THE Suffrage of Elvira is comically alive and politically relevant at the age of 60.
The novel was published in April 1958, two years after VS Naipaul’s first return visit to Trinidad in 1956. His uncle Simboonath Capildeo was a candidate for the “Indian” party the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), and during his visit Naipaul experienced the campaigning for the election that was to initiate 30 unbroken years of control by one political party (the PNM).
The good things that happened during this period have been recognised, but the malformations that set in have not been corrected and may never be able to be corrected.
The racial tensions Naipaul saw in 1956; his fears for the fate of the East Indian population; and his sense of the communal terrors independence might bring enter The Mimic Men (1967) and Guerrillas (1975), books written after some time had passed and after further grounding visits to the island had been made (Distress confronted in tranquility).
The mind has its own ways of working. It came to Naipaul during those disturbing weeks that he should write a novel about a rural election.
He chose to build the story around the 1950 general election.
He invented a fictional constituency called Elvira in the remote county of Naparoni, and he provided a voters list. Elvira has 8,000 registered voters: 4,000 Hindus; 1,000 Muslims; 2,000 Africans; and 1,000 cocoa-panyols.
The new voters have no idea what the vote means or what to do with it except to sell it to the highest bidder or surrender it to a broker.
The invented constituency used to be a grand cocoa estate, and is named after the plantation owner’s wife, who had had a baby by an African worker and buried it in the foundation at the time the cocoa house was being built. All Elvirans are afraid to encounter the baby ghost of the cocoa house when darkness falls. (But not, of course, as much as they fear the obeah dog that crawls down the high street like gunslinger at high noon.)
Naipaul gave to Elvira a geographical setting that is recognisably in Caroni, around Couva, Gran Couva and Tortuga. It is an “innocent” landscape already being exploited for lumber and quarrying.
One of the finest views of Trinidad is seen (and can still be seen from Tortuga) from the top of Elvira Hill: “Below, the jungly hills and valleys of the Central Range. Beyond, to the south, the sugarcane fields, the silver tanks of the oil refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre, and the pink and white houses of San Fernando; to the west, the shining rice fields and swamps of Caroni, and the Gulf of Paria; the Caroni Savannah to the north, and the settlements at the foot of the Northern Range.”
To candidate Harbans and the large-scale operators whose lethal coming Naipaul’s novel anticipates, it is “a lot of bush” for lumber; and plenty rock and dirt for quarrying.
In the 1950 election, the general area in which Elvira is located was divided into Caroni North (won by Mitra Sinanan) and Caroni South (won by Ranjit Kumar). All the island’s constituencies had been adjusted to make sure that each of them would have around 12,000 voters. There were 18 elected seats, for which 141 business-minded candidates offered themselves.
Of the 90 Independents, six were returned; of those with nominal party affiliations 12 won places. The Butler party won six, the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP) won two, and the Caribbean Socialist Party (CSP) won two. The moderate Political Progress Group (PPG) also won two seats.
Before and after the election there was talk about an alliance of the radical groups but all the part candidates were individualists to whom the so-called party affiliations were relationships of convenience, with people shifting around to suit their personal interests.
The Elections and Boundaries Commission did not bother to list any of the candidates as belonging to a political party. Some of the campaigners complained that the only sure thing you could count on to influence voters was personal influence and bribes.
Elvira knows nothing about the political parties and doesn’t know the names of the political figures of the time, but it shared in the reliance on personal influence and bribery to get votes.
If the native politicians in the legislative council of 1950 could have brought themselves to unite, they would have been a potent majority in the legislative council and could have held a majority in the executive council. They would not have been able to take charge, since the new constitution left the governor with the absolute power to curb their enthusiasm. But that was not a good reason to refuse to unite.
Harbans has his home in Port of Spain and Chittaranjan has a lawyer brother in the city. And Elvirans can refer to Hitler or call one another “Nazi spy”; but the constituency is quite closed in upon itself.
The national and political issues aired in Port of Spain and other “developed” areas do not figure in The Suffrage of Elvira. There is nothing about political parties or coalitions.
But in The Suffrage of Elvira you can see the beginnings of what is to be the power of the party, the beginning of the time when the individuality of the candidate does not matter, a time when, as one prime minister would gloat, any crapaud the party puts up will win the seat. At one point, Harbans’s campaign committee finds that the whining candidate (mounting expenses, negotiating with tricky voters and demanding allies) gets in their way, and they want him to go back home to Port of Spain and leave them to do what has to be done to win the election.
Among the Indians, the day of the village headman and the religious leader is passing: the modern time of the loudspeaker and the motorcade, the platform and the heckling crowd, the back room boys, the bread and the circuses is establishing itself.
Naipaul started to write the novel at the end of 1956 and finished it in 1957. As social scientist, he sets it down as he picked it up. For instance, none of the campaigners in Elvira targets the female vote. The assumption of the time and the assumption in the novel is that the wife votes as her husband does.
But there are signs of the coming thing: there are three women in the book who speak up for themselves and rebel against male control. The deserted doolahin works resentfully as an unpaid servant in the house of her father-in-law. (The marriage was a set-up. Dhaniram knew that “the boy” was going away to further his studies, and a servant was needed.)
The duped doolahin breaks tradition and elopes with Lorkhoor the broadcaster; the teenager Nelly Chittaranjan refuses an arranged marriage and gets to attend the Regent Street Polytechnic in London, where she goes to all the dances; and the stressed-out Mrs Baksh (who reveres Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair of The Mystic Masseur) rules the backsliding Baksh household with a heavy hand and a withering tongue. She sees the family being destroyed by the new dispensation: “Is your fault, Baksh. Is this election sweetness that sweeten you up so. And now you seeing how sour it turning. You having people throwing all sorta magic and obeah in my house, you have all my sons lying to my face, and you have my biggest son talking to me like if I is his daughter. Is your fault, Baksh. This election business done turning sour, I tell you.”