Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

V.S. Naipaul: Childhood and Memory

Academic journal article Journal of Caribbean Literatures

V.S. Naipaul: Childhood and Memory

Article excerpt

   But if to live here 
   is to die 
   clutching ashes 
   the fist tight 
   the skull dry 
   I will sing songs of the skeleton. 
   --Edward K.Brathwaite 

He [Naipaul] would sometimes walk in the rain in his school uniform. At first, I was startled by the sight. Then he said, "The rain is beautiful. I could feel it on my face."

--interview with Naipaul's childhood friend, Roy Sudan


Vidia Naipaul's grandfather came from India as an indentured laborer. He spoke very little English and made little attempt to learn the language that his children spoke. This grave, Hindi-speaking grandfather, like Naipaul's gold-teeth nanee [maternal grandmother] and mustached babu, recreated the eastern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in his homeland in Chaguanas, Central Trinidad. For them, the basic difference between Trinidad and India was simply a change in geographical location; their entire culture was transported whole with them. They had abandoned that "area of darkness" but they also denied Trinidad, so much so that they refused to participate in anything that did not belong to their world. If Edward Brathwaite identifies and explores the remaining fragments of African culture in The African Presence in the West Indies, Naipaul seeks to do the same in "A Resting Place for the Imagination," in An Area of Darkness.

Naipaul identifies what remains of India in Trinidad with the old generation's attitudes and ways of thinking and seeing, pieces of furniture, musical instruments, household articles, religious ingredients, food preparations, taboos and housing designs. Naipaul was born in the Lion House (a stark symbol of the Indian world), Chaguanas, on August 17, 1932 where he lived until he was about eight years old. The great house, reproduced almost exactly in A House for Mr. Biswas, as Hanuman House, was built by his grandfather, Pundit Capildeo Maharaj, in 1920.

   When (my grandfather) built his house, he ignored every colonial 
   style he might have found in Trinidad and put up a heavy, 
   flat-roofed oddity, whose image I was to see again and again in the 
   small, ramshackle towns of Uttar Pradesh. (An Area of Darkness 33) 

It is said that Mr. Capildeo brought a builder from India to construct the house. The description of the house, however, is not as important as the images it conjures. As already mentioned, it is an Indian artifact in Trinidad. Naipaul's novel describes the house as an alien white fortress, having no windows, with walls of uneven thickness. With cobwebs and darkness, the house becomes a prison in which Seepersad, Naipaul's father, and Mr. Biswas are trapped. (This is one piece of evidence to suggest that there is a biological link between Mr. Biswas and Seepersad Naipaul). The House can also represent the Commonwealth Empire into which Mr. Biswas was colonized and subordinated, very much like the old Dowager's house in Lamming's Water with Berries. It is also a symbol of the Great House during the slave-master's reign.

Seepersad Naipaul, author of The Adventures of Gurudeva (and Other Stories), possessing no land, came from Longdenville to marry into the rich Capildeo family in 1929. He married one of the seven Capildeo girls, Draupati, commonly called Bhola--prototype of Shama in Mr. Biswas' s story. The Capildeos were among the Seereerams, Seepersads, and the Seths, who were renowned landowners in Central Trinidad. Seepersad was confronted by some traumatic issues upon marriage into this family. Having no house of his own, Seepersad lived at his wife's parents' home where he was constantly reminded that he had come from an impoverished family. There was the inevitable conflict between the rich and the poor, subordination and insubordination, strong and weak, individual and establishment. It was the long and bitter struggle of a man who refused to submit to a system, who refused to lose his identity in a clan, and who refused to be colonized in order to establish his own independence. …

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