Friday, 27 September 2013

Seepersad Naipaul His Own Write

 Matters Arising  Trinidad Guardian  March 25,  1987
By Kenneth Ramchand                                          

Seepersad Naipaul:  His Own Write
'The community in which he had grown up was dissolving into the
vulgarity and directionlessness of the larger society'

It is fitting to remember the man who, as Chaguanas correspondent of the Trinidad Guardian, brought drama to a dull job, and excitement to the passive countryside.

Seepersad Naipaul (1906 - 1953) had been contributing articles  on Indian topics to the Trinidad Guardian since 1929, but he flourished as their man in Central, between 1932 and 1934 when he formed a manic collaboration with the Editor, Gault MacGowan, an expatriate brought out to modernise the newspaper, and to make it more competitive with the well-established Port-of-Spain Gazette.

Seepersad Naipaul's articles included  news of births, deaths,accidents, quarrels, woundings, beatings, village feuds and family vendettas. (Seepersad was not above using his position to report on people who were troubling him, like his in-laws, for example.) There were also dramatised accounts of courtroom proceedings,road board meetings, public gatherings and election battles.

A character himself, Seepersad was interested in odd or extraordinary characters:  a woman 112 years old who had seen slaves being lashed and shipped; a Hindu doing penance by the river; and a  man they called Robinson Crusoe. This Robinson set out from Chaguanas to discover an overland route to Tobago, reminding those who mocked him (one imagines him as pained by the faithless as is Leroy Clarke in our time) that people had laughed at Christopher Columbus too.

Using pseudonyms like "The Pundit", "Paul Nye", and "Paul Pyre" and responding to MacGowan's appetite for the manic thrill,he elaborated a style that moved jauntily to the comic and themacabre; and he indulged in a sensationalist attitude which often
took liberties with the facts. It went, as they say, like a bomb.  Guardian sales were

The high point was reported in the New York Herald Tribune of June 24, 1933 in a story under the following headlines: "REPORTER SACRIFICES GOAT TO MOLLIFY HINDU GODDESS:  Writer kowtows to Kali to escape black magic death."

When a clipping of this item was sent to V.S. Naipaul by an American journalist  in 1970, the author explained it, plausiblyenough, as "probably one of MacGowan's joke stories, with my father trying to make himself his own news." In 1972, Vidia Naipaul checked the back numbers of the Trinidad Guardian and found that it was not a joke. There is some history to recount.

There was an outbreak of paralytic rabies in the 1930’s, and  Hindu cow- minders
found it hard to pay nearly a whole day's wage for a vaccination to which, in any case, they had religious objections. Instead, they performed a goat sacrifice to the goddess Kali.

Young Seepersad Naipaul had already begun to feel that the Indian community was  stagnant and backward in some of their practices. He was sympathetic to a  reforming movement from India called the Arya Samaj, and was encouraged into controversy with local die-hards and ignorant conservatives by the thirsty MacGowan. It was as a reformer outraged by "superstitious" practices that Seepersad Naipaul filed his critical  Guardian report.

Ten days later, he received a threatening letter written in Hindi:  He would be poisoned on a Saturday, would die on a Sunday, and would be buried on the Monday unless he appeased Kali by carrying out the very sacrifice he had so ridiculed.  He had seven days in which to comply, or else.

For the whole of the next week, Seepersad  Naipaul was the news.  He was given police protection since, clearly Kali didn't write the letter. But he was not going to yield to superstition.  His wife urged compromise for the sake of the children.  Friends begged him to relent. On the Saturday of the deadline, Seepersad Naipaul who knew Chaguanas Indians, and who was just that little bit afraid of Kali, perhaps, travelled to Curepe and sheepishly made the  sacrifice.

Gault MacGowan sent a top reporter to cover the event, and Seepersad provided his own insider's commentary.  The following day, by some leak or miracle, The New York Herald Tribune carried the story.

MacGowan and Seepersad seem to have egged each other on from the start of their relationship.  MacGowan was a character.  Soon, however, the Guardian could put up with his swash-buckling methods no more.

Besides, he championed causes that clashed with their business
interests too often.  MacGowan appears to have been persuaded that there was a connection, as postulated by Dr. Pawan, between bats and paralytic rabies. This led to a number of flighty articles about 'mad bats' in
the place, and this was not the best thing for the tourist trade.

The Port-of-Spain Gazette took offence:"Scaremongering MacGowan libels Trinidad in two continents."

The Port-of-Spain Gazette was sued by MacGowan, and they had to pay.  Then MacGowan sued the Chairman of his own newspaper, reporting the proceedings in the Guardian. The  suit was unsuccessful, and when his contract ended, the
Guardian let him go. With MacGowan's departure in 1934, Seepersad's merry reign came to an end.
Not long afterwards he became ill.  Vidia Naipaul reports his mother as saying:  "He looked in the mirror one day and couldn't
see himself.  And he began to scream."
Seepersad returned to the Guardian later and worked as a journalist up to his death in 1953. He was the first person of Indian origin to be a major writer in a ‘mainstream’ or ‘national’ paper so-called. His journalism records the changes taking place in the Indian community; the errors and confusions into which it was falling in its ignorance about itself and its past, and its inability or unwillingness to propel or project itself into the
Seepersad Naipaul was disturbed by what was happening to the Indian community, and disturbed about his place in it or in the world.  The community in which he was born in 1906 was embedded in a Mother India whose rituals and mores it thought it was reproducing in a diverse Trinidad environment which excluded them or which they tried to ignore.    

During his lifetime, hard knowledge of Indian religion and philosophy and even of the language had begun to fade.  At this stage, however, many preferred "to grow up as ignorant Hindus than as intelligent Christians."
Later, the younger ones would embrace modernity and become scornful of Indian ways.  To many, you could only become a Trinidadian if you denied any and all connection with India.
Ten years after the Kali episode, Seepersad published, at his own expense, a collection of stories called Gurudeva and OtherIndian Tales, and it is in these stories that the nostalgic side of his attitude to his community receives emphasis.
The Port-of-Spain he was writing out of was a new world without ritual, custom or ceremony.
The community in which he had grown up was dissolving into the  vulgarity and directionlessness of the larger society.
"There are no more elders," intones Walcott's Saddhu in the poem, "Is only old people."  With time roaring in his ears, Seepersad Naipaul was finding, like Walcott's Saddhu, that there was nothing to turn to anymore.
So in Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales, he created again the older community, celebrating it not because its  rituals and ceremonies were alive but because they subscribed to the idea of ritual and ceremony.  The pancahyat settled family disputes; the winding negotiations for an arranged wedding often turn out to be the same as the path of true love. And in the story  "They named him Mohun," a story which he read to a gathering of the literati in Port-of-Spain, the first Naipaul shows the community celebrating the birth of a child.
Through its participation in an ennobling ceremony, it is able to rise above anger of vindictiveness. A welcome is eventually extended to the cruel and stingy father who turns  up to claim his right according to tradition (even though he had expelled thepregnant woman and her young children) :  "Is it written in the ancient books,"  he asks, "that at a jubilationon the birth of a son the whole village should be invited, exceptthe father?  Is it written..."
But the short story writer had not lost the powers of observation of the journalist.  He writes flatly enough about poverty, dispiritedness, and a weary acceptance of Fate in a story called "In the Village, " which was written after the publicationof Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales.
In the continuation of the Gurudeva epic into the post-war period, Seepersad's ironies leave us with no safe ground on which to stand.  He satirises caste feeling, uses Schoolmaster Sohun as a mouthpiece against fanaticism ("You people want to build a little Indian of your own in Trinidad"), and as a voice announcing a dilemma ("You cannot be entirely Oriental,  nor entirelyOccidental"). Yet he turns satire against Sohun, too, as a mimic  man who has "turned Christian for his own roti," and who has divorce himself ("you people") from other Indians.
Gurudeva, on the other hand, has taken it upon himself to be a pundit, and to give up English.  Seeing flaws in every position, Seepersad Naipaul cannot help observing that "whereas his (Gurudeva’s) bad English would be glaringly patent to many, his bad Hindi would be patent to none."
To this teacher comes a spectacular pupil, Daisy Seetolal, Presbyterian and pretty, with high-heeled shoes, plucked eyebrows and painted lips.  This shockingly modern girl ("good looks and dutty tricks") despised the local fellows in the day of the American soldiers at Carlsen Field.  Now suffering hard times like her city sisters, Jean and Dinah, she stoops to the village swains.
Poor dreaming Guru falls in love, and is bold enough to take his case to the panchyat who agree that he can have a second wife since his first wife is childless.But they insist that "the woman forthwith gives up Angrezi ways."

They must be nuts, according to the American-trained Daisy.  "Me?  Turn Hindu?  Ha!  Man, don't make me laugh.  Me wear ghungri, and ohrani and chappals and long hair?  Me give up rouge and lipstick?"
The author’s sympathy for the woman under the patriarchy makes us admire the courage and independence of Daisy, her repudiation of the patriarchy as  takes the first bus to Port-of-Spain and the unknown,  leaving Guru to his games with the panchayat, to the barren Ratni and to his souring dreams of another life.
Seepersad Naipaul could turn a serious subject into a joke for MacGowan because it was easier to do this than to look too deep and too long  into the void. But he was too much Naipaul to be able to fool himself either  about his own dilemma or about the dereliction of his community.  For a frightened man, he was brave. His journalism and his short stories remain anaccurate and despairing representation of a community in crisis.
If in the end he was confused by the confusion he saw and held up  for posterity to see but  he made it possible for his sons to understand and pursue into wider and deeper regions the losses their father first started to bear. In choosing to be a writer in Trinidad in the 1930s,  he opened up to both his sons the possibility of writing as a reason for living.

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