Savi Naipaul Akal’s publishing house is named after the peepal tree, in whose shade Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. The author’s industriously detailed memoir reveals nothing quite so brilliantly life-enhancing but presents persuasive statements in favour of family loyalty, domestic order and higher education, while allowing herself opportunities to express resentment of a disturbing sibling rival.
She was proud when her brother Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature, but dismayed when his acknowledgement of it failed to mention Trinidad, the land of his birth. He called his prize ‘a great tribute to both England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors’. Vidia’s antecedents were among the Indian indentured servants who began arriving in Trinidad in 1845, 12 years after Britain had abolished the sale of slaves. Colonial sponsors who paid for the migrants’ passage from India were repaid with five years’ servitude, sometimes extended, often involving labour on sugar plantations. Thanks to the Act of Abolition, the Indian newcomers were not slaves; they were merely slavish. Even so, Vidia did not wish to be reminded.
According to Savi, who evidently has always been sharply observant as well as affectionate, whenever such warmth was deserved, their father’s reactions to Vidia’s Nobel would have been as vehement and mixed as her own:
Pa would have been ecstatic,and would have wept with joy. For days and weeks Pa would have smiled with pride and pleasure to remember that the little boy to whom he had read from books as a child had gone on to publish many books himself and earn the plaudits of the world. All the same, Pa would not have liked everything about the man Vidia. Pa would have been appalled and angry over his treatment of [his young brother] Shiva. Pa would have been distressed that Vidia had developed an hauteur and callousness that upset and wounded so many good people. He would have been horrified by Vidia’s treatment of Ma. He would have been more than displeased that Vidia had not invited her or, indeed, a single other member of his family, to attend his knighting by Queen Elizabeth or his grand Nobel award from the King of Sweden. And, finally, Pa would have been mortified that Vidia had married a divorced Muslim woman within days of the death from cancer of his long-suffering and loyal wife Pat.
In short, Savi complains, the higher Vidia has risen in literary fame and fortune, the more disdainfully he has treated all those he regards as inferiors.
Anyone looking for a defence of V.S. Naipaul will not find it in this book. Savi writes with admirable moderation, balance and good humour about Trinidad real estate and other aspects of her family history, even as it has been affected by the complex interracial, social, economic and political turmoil of Trinidad and Tobago, but almost every reference to her most celebrated brother seems to make her see red.
For the sake of some sort of justice, or at least justification, one should read V.S. Naipaul’s own books, which help to explain why he repudiates his birthplace. From the 17th century until Trinidad’s independence in 1962, colonial administrations were enforced more or less harshly — in the early years by officially sanctioned horrendous punishments, of which fatal floggings were the least grotesque. In The Loss of El Dorado, a non-fiction masterpiece of anti-colonialism, Naipaul’s exhaustive documentary investigations show how a search for mythological West Indian gold became, in his words, ‘a New World romance, a dream of Shangri-la, the complete, unviolated world. Such a world had existed and the Spaniards had violated it,’ as did their successors. Naipaul disclosed details of prison tortures that confirmed a British lawyer’s claim, in a leaflet he distributed in Trinidad in the bad old days, that ‘Sanguinary Punishment corrupts Mankind’.
An Oxford scholarship facilitated V.S. Naipaul’s escape to a comfortable and profitable exile.