We must face Naipaul's unsparing truths, bleak as they may be
Stabroek News
November 9, 2001

Dear Editor,

Two weeks after V.S. Naipaul was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Stabroek News finally, in its own words "grudgingly toast(ed)" his accolade. (SN 10-25-01) [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ]. Even then, the editorial was so snide, sneering and snickering that it was more of a "roasting" than a "toasting" from its caption. SN set the tone by pluralizing the title of the "backstabbing" (SN's word) Paul Theroux's petulant Oedipal outburst, signaling that it has similar unresolved complexes about Naipaul. SN's "Sir Vidia's Shadows" slyly

insinuates dark, hidden, malfeasances to Naipaul's supposed pretentiousness and vanity even though Naipaul does not use the "Sir" and his life has literally been an open book.

"Reinvention" and "the Bush"

SN's selective negative quotations do no credit either to the facts or to the extremely more nuanced reactions, which Naipaul has provoked, from even Caribbean intellectuals. For instance, SN takes a boast from the brash, young Naipaul at Oxford who vowed to "beat them" (the British) and juxtaposes it with a much later statement that refers to Trinidad as "the bush" and concludes, ipso facto, that the mature Naipaul is a "turncoat" who has "reinvented" himself as "British". This is a simplistic and dishonest

argument. Firstly, Naipaul, in those same series of early letters from Oxford had already expressed his disappointment at the colonial sterility of Trinidad: "I never realized before that the Trinidad Guardian was so badly written, that our Trinidad worthies were so absurd...". Secondly Naipaul has also very clearly explained what he means by "the bush" which he applied to huge swathes of the world, not just Trinidad - not just mere unsophistication but "the breakdown of institutions, of the contact between man and man. It is theft, corruption, racist incitement". Aren't we still "bush" in Trinidad, or Guyana for that matter? Thirdly, since Naipaul's entire corpus of work includes facts from his own life, especially as they touch on the question of identity, it is quite vulgar to reduce conclusions on his choice of identity (and Naipaul holds that it should be a choice for all of us) on innuendoes of Trinidad's being "hick".

So what is the significance of Naipaul omitting Trinidad from sharing the accolade of the Nobel with "England, my home and India, the home of my ancestors"? After all, Naipaul has always defined himself as a Trinidadian of Indian origin living in England. But that formulation on identity inevitably creates its own ambiguities which need to be clarified. Naipaul saw himself triply alienated, once from the world of the metropole presented in books (England) and then from "the childhood world of our remembered India and the more colonial world of our city...two spheres of darkness." While Naipaul shies away from jargon, his formulation rejects any easy essentialism and compels a search for "self" - a discovery not a reinvention : "One isn't born one's self. One is born with a mass of expectations, a mass of other people's ideas and you have to work through it all." In his, and our, case, to be born in a colonial setting makes "working it through" quite a struggle since most of the institutions of the society and the state are geared towards shaping us in the vision of the old colonial "expectations".


"Working through" the bondage of colonialism meant that one must first recognize the hypocrisy and falseness of the colonial order But, he warns, "we cannot succumb ...only to blame; we must also examine". Through a critical examination of one's past.. we begin the process of discovery of "one's self" and uncover the "psychic damage of historical upheaval" but we should "feel no nostalgia for the miserable security of the old ways". Naipaul commends Koestler's aphorism: "Men can add to their knowledge, but they cannot subtract". One may, during the search, become disoriented by the overwhelming feeling of alienation, homelessness, the burdens of the past and the confusions of the post colonial chaos. As objectively as we can, we have to remove "our areas of darkness" and locate some "centre": not necessarily to sterilely glorify our past or "seek the camouflage of some larger cultural entity through mimicry", which appears to be the endemic response of third world leaders in general, and the Caribbean in particular.

From very early boyhood Naipaul dedicated himself to be a writer and conducted his search for "self" and identity through the practice of his craft. As he blended autobiography with social enquiry, to create a new genre, he returned again and again to the theme of

the alienated outsider dealing with the complexities of identity in the modern world by exploring the strands of identity. In 1990 he visited Trinidad (and Guyana), "doing a lot of returns, summing up journeys for the emotion and for the feeling of completeness". It resulted in "A Way in the World" which, he confirmed was, "a settling of accounts for me, with myself." A year ago, Naipaul pointed out that "although I come from the Caribbean - Trinidad, I'm of Indian origin, and the Indian experience has always been interesting to me and necessary for me to explore and come to terms with. My interest begins with my community and my place of birth. My community commits me to an exploration of India and the Islamic world. My place of birth commits me to an understanding of the New World, the Spanish invasion, slavery, revolution in the New World. It also commits me to an attempt to understand Africa." He can in no way be said to have "disowned" Trinidad; his statement suggests that he has come to grips with the metropole the enigma of arrival - it's his home from where he can write, and has possibly cleared up one of his areas of darkness, India. It is apparent that he now feels that India is on its way to creating a coherent response to its past. He is simply telling us that he still has to "work through" his "more colonial" Trinidad past; his last "area of darkness" "the nature of your society conditions the kind of writing you can do about it." For Naipaul, a writer, Trinidad (read "Caribbean") is still a society in which he cannot practice his craft, and uncover his "self". It is still "the bush". While this truth may be unpalatable to many of the region's intellectuals, it is also the truth of many of the Indians in the Caribbean who are given to even a minimum of self-reflection. What is the reality for Indian Caribbean writers?


Most Afro-Caribbean intellectuals, and the few Westerners having an interest in the region, define the identity of the "Caribbean Man" as being constituted during the slave encounter between Europe and Africa. While not everyone may be as blunt as Prof. Rex Nettleford to assert that groups such as Indians will have to blend in to the Afro-Euro Creole culture, purported "kinder" visions such as the vaunted "hybridity" of Derek Walcott doesn't imply anything else for tm. The quest for identity, of course, is not unrelated to the question of power in these societies.

When Caribbean intellectuals, such as Derek Walcott, accuse Naipaul of "Negrophobia" it highlights the dilemma arising out of his commitment to tell the truth as he discovers it, but not being permitted to because he is not African. His motives are automatically suspect. "There is the attitude" Naipaul says "that you must never say unkind things about Africa. The result is that it is sinking into famine and civil wars". The same can be said for Guyana,where recently an Indian-Guyanese immigrant to the US was criticised for revealing, on the Oprah Winfrey Show, conditions during the Burnham dictatorship. Naipaul simply refuses to be patronizing and paternalistic and evaluate third world citizens by a different yardstick than the developed countries. He is constantly challenging us to go beyond the excuses and evasions and perform at the level or beyond, that of the departed or neo-colonials. It's not a race thing as some like Caryl Phillips complain, since Naipaul has criticized the white Argentineans who blithely pretended they were still "European" but also created no autochthonous culture and have paid the price.

"White man's nigger"

Edward Said's nasty characterization of Naipaul as a "White man's nigger" betrays his reading of imperialism and colonialism as an encounter only between the West and the "colonized natives". While he concedes that the West is differentiated by culture, religion, region etc., he mimes the Imperial predilection of lumping all natives within a colony, into one mass - possibly distinguished by their amenability to the colonial order. Said easily defines himself as "an Arab and an American" since even as a colonized Protestant in the Lebanon of his childhood, he was still "an Arab". The situation is entirely different for Naipaul and the Indians in the Caribbean who were brought and thrown into a society of different races and cultures. The Indian's Caribbean colonial experience was as such not limited and conditioned only by their interactions with the British, but with the other groups brought into the region, especially with the Africans, who saw the Indians as undermining their bargaining position after emancipation. Said does not seem to fully appreciate

that part of the interrogation of the post-colonial condition might demand an examination of the encounters of the colonized peoples amongst themselves. It smacks of racism to conclude that Naipaul, in his search for self-understanding, would explore the milieu of the peoples of his "community" - the Hindu, the Muslim, the African etc.- on behalf of, or to please, the "White man". Naipaul has said flatly, "It wouldn't be worth my while to write about people if I were not sympathetic to them." None of the Caribbean intellectuals, who are given the "cultural high ground" by SN, have had the moral vision, courage or fortitude to emulate Naipaul's lead to explore the histories, lives, geography etc, of the other peoples in "our community" in their own search for "identity" and "authenticity". In fact many of these intellectuals eagerly adopted rhetoric honed from the African-American experience and declared the world was divided into "Black vs White", and were taken aback when their reductionist ontology did not resonate amongst Indians in the Caribbean. Isn't it the diffusion of the "Black vs White" dichotomous-world paradigm that compels the conclusion that Naipaul must be pandering to the "White man"; that he must be a "turncoat" for announcing England is his home and allows him to write; for accepting that we may have absorbed some useful civilisational concepts from the West and for exposing our dirty laundry to "them"? Our reality, and the world, Naipaul advises, are a bit more complex than that.

Naipaul's vision for the Caribbean

When SN accepts that "it is impossible to live in the Caribbean without acknowledging the truth of (Naipaul's) observations, even some of the bitterest", but yet skewers him, it would appear that SN would rather have blind, romantic, feel-good, politically-correct platitudes rather than Naipaul's unsparing truths, bleak as they may be. Why is it wrong to be critical of people who know how to use a

telephone but can neither fix nor invent one and do not care? Isn't it possibly racist, and certainly paternalistic, to imply that Caribbean people can't take the "truth"? How are we ever to get past our colonial neuroses, which are bemoaned even by our caviling intellectuals? Even if Naipaul is "the man to refute" why limit our refutation to rhetoric, even as refined as that of "Derek Walcott's". Aren't we fulfilling Naipaul's observation that the Caribbean man is just a "talk man" with grandiose airy-fairy plans but no truly creative action?

Naipaul is not consumed by "bitterness", as SN would have it, but because he cares deeply about what he writes, he accepts that he "work(s) with very strong emotions". Anger is one such "strong emotion". Anger at "Parasitism, intellectual dishonesty, and exaggerated chauvinism. People who don't pay tribute to freedoms which they enjoy; they take them for granted". Anger at those leaders and intellectuals who take the easy way out and remain fixated at simply criticizing "imperialism" and "colonialism" but do not have the resilience and discipline to rise above their debilitating prejudices, dogmas and posturing to create coherent, alternative new values, institutions and societies to replace the "colonial" ones derided, torn asunder but yet retained. They create an illusion of freedom: such a stance is ultimately nihilistic - "self-immolation" rather than the self-emancipation which Naipaul advocates. This sterility and nihilism is the lack of "creation" for which Naipaul has criticized the Caribbean and which has irked so many here.

One trenchant criticism by Naipaul of our colonial condition is that we accept the picturesque image in which the colonial would wish to box us in; Naipaul has very little patience with both those who perpetuate, and those who accept, this "trivializing condition". To continue to live the "bongo-man" fantasy for the benefit of European tourists is certainly not "to create" or gain their respect. On the outrageous answer that Naipaul gave to Elizabeth Hardwick's question as to what does the dot on the Indian woman's forehead signify, ("My head is empty!"). What else do you tell someone who's supposed to be a serious novelist, spent months in India, has written a book on "Women and Literature" and still trivializes the Indian woman as an exotic "dot" that Naipaul is supposed to explain. On the other hand, Naipaul would have been considered "gauche" and "provincial" if he had asked Hardwick why men wore cummerbunds on some formal occasion.

For us to be taken seriously, we must first take ourselves seriously. If we really want to make our societies "complete" we must integrate all the various strands with which we let find ourselves us. Naipaul exhorts us to heed Ortega y Gasset's meditation on what it takes to keep a country together:

"People don't live together just like that; that kind of cohesion exists only within a family. The groups who make up a state live together for a purpose. They are a community of projects, desires, big undertakings. They don't come together simply to be together, but in order to do something tomorrow."

Yours faithfully,

Ravi Dev (ROAR MP)