19 September, 2018

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Ever A Stranger: Shiva Naipaul In Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia & Sri Lanka

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

PREFACE: “Whether the description of marriage as a double solitude is applicable in all instances, it indicates that each individual carries a consciousness of himself as a solitary being, a consciousness of which he cannot completely and permanently rid himself. We all feel un-comprehended and uncomprehending, though to varying degrees and at various times. This awareness of separateness and consequent loneliness, an awareness which is part of our human condition, is sometimes heightened by a negative group-identity. In such instances, the individual suffers not only from the loneliness common to all but also from the added consciousness that the group with which he is identified is looked at askance, perhaps with suspicion, even with contempt and hostility.” (Charles Sarvan,’Ethnicity and Alienation: the African Asian and His Response to Africa’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 20, No. 1, 1985.) End of Preface.

There are some who are unable, or are not allowed, to feel fully at home in their home-country: see Sarvan, Sri Lanka: Literary Essays & Sketches, pp. 194-200, and also the Sinhala expression Para Dhemmala. Shiva Naipaul never fully belonged anywhere. He was born in Trinidad (1945) where, admittedly generalising, the Africans and the Asians lived separate lives. With slavery abolished, Britain turned to British-ruled India, and sent out hundreds of thousands of workers as indentured labourers: see my ‘Indian Plantation Experiences Overseas’, Kunapipi, Australia, Vol X11, No 2, 2000. In Sri Lanka, indentured Tamil workers were confined to the estate and kept separate from the local Sinhalese population. In Trinidad, the Asians were kept apart from the earlier black slave-population. In this way, ethnic animosity was deliberately (and in Sri Lanka’s case, successfully) fostered, to the advantage of the imperial capitalist owners. Group consciousness and feeling, not class solidarity, came to be dominant. Of the two main political parties in Trinidad; one is supported by Africans, and the other by Asians.

England today, particularly London and the big cities, has changed significantly but the England to which Naipaul came as a very young man was quite a different country. The term of abuse for Asians was “Paki” or, less often, “Wog”, an acronym from ‘Wily Oriental Gentleman’. This may be met with incredulity by some readers but when I came to London in 1963, it was not against the law to display signs which read: “No coloureds. No dogs.” With the IRA setting off bombs, sometimes “No Irish” was added to the list. An Irish friend told me he was glad I’d come to England. When I asked why, he answered: “Now when talking with me, sometimes the English say, we!” It had become a case of “we” whites in contrast to those of colour, African or Asian. Difference and exclusion may lead to a new inclusion; to a recognition of commonality (though not, it seems, in the case of some Sri Lankans living outside the blessed ‘Paradise Isle’).

However, this feeling of not belonging need not be negative. On the contrary, it can stimulate thought, sharpen sensitivity, broaden awareness and, as in Shiva Naipaul’s case, strengthen his total rejection of group stereotypes and prejudice. Shiva Naipaul’s reputation is over-shadowed by that of his brother, world-famous V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, knighted by the Queen. Both were born in Trinidad (V. S. in 1932) and both studied at Oxford. Shiva’s sudden death in 1985, at the early age of forty, cut off promise of genuine literary stature. His novels, The Chip-Chip Gatherers and Fireflies, had won literary prizes and much was expected of him.

Walking one morning down the corridor to my office in the Department of English of the University of Zambia and seeing someone who seemed somewhat lost, I stopped to ask whether I could be of help. It was Shiva Naipaul. Later in the day, I took him home and thereafter gave him such help as I could. The result of his visit, North of South, appeared the next year, 1978, in Penguin Books. The title’s “South” refers to apartheid South Africa; “North”, to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. Some of the chapter-headings show the satirical streak in Shiva: ‘Taking the Socialist Road’, ‘Animals and Men’, ‘The Haven of Peace’ (shown to be anything but a place of peace), and ‘Into the Void’. The historical event in the background is Idi Amin’s decree of 4 August 1972 expelling Uganda’s Asians, giving them ninety days to leave the country which they loved and had lived in for generations. ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’ (to give his full self-awarded titles), claimed that Allah had in a dream ordered the measure. Once again, religion is made use of to sanction and sanctify base human action in the pursuit of power and domination.

Naipaul found that in the region he was not seen and reacted to as an individual, but as a member of a group, as an Asian. The generic and uncomplimentary label was “Patel”: all Asians were assumed to be shopkeepers and traders. Shortly after arriving in Lusaka, having bought a car with the help of a university-loan, my wife and I drove to the nearest petrol-station where the Zambian attendant asked, “Full tank?” When I specified a much lower amount the young man, friendly and convivial, asked “Why, where’s all the money?” Puzzled, still unaware of group-stereotype, I asked in turn, “What money?” “From your shop”, came the cheerful reply. We thought it was a case of mistaken identity. The Asian was seen (not knowing how things are in the present, I use the past-tense auxiliary verb “was”) as a miserly dukawallah who exploited and cheated innocent Africans, never giving back anything (Naipaul, op. cit., page 110). A further resentment was that Asian women didn’t enter into relationships with African men: see my article lines from which form the ‘Preface’ to the present article.

Naipaul was struck by the fact that though the real exploiters in history had been whites, it was the Asians, small in number and powerless, who were resented and victimised. (For similarity with Sinhalese attitudes to Tamils, see my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2, p. 37.) So too, hatred was (still is?) directed at the poor estate-workers and not at those who had, often through deceit and false promises, brought them over to the Island. “Hounding the Asian is a legitimate blood-sport”. Indira Gandhi visiting Africa may preach “the gospel of Afro-Asian solidarity” but if a man from Mars were to visit, he would conclude that the threat to the region was the Asian, and not apartheid South Africa or illegal, whites-only, Rhodesia (Naipaul, op. cit., p. 322).

**************

Naipaul’s An Unfinished Journey was published posthumously by Penguin Books in 1986. The book’s last chapter, ‘An unfinished journey’ (pp. 65-136) is on Sri Lanka. Naipaul writes that there is a vast gap between what even intelligent and informed Sinhalese know and accept mentally, and what they subconsciously believe, feel and act on. This was, he comments, particularly evident when it came to subjects such as: ‘race’; caste in Buddhist society (claimed to be non-existent); the Buddhist clergy (their possessions and power); literal belief in legend and Buddhist mythology; actual Buddhist behaviour, all contrasted with the real condition of the Island. It was a contradiction that did not trouble them; it did not lead them to re-think basic beliefs and values. As the Greek philosopher Diogenes (born 412 BCE) commented, one of the hardest things in life is truly to know oneself. Sun-tzu, also known as Master Sun (BCE 380-316), in his Art of War writes: “To know others is wisdom, but to understand oneself is enlightenment. To conquer others requires force; to conquer oneself shows strength”. The last will, of course, recall the Buddha’s preaching to the effect that more difficult (and therefore greater) than conquering a thousand men in a thousand battles is the conquest of oneself. But in order to conquer our ‘selves’, we must first understand our selves (individual or collective) with their limitations, weaknesses, propensities. Socrates urged: Know thyself.

Arriving shortly after the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, Naipaul was horrified and revolted by what he learnt: a young boy hacked to “limbless death” (p.111). Murderers, looters and incendiarists “often had to rely on the information derived from the electoral registers…Their blood-lust was, in effect, regulated by the bureaucratic endeavours of the Civil Service. Before the axes could be wielded, before the petrol bombs could be thrown, before the pillaging could begin, a little paperwork was necessary” (p. 112). Here, as elsewhere, the writer’s anger and indignation pulse beneath the urbane, seemingly detached, ironic tone. Of two Tamil sisters, aged about eleven and eighteen, the younger one has her head chopped off; the elder one is stripped naked, and when “there were no more volunteers, when there was nothing worth the violating, petrol was poured over the two bodies”, and they were set alight (p. 113). As a critic has commented, group-animosity was symbolic for Naipaul of the hatred that arises when a people’s otherness isn’t freely granted. Impeccably wrought and morally charged, Naipaul’s essays are a testament to his generous humaneness. (I thank Christopher Rezel, Sri Lanka – Australia, for sending me this comment.)

Despite possessing power and privilege, Naipaul encountered despondency in some Sinhalese: “Go and see our ancient cities… we knew how to create. But not today” (p. 82). He is at once both satirical and sympathetic towards the Island’s artists and writers. The social environment does not adequately appreciate, encourage and reward their efforts. Theirs is often a doomed, despondent struggle, and it’s not surprising that many make recourse to alcohol, at cost to their families and to themselves. Dedicating oneself to the Arts can demand a very high price.

Like his elder brother, Shiva Naipaul could arrive in a country, a stranger, and through observation and inter-action, be the latter with the so-called “common man” (“This is violent country, sir”, an adult ‘room-boy’ informs him: p. 84) or with others and gain a penetrating insight that those living in, or familiar with, the country fail to grasp. It is not surprising that the ‘reception’ of their books swings between the two extremes of admiration (usually in the West) and incensed rejection. Shiva Naipaul’s experience of not ever fully belonging led him to sympathise with the disadvantaged; to defend victims and, usually through satire, to expose the victimisers.

Socrates pointed out that we can never see our own faces, except through reflection. Satire, it has been said, holds up a mirror so that a society (or an individual) can see itself. Robert Burns exclaimed: Oh would some power give us the ability to see ourselves as others see us. This is what the satirist attempts to do: show us to us; reveal how we are seen by others. Whether we reject, accept or modify what the “mirror” shows is another matter. It would be a loss compounded if Shiva Naipaul and his work were to become ‘strange’, that is, unknown.

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    Are you referring to the same famous VS Naipaul or someone else? My mom reads his writings but I found them too heavy because I am not a literary expert.

    The only times so far I have been racially insulted was once in the USA at a singles bar, long long before 9.11 terrorism was being called a “fucking Arab”. I laughed it off back then because Jihadism was not a problem in the USA.

    Next was in England at Chisulhurst Railway station where there is a great Spanish Restaurant with great Paella. A team of young black and white youth started chanting “Paki Paki Curry Curry” as I walked in with my family. I wished I was back in the USA with my carry concealed Glock at that moment but thought more wisely and just smiled and went in. Yes things can be bad and good.

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      VS Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul were poles apart in their world outlook.

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    Dear Attartuk,

    I met Shiva Naipaul in 1994 – I think that it was in the middle of the year – at Peradeniya.

    Prof Sarvan has said: “Shiva Naipaul’s reputation is over-shadowed by that of his brother, world-famous V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, knighted by the Queen. Both were born in Trinidad (V. S. in 1932) and both studied at Oxford. Shiva’s sudden death in 1985, at the early age of forty, . . .”

    You will find a Wikipedia entry about him:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shiva_Naipaul

    Shiva Naipau had somehow been “discovered” in Colombo by Qadri Ismail, who completed his first degree in 1964, and now is in Minnesota:

    http://old.himalmag.com/component/authors/articles/Qadri-Ismail.html

    I was a year junior to Qadri as an undergraduate, although a decade older. Qadri brought him to the English Department in the University, and I remember that Prof. Ashley Halpe immediately cancelled the next few lectures for the English Special students and took us along to the Botanical Gardens. I can’t remember either how we mustered the transport, or whether it was in the morning or in the afternoon. What I do remember is that we all sat on the grass and talked for about three hours. Naipaul discovered that all the students were Colombo-based, except for me. This led to his commending me in some fashion as showing discomfort for cultural disorientation from the rest of society, or something like that.

    I think that Naipaul (and his wife? – I’m pretty sure that he was not with any other companion at Peradeniya) were in Kandy for two or three days and that the Halpes had taken him out to a meal. Prof. Halpe had ended up not liking Shiva Naipaul very much. On the other hand, I remember getting “The Chip-Chip Gatherers” from the library. It may have been listed in the syllabus (which had an impossible lot of reading listed in it), but I’m pretty sure that while I may have flipped through its pages, I didn’t read it.

    I read much of V.S. Naipaul, probably answered a question on him at the all important exam at the end of the academic year in October. The problem with V.S.N. is not just that he’s “heavy”, he’s so negative about every society that he visits. I have read almost all of what he had written up to 1984, both fiction and Travel: bleak and depressing, but necessary reading for any English-user wanting to come to terms with post-colonialism.

    As for Shiva Naiapaul’s work being forgotten, the Peradeniya University library acquired a copy of “An Unfinished Journey” as soon as it was published, and I did look at what he had said about Sri Lanka; it is good that Prof. Sarvan has reminded us of the need to take another look at it.

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      Sincere apologies to readers, and to Colombo Telegraph:

      I have made not one, but two mistakes with regard to the year 1984. That was the year in which I met Shiva Naipaul, and it was also the year in which Dr Qadri Ismail completed his First Degree.

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    The references to the Naipauls makes Sarvan’s paper not only more refreshing but also makes the reader fell more sentimental and rather homesick longing for the old days. Bensen

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      I think Prof Sarvan’s probably unconscious objective is some kind of spiritual journey. This is about acceptance of people as they are in a society, people are looking for it, while others judging you wrong etc.,

      Always and everywhere who ever the majority feeling treis to judge the people who is smaller or from the minority. I think, no one should expect anything from anyone. Only you can provide it to yourself. Only if you know if you are a worthy person, and if try to everything to stay in that way, that is the most important thing.

      It is only a weak individual who would talk about negative things of a society or of an individual. What is important is to appriciate that individual with respect to his or her’s positves and not with negatives.

      I don’t think christianity provides answers to that. Both Buddhism and buddhist practices in Hinduism provides answers to that. That is finding you and look inside your own.

      Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid. ~Albert Einstein

      Tell me how a person judges his or her self-esteem and I will tell you how that person operates at work, in love, in sex, in parenting, in every important aspect of existence – and how high he or she is likely to rise. The reputation you have with yourself – your self-esteem – is the single most important factor for a fulfilling life. ~Nathaniel Branden
      You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection. ~Buddha
      Of all the judgments we pass in life, none is more important than the judgment we pass on ourselves. ~Nathaniel Branden

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    The last British Empire in fact was British-Indian Empire. Built on British (English, Welsh, Irish and Scots) violence and Indian (Tamils, Guajarati, Marathi, Bengalis, Keralayans, Sikhs, Punjabis,etc)with nonviolence.

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    In his introduction to Shiva Naipaul`s last book “An Unfinished Journey”, Douglas Stuart says:”The final sentence of this book consists of the last words Shiva was to write”. The sentence is: He buries his hands into his pockets.”Is it like that in your island as well?” He has given these words to the character `Tissa` modelled on ME! For I am the writer whom he has mentioned in this book. And the`Artist` he has modelled on Thilak Abeysinghe. He has left enough proof for easy identification laced with disgraceful falsehood and insulting,malicious distortios.I met Shiva at the Galle Face Hotel where Thilak had an Exhibition of his Paintings and Shiva had booked in for his sojourn in S/L in 1985. As I have always had an intense interest in World Literature and had already translated a shortstory written by Vidya, we easily made friends. He said, he had undertaken to write some Articles for a leading newspaper in London, on the `Tamil Problem` in Sri Lanka. (I do not know whether the project materialised or not. But today I have reasons to believe he had some connections with the LTTE. He had already formed his own opinion of the coutry and its people when he came here. ) I joined him on some of his outings. He always had a suspicion that the CID was on his trail. In Anuradhapura he booked in at one place, later complained and within two hours shifted to another hotel. At Polonnaruwa RH we shared the same room. After getting heavily drunk he handed me a micro recorder switched it on and asked me to listen. It was an interview with Chandra Hassan which complained about the Sinhala Chauvinism – a word he repeatedly used. Shiva said,” your people has robbed the Tamils of their freedom, their rights , their `everything`!. He had a baseless notion that Sihalese – particularly Buddhists – oppressed the Tamils like the old world treated the African slaves or to put it more aptly, the way that the colonial masters treated the Tamil coolies migrated from India to Trinidad to work in their plantations! His socio-political opinions were baseless fiction. In Kandy he told me he had and appointment with Prof. Ashley Halpe. A few months later when I happened to meet Prof. Halpe in Kandy I told him about Shiva. He gave a hearty laugh and made me understand that Shiva was a man who did much damage to any country he visited. Shiva & his brother, both are good novelists. But not that great. Shiva`s socio-political writing display his genius of rabble-rousing and opportunism! He hated the `Artist` for being a `no-nonsense` man ready to listen to his humbug. This man,Shiva like his brother educated and settled down in England pretended to be more English than all the Englishmen ever lived in England. Want to know, how “An Unfinished Journey” might have ended?

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      Dear Diogenes,

      Thanks for more or less confirming my rather confused comment. I said 1984, you say 1985, and you may be right. It was to fix the date that I brought Qadri in to it, because I’m sure that while he completed his degree in 1984, mine was completed only at the end of November 1985, with Prof. Halpe being unusually harsh with us about dates for submitting dissertations. I was a Temporary Asst. Lecturer in 1986, which explains how I saw the “An Unfinished Journey” in the library. It is possible that Qadri came up with Naipaul AFTER he had completed his degree.

      My memory is of Shiva Naipaul dying not long after we met him, so you may be right about it being 1985. I didn’t want to say anything too harsh about Shiva Naipaul, but, yes, the usually gentle Ashley Halpe’s comments on Shiva were in line with what you outline. Shiva had been nasty to hotel staff, and had been suspicious of everybody, and he was alcoholic.

      While those reservations that we have about Naipaul are valid, that still doesn’t invalidate what Prof. Sarvan has said in his article. We, Sinhalese, have to accept responsibility for what had happened in 1983.

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    Re. the comment by Diogenes, I doubt Shiva Naipaul had links with the LTTE. He wrote the essay in 1984, and the Tigers were then still a very small, clandestine, group.

    So too, the statement that he was given to “rabble rousing”. On the contrary, he had a moral and aesthetic distaste for rabble rousers; for those who appealed to and excited mass emotion.

    He may have had syampathy but then, in 1984, so soon after the pogrom of 1983, there was much symapthy, not so much for the Tigers as for the Tamils who were seen as victims of “rabble” terror, with full state support.

    Pentheus

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    Yes, there was symapthy for the Tamils; yes, they occupied the moral high-ground but the conduct of the Tigers soon evaporated world goodwill. The Tigers turned sympathy into repugnance.

    Unfortunately Tamil civilians, caught between two cruel forces, paid a pitiful price.

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      I agree with you that Prabakaran ruined the Tamil cause and put Tamils into a soory plight. It was unfortunate that the world placed Tamils into the same category as LTTE and meted out the punishment. Now not only Prabaharan but his whole family has been wiped out, and Tamils have regained their moral high ground as a defenceless community pleading for justice. It is being increasingly proved that it is the Sinhalese and not the Tamils who are intransigent in arriving at a just solution to the ethnic problem according to internatinal norms.

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