Return of the enigma: Naipaul goes home for 75th birthday Arts OnSunday
By Al Creighton
Stabroek News
April 29, 2007

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April 2007 is Naipaul month in Trinidad and Tobago. The celebration of the 75th birthday of the famous author and Nobel Laureate Sir Vidia Naipaul, on April 17, 2007 was the occasion for a grand homecoming with more than a week of extended activities during which he was honoured in a number of ways. There was a major academic symposium at UWI, distinguished lectures, scholarly papers and public discussions in addition to other events in his honour during which he autographed books and made lecture tours to schools. The old Naipaul house in St. James, Port of Spain, was again brought into focus as the latest of Sir Vidia's rare visits to his native land received intense media attention.

However, it proved also the occasion for the lively revival of old quarrels. The minute Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul touched down in Trinidad all of the past and present ills committed by the author were promptly remembered and became the confetti hurled at him as he landed. For his part, Naipaul was as gracious, moved and appreciative as he was unrepentant, caustic and controversial. While the Naipauls on the one hand, and the West Indians, the Naipaul critics and the people of Trinidad and Tobago on the other, seemed engaged in a final act of reconciliation, there was a mild suggestion that the only place they were ready to bury the hatchet was in each other's heads.

Two things were clear. The continuing controversy that has attended, and driven, Naipaul's career from its beginning 50 years ago has no intention of dissipating, and the landing of the author of The Enigma of Arrival was, as always, the return of the enigma himself. This arrival was made into a national event largely by the local media who showered upon Naipaul all the attention befitting his deserved celebrity status while reveling in each repartee, each sortie aimed at each other by man and nation. This began even before the start of the visit. The novel The Suffrage of Elvira is being serialised in The Guardian. Savi Akal (Savi Naipaul) the sister immortalised as Biswas' daughter and Anand's sister in A House for Mr Biswas was interviewed in the press. The coolness in her tones was evident as she no doubt harbours memory of the decades of attacks against her brother. When the journalists reminded her that the state was about to heap glory and honour upon him, she said as far as she knew it was not the nation, but the university that was responsible for the events.

While she was not wrong since it was indeed the UWI at St. Augustine that organised the events, it was, inevitably, a national affair. The university's Department of Liberal Arts in the Faculty of Humanities and Education was tasked with the planning of what triggered off other related and independent activities which continued the ongoing love-hate attitude of the public. The Naipaul houses returned to the focus of the spotlight. There are two of them, the more prominent one at this time is "Naipaul House" at 26 Nepaul Street, St. James, which was, according to oral history, built in the 1940s by an electrical contractor. It was later bought by the family of Seepersaud Naipaul, who became the third set of people to live there. It is this building that is fictionalised as the house on Sikkim Street in A House for Mr Biswas. Many have erroneously confused it with the home of the narrator of Miguel Street, but that novel, made up of connected narratives, is about Luis Street in Woodbrook, another part of Port of Spain.

The history of this house was the subject of a brief feature in the Daily Express April 18, 2007 where it was stated that Savi Naipaul Akal sold it to the state some time ago. It is now being renovated by a committee called "Friends of Mr Biswas" headed by Colin Laird and including Professor Ken Ramchand, a Naipaul scholar formerly of UWI. From Laird's account the house is being converted to include a virtual museum (or shrine) and centre for Naipaul research. The Express reported on a visit to the site which Naipaul himself could have written. It described work in progress on the building.

The sounds associated with the sawing of board and hammering of nails were audible. "I is the caretaker", a man purporting to be the caretaker shouted out with authority last Wednesday evening. "They tell me nobody can't come in here!" he further blurted out.

The other house is less in the limelight at this time, but its image has been used as a virtual logo during the April celebrations. It is a much older and more imposing edifice known as "Lion House", fictionalised as the "Hanouman House" of the Tulsi household in A House for Mr Biswas and mentioned by Naipaul in his Nobel Lecture in 2001 as a very influential place where he lived as a boy. It was the home of the Capildeo family and still stands silently and unobtrusively, a solid stone building with its distinctive architecture in central Chaguanas, a town in Central Trinidad famous for the Ram-Leela tradition performed in the villages on its fringes. One of these is Felicity, glowingly praised in his acceptance Lecture by another Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott in 1992.

The very important references to "Lion House" by Naipaul were made shortly after he had been hailed to the cross yet again for what he was supposed to have said when he was announced as the Nobel winner. He was reported as paying tribute to India, his ancestral land and Britain, his adopted home with no reference to Trinidad. This was read as a typical Naipaulian slight of a native land he had always been ashamed of and has always rejected and put down in his writings. His Nobel achievement and this reported statement were catalysts for renewed attacks upon the author of the notorious Middle Passage and the equally offensive Area of Darkness which had begun around 1960 and intensified in 1962. Naipaul bashing was again highly fashionable among those who declared that this ungrateful, sneering, colonised English knight who felt himself superior to West Indians was not fit for the Prize. Serious literary critics had already been taking him on outside this context.

It all came back as soon as the Naipauls landed at Piarco a fortnight or so ago. Yet the feelings were mixed as the heroic welcome of the anti-hero they love to hate took place in Trinidad. At one of the early functions in his honour, Sir Vidia was visibly moved close to tears to the point where he was uncharacteristically lost for words. Lady Naipaul rose to say Sir Vidia was a bit too emotional to reply. That was not the first time Nadira had been called upon to speak on behalf of her husband. When confronted by journalists on arrival in Trinidad with the infamous dismissive statement, she explained that they should blame her for it since it was not spoken by her husband. When the phone call came about the Nobel Prize, she explained, V.S.Naipaul was asleep, she answered the phone and, (perhaps in her excitement and confusion), forgot to mention Trinidad. The speech was incorrectly attributed to her husband.

It was surprising that Trinidadians and so many others were hearing that explanation for the first time because the story has been in circulation since 2001 when the offence was committed. The story, then, was that when the phone rings in the Naipaul home it is usual that Nadira, and not Vidia, would answer. Moreover, she is known to manage most of her husband's affairs. On this occasion, however, the call from Stockholm was not unexpected and she had been primed about what to say. Unfortunately, she forgot and said the wrong thing. Another version is that the story about him being asleep was to cover for the fact that he specifically did not want to go to the phone, which is not unlike Naipaul.

Nevertheless, immediately after that public apology or clarification, the Enigma returned to his old ways of shocking, caustic remarks and forthright speech, inclined to offend. He went to speak with sixth formers at a secondary school and bluntly told them that he had nothing to say to them by way of advice about how to be a good writer. They pressed him, one of them protesting that he was not answering their questions. Naipaul's response was that the questions were trivial and foolish, and that is why he does not speak to children.

At a bigger, grander forum where he was addressing adults, including many scholars at the Evening of Appreciation at UWI, he was equally cutting. He dismissed a comment collected from the floor about a change in his writing and style between his early and later periods as "a superficial reading" and "a false question; not a good one" since there was no such change. He gave similar treatment to Steve Ouditt, one of the Panelists and went on to describe some Caribbean states as "these small societies without a history". Perhaps his most damning pronouncement on that occasion was aimed at Belize, which he called "a retarded place". Naipaul declared "you come across absurdities when you travel" and that was his impression of Belize. He continued an old theory of his about the virtues of looking to and trying to encompass a larger world in contrast to a parochial vision. He found it absurd that people in that country were being urged to "be Belizian", but "what is the future in that ?"

One of the Distinguished Lectures on Naipaul as a part of UWI's programme was delivered by Professor Eddie Baugh on the subject "The History that had made me": The Making and Self-making of V.S.Naipaul. Baugh ended with an ironic retort based on the irremoveable Trinidadian identity of Naipaul, a writer with a large world view. The theme of the symposium was 'V.S.Naipaul : Created in the West Indies' and Baugh related it to Naipaul's statement about "nothing" being created in the West Indies, pointing out that "V.S.Naipaul" was substituted for "nothing". You could read it either way; that Sir Vidia may be dismissed as miniscule, or that, like Naipaul, much has been achieved and there is much to celebrate. The latter interpretation makes more sense.

NB: Last week's Arts on Sunday feature was titled 'The history of the PPP: a complex, delicate and difficult undertaking and it appeared on Page 12A. Unfortunately, the accompanying furniture and contributor's name was inadvertently left out.