Literary Occasions

Essays

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On sale Aug 10, 2004 | 224 Pages | 9781400031306
From a master of the English language—winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—a collection of essays about reading, writing, and identity.

In these eleven pieces—brought together for the first time—Naipaul charts more than half a century of personal inquiry into the mysteries of written expression and of fiction in particular. Here are his boyhood experiences of reading books and his first youthful efforts at writing them; the early glimmers and the evolution of ideas about the proper relation of particular literary forms to particular cultures and identities. Here, too, is Naipaul’s famous comment on his putative literary forebear Conrad, and a less familiar but no less intriguing preface to the only book Naipaul’s father ever published. Finally, in his celebrated Nobel Lecture, “Two Worlds,” Naipaul reflects on the full scope of his career, rounding off the volume as an intellectual autobiography. Sustained by extraordinary powers of expression and thought, Literary Occasions is a stirring contribution to the fading art of the critic, and a revelation as well of a life in letters, in its many exemplary instances.


“He brings to [nonfiction] an extraordinary capacity for making art out of lucid thought. . . . I can no longer imagine the world without Naipaul’s writing.” —Vivian Gornick, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Naipaul] has a genius for noticing, a genius for freezing the instant when meaning is born from the accidents of the everyday. . . . Each sentence pounces on its meaning, neat as a cat.” —The New York Review of Books

“It is altogether tonic to have a writer such as V. S. Naipaul in our midst.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Fascinating. . . . Poignant. . . . He shows an almost scientific precocity at being an observer and historian of his family’s life. . . . A lean little guidebook to the making of a Nobel laureate.” —The Miami Herald

“[Literary Occasions] shed[s] light on Naipaul’s intellectual evolution and on the source of his social insight, his humor, and his gentle melancholy.” —The Boston Globe

“Splendid. . . . Affecting. . . . The perfect complement to Naipaul’s volume of travel and political essays, The Writer and the World.” —The Oregonian

“[A] gift to the reading and writing public. . . . Literary Occasions is . . . an ideal place to make one’s first acquaintance with Naipaul’s literary universe.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Deeply affecting. . . . Personally revealing. . . . Thoughtful clarity . . . characterizes all his prose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Fascinating. . . . Naipaul truly is a writer for the world.” —The Tennessean

“Nuanced, personal. . . . Naipaul’s prose is a perfect combination of lucidity, elegance and gloom.” —The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)

“Naipaul’s essays play an important part in understanding this remarkable writer. . . . Those already familiar with his work will find their understanding greatly enhanced by these essays.” —The Sunday Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)

“Superbly written. . . . [Naipaul is] a gifted and articulate writer whose prose, comments, and analysis force readers to closely inspect their own ideas.” —Nashville City Paper


Contents

Introduction
Prologue: Reading and Writing, a Personal Account

PART ONE
East Indian
Jasmine
Prologue to an Autobiography
Foreword to The Adventures of Gurudeva
Foreword to A House for Mr. Biswas

PART TWO
Indian Autobiographies
The Last of the Aryans
Theatrical Natives
Conrad’s Darkness and Mine

Postscript: Two Worlds (The Nobel Lecture)

Index
East Indian



It was about thirteen or fourteen years ago. In those days Air France used to run an Epicurean Service between London and Paris. The advertisements taunted me. Poverty makes for recklessness, and one idle day in the long summer vacation I booked. The following morning I went with nervous expectation to the Kensington air terminal. There was another Indian in the lounge. He was about Þfty and very small, neat with homburg and gold-rimmed spectacles, and looking packaged in a three-piece suit. He was pure buttoned-up joy: he too was an Epicurean traveller.

"You are coming from--?"

I had met enough Indians from India to know that this was less a serious inquiry than a greeting, in a distant land, from one Indian to another.

"Trinidad," I said. "In the West Indies. And you?"

He ignored my question. "But you look Indian."

"I am."

"Red Indian?" He suppressed a nervous little giggle.

"East Indian. From the West Indies."

He looked offended and wandered off to the bookstall. From this distance he eyed me assessingly. In the end curiosity overcame misgiving. He sat next to me on the bus to the airport. He sat next to me in the plane.

"Your Þrst trip to Paris?" he asked.

"Yes."

"My fourth. I am a newspaperman. America, the United States of America, have you been there?"

"I once spent twelve hours in New York."

"I have been to the United States of America three times. I also know the Dominion of Canada. I don't like this aeroplane. I don't like the way it is wibrating. What sort do you think it is? I'll ask the steward."

He pressed the buzzer. The steward didn't come.

"At Þrst I thought it was a Dakota. Now I feel it is a Wiking."

The steward bustled past, dropping white disembarkation cards into laps. The Indian seized the steward's soiled white jacket.

"Steward, is this aircraft a Wiking?"

"No, sir. Not a Viking. It's a Languedoc, a French plane, sir."

"Languedoc. Of course. That is one thing journalism teaches you. Always get to the bottom of everything."

We Þlled in our disembarkation cards. The Indian studied my passport.

"Trinidad, Trinidad," he said, as though searching for a face or a name.

Before he could Þnd anything the Epicurean meal began. The harassed steward pulled out trays from the back of seats, slapped down monogrammed glasses and liquor miniatures. It was a short þight, which perhaps he had already made more than once that day, and he behaved like a man with problems at the other end.

"Indian," the Indian said reprovingly, "and you are drinking?"

"I am drinking."

"At home," he said, sipping his aperitif, "I never drink."

The steward was back, with a clutch of half-bottles of champagne.

"Champagne!" the Indian cried, as though about to clap his tiny hands. "Champagne!"

Corks were popping all over the aircraft. The trays of food came.

I grabbed the steward's dirty jacket.

"I am sorry," I said. "I should have told them. But I don't eat meat."

Holding two trays in one hand, he said, "I am sorry, sir. There is nothing else. The meals are not prepared on the plane."

"But you must have an egg or some Þsh or something."

"We have some cheese."

"But this is an Epicurean Service. You can't just give me a piece of cheese."

"I am sorry, sir."

I drank champagne with my bread and cheese.

"So you are not eating?"

"I am not eating."

"I enwy you." The Indian was champing through meats of various colours, sipping champagne and crying out for more. "I enwy you your wegetarianism. At home I am strict wegetarian. No one has even boiled an egg in my house."

The steward took away the remains of my bread and cheese, and gave me coffee, brandy, and a choice of liqueurs.

The Indian experimented swiftly. He sipped, he gulped. The þight was drawing to a close; we were already fastening our seat belts. His eyes were red and watery behind his spectacles. He stuck his hat on at comic angles and made faces at me. He nudged me in the ribs and cuffed me on the shoulder and giggled. He chucked me under the chin and sang: "Wege-wege-wegetarian! Hin-du wege-tar-ian!"

He was in some distress when we landed. His hat was still at a comic angle, but his þushed little face had a bottled-up solemnity. He was in for a hard afternoon. Even so, he composed himself for a farewell speech.

"My dear sir, I am a journalist and I have travelled. I hope you will permit me to say how much I appreciate it that, although separated by many generations and many thousands of miles of sea and ocean from the Motherland, you still keep up the customs and traditions of our religion. I do appreciate it. Allow me to congratulate you."

I was hungry, and my head was heavy. "No, no, my dear sir. Allow me to congratulate you."

To be a colonial is to be a little ridiculous and unlikely, especially in the eyes of someone from the metropolitan country. All immigrants and their descendants are colonials of one sort or another, and between the colonial and what one might call the metropolitan there always exists a muted mutual distrust. In England the image of the American is Þxed. In Spain, where imperial glory has been dead for so long, they still whisper to you, an impartial outsider, about the loudness of americanos--to them people from Argentina and Uruguay. In an Athens hotel you can distinguish the Greek Americans, back for a holiday (special words in the vocabulary of immigrants), from the natives. The visitors speak with loud, exaggerated American accents, occasionally slightly þawed; the stances of the women are daring and self-conscious. The natives, overdoing the quiet culture and feminine modesty, appear to cringe with offence.

Yet to be Latin American or Greek American is to be known, to be a type, and therefore in some way to be established. To be an Indian or East Indian from the West Indies is to be a perpetual surprise to people outside the region. When you think of the West Indies you think of Columbus and the Spanish galleons, slavery and the naval rivalries of the eighteenth century. You might, more probably, think of calypsos and the Trinidad carnival and expensive sun and sand. When you think of the East you think of the Taj Mahal at the end of a cypress-lined vista and you think of holy men. You don't go to Trinidad, then, expecting to Þnd Hindu pundits scuttling about country roads on motor-cycles; to see pennants with ancient devices þuttering from temples; to see mosques cool and white and rhetorical against the usual Caribbean buildings of concrete and corrugated iron; to Þnd India celebrated in the street names of one whole district of Port of Spain; to see the Hindu festival of lights or the Muslim mourning ceremony for Husein, the Prophet's descendant, killed at the Battle of Kerbela in Arabia thirteen hundred years ago.

To be an Indian from Trinidad is to be unlikely. It is, in addition to everything else, to be the embodiment of an old verbal ambiguity. For this word "Indian" has been abused as no other word in the language; almost every time it is used it has to be qualiÞed. There was a time in Europe when everything Oriental or everything a little unusual was judged to come from Turkey or India. So Indian ink is really Chinese ink and India paper Þrst came from China. When in 1492 Columbus landed on the island of Guanahani he thought he had got to Cathay. He ought therefore to have called the people Chinese. But East was East. He called them Indians, and Indians they remained, walking Indian Þle through the Indian corn. And so, too, that American bird which to English-speaking people is the turkey is to the French le dindon, the bird of India.

So long as the real Indians remained on the other side of the world, there was little confusion. But when in 1845 these Indians began coming over to some of the islands Columbus had called the Indies, confusion became total. Slavery had been abolished in the British islands; the negroes refused to work for a master, and many plantations were faced with ruin. Indentured labourers were brought in from China, Portugal and India. The Indians Þtted. More and more came. They were good agriculturalists and were encouraged to settle after their indentures had expired. Instead of a passage home they could take land. Many did. The indenture system lasted, with breaks, from 1845 until 1911, and in Trinidad alone the descendants of those immigrants who stayed number over a quarter of a million.

But what were these immigrants to be called? Their name had been appropriated three hundred and Þfty years before. "Hindu" was a useful word, but it had religious connotations and would have offended the many Muslims among the immigrants. In the British territories the immigrants were called East Indians. In this way they were distinguished from the two other types of Indians in the islands: the American Indians and the West Indians. After a generation or two, the East Indians were regarded as settled inhabitants of the West Indies and were thought of as West Indian East Indians. Then a national feeling grew up. There was a cry for integration, and the West Indian East Indians became East Indian West Indians.

This didn't suit the Dutch. They had a colony called Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, on the north coast of South America. They also owned a good deal of the East Indies, and to them an East Indian was someone who came from the East Indies and was of Malay stock. (When you go to an Indian restaurant in Holland you don't go to an Indian restaurant; you go to an East Indian or Javanese restaurant.) In Surinam there were many genuine East Indians from the East Indies. So another name had to be found for the Indians from India who came to Surinam. The Dutch called them British Indians. Then, with the Indian nationalist agitation in India, the British Indians began to resent being called British Indians. The Dutch compromised by calling them Hindustanis.

East Indians, British Indians, Hindustanis. But the West Indies are part of the New World and these Indians of Trinidad are no longer of Asia. The temples and mosques exist and appear genuine. But the languages that came with them have decayed. The rituals have altered. Since open-air cremation is forbidden by the health authorities, Hindus are buried, not cremated. Their ashes are not taken down holy rivers into the ocean to become again part of the Absolute. There is no Ganges at hand, only a muddy stream called the Caroni. And the water that the Hindu priest sprinkles with a mango leaf around the sacriÞcial Þre is not Ganges water but simple tap water. The holy city of Benares is far away, but the young Hindu at his initiation ceremony in Port of Spain will still take up his staff and beggar's bowl and say that he is off to Benares to study. His relatives will plead with him, and in the end he will lay down his staff, and there will be a ritual expression of relief.

It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become. In India itself there is the energetic community of Parsis. They þed from Persia to escape Muslim religious persecution. But over the years the very religion which they sought to preserve has become a matter of forms and especially of burial forms: in Bombay their dead are taken to the frighteningly named Towers of Silence and there exposed to vultures. They have adopted the language of the sheltering country and their own language has become a secret gibberish. Immigrants are people on their own. They cannot be judged by the standards of their older culture. Culture is like language, ever developing. There is no right and wrong, no purity from which there is decline. Usage sanctions everything.

And these Indians from Trinidad, despite their temples and rituals, so startling to the visitors, belong to the New World. They are immigrants; they have the drive and restlessness of immigrants. To them India is a word. In moments of self-distrust this word might suggest the Taj Mahal and an ancient civilization. But more usually it suggests other words, fearfully visualized, "famine," "teeming millions." And to many, India is no more than the memory of a depressed rural existence that survived in Trinidad until only the other day. Occasionally in the interior of the island a village of thatched roofs and mud-and-bamboo walls still recalls Bengal.

In Bengal lay the great port of Calcutta. There, from the vast depressed hinterland of eastern India, the emigrants assembled for the journey by sail, often lasting four months, to the West Indies. The majority came from the provinces of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh; and even today--although heavy industry has come to Bihar--these areas are known for their poverty and backwardness. It is a dismal, dusty land, made sadder by ruins and place names that speak of ancient glory. For here was the land of the Buddha; here are the cities mentioned in the Hindu epics of three thousand years ago--like Ayodhya, from which my father's family came, today a ramshackle town of wholly contemporary squalor.

The land is þat, intolerably þat, with few trees to dramatize it. The forests to which reference is often made in the epics have disappeared. The winters are brief, and in the Þerce summers the Þelds are white with dust. You are never out of sight of low mud-walled or brick-walled villages, and there are people everywhere. An impression of tininess in vastness: tiny houses, tiny poor Þelds, thin, stunted people, a land scratched into dust by an ever-growing population. It is a land of famine and apathy, and yet a land of rigid caste order. Everyone has his place. Effort is futile. His Þeld is small, his time unlimited, but the peasant still scatters his seed broadcast. He lives from hand to mouth. The attitude is understandable. In this more than feudal society of India, everything once belonged to the king, and later to the landlord: it was unwise to be prosperous. A man is therefore deÞned and placed by his caste alone. To the peasant on this over-populated plain, all of India, all the world, has been narrowed to a plot of ground and a few relationships.

Travel is still not easy in those parts, and from there a hundred years ago the West Indies must have seemed like the end of the world. Yet so many left, taking everything--beds, brass vessels, musical instruments, images, holy books, sandalwood sticks, astrological almanacs. It was less an uprooting than it appears. They were taking India with them. With their blinkered view of the world they were able to re-create eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar wherever they went. They had been able to ignore the vastness of India; so now they ignored the strangeness in which they had been set. To leave India's sacred soil, to cross the "black water," was considered an act of self-deÞlement. So completely did these migrants re-create India in Trinidad that they imposed a similar restriction on those who wished to leave Trinidad.
V.S. NAIPAUL was born in Trinidad in 1932. He came to England on a scholarship in 1950. He spent four years at University College, Oxford, and began to write, in London, in 1954. He pursued no other profession.
 
His novels include A House for Mr Biswas, The Mimic Men, Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. In 1971 he was awarded the Booker Prize for In a Free State. His works of nonfiction, equally acclaimed, include Among the Believers, Beyond Belief, The Masque of Africa, and a trio of books about India: An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now.
 
In 1990, V.S. Naipaul received a knighthood for services to literature; in 1993, he was the first recipient of the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. He died in 2018. View titles by V. S. Naipaul

About

From a master of the English language—winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature—a collection of essays about reading, writing, and identity.

In these eleven pieces—brought together for the first time—Naipaul charts more than half a century of personal inquiry into the mysteries of written expression and of fiction in particular. Here are his boyhood experiences of reading books and his first youthful efforts at writing them; the early glimmers and the evolution of ideas about the proper relation of particular literary forms to particular cultures and identities. Here, too, is Naipaul’s famous comment on his putative literary forebear Conrad, and a less familiar but no less intriguing preface to the only book Naipaul’s father ever published. Finally, in his celebrated Nobel Lecture, “Two Worlds,” Naipaul reflects on the full scope of his career, rounding off the volume as an intellectual autobiography. Sustained by extraordinary powers of expression and thought, Literary Occasions is a stirring contribution to the fading art of the critic, and a revelation as well of a life in letters, in its many exemplary instances.


“He brings to [nonfiction] an extraordinary capacity for making art out of lucid thought. . . . I can no longer imagine the world without Naipaul’s writing.” —Vivian Gornick, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“[Naipaul] has a genius for noticing, a genius for freezing the instant when meaning is born from the accidents of the everyday. . . . Each sentence pounces on its meaning, neat as a cat.” —The New York Review of Books

“It is altogether tonic to have a writer such as V. S. Naipaul in our midst.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Fascinating. . . . Poignant. . . . He shows an almost scientific precocity at being an observer and historian of his family’s life. . . . A lean little guidebook to the making of a Nobel laureate.” —The Miami Herald

“[Literary Occasions] shed[s] light on Naipaul’s intellectual evolution and on the source of his social insight, his humor, and his gentle melancholy.” —The Boston Globe

“Splendid. . . . Affecting. . . . The perfect complement to Naipaul’s volume of travel and political essays, The Writer and the World.” —The Oregonian

“[A] gift to the reading and writing public. . . . Literary Occasions is . . . an ideal place to make one’s first acquaintance with Naipaul’s literary universe.” —Fort Worth Star-Telegram

“Deeply affecting. . . . Personally revealing. . . . Thoughtful clarity . . . characterizes all his prose.” —Richmond Times-Dispatch

“Fascinating. . . . Naipaul truly is a writer for the world.” —The Tennessean

“Nuanced, personal. . . . Naipaul’s prose is a perfect combination of lucidity, elegance and gloom.” —The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)

“Naipaul’s essays play an important part in understanding this remarkable writer. . . . Those already familiar with his work will find their understanding greatly enhanced by these essays.” —The Sunday Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)

“Superbly written. . . . [Naipaul is] a gifted and articulate writer whose prose, comments, and analysis force readers to closely inspect their own ideas.” —Nashville City Paper


Contents

Introduction
Prologue: Reading and Writing, a Personal Account

PART ONE
East Indian
Jasmine
Prologue to an Autobiography
Foreword to The Adventures of Gurudeva
Foreword to A House for Mr. Biswas

PART TWO
Indian Autobiographies
The Last of the Aryans
Theatrical Natives
Conrad’s Darkness and Mine

Postscript: Two Worlds (The Nobel Lecture)

Index

Excerpt

East Indian



It was about thirteen or fourteen years ago. In those days Air France used to run an Epicurean Service between London and Paris. The advertisements taunted me. Poverty makes for recklessness, and one idle day in the long summer vacation I booked. The following morning I went with nervous expectation to the Kensington air terminal. There was another Indian in the lounge. He was about Þfty and very small, neat with homburg and gold-rimmed spectacles, and looking packaged in a three-piece suit. He was pure buttoned-up joy: he too was an Epicurean traveller.

"You are coming from--?"

I had met enough Indians from India to know that this was less a serious inquiry than a greeting, in a distant land, from one Indian to another.

"Trinidad," I said. "In the West Indies. And you?"

He ignored my question. "But you look Indian."

"I am."

"Red Indian?" He suppressed a nervous little giggle.

"East Indian. From the West Indies."

He looked offended and wandered off to the bookstall. From this distance he eyed me assessingly. In the end curiosity overcame misgiving. He sat next to me on the bus to the airport. He sat next to me in the plane.

"Your Þrst trip to Paris?" he asked.

"Yes."

"My fourth. I am a newspaperman. America, the United States of America, have you been there?"

"I once spent twelve hours in New York."

"I have been to the United States of America three times. I also know the Dominion of Canada. I don't like this aeroplane. I don't like the way it is wibrating. What sort do you think it is? I'll ask the steward."

He pressed the buzzer. The steward didn't come.

"At Þrst I thought it was a Dakota. Now I feel it is a Wiking."

The steward bustled past, dropping white disembarkation cards into laps. The Indian seized the steward's soiled white jacket.

"Steward, is this aircraft a Wiking?"

"No, sir. Not a Viking. It's a Languedoc, a French plane, sir."

"Languedoc. Of course. That is one thing journalism teaches you. Always get to the bottom of everything."

We Þlled in our disembarkation cards. The Indian studied my passport.

"Trinidad, Trinidad," he said, as though searching for a face or a name.

Before he could Þnd anything the Epicurean meal began. The harassed steward pulled out trays from the back of seats, slapped down monogrammed glasses and liquor miniatures. It was a short þight, which perhaps he had already made more than once that day, and he behaved like a man with problems at the other end.

"Indian," the Indian said reprovingly, "and you are drinking?"

"I am drinking."

"At home," he said, sipping his aperitif, "I never drink."

The steward was back, with a clutch of half-bottles of champagne.

"Champagne!" the Indian cried, as though about to clap his tiny hands. "Champagne!"

Corks were popping all over the aircraft. The trays of food came.

I grabbed the steward's dirty jacket.

"I am sorry," I said. "I should have told them. But I don't eat meat."

Holding two trays in one hand, he said, "I am sorry, sir. There is nothing else. The meals are not prepared on the plane."

"But you must have an egg or some Þsh or something."

"We have some cheese."

"But this is an Epicurean Service. You can't just give me a piece of cheese."

"I am sorry, sir."

I drank champagne with my bread and cheese.

"So you are not eating?"

"I am not eating."

"I enwy you." The Indian was champing through meats of various colours, sipping champagne and crying out for more. "I enwy you your wegetarianism. At home I am strict wegetarian. No one has even boiled an egg in my house."

The steward took away the remains of my bread and cheese, and gave me coffee, brandy, and a choice of liqueurs.

The Indian experimented swiftly. He sipped, he gulped. The þight was drawing to a close; we were already fastening our seat belts. His eyes were red and watery behind his spectacles. He stuck his hat on at comic angles and made faces at me. He nudged me in the ribs and cuffed me on the shoulder and giggled. He chucked me under the chin and sang: "Wege-wege-wegetarian! Hin-du wege-tar-ian!"

He was in some distress when we landed. His hat was still at a comic angle, but his þushed little face had a bottled-up solemnity. He was in for a hard afternoon. Even so, he composed himself for a farewell speech.

"My dear sir, I am a journalist and I have travelled. I hope you will permit me to say how much I appreciate it that, although separated by many generations and many thousands of miles of sea and ocean from the Motherland, you still keep up the customs and traditions of our religion. I do appreciate it. Allow me to congratulate you."

I was hungry, and my head was heavy. "No, no, my dear sir. Allow me to congratulate you."

To be a colonial is to be a little ridiculous and unlikely, especially in the eyes of someone from the metropolitan country. All immigrants and their descendants are colonials of one sort or another, and between the colonial and what one might call the metropolitan there always exists a muted mutual distrust. In England the image of the American is Þxed. In Spain, where imperial glory has been dead for so long, they still whisper to you, an impartial outsider, about the loudness of americanos--to them people from Argentina and Uruguay. In an Athens hotel you can distinguish the Greek Americans, back for a holiday (special words in the vocabulary of immigrants), from the natives. The visitors speak with loud, exaggerated American accents, occasionally slightly þawed; the stances of the women are daring and self-conscious. The natives, overdoing the quiet culture and feminine modesty, appear to cringe with offence.

Yet to be Latin American or Greek American is to be known, to be a type, and therefore in some way to be established. To be an Indian or East Indian from the West Indies is to be a perpetual surprise to people outside the region. When you think of the West Indies you think of Columbus and the Spanish galleons, slavery and the naval rivalries of the eighteenth century. You might, more probably, think of calypsos and the Trinidad carnival and expensive sun and sand. When you think of the East you think of the Taj Mahal at the end of a cypress-lined vista and you think of holy men. You don't go to Trinidad, then, expecting to Þnd Hindu pundits scuttling about country roads on motor-cycles; to see pennants with ancient devices þuttering from temples; to see mosques cool and white and rhetorical against the usual Caribbean buildings of concrete and corrugated iron; to Þnd India celebrated in the street names of one whole district of Port of Spain; to see the Hindu festival of lights or the Muslim mourning ceremony for Husein, the Prophet's descendant, killed at the Battle of Kerbela in Arabia thirteen hundred years ago.

To be an Indian from Trinidad is to be unlikely. It is, in addition to everything else, to be the embodiment of an old verbal ambiguity. For this word "Indian" has been abused as no other word in the language; almost every time it is used it has to be qualiÞed. There was a time in Europe when everything Oriental or everything a little unusual was judged to come from Turkey or India. So Indian ink is really Chinese ink and India paper Þrst came from China. When in 1492 Columbus landed on the island of Guanahani he thought he had got to Cathay. He ought therefore to have called the people Chinese. But East was East. He called them Indians, and Indians they remained, walking Indian Þle through the Indian corn. And so, too, that American bird which to English-speaking people is the turkey is to the French le dindon, the bird of India.

So long as the real Indians remained on the other side of the world, there was little confusion. But when in 1845 these Indians began coming over to some of the islands Columbus had called the Indies, confusion became total. Slavery had been abolished in the British islands; the negroes refused to work for a master, and many plantations were faced with ruin. Indentured labourers were brought in from China, Portugal and India. The Indians Þtted. More and more came. They were good agriculturalists and were encouraged to settle after their indentures had expired. Instead of a passage home they could take land. Many did. The indenture system lasted, with breaks, from 1845 until 1911, and in Trinidad alone the descendants of those immigrants who stayed number over a quarter of a million.

But what were these immigrants to be called? Their name had been appropriated three hundred and Þfty years before. "Hindu" was a useful word, but it had religious connotations and would have offended the many Muslims among the immigrants. In the British territories the immigrants were called East Indians. In this way they were distinguished from the two other types of Indians in the islands: the American Indians and the West Indians. After a generation or two, the East Indians were regarded as settled inhabitants of the West Indies and were thought of as West Indian East Indians. Then a national feeling grew up. There was a cry for integration, and the West Indian East Indians became East Indian West Indians.

This didn't suit the Dutch. They had a colony called Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, on the north coast of South America. They also owned a good deal of the East Indies, and to them an East Indian was someone who came from the East Indies and was of Malay stock. (When you go to an Indian restaurant in Holland you don't go to an Indian restaurant; you go to an East Indian or Javanese restaurant.) In Surinam there were many genuine East Indians from the East Indies. So another name had to be found for the Indians from India who came to Surinam. The Dutch called them British Indians. Then, with the Indian nationalist agitation in India, the British Indians began to resent being called British Indians. The Dutch compromised by calling them Hindustanis.

East Indians, British Indians, Hindustanis. But the West Indies are part of the New World and these Indians of Trinidad are no longer of Asia. The temples and mosques exist and appear genuine. But the languages that came with them have decayed. The rituals have altered. Since open-air cremation is forbidden by the health authorities, Hindus are buried, not cremated. Their ashes are not taken down holy rivers into the ocean to become again part of the Absolute. There is no Ganges at hand, only a muddy stream called the Caroni. And the water that the Hindu priest sprinkles with a mango leaf around the sacriÞcial Þre is not Ganges water but simple tap water. The holy city of Benares is far away, but the young Hindu at his initiation ceremony in Port of Spain will still take up his staff and beggar's bowl and say that he is off to Benares to study. His relatives will plead with him, and in the end he will lay down his staff, and there will be a ritual expression of relief.

It is the play of a people who have been cut off. To be an Indian from Trinidad, then, is to be unlikely and exotic. It is also to be a little fraudulent. But so all immigrants become. In India itself there is the energetic community of Parsis. They þed from Persia to escape Muslim religious persecution. But over the years the very religion which they sought to preserve has become a matter of forms and especially of burial forms: in Bombay their dead are taken to the frighteningly named Towers of Silence and there exposed to vultures. They have adopted the language of the sheltering country and their own language has become a secret gibberish. Immigrants are people on their own. They cannot be judged by the standards of their older culture. Culture is like language, ever developing. There is no right and wrong, no purity from which there is decline. Usage sanctions everything.

And these Indians from Trinidad, despite their temples and rituals, so startling to the visitors, belong to the New World. They are immigrants; they have the drive and restlessness of immigrants. To them India is a word. In moments of self-distrust this word might suggest the Taj Mahal and an ancient civilization. But more usually it suggests other words, fearfully visualized, "famine," "teeming millions." And to many, India is no more than the memory of a depressed rural existence that survived in Trinidad until only the other day. Occasionally in the interior of the island a village of thatched roofs and mud-and-bamboo walls still recalls Bengal.

In Bengal lay the great port of Calcutta. There, from the vast depressed hinterland of eastern India, the emigrants assembled for the journey by sail, often lasting four months, to the West Indies. The majority came from the provinces of Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh; and even today--although heavy industry has come to Bihar--these areas are known for their poverty and backwardness. It is a dismal, dusty land, made sadder by ruins and place names that speak of ancient glory. For here was the land of the Buddha; here are the cities mentioned in the Hindu epics of three thousand years ago--like Ayodhya, from which my father's family came, today a ramshackle town of wholly contemporary squalor.

The land is þat, intolerably þat, with few trees to dramatize it. The forests to which reference is often made in the epics have disappeared. The winters are brief, and in the Þerce summers the Þelds are white with dust. You are never out of sight of low mud-walled or brick-walled villages, and there are people everywhere. An impression of tininess in vastness: tiny houses, tiny poor Þelds, thin, stunted people, a land scratched into dust by an ever-growing population. It is a land of famine and apathy, and yet a land of rigid caste order. Everyone has his place. Effort is futile. His Þeld is small, his time unlimited, but the peasant still scatters his seed broadcast. He lives from hand to mouth. The attitude is understandable. In this more than feudal society of India, everything once belonged to the king, and later to the landlord: it was unwise to be prosperous. A man is therefore deÞned and placed by his caste alone. To the peasant on this over-populated plain, all of India, all the world, has been narrowed to a plot of ground and a few relationships.

Travel is still not easy in those parts, and from there a hundred years ago the West Indies must have seemed like the end of the world. Yet so many left, taking everything--beds, brass vessels, musical instruments, images, holy books, sandalwood sticks, astrological almanacs. It was less an uprooting than it appears. They were taking India with them. With their blinkered view of the world they were able to re-create eastern Uttar Pradesh or Bihar wherever they went. They had been able to ignore the vastness of India; so now they ignored the strangeness in which they had been set. To leave India's sacred soil, to cross the "black water," was considered an act of self-deÞlement. So completely did these migrants re-create India in Trinidad that they imposed a similar restriction on those who wished to leave Trinidad.

Author

V.S. NAIPAUL was born in Trinidad in 1932. He came to England on a scholarship in 1950. He spent four years at University College, Oxford, and began to write, in London, in 1954. He pursued no other profession.
 
His novels include A House for Mr Biswas, The Mimic Men, Guerrillas, A Bend in the River, and The Enigma of Arrival. In 1971 he was awarded the Booker Prize for In a Free State. His works of nonfiction, equally acclaimed, include Among the Believers, Beyond Belief, The Masque of Africa, and a trio of books about India: An Area of Darkness, India: A Wounded Civilization and India: A Million Mutinies Now.
 
In 1990, V.S. Naipaul received a knighthood for services to literature; in 1993, he was the first recipient of the David Cohen British Literature Prize. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001. He died in 2018. View titles by V. S. Naipaul

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