In his lifetime, he continued to stun critics, admirers and literary masters of every part of the globe
“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.” – V. S. Naipaul
I wish to extend my deepest condolences and profound sense of sadness at the passing of a global literary icon, Sir Vidiadhar Surujprasad Naipaul, who, according to reports, passed away on August 11 at his London home at age 85.
The numerous glowing tributes from around the world that have poured in thus far, and undoubtedly will continue to be issued by some of the greatest contemporary literary, and to a lesser extent, political figures are indeed a testament to Sir Vidia’s unparalleled greatness as a writer. He redefined the craft of literature and reinvented the art of fiction and nonfiction writing to reflect the turbulent historical era that he was born into.
To us Trinidadians, he holds an even more special place, having been born and raised here and having dedicated his early and undoubtedly greatest works of fiction to the nation that shaped his aspirations, sensibilities, consciousness and lifelong desires in every possible way.
Sir Vidia was born in 1932 in Colonial Trinidad, the son of Seepersad Naipaul, a Trinidad Guardian journalist and writer, and, Droapatie Capildeo, a daughter of the famous Capildeo family of ‘Lion House’ of Chaguanas. His family who exerted tremendous influence on the political, social and economic history of Trinidad and Tobago in the persons of founders of the DLP, famed scholar Dr Rudranath Capildeo and his elder brother, businessman Simboonath Capildeo.
In what is considered his greatest literary work, A House For Mr Biswas, Sir Vidia chronicled his father’s life as a man born into poverty in the cane fields of Central Trinidad in the period of Colonialism and Indentureship successfully battling to change his stars and achieve relevance through fulfilling his dreams of being an individual, a writer, a man of worth and one who owned his own home in a world where people of his social standing were destined to exist on the margins of the society as a classless and irrelevant people.
In this work, which established him, at merely thirty years old, as one of the greatest living writers of the English language, Sir Vidia fulfilled literature’s greatest mandate of writing with truth, incision, creativity and acute social perception, about the lives and times of the people and society that shaped him.
In it, he exceeded literature’s greatest expectations by redefining the craft and giving voice, relevance and historical worth to the lowest rungs of Colonised outcast societies, making their stories, experiences and characters of a world deemed too insignificant by grand Colonial powers and systems, exist as equally or even more so relevant, necessary and influential as their own.
In every other work to follow, Sir Vidia would improve on this mastery of social observation, analysis and craft. He would go on in his lifetime to continue to stun critics, admirers and literary masters of every part of the globe by his mission to fulfill the writer’s self-appointed task of, as he once put in his own words, “meeting people and end up seeing the world through their eyes, seeing their frailties, their needs.”
It was perhaps this compunction that fuelled, in addition to his tremendous works of fiction, his equally amazing prolific body of non-fiction travelogues, where he chose to chronicle his observations in his travels from the 1960s to the 1990s to various civilisations once governed by Colonial masters in the throes of social, religious and political upheaval, and thus redefined the travelogue into a work of literary worth, impact and art.
In this body of work, he produced frank, exacting and analytical social and political commentaries on the Caribbean, Africa, Indian, Middle East and the USA in books such as The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies – British, French and Dutch in the West Indies and South America (1962), An Area of Darkness (1964),The Loss of El Dorado (1969), India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), A Turn in the South (1989), India: A Million Mutinies Now(1990) and Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions among the Converted Peoples (1998).
The enduring controversy that Sir Vidia generated in these works, along with his famed acerbic, arrogant and highly dismissive personality, inspired not only awe and reverence among his greatest fans but equally significant hostility from his fellow writers and detractors who disagreed with his analysis and general world philosophy.
Yet, when the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature was finally awarded to him in 2001, undoubtedly the greatest addition to his long list of top international literary awards in his life thus far, no one, critics nor detractors alike, would deny that it was not only well deserved, but long overdue.
For me, personally, and for people of my generation, the children of the post-Colonial society that was Trinidad and Tobago, a society and people struggling to find and assume our identity after centuries of being ruled as marginal addendums to a social, economic and political framework that previously treated us as merely tolerated outcasts, Sir Vidia’s work was inspiring and uplifting.
Like so many of my local and regional contemporaries, I would have been raised on books from Europe and England which described and deified people, cultures and civilizations that essentially reflected all that I could never be, until, as a teenager and young adult I read Miguel Street, The Mystic Masseur and A House for Mr. Biswas, amongst others.
And it was in these works, still so dear and personal to me, as they also are undoubtedly, to many other of my countrymen and women, that Sir Vidia’s greatest contribution to our country and the world became not only clear but inspiring in the greatest possible way.
For it was in these works that he made our society, our everyday working-class people, who, until then, barely got recognized as worthy, into the literary heroes that ranked with the greatest characters and societies of every other renowned writer in English, to date.
To read our dialect, or idiosyncrasies, our paradoxes, our flaws, our beauty, our struggles, our lessons and our indelible richness of humanity portrayed so frankly, so unashamedly, so proudly and so intellectually in a Naipaul literary piece gave me personally a sense of pride and belonging, a sense of worth in a global and regional society, something that no other writer had previously given and to date, no other writer has produced to a prolific reader as myself.
This, then, was Sir Vidia’s greatest gift to the world, and especially to Trinidad and Tobago, the fulfilment of his once professed aim that, in his own words:
“The longer I live the more convinced I become that one of the greatest honours we can confer on other people is to see them as they are, to recognize not only that they exist, but that they exist in specific ways and have specific realities.”
For throughout his life, in his consistent mission of ‘finding a place’ for the marginalised peoples, cultures and societies he subconsciously embodied, he fulfilled literature’s greatest mandate—that of giving the human soul, character and life, in its every form, worth and relevance.
May his great soul rest in peace and may his loved ones be comforted in the knowledge that his great legacy can never be undone and will undoubtedly continue to inspire generations to come and endure for eternity.
Kamla Persad-Bissessar, SC, MP
12th August 2018