr B where texts in English are cherished like talismans; not to imply that The Ramayana for example, did not also make up Mr B's collection, it is only that they are not mentioned by Naipaul, who possibly takes them for granted. Quotes from Measure for Measure are readily found but comparing Dr Rameshwar ironically with certain epic heroes obviously requires no hunting down of references (483).
Poetry has a special place in the colonised mindscape - as a third trans national ultralanguage perhaps. The more highly treasured because its metaphors can be extended to account for aspects of life that are unspeakable. Mr B sends a volume of poetry to Anand, Naipaul receives The School of Poetry from Seepersad.
In terms of the text's 'present' and leaving aside the editor, Burnett, Miss Logie and a host of characters from European literature, the only intruder (who may well have been black) is the 'stray American soldier' (487) who buys three oranges for a penny (possibly the irrepressible 'five financial wizards' (487) sole fiscal success?)
The exclusion of the political 'other' as extraneous creates a negative shadow presence as a side effect. Naipaul may thus be said to be writing 'against the centre' but this is a by product of his main aim of writing toward the centre, of excavating the family site.
Both statements from 'Words on their Own' appear to deny the creation of what he himself calls 'our island India'6 an overdetermined mini replica of the more conservative aspects of homeland life ritualised in the memory and actions of the dispossessed, that is invoked in theories of post-colonial 'fragment' societies. I think this contradiction exists because the mental buffer zone may only be available to first and, at most second generation migrants. After that a waning of the mythologised old world occurs in proportion to the growing intrusive influence of 'reality'. If that reality includes a political situation that does not embrace, or is actively rejected by, the third and consequent generations then the world becomes limbotic. (Limbo: 14C medieval latin, on the border (of hell).) Interestingly, the 'limbo' dance originated in the West Indies. Dancing as therapeutic holistic communing, sufistically so in-body that it becomes an out-of-body escape experience. Recall a pregnant Anna dancing 'in a slow, rhythmic exulting'7. The West Indies, an area subject to endless waves of displaced persons (Indian?), Spanish, African, British, Indian, American. Unfortunately this outlet does not appear available to Mr B, who though clearly inhabiting 'an intermediate place or condition between two extremes' (a familiar temporariness?), refuses precisely to bend over backwards in order to fit in - the limbo escape mechanism. (Yes - even more obscure than usual!)
V. S. Naipual is usefully employed in the service of post-colonial theories and I do think as Theroux says, that he lacked a mythology. Myth in Frazer's sense of ritualised social behaviour that acts as a conditioning agent to legitimise definitions of a self. A legitimacy that cannot exist in limbo. In support of this I'll refer you to my own youth! Every time I did anything of which my mother disapproved she would invoke her family, people who in reality lived thousands of miles away in Britain, to support her position. In retrospect it appears that everything I did was governed by whether it would kill my grandmother or not, and what my aunts would say or think. This may still be an improvement on having one's gran and aunts in" the same house but it's debateable. (I did very little other than read, two books each twenty four hours at its most obsessive. Unfortunately undirected selections; the first 6 books off the first shelf. I seem to have lost the capacity, the price of 'sanity'? just when I need it most. May I say that I consider it ethnographically unsound to leave out, or rather include all the 'English' in the dastardly imperialist basket while every other group is ethnically kosher. Not all English migrants were autom+!atically empowered by their position or skin tone. The middleclass is notoriously insecure, women generally lacked power and I assure you, being one of 'us' could be almost as bad as being in the position of one of 'them'. When 'ritualised social behaviour' is anathema one can only apply illegitimate, negative definitions of self with a consequent loss of both joy in life and pride in any personal achievement. I guess you remain unconvinced, pandita and I protest too much.)
To return to the true blue; as a non-orthodox, reformed Hindu, Mr B loses out on the ritual thread that seems to bind 'the family' together in puja each morning (as long as Hari lives) an on auspicious occasions. (Vidiadhar receives the attentions of 'a' pundit (470) before the examination but, if Hari had been alive would both boys have been included or is the will in Shama (she who must have The Chase shop blessed) diminishing before the complex pressures of the town?) Otherwise life in the Tulsi compound is insecure, refugee-like, prey to and dependant on the bureaucratic decisions of Mrs Tulsi and her henchman, Seth. Hence the vital importance of a house to Mr B and his perpetual wonder at having achieved it. It is possibly the exaggerated need for mythology, that led Naipaul to make his home in Britain. (Maybe it was just in order to put some distance between himself and 'the family'.)
However, tradition is quite another thing. It is the rituals of tradition that prevented Naipaul from imaging any lack. Consciousness arises only with the other. I think most family structures provide their own routines, whether of rusty icecream or beatings (we had a 2" leather strap - I can't remember [do we too will ourselves to forget?] why I was 'given' it, also by my mother, and am too afraid to enquire at this stage where it seems so much can't be talked about because our pasts, or memories, don't concur). These 'traditions' are equally as pervasive as 'imported' story book lives and ritual, even for one who might have sought escape in reading. There is a poignantly revealing intrusion of Naipaul as himself into the text on page 581 when he recalls 'nerves of memory', triggers such as the 'marbled endpaper of a dusty leatherbound book' which instantly remind of 'oldfashioned balloons powdered with a rubbery dust'. As soon as I read the words, I recalled the smell of the rubber, the taste of its dust, the tones of the colours. Whose, selective, memory was it?
Edward Said may call him names but Naipaul's informing, universal (? for colonials) memories are common bridges that breakdown barriers, that destroy both the romantic mystery and ignorance that define imagined difference. I don't seek to homogenise however I can't see any benefit in defining oneself deliberately and strictly along disparate, separatist lines. Trinidad did not operate in a vacuum, was subject to the mishmash of northern hemisphere traditions, 'Santa Clauses and holly and berries and snow-capped letters' (77) each southern Christmas. Anand goes off (if not for long) with a dried lime in his pocket and the tools of the student's trade.
Said's criticism of Naipaul, 'the renegade apologist' is one-sided, understandably as it is politically driven. Naipaul's actions, spilling the beans, are seen to be for the other, against his own. I think this indicates Said's misplaced pride and insecurity in which 'speaking of it he would have exposed himself to the disregard, he would also have involved them in his own humiliation' (482) as well as the parallel courage and pride of Mr B and Naipaul. Possibly the pertinence of Said's Arab nationalism prevents him from distancing himself from the topic in quite the same manner as Naipaul reconstituting the past.
As it is, I think Naipaul 'does' for his own reasons, as we all do, being incidental, extraneous in one another's grand illusion. Naipaul certainly opened and explored a new frontier, 'found-ed' a centre, but this was peripheral to what he terms a 'vocation' (84). Something of an in-vocation to ward off what he and his father, Seepersad Naipaul, thought of as 'the extinction' the loss of a mirror image (above: more terrifying for being so matter-of-factly stated) the fear of which 'could be combated only by the exercise of the vocation'.8
As Vijay Mishra points out in 'Epilogue: Rama Returns' from Rama's Banishment:
When myths cannot answer all our needs, fiction, a somewhat more morbid form with its ever present potential for self-analysis, begins to take shape.9
It would seem then, that V. S. Naipaul writes - 'again a story of ritual and reconciliation'10 in order to recover, record and honour the actions and tribulations of his people (as recreated in the Biswas/Tulsi extended family who seem to have lost any tradition of on-going verbal history other than a reverance for the departed Pundit Tulsi) and to ward off the same fear that drove his father to occasional madness but also, and most traditionally, to fulfil his Brahmin putra-kriya. I think Seepersad Naipaul would have died peacefully only when he received the letter saying that his son had decided not to return. While we, in our ignorance of his tradition, may hastily jump to conclusions that reflect rather our own familial guilt and ghosts, Naipaul's action is both salve and salvational. Having transmitted the word to his son, Seepersad would then be 'reconstructed'11 by it. It is fitting. While Naipaul did not torch his father's pyre he did ensure his father's immortality through his own act of writing his father into being, out of limbo, into permanence. Possibly the height of creativity, the writing son the father, and mother, of the man?
Mr Biswas' frustration - paralleling as it does Seepersad's - (evident in his strong sense of loss when Owad, that thoroughly mothered, feted son, sails away to live the fulfilling life Mr Biswas imagines, and his constant references to being trapped by his family) is made good by the text of his son which tells of the constraints, the price paid for all choice, or action. The life V S Naipaul creates for himself in Britain - a type of voluntary exile rather than banishment?- reveals/repeals his father to us and to himself by representing what Mr Biswas' own choice might have been - for a less fated, creative, writing man rather than a protestant-attracting, tennis-playing doctor, for instance. Did Commonwealth Scholarships allow study at an Indian university? Whether they did or not, Sanskrit, the 'reading' of Indian literature etc hardly appear foregrounded. Naipaul is claimed insidiously by the colonist.
The interesting point is that A House for Mr Biswas does not indicate the degree of his successful wooing and branding. His English life, his English wife (skinny and barren one is forced to wonder) are out of bounds, outside the informant's brief and like the illicit 'wives' and families of Bhandat and his boys, secret. Perhaps Naipaul regards Britain as just another country to encounter, travel in, observe. Perhaps home is only where a (yellow) typewriter re/creates other worlds.
In romantic ignorance and in contrast to my own (an example of another valuation made through lack of knowledge), I had always imagined an Indian heritage to be bouyant, identity-imposing in the most positive way. It was shocking therefore to read that Naipaul imagined his life in terms of mythless, traditionlessness. The shock lay in realising that even what I imagined to be a rich religious and cultural bedrock did not travel well. Amounted to nothing much in fact before the rigours and flux of otherness. Is that why culture functions, as a prop, a cover for the ever present manhole? When we look in the mirror do we really only see the outward manifestation of characteristics imposed externally, accepted as part of the claiming, naming process? Is it only as cultural myths that we can enjoy any identity or security? Just as language speaks us, culture thus 'sees' us into being. Certainly colonising missionaries handing out mirrors - all the better not to see oneself, screaming, in? - take on incredible dimensions in this regard.
Consequently, Mr Biswas, lacking political, mythological and cultural roots and alienated further from his fellows by his overseeing role, looked in his internal mirror and seeing nothing, 'surrendered to the darkness' (267) in which rain and wind smother Anand's screams, all smell is destroyed (292). Their isolation (McLean's house an uncertain and dematerialising raft in the stream) is only broken by the arrival of light born by Ramkhilawan, of compassion in his 'Oh, my poor little calf!' (compassion that would not have been wasted on poor, little Mr Biswas as he watches both Dhari's calf and his father brought up from the pond's depths (31).
I think fatalism must be seen to rob or prevent a sense of subjectivity, of choice to cause and effect. His horoscope works both for and against him. Like degrees of mental instability, it allows him to get away with much even as it blames him for everything. Does he live up to his predicted fate or does the prediction live him? Daunting power invested in the pundit; no wonder they didn't like relinquishing it. One imagines Mr B a master of the art of the stifled sneeze.
Seepersad Naipaul, sometime member of the reformist Arya Samaj and ambivalently recognised member of 'the family' is caught, like Mr Biswas, in the same double bind of writing, re-presenting 'his' people for a colonialised mixed readership, just as his son, V. S. Naipaul is, after him. Caught in the three way split of the sacrifice he is the scapegoat for ethnocentric cultural angst from both sides. In just the same way his son is accused of giving away the secrets of the (infinite) family of the other. It is no wonder that both look in the mirror and see nothing because technically no group will thoroughly own them. In fact Mr B is as much an outsider as Camus' Meursault. If the distilled essence of Marxism is never to be satisfied with a presented 'truth' then, apart from the Absurdism in this, Anand's 'Once upon a time there was a man who, whatever you do for him, wasn't satisfied' (378-379) springs to mind.
Naipaul is regretted for going over to the other side, of writing with a colonised mind but I find the Seepersad, Biswas, Naipaul triangle - of people negotiating the presented world, painfully - far more believable than the hero of the postmodern who has evolved on from the modern to a position that is so secure (smug, uncaring) - or fractured, pessimistic, thoughtless? - that he doesn't want or need to know of his 'lover' whether it 'was good for you'. This person does not make love, rather masturbates. A hero to himself alone. Do we really need the postmodern to point out unfulfilled, modern lovers, few (happy) endings?
Mr B is cast as 'not-us' from the moment of his inauspicious birth but this does not automatically make him a strongly inter-connected, positioned social 'I' in the relative sense of a Benvenistean you are, therefore I am. What it does give is a sharp sense of alterity - not for nothing was Mr Biwas reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the night he became less than whole - he says to Tarzan, 'I am deceiving you. I am not whole' (268) and interestingly it is only after he begins to 'fix' himself, find himself in his diatribe to the disrespectful Dr Rameshwar that he can then compose himself and his grief in his prose poem, requiem for Bipti and become 'whole again' (484). Anand surprises Mr Biswas on the night of the storm 'writing with his finger on his head' (288). Writing what, one wonders, but it doesn't really matter. Reading, writing but most importantly the medium of mimesis, the word is being used to create a cultural and historic past from which to authentically emerge and proceed. For if past and future are the same, 'kal', then without a past there can be no perception of a future. And the reflected void disqualifies the present.
Unless this space exists there is a failure of subject I to materialise. The lack of vision, Mr B's 'darkness', Seepersad's blank mirror can be viewed, like the sublime, as a failure of the mind to represent what reason can conceptualise but the imagination cannot represent.
I think V. S. Naipaul imagines a place from which small children hopefully may emerge with as much sense of secure self as it has ever been possible to engender in the seamless presence in absence of time, of yesterday and tomorrow.
1 V.S. Naipaul, 'Words on their Own', Times Literary Supplement, (4 June 1964), 472.
2 Paul Theroux, V.S. Naipaul. An Introduction to His Work (New York: Africana Publishing Co-op., 1972), p.128.
3 V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), p.483. All further references to this text are given in parenthesis.
4 V.S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre (London: AndrŽ Deutsch, 1984), p.60.
5 Vijay Mishra (ed.) Rama's Banishment (Auckland: Heinemann, 1979), p.113.
6 V.S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre, p.75.
7 D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989), p.225.
8 V.S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre, p.84.
9 Vijay Mishra (ed.) Rama's Banishment, p.141.
10 V.S. Naipaul, Finding the Centre, p.63.
11 V.S. Naipaul, p, 72.
This paper was written for the West Australian Bengalee Society on the occasion of Tagore's 50th anniversary.
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