Naipaul’s multi-racial school friends in Trinidad
V.S. Naipaul wrote: “I never ceased to feel a stranger. I saw people of other groups only from the outside; school friendships were left behind at school or in the street. I had no proper understanding of where I was, and really never had the time to find out: all but nineteen months of those twelve years were spent in a blind, driven kind of colonial studying” (Literary Occasions 2003: 9).
This sentiment reinforces the severity of the colonial education system and the pressure it puts on very young children to succeed. It also illustrates how alienating the entire education system was for the students as they did not even have the time to form basic human relationships with others.
Literary critic Helen Hayward notes that Naipaul’s “discussions of, and writing about his life tend to dwell on his feelings of non-alignment and alienation” (2012: 2). This sense of solitude pervades A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mystic Masseur as the characters Mr. Biswas and Ganesh have very lonely childhoods.
He kept home life hidden
Mr. Biswas’ only friend at school is Alec, while Ganesh “was never really happy during the four years he spent at the Queen’s Royal College” (The Mystic Masseur 1957: 9). Like Biswas, Ganesh had only one friend, Indarsingh, but the friendship was eventually severed.
However, despite these claims of loneliness, Naipaul had a fairly outgoing childhood at school with numerous social experiences and many friends. Critic Patrick French (2008) notes that “others considered him a popular boy” and “he had friends, but kept much of himself hidden from them” (page 54).
Furthermore, although it seemed that it was only much later in life “at Queen’s Royal College that this young educated Hindu encountered other ethnic communities … he came into contact with Africans and Whites, but interaction operated only at an academic level” (Mahabir 2008: 13).
Critic Aaron Eastley noted that “Naipaul was fortunate in being largely accepted by his peers at the schools he attended, both in the capital and previously in Chaguanas” (2011: 37). At Tranquillity Boys’ School, there were hardly any Indians, and the school was composed of black or mixed students. Naipaul was seen as a great curiosity but was treated quite well by everyone.
French also notes that “at Tranquillity Boys’ Intermediate School, Vido made friends across cultures … Winston A.G. Springer, known as WAGS, Kenneth Cazabon, related to the painter Michel Jean Cazabon, and Yip Young, a ‘very bright and delicate boy who was half-Negro and half-Chinese’ ” (page 31).
Even more surprising, Naipaul would engage in typical childhood activities such as swapping his traditional Indian food with a Negro boy. The Tulsi children in A House for Mr. Biswas repeated the food swapping as well with children of different ethnicities. At Queen’s Royal College, Naipaul “made no deliberate effort to associate with other Indians” and his “friends … would have been black people.” The boys even “called each other by their surnames, in British style” exactly the way that Anand is addressed at school by his fellow pupils (French 2008: 41).
Keeping home and school separate
However, Naipaul’s sentiments about friendship being kept apart from home life is evident in his school life as well as in his writings. “He never brought friends home, preferring to keep the two worlds separate.” Naipaul has said that “it seemed natural to have the friendship outside the house. You wouldn’t want another boy to see your poverty” which seems accurate given Naipaul’s unstable home life (French 2008: 42).
However, Naipaul’s sister, Savi, posited that this secrecy appeared to represent a separation arising from social, ethnic or cultural embarrassment. Literary critic Bhoe Tewarie noted that “his perception of the world has been conditioned in part by the fact that he is of Indian descent, a Hindu from the Brahmin caste, born in Trinidad into a minority group and culture, isolated and politically impotent in a colonially created and dominated island society” (2007: 1).
Naipaul’s cultural background did indeed cause tensions in his school life. The cultural differences also prove contentious for Naipaul’s characters Ganesh, Anand and Ralph. For Ganesh, “his sense of alienation and displacement stems from his ethnic background: he is an Indian, a Hindu and a Brahmin” (Tewarie 2007: 11-12).
When the personal lives of Ralph’s school friends come to light, relationships are fractured. When Hok’s true ethnicity is revealed, the boy is traumatized. Browne and Ralph’s childhood friendship dies after encounters with their families. Like Naipaul, Biswas successfully keeps his home life separate from his friendship with Alec as “there was a tacit agreement between them that they would keep their homes secret” (A House 1961: 46).
Mahabir has written two chapters on Naipaul in his book, Multiple Identities (2017).