Colombo Telegraph

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

By Charles Ponnuthurai 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).

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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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