Jon Mohd Bhat
Assistant Professor English
Naipaul’s reluctance to see his and his community’s condition of hybridity in a positive way stems from the unique history that he belongs to. He is not able to celebrate the developing creole culture of the Caribbean like African-Caribbean writers such as Lamming and Edward Kamau Brathwaite. The indentured East Indian community of the West Indies was largely a homogenous group isolated from other cultures. They did not generally intermarry with Afro- Caribbeans. Furthermore, because the Indians came to the Caribbean much later than the Africans, it was harder for the Indians to shake off a sense of transience and homelessness (Birbalsingh xvi). The African West Indians settled in the West Indies in a way that the Indian West Indians were not able to. The latter were far more dislocated and ambivalent and remained homeless. As Victor Ramraj claims: “while the Afro-Caribbeans are, to use Edward Kamau Brathwaite’s term arrivants, however dislocated and ambivalent, the Indo-Carribean assimilationists are perpetual arrivers, who find themselves at the harbour contemplating the enigma of their arrival” (84). Moreover, although Afro-Caribbeans emigrated to the United Kingdom and the United States in considerable numbers, they also had the opportunity to integrate in the Caribbean to a greater extent. Unlike the Indians who were often politically marginalized, many Afro-Caribbeans became part of a national movement of liberation from slavery and colonialism.
Cudjoe claims ‘Naipaul’s writing is locked in a colonial time warp, fixed on the figure of the mimic man who has no subversive or redemptive characteristics. But his and the approach of others do not sufficiently critique the kind of diasporic postcolonial politics that Naipaul’s writing engages with.’
The modern man is suffocated by the intellectual scenario of the past and therefore he is unable to see the present clearly or step towards the future. Naipaul being a diasporic and exploratory writer of contemporary thoughts presents complex contents in a simple existential way. Naipaul insists on the need of a tradition, a myth and history as the external starting points for the ‘self’ to become real. Naipaul feels the necessity to define a personal identity in one’s own life. He adopts determined characters in his fiction who expose their loss of identity in various ways.
Naipaul represents the individual, Biswas, as having the potential to liberate himself and move forward. However, he portrays the displaced Indian community in Trinidad as a homogenous entity caught in the past. Ramraj claims: ‘traditionalists cope with estrangement from kith and kin by developing even stronger attachment to their culture, which accentuates their isolation’ (1992: 81).
The traditions and rituals of the imagined ancestral homeland are used by the family to maintain a sense of Indian identity, as if the break from India had not occurred. The Tulsis feared that if they allowed the West Indies to seep into their ‘pure’ Indian identities it would corrupt them; therefore they consciously resisted anything West Indian and instead tried to duplicate
Indian culture in their new environment. Hanuman House is described as ‘an alien white fortress’ (81).
Naipaul, in HB, captures the romantic longings of the older East Indian immigrants of returning to India: ‘They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown. They didn’t want to give up this ambivalence of becoming part of the landscape and yet somehow being beyond or beside it (1996: 220). In reality they ‘had lost touch with their families’ in India (81). Similarly, in Finding the Centre, Naipaul writes: ‘India for these people had been a dream of home, a dream of continuity after the illusion of Trinidad’ (1984; 1985: 53).
They were more comfortable maintaining this notion that their stay in Trinidad was only temporary and eventually they would go back to India. In this way, arriving in the immediate homeland was constantly deferred. The homogenous Indian community resists recognising its own hybridity and that of the other races in Trinidad. The Indian petty bourgeoisie protects its fragmented, traditional, migrant culture in the face of growing Caribbean Creolization’ (1984: 116-117).
At the same time, Naipaul remains grateful to this Indian society’s preservation of its own culture and traditions: ‘For all its physical wretchedness and internal tensions, the life of the clan had given us all a start. It had given us a caste certainty, a high sense of the self’ (1984: 49).
In a later book, India: A Million Mutinies Now, Naipaul writes: ‘the clan that gave protection and identity, and saved people from the void, was itself a little state’ (1991: 178). Naipaul acknowledges the ambivalence of belonging to a cohesive cultural group: it protected people from meaninglessness but it exerted power over them.
Their closed attitude to external influences causes a once prosperous family to disintegrate. To protect their own threatened identity against an alien culture, they maintained Hanuman House like a fortress: ‘outsiders were admitted to Hanuman House only for certain religious celebrations’ (82). The novel seems to suggest that their deliberate isolation from the other local races is an issue. At the same time, the novel relegates other races on the island such as Negroes and Chinese to the periphery and locks them into stereotypical roles. One critic suggested that in reading HB one would think that the West Indies is only populated by Indians.Or is this the very postcolonial plight that Naipaul is attempting to show the postcolonial plight where the races don’t mingle. According to Sarah Blanton, Naipaul’s novels depict characters ‘whose selves cannot connect with the others around them. Most often this outsider is the exiled colonial trying to find a place in a post-colonial world’ (1992: 66).
The novel narrates the collective history of the indentured labourers. It addresses aspects such as their anonymity and their disappearance from history and memory. A significant component of Biswas’s limitation in developing his identity is the void of his past: ‘Mr Biswas could never afterwards say exactly where his father’s hut had stood. . . . The world carried no witness to Mr Biswas’s birth and early years’ (39).
This is presented in the novel not simply as a unique experience particular to Biswas’s family. The novel states that for the indentured migrant Indians who lived ‘in their huts of mud and grass . . . time and distance were obliterated’ (174). Naipaul in his personal narrative in Finding the Centre writes about ‘undated time, historical darkness’ which relates to an ignorance of his own family, as a result of, as he says, ‘the migration of our ancestors from India’ (1985: 51).
HB is a very humorous novel but underlying its humour is that poignant narrative of the illegitimised and unrecognised indentured labourer. This can be seen in the following exchange
between Bipti, Biswas’s mother and Lal, the teacher at the Canadian school: ‘“Buth suttificate?” Bipti echoed the English words. “I don’t have any.” “Don’t have any, eh” Lal said the next day. “You people don’t even know how to born, it look like”’ (40).
The indentured labourers led precarious and fragile existences which are symbolised by the place of dwelling, the home: ‘His grandparents’ house had also disappeared, and when huts of mud and grass are pulled down they leave no trace’ (39). This history makes Biswas determined to build a solid house in order to achieve permanence and escape that pervasive sense of extinction:
In none of these places he was being missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor … Was Bipti thinking of him in the back trace? But she herself was a derelict. And even more remote, that house of mud and grass in the swamplands: probably pulled down and ploughed up. Beyond that, a void. There was nothing to speak of him. (135)
The colonial neurosis which is manifested in the beatings and punishments that take place in the Tulsi house is connected to the experience of indenture. In a later book, Naipaul suggests how it was impossible to disassociate the present landscape from its historical antecedent:
There was an ancient, or not-so-ancient, cruelty in the language of the streets . . . of punishments and degradation that took you back to plantation times . . . the cruelty of the Indian countryside and the African town. The simplest things around us held memories of cruelty. (1994: 18)
Beatings of wives by husbands and children by their parents in a ritual-like fashion have echoes in the beatings by the overseers of the labourers who would then return to the barracks and beat their wives. While the novel presents these routine beatings comically, underlying the comedy there is a hint of madness which is symptomatic of a kind of colonial neurosis. Naipaul has said in A Way in the World that for him, ‘comedy’ was on ‘the other side of hysteria’ (1994: 95). The scene at the rumshop described by the narrator suggests a similar neurosis present in the general Indian community where men were ‘drink[ing] themselves into insensibility. At any time of the day there were people who had collapsed on the wet floor, men who looked older than they were, women too; useless people crying in corners, their anguish lost in the din and press’ (58)
They were using alcohol to blank out their present and their indentured past. The character Seth, who is one of the heads of the Tulsi household and the manager of the family business, ‘dressed more like a plantation overseer than a store manager’ (82). Seth’s ‘benevolent despotism’ is another reminder of the indenture system (Bhabha, 1984: 117).
Biswas is located uneasily in the realist genre. There is that sense of not being at home in the genre itself. Mishra claims: it is not easy to articulate the pain, to find a genre … in which the eponymous hero, Biswas, could be unproblematically situated. (1996: 220)
‘The narrative of “Biswas” and the discourse of “character” satisfy those ideological and formal demands of realist narratives … But the driving desire of “Biswas” conceals a much graver subject: the subject of madness, illness and loss’ (Bhabha, 1984: 117).
The narrative of Biswas does not find its niche in the realist genre. While Naipaul is using an English literary convention, the story he is really writing spills over the boundaries exposing Biswas’ difference. Perhaps Biswas’ story cannot be only interpreted in terms of a western colonial literary form? Naipaul uses the realist form only to work against it.
Biswas’s fight for independence, indicated in his stand not to beat his family and to not allow the Tulsi family to beat his children, suggests the attempt to extricate himself from this destructive power-dominated environment. Furthermore, Biswas’s refusal to work on the estate
(24) unlike his brothers who ‘were already broken into estate work’ (40) is partly another
rejection of the colonial system. However, as a result of his desperate circumstances he does become the estate driver for a short time.
Thus, the novel suggests a tension between Biswas’s attempt to ‘paddle his own canoe’ and that world and yet being drawn into it as a result of his limited economic means. The neurosis of the indentured Indians feeds into the next generation. Biswas’s acknowledgement that ‘he no longer expected to wake up one morning and find himself whole again’ (273) is an expression of this neurosis and explanation of the emptiness that the Indian diaspora experiences.
HB is principally about the ‘unaccommodated’ man which is the condition of the unhomely — not homeless but not at home either. In HB, the Prologue ends with the threatening thought of ‘[b]ut bigger than them all was the house, his house. How terrible it would have been .
. . to be without it . . . to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated’ (8).
History had brought Biswas’s parents to an island where they did not belong but Biswas had tried to make a home by building a house. At the age of thirty one, Biswas owned a house and this was symbolic of his liberation from the legacy of colonial indenture. Biswas’s success in building his own home suggested the breaking of that colonial pattern of domination. Yet, the house is not completely owned by Biswas and this situation does not change, thus when he dies the precarious nature of both his achievement and his postcolonial selfhood is suggested. The void that Biswas experiences and is present generally in the novel is a sense of out-of-placeness.
Edward Casey argues that we cannot get away from a sense of place, that is, a sense of place is significant to us human beings: ‘Even when we are displaced, we continue to count upon some reliable place, if not our present precarious perch then a place-to-come or a place- that-was’ (Casey, 1993: ix) (emphasis in the original).
This is significant because a sense of place is inextricably connected to who we are, to our sense of self. Casey claims that place has the ‘power to direct and stabilize us, to memorialise and identify us, to tell us who and what we are in terms of where we are (as well as where we are not)’ (Casey, 1993: xv).
In the case of the diasporic subject, who as Rushdie has argued in his essay Imaginary Homelands feels an exacerbated separation of place because of his cultural displacement, he might need, as Casey phrases it: ‘to return, if not in actual fact then in memory or imagination, to the very earliest places [he has] known’ (1993: x), literally and imaginatively or both.
Naipaul, in Finding the Centre, realises that: ‘To become a writer, that noble thing, I had thought it necessary to leave [Trinidad]. Actually to write, it was necessary to go back. It was the beginning of self-knowledge’ (1985: 40).
The void is a theme that Naipaul has been grappling with in much of his writing: ‘Our own past was, like our idea of India, a dream. Of my mother’s father, so important to our family, I grew up knowing very little. Of my father’s family and my father’s childhood I knew almost nothing’ (Naipaul, 1985: 53).
A brief glimpse from Naipaul’s personal narrative suggests his general despair about the East Indian community in Trinidad: ‘[They] didn’t have backgrounds. [They] didn’t have a past. For most of [them] the past stopped with [their] grandparents; beyond that was a blank’ (1994: 79).
In HB, the reoccuring nightmare of the young boy standing in the dark outside a hut — which for Biswas signifies not only himself as a child but also as an adult gaping in the mouth of the void (227) of utter desolation and nonentity — suggests ‘placelessness’: ‘panic before the empty field, the dark vision of no-place-at-all’ (Casey, 1993: xi).
This is of special significance for the colonial subject. It is an image which conveys the futility of the Trinidadian Indians who face an insecure future. Naipaul contends that Europeans do not have that same sense of placelessness: ‘the difference between us, who are Indians, or half Indians, and people like the Spaniards and the English and the Dutch and the French, people who know how to go where they are going, I think for them the world is a safer place’ (1994: 203).
Naipaul had identified himself not with a place but having no place at all: ‘That idea of ruin and dereliction, of out-of-placeness, was something I felt about myself, attached to myself’ (1987: 19). His failure to recognise the place he was born in and lived till the age of eighteen came from a sense of not belonging. However, Naipaul made many return journeys to Trinidad which allowed him to come to a greater, if not full acceptance that Trinidad, the island of his birth, was also a significant place for him.
Bhabha, Homi. ‘Representation and the Colonial Text: A Critical Exploration of Some Forms of
Mimeticisn.’ The Theory of Reading. Ed. Frank Gloversmith. Sussex: the Harvester Press, 1984.
Blanton, Sarah C. Departures: Travel Writing in a Post-Bakhtinian World. Diss. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1992.
Casey, Edward S. Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place- World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
Mishra, Vijay. ‘(B)ordering Naipaul: Indenture History and Diasporic Poetics.’ Diaspora 5.2 (1996): 188-237.
Naipaul, V.S. A Way in the World. London: Heinemann, 1994.
…., India: A Million Mutinies Now. London: Minerva, Mandarin Paperbacks, 1990.
…., Finding the Centre. 1984. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Ramraj, Victor. ‘Still Arriving: The Assimilationist Indo-Caribbean Experience of Marginality.’ Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora. New York:Greenwood Press, 1992.