Naipaul and being West Indian

Naipaul and being West Indian
Photo : V.S. Naipaul

ROAR of Ravi Dev

This is excerpted from my response to a Black WI intellectual, Abu Bakr, in 2001, soon after VS Naipaul accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“ In his letter captioned "Naipaul has become the stubborn incarnation of the worst of a past generation" Bakr fulminates about Naipaul's "maledictions" and sneers that the latter's Nobel was greeted with "disgust"; that he is "intellectually inadequate" and a "good minor talent" to whom the Caribbean had just wished "good riddance".

Mr. Bakr opined that, coming "after Garvey, or CLR James or Jean Price Mars and Aime Cesaire", Naipaul could not possibly be "offering any original insights" in his critique of Caribbean society. He allowed that while "we were offered hope and redemption" by the afore mentioned gentlemen, Naipaul cynically proposed "deliverance...in flight". Now it's of more than passing interest that Mr. Bakr chose those particular four Caribbean pioneers, whose social commentaries he deemed so profound and all-encompassing as to have preempted any modification or elaboration - much less refutation - by one such as Naipaul.

Photo : Ravi Dev

Each of these stalwarts were focused throughout their lives on the definition and deliverance of the souls of African folk: Garvey with his "Back to Africa Movement"; James struggling with his Trotskyite/Black Power oxymoron and Mars and Cesaire with “Negritude”. Whether through a lapse of omission or a sin of commission, one finds in their emancipatory musings nary a concern for the other peoples inhabiting our winsome islands. Where was the Indian content, say, in the message of " redemption and hope" for "us"? Not so coincidentally all of these “giants” are now being deconstructed for their exclusivist and essentialist formulations. Even Cesaire has come under severe fire from his fellow Martiniquean and young lion Chamoiseau for (among other transgressions) ignoring Indians (yes, Martinique has Indians from India) in his Negritude notes of blood and soul. And more to the point, isn't this what Naipaul bitterly protested in The Middle Passage (1962), when he quoted the Jamaican writer John Hearne to reject "the sentimental camaraderie of skin which provides the cheap thrill of being African"? But, of course, Naipaul is unqualified and incapable of "offering any original insights".

As he mentioned in his Nobel speech, Naipaul is not enamoured of giving lectures, but in 1975 (seventy-five years after the first Pan African Conference) he delivered one to the First Conference of East Indians in the Caribbean. He warned Indians against any easy essentialism: "I don't think there is any magic in any racial inheritance" and "the problems of the Indians are no different from the problems of everybody else here. I don't think it is possible for any one here, of any community, to seek the camouflage of some larger cultural entity, because that again is only a form of 'dropping out'". Wasn't the retreat into Negritude a form of "flight"? One can always create hope but how lasting has been the redemption?

While Naipaul has spoken candidly of his desire to escape from Trinidad because it did not provide the environment to sustain what he wanted to be since he was ten - a full time writer - he has never advocated "flight" for anyone else. He proposed we create our own culture and not live in a borrowed one which forces us to play the "Bongo Man" role. In 1962 he had advocated the devolution of real responsibility to the people in positions and their measurement by the standard of efficiency, "to bring political organization to the picaroon society". We still have not heeded that advice and we are still paying the price in cons and scams.

In the 1975 lecture mentioned above, Naipaul emphasized that we have to "arrive at some understanding of all the strands of our upbringing. And we have so many strands here, on this island in the New World. We have to acknowledge them all." He quotes Mommsen, the German historian of republican Rome: "The history of every nation... is a vast system of incorporation." Naipaul's "we" incorporated all the peoples of the Caribbean, not just one master race.

 In his Nobel speech, Naipaul returned to this point in explicitly acknowledging he travelled to Africa, to India, to the non-Arab Muslim world and South America to better "understand... all the strands of our upbringing."”

Sadly, most African-Caribbean persons still have not accepted this point. Witness the PNM’s skit on the “disrobing” of a saried-woman.