VS NAIPAUL’S passing is being announced around the world, not always with fond opinions. He would have had it no other way, of course. He despised sentimentality, and thoroughly enjoyed getting under someone’s skin. He would do it on purpose just to get a laugh. “Chooking fire,” as it were. It was a very Trinidadian characteristic of his. One of many.
Paul Theroux noted scores of others in his great, affectionate, broken-hearted memoir. Naipaul would often burst out singing a calypso in the most unlikely times and places – because he so enjoyed their politically incorrect, insightful wit and humour. His Queen’s English, in speech and in writing, also had a Trinidad bis – or emphatic repetition.
And, of course, he spoke about Trinidad often. It was the basis of everything he wrote. He himself stated that he only travelled to the places that were relevant to his experience growing up in Trinidad – Africa, the Islamic world, India, Britain, South America, the southern (plantation) United States. He refused invitations to visit and write about Eastern Europe and elsewhere for that reason.
Indeed, there is no person who has written more on Trinidad, for a longer period of time, to a wider audience than VS Naipaul. Even when he was writing about a place like Malaysia, he would centre himself by noting: “I recognised these trees from Trinidad when I was growing up.”
This is not someone who hates himself or his heritage. He wrote extremely affectionately, with great detail, precision, and care, but never flinching from the truth of his observations, as he saw them. Indeed, more than anything else, he hated people who lied to themselves and, worse, banked on others believing those lies.
While Naipaul is wrongly criticised for not taking Trinidad seriously, the official statement of the Prime Minister of on Naipaul’s passing proudly references his knighthood and his Nobel Prize, but nowhere mentions his 1989 Trinity Cross. Indeed, Naipaul would later favourably comment that he received this Trinidad and Tobago award prior to his British knighthood.
He was often misunderstood. For instance, the famous line “nothing was created in the West Indies” was not a criticism primarily about the former slaves and indentures. It was a criticism of British colonialism in our region. He wrote that line in 1960 when we were still colonies. How could it mean anything else?
In Spanish America, the colonialists built substantial public buildings, plazas and great universities that still stand today. In colonial New England, the great institutions of Harvard and Yale were built. Under British colonialism in the West Indies, massive wealth was generated here for a time, but nothing was created. They had no plans or ambitions for the region. We were what Lloyd Best called “colonies of exploitation.”
From this background Naipaul had one obsessive concern: “How do I, as a Trinidad Indian, born in this small colony, isolated from the rest of the world, marginal even here, find my way in the world?” It was the great theme of his life’s work.
He developed many sub-themes and recurring characters from it, returning to them over and over again: the futility of people trying to run away from themselves, the fraudulence and danger of white liberals, the Trinidad “smart man” and the more brutal manifestations of this character in other societies. In fact, it is as if Naipaul spent his life writing just one big book, with each new publication simply being a new volume or chapter in it.
When I put this to him, at our first meeting, he did not object. He paused. He accepted it.
That was not merely a piece of intellectual, literary, critical discussion, however. It was profoundly personal. It was the same personal question that I had learned from him to ask myself. But I had the gift of Naipaul exploring this issue publicly, in writing, for 50 years. It helped and guided me incalculably, as I also travelled from country to country in my early years. He was my personal guide and mentor, in so many ways.
The advice his father gave to him while he was abroad is what he gave to all of us: “Find your centre.” It is the only then you can find your way in the world.
That is why that meeting with him was surreal in so many ways.
Kirk Meighoo is the author of Politics in a ‘half-made society’: Trinidad and Tobago, 1925-2001, a part-tribute to VS Naipaul