"Trapdoors into a Bottomless Past": V.S. Naipaul's Early Ambivalent Vision of the Indo-Caribbean Experience

By Ramraj, Victor J. | Journal of Caribbean Literatures, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

"Trapdoors into a Bottomless Past": V.S. Naipaul's Early Ambivalent Vision of the Indo-Caribbean Experience


Ramraj, Victor J., Journal of Caribbean Literatures


In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, V.S. Naipaul identified himself as a British and an Indian writer. He who was born, educated, and spent his early years up to his eighteenth birthday in Trinidad skips over that he is (or was) Trinidadian (though acknowledging his Trinidadian ties). (1) Many thought this omission conveys unambiguously his partiality for India and Britain and a denial of Trinidad, of which he said very early in his career when he had moved to the UK: "I had never wanted to stay in Trinidad" ("Writer from Trinidad" 36). Postcolonial diaspora writers are as a rule caught between their indigenous and their adopted communities. Ngugi wa Thiong'o sees himself as a duplex man with African and European identities. Derek Walcott whose grandmothers are black West Indians and grandfathers are white Europeans describes himself as "divided to the vein" (18). Mulk Raj Anand sees himself burdened by the Alps on one shoulder and the Himalayas on the other. Salman Rushdie is a "translated man."

As a double diaspora writer, that is, as an immigrant from India in the Caribbean and later as an immigrant from the Caribbean to Britain, Naipaul finds himself late in life situated not so much between the imperial center and the colonial margin but between his ancestral home of India and his family's adopted home of Trinidad, and he appears in his Nobel Prize speech to link himself more closely with the former. Naipaul's fiction and non-fiction reveal a complex relationship with his ancestral home, India, his place of birth, Trinidad, and his adopted home, Britain. In this study, I focus on his diaspora response to India and the Indo-Trinidadian community, particularly in his early foundational writing. He exhibits a postcolonial ambivalence to both societies. In the Foreword to India: A Wounded Civilization, his second book on India, Naipaul admits to an ambivalent response to India and to the transposed Indian community of the Trinidad of his childhood. India, he observes, is not, nor cannot, be his home; "and yet," he adds antithetically, "I cannot reject it or be indifferent to it. I am at once too close and too far" (ix). He concludes his Foreword by intimating the partly subconscious origins of this ambivalence through the startling image of the trapdoor: "In India I know I am a stranger; but increasingly I understand that my Indian memories, the memories of that India which lived on into my childhood in Trinidad are like trapdoors into a bottomless past" (xi).

Thirteen years earlier, in his first book on India, An Area of Darkness, Naipaul acknowledges this ambivalence, though perhaps in a less forthright manner. His mixed response to his Indian experience reveals itself in the account of an incident, which took place in a science class, when he was in high school at Queens Royal College, Port of Spain. The students were doing an experiment with siphons. At one stage, a beaker and a pipette were passed from boy to boy so that they might suck and observe the effects. Naipaul, imbued with Brahmin cleanliness, let the beaker pass without touching the pipette:

 
   I let the beaker pass me. I thought I hadn't been seen, but an 
   Indian boy in the row behind, a Port of Spain boy, a recognised 
   class tough, whispered, "Real brahmin." His tone was approving. I 
   was surprised at his knowledge, having assumed him, a Port of Spain 
   boy, to be ignorant of these things, at the unexpected tenderness 
   of his voice, and also at the bringing out into public of that 
   other, secret life. But I was also pleased. And with this pleasure 
   there came a new tenderness for that boy, and a sadness for our 
   common loss; mine, which he did not suspect, the result of my own 
   decision or temperament, his, which by his behaviour he openly 
   acknowledged, the result of history and environment; a feeling 
   which was to come to me again more strongly and much later, in 
   entirely different circumstances, when the loss was complete in 
   London. … 

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