We cannot applaud the racist joke that is Naipaul's rendering of our society
Stabroek News
December 21, 2001

Dear Editor,

Inevitably, in a country in which the wall against disorder is everywhere breached by ceaselessly renewed racist currents, public discussion on Naipaul will not ignore his ethnic origins and will condition some response to his work and to the news of his prize.

In letters appearing in the press, including Wednesday's despatch by Ravi Dev [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ], I have been accused of anti-Indian bias. There is abroad the suspicion that those who will not surrender their objectivity to "the sentimental camaraderie of the skin" (Naipaul's phrase of condemnation) suffer an essential defect. Frederick Kissoon is accused of "inverse racism" and, along with the editor of SN, of being "a liberal Indian" who could not extend to Naipaul that immediate and unconditional endorsement that is expected of the tribe.

The social psychology, and the calculation, behind all this is leaked by Dev himself, in the publication "Offerings" which appeared in Guyana in 1996. It is a clear demonstration of the role of racial identification in his own confused defence of Naipaul.

He states "People of African origin everywhere took pride in the Nobel prize of Dr Martin Luther King. Not just in terms of his accomplishments, but as a reflection that the individual was an African just like Dr King, and in some small way the prize was his. Man seeks transcendence in this transitory world. Identification with the accomplishments of his ethnic group partly accomplishes this." And this it seems is the ideological underpinning of his reaction to our criticism.

Dev like many others is blind to Naipaul's own racism. They choose to ignore the fact that what I or Freddy Kissoon said is that we cannot applaud the European public's embrace and promotion of Naipaul, because it is the expression of a thesis of racial and cultural superiority, comforted by Naipaul's treatment of third world societies. We cannot applaud the racist joke that is Naipaul's rendering of our reality.

Michael Gilsenen, a white American anthropologist writing in the London Review of books denounces the "intellectual emptiness" of the writer and ridicules his effort to ingratiate himself with his readership. He typifies the current response to the writer - "If Naipaul was from elsewhere, he showed that he was emphatically one of us".." ' Among the Believers' was essentially a complacent diatribe, travel literature of the worst kind, which flattered notions of 'our' supremacy to 'them."

If as Mr Dev wishes to persuade us, there is an "element of racism" in the response of blacks to Naipaul's Nobel, I suggest that he review the English press where he will find that Indians were no less outspoken in their response.

Maya Jaggi in The Guardian refers to Naipaul as the "The one annointed as the West's post colonial mandarin for, many would argue, reasons other than merit." She goes on to note that the Nobel has in the past been "awarded for political reasons."

Amrit Chaudhuri in the same paper explains Naipaul's "annointing" and highlights the reason he was later defrocked. He had become "an embarrassment to the British literary establishment", now more mature and sold on multi-culturalism. Chaudhuri says "his reputation has been in decline." "His views on a range of subjects, from Africa to Islam seemed to many, often justifiably, to be contentious if not unpleasant and wrongheaded." As I read this the past weekend I was reinforced in my judgement.

Edward Said, an Arab critic, dismisses Naipaul as sort of "gifted native informer."

Tony Deyal, a Caribbean Indian, writing in last Saturday's edition of the Trinidad Express, recounts a conversation he had with Derek Walcott in which he spoke, "facetiously" of naming an aircraft after Naipaul. "Walcott responded dryly ' That will kill Vidia. To have all them black people riding up inside him'." He adds "I could not disagree." A man does not arrive at a reputation such as Naipaul's without hard, long, and consistent work.

Note also that Samuel Selvon, another succesful Indian Trinidadian writer, has never been criticised by anyone, black, white or Indian, as Naipaul has. No one, including blacks in the Caribbean is targeting Indian writers. To assert otherwise is to falsify or to demonstrate the credulity that permits Dev to leak news, in his first letter on the subject, of a conspiracy to annihilate the Caribbean Indians by miscegenation.

Deyal later quotes the Stabroek News letter from artiste and cultural historian Dave Martins, reminding us that Naipaul, as any other vendor of a cultural product, would have been excreting his unpleasant one-liners with an eye to his markets. This is a genuine insight, often ignored by academic critics. Thus, to the "intellectual emptiness" has to be associated a moral failure, and the mentality of the huckster. For if Naipaul's pen reveals itself, finally, in his travel writing, as only a cutlass, it is that his role has been to cut us down to size. The blade of his frankness falls on the poor, the dark, the weak. His provocative statements provoke only laughter at our expense. He isn't provoking our tormentors.

Gilsenen notes that in his visits to the third world there is "no hint of the British subjugation, of the economic exploitation and violence, of the campaigns against other religious or cultural forms." Martins is therefore right. The man understood his market.

It is conceivable, and, given the psychic battering we took during colonialism, even excusable, that one feel pride at legitimate accomplishment of any of the downtrodden. But an Indian singer with a sublime voice whose lyrics are racist, is not a cause for pride. And it cannot be argued, without fear of ridicule, that after all she is Indian and that what matters is the timbre of the voice. A black poet brandishing anti-Indian verse cannot be defended and sheltered from Indian protest on the grounds that his style is supreme, and that it is only style that matters. In this there can be no reason for pride.

Hence, there is something insensitive, even infantile, in the defence of Naipaul by some Guyanese Indians, who see in legitimate criticism only the old ghost of (always and only the other's) racism. They are serene before the evidence of Naipaul's own racism. We conclude that, for some, the racism of one of their own is never an issue. And that the anti-racist discourse is, finally, an expedient. Unjust to those they accuse of racism. But above all a kind of puerile dementia, bad for themselves, unceasingly fed by its own racist fixations, and fed upon by the agitators and the mountebanks among them.

Dev's letter raises the important question of the perception of the Indian culture and presence in the Caribbean. He sees my critique as being in the vein of a history of dismissal or ignorance of that cultural presence. He assumes I am unsympathetic.

This is untrue. In the December 1987 issue of "Trinidad and Tobago Review" I wrote a long article on the subject in which I noted the feeling of cultural superiority of some blacks, their disinterest in Indian culture, inability to pronounce Indian names etc.. I noted " The government controlled media, despite their trumpettings have never seriously considered Indian culture. Nor has there been, in Guyana at least, any public discussion of the necessity or desirability of integration, beyond the usual platitudes."

"The shedding and modification of their cultural characteristics, miscegenation, and an ambivalence about some of the things they have retained, create confusions....The question of integration, if that is the desired objective must therefore be approached with a clear understanding of the prevailing social attitudes and the precise objectives of each constituent group." I argue that these objectives are not identical.

My own position is that Indians are themselves confused and uncertain about integration and, in the main, see in their presence in Guyana a work of colonisation - the transplant and preservation of the cultural and social institutions and of the genotype. This is explicable by the nature of the immigration. But the Indian colonisation paradigm remains irreconcilable with the Afro-Caribbean paradigm of creolisation. There are, however, historical, demographic, and religious-cultural factors, proper to the Indian communities, that interact differently in each island or country, with different results. Any generalisations about black response to Indians are useless as instruments of analysis Any generalisations about Indians in the Caribbean is equally vain.

Dev projects upon me a racism better expressed in the ideology of the party he leads. He transports us back in time to the era when, in Guyana as in Trinidad,( for peculiar reasons) taking an Indian woman was prohibited by law. He argues for Indian inclusion, but as proponent of a pitiless exclusion of the others. This is a form of the intellectual contortion that appeals to many of his constituents and underlines the incoherence of some discourse in the Indian community.

As a Muslim, I am sworn to reject all distinctions based on race, caste or class. As a Hindu Mr Dev may not see himself as being held to the same standards. As a person I have no reason to be anti-Indian since I have found in that community many true friends, good, noble and generous people. I have also found the racists, the petty, the anti-Muslim, the anti-Hindu, the anti-poor, the anti-communist, the anti-capitalist....I do not generalise, knowing that some assumptions serve only to impoverish the discussion.

It is possible that most readers misunderstood my notation of Naipaul as an "East Indian". This was an allusion to the writer's own repeated definition of himself as "an East Indian-West Indian" Note well that by the time he won the Nobel, there was no acknowledgement of the Caribbean or reference to the West Indies except as another "area of darkness." The man is a creature of circumstance, and his presence at the conference on the Indian Diaspora has to be taken as just another performance. Read what Deyal says of his encounter there with Naipaul in the Trinidad Express.com.

As for Garvey and the others I quoted, my objective was not their santification, but simply to indicate that the subordination to all things foreign and white that Naipaul decried but also personified, had been already noted and commented upon.

There were attempts at the "reconstitution of the racial self" after slavery. To the thesis of white supremacy was opposed a conflated anti-thesis, with its particles of myth, exaggeration, fake history. As Dev notes blacks have not hesitated to express critical distance from these people, as some Indians point to Naipaul's failings. Among the lacunae in the discourse Garvey-Cesaire, was precisely this disavowal of a special role for the Indian. The special role was not congruent with the Afro-Caribbean model of the melting pot. But the difference between these writers and Naipaul was that they said, like Bob Marley, to all "Emanicapte yourself from mental slavery " Naipaul's message is "You will never achieve anything." Philosophical fatalism, show business, temperament? Dev and the others want us to swallow this on the grounds that the boy is one of us. It is precisely what, with enormous energy, Naipaul set out to disprove.

In criticism none is sacrosanct. Ezra Pound. Great poet but anti-semite, or Saul Bellow, major talent, novelist and Nobel winner, but, as a recent biography reveals, racist. These are published facts. And what we are examining is not Naipaul's social self but precisely what is secreted and is luminous in his works - the racial bias, pandering, and shallowness. This is what Gilsenen and others have found.

Perhaps Dev, reading Naipaul, witnesses himself in an act of communion between Indians and suspends his critical judgements. But since he is sensitive to racism in blacks, he now has to start looking carefully at his own "secretions" and the social self from which they seep.

Yours faithfully,

Abu Bakr