V. S. Naipaul and the 1946 Trinidad General Election

Article excerpt

  Precisely because history as the verbal representation by man of his
  own past is by its very nature so full of hazard, so replete indeed
  with the verisimilitude of sharply differentiated choices, ... it
  never ceases to excite. The historical discourse is the world's
  oldest thriller.
  --Ranajit Guha ("Prose" 55)

On 1 July 1946 the first election featuring universal adult suffrage was held in Trinidad. As reported in the island's leading newspaper of the day, the Trinidad Guardian, the "privilege of a lowered franchise" expanded the electorate nearly tenfold, from approximately 30,000 to 259,000 eligible voters ("Momentous"). This was a precipitous change, especially in a colony where voting even on a limited scale had only been instituted a couple of decades before (1925), in an era when lingering doubts about the qualifications of nonwhites and women had motivated the institution of property, literacy, and age requirements that disenfranchised all but about 6 percent of the population (Caton 628, Malik 69-70, 73, 75). (1) In 1946 these restrictions were lifted all at once.

This election becomes a historical touchstone in the early fiction and journalism of Trinidad-born author V. S. Naipaul. Beginning in his first novel, The Mystic Masseur (1957), Naipaul focuses considerable attention on it, a focus that returns in a key section of his first work of journalistic or travel writing, The Middle Passage (1962). (2) As readers of The Mystic Masseur may recall, it is the 1946 election in which Naipaul's enterprising protagonist, Ganesh Ramsumair, transforms himself from a Hindu faith healer into a politician, initiating a personal metamorphosis that culminates in his becoming G. Ramsay Muir, M. B. E., a West Indian envoy operating in England and a shameless British mimic man (220)."Nineteen forty-six" is heralded in the final paragraph of the novel's opening chapter as "the turning point of Ganesh's career" (18), and the election and its aftermath constitute the major focus of the book's final three chapters. Even more notably, in a brief but pivotal (and now famous) section of The Middle Passage, Naipaul invokes the 1946 election to showcase his vision of the "picaroon" individualism of late colonial-era Trinidadians--the vision of his compatriots as opportunistic survivors in a social environment "where it is felt that all eminence is arrived at by crookedness" (72). The journalistic analysis of The Middle Passage suggests the authenticity of a Ganesh-type character, while in the fictitious Ganesh the Trinidadian picaroon finds a most personable and credible incarnation. This is an important recognition, for the notion that Naipaul's journalistic works represent a decisive break from previous fictional work is something of a commonplace in Naipaul studies--one contributed to even by such a careful critic as Rob Nixon, who contrasts the "fierceness of The Middle Passage" with the "bounteous comedy of the early fiction" (12).

The relationship between these texts is not just a literary curiosity, nor are the events of 1946 in Trinidad merely the minutiae of West Indian history. For precisely because Naipaul introduces coherent interpretive paradigms from the authoritative subject position of a societal insider, and because most of his readers are not in a position to bring any significant degree of parallel local knowledge to bear on his representations of places like the West Indies, his perspectives have attained a level of influence seldom achieved by modern literary discourse. What began at the inception of his career with representations of Trinidad has multiplied in a sweeping array of articles and book-length studies where Naipaul articulates the defining characteristics--as he sees them--of literally dozens of other societies, mostly in the so-called Third World. Factor into this equation that Naipaul's predominantly hostile assertions are delivered in crisp, unsparing terms, and it is little wonder that he has emerged as a polarizing figure. …