THE NAIPAUL HOUSE
Chairman’s Address at the Formal Opening of the Naipaul House at 26 Nepaul Street, St James, February 10, 2014
I had a vision for this house long before it went up for sale. So this is an emotional occasion for the Naipaul family and for me. Self apart, it is a historic moment in the development of our culture, and I therefore want to put it in a perspective that we must not lose.
We are about to open to the public a house that preserves memories and mementoes of the humble origins and enduring literary achievements of Seepersad Naipaul, his sons Vidya and Shiva, his grandson Neil Bissoondath and other descendants in the writing line like the poet Vahni Capildeo.
In the first place, we celebrate family through this house: we underline the nurturing contribution of Droapadie Capildeo who was married off at the age 16 to Seepersad Naipaul in 1929, and we note the achievements in other fields of other Naipaul and Capildeo offspring. For this reason, Friends of Mr Biswas wanted the well-executed plaque that is to be unveiled today to begin thus: “The Naipaul House / Family Home of Seepersad and Droapatie Naipaul 1946- 1991”. This house is still home in some sense to members of the Naipaul family far and near.
The House as family home is balanced by another value. Remarkably for our culture, we are acknowledging literature, writing, in a monumental way. And whatever we do with the Naipaul House must take its shape and colour from literature and the literary arts that the house generated and which made the house iconic.
In this age of dissolving and confused values, the spirits in this house, the writers it nurtured, and the standing appeal it makes to us to absorb the values of the literary arts are more than ever necessary to teach us how to live as if life matters, and how to respect the work of mind and body.
This house is a heritage building [we have begun the process of having it listed by the National Trust as a heritage site], and we hope to assemble in it mementos and memorabilia such as you would find in a conventional museum. We will commence our programme of activities even as we continue to collect the scattered bones. Soon, Seepersad’s famous typewriter may take up its place, and maybe even his bookcase with the books he read. We hope members of the public might have lamps, four poster beds, a safe, a hatstand, and furniture of the 1950’s they might wish to lend or give; or even books by any of the Naipauls they would like to donate to the library.
In all this we should not forget that it is the house itself that is the museum. And one of our Sisyphean tasks is to preserve it from drought and flood, from weeds and the invisible worm, from the teeth of termites and human destroyers, and from the inevitable tensions that arise when different personal, societal, political and philosophical interests seek accommodation.
When Mr Biswas dies in the novel, friends and family come to pay their respects: “Downstairs the doors of the house were open… the furniture was pushed to the walls. All that day and evening well-dressed mourners , men, women and children passed through the house. The polished floor became scratched and dusty; the staircase shivered continually; the top floor resounded with the steady shuffle. And the house did not fall.” During our watch, the house shall not fall. And it will not fall because it will be both the family home of the Naipaul-Capildeo clan, and the centre from which we seek to pass on heritage by nurturing literature and the literary arts in Trinidad and Tobago.
We knew that the objects to be installed in the House could only come through the Naipaul family so it wasn’t just an act of courtesy to invite them to be represented on the Committee from the outset. Family representatives included the late Mrs Kamla Tewarie Naipaul, her daughter Mrs Shalini Tewarie -Aleong who only a few days ago released important pieces of furniture to the house (the dining table and chairs on which the family including Vidia and Shiva worked, and Droapadie’s rocking chair); and Mr Rai Akal (son of Savi Naipaul Akal) who has always been our Treasurer and our permanent link to the family. We made sure that the family always had a direct link to the work of the Committee , and after 2010 Mr Akal began to work to involve the family and to gather in museum items.
The breakthrough came about six months ago with the positive intervention of Mrs Savi Akal. Her photographs, her memory of how things were, and her enthusiasm have been the catalyst we needed. May I here pay tribute to Ms Lorraine Johnson who master-minded the process of turning the photographs supplied by Mrs Akal into the exhibition that has surprised even Mrs Akal. I think an exhibition of books, manuscripts, letters, newspaper clippings etc might well be our next display in the House, and I know that Ms Johnson will rise to that challenge as she did to this one.
Today, we are at the point where the most important part of our work can begin. We are ready to turn the house into a house of writing and reading for new writers and for a generation who need inspiration and example.
Our strategic plan for the period 2013 to 2015 and the year by year implementation program include the restoring and establishing of the house not as a static showpiece but as a living museum. The House will not only not fall. It will grow taller and taller because it will be the base for a number of activities involving schools and communities . Our purpose is to spread the gospel about what literature and the arts of the imagination can mean to ordinary people in villages and cities. We will show the Naipaul House, the social history it contains, the achievements it inspired, and say “ These are people like you, you can do it too.”
To carry out our work we have formed a team of skilled professionals who have worked in the background as we pursued the tortuous task of bringing the house to what it is today: Ashvin Akal (Treasurer), Lana Allard (Project Management), Dawn Mohan (legal), Dr Giselle Rampaul (UWI) and Ms Angene Mohan, UTT (Education Outreach), Dr Radica Mahase (Membership Drive and Education Outreach), Shamshu Deen (Genealogy), Rafael Ramlal (IT), Nicholas Laughlin (Events and Networking), Lenore Dorset (Administration and Protocol), Anand Bal (Liaison with Government Ministries), Professor Rajendra Ramlogan (Legal and Fund Raising), Deosaran Bisnath (Communications), Kenneth Ramchand (Chairman). I thank them for their solid support, their unobtrusive work, and their patience.
Since completing the strategic plan 2013-2015, they have been working at establishing formal alliances with the Lion House, Nalis, The National Trust, Citizens for Conservation, The Writers’ Union, Tourism Development Company, Bocas Lit Fest, and other civic –minded organizations.
Special thanks to Max for setting up the website; to Radica for managing the Facebook Page and the Membership Drive; Giselle, and Angene who are shaping up our schools outreach; Nicholas Laughlin who is planning the next event on the work of Vahni Capildeo; and the pro bono work of Professor Rajendra Ramlogan whose legal acumen has rescued us from obstacles that were hampering our operations. His revision of the Constitution was passed by the Committee in 2013 and he has drafted a revised Organisation Structure, Procurement Rules and Financial Procedures to be discussed at our next meeting on February 28, 2014.
We are ready to go. From February 24, the House will be open to visitors on two days a week. The arrangements will be set out in our Facebook Page and on the Website.
Our work is not going to be easy. The price we pay for our 99 year lease and the power to regulate our own activities is that we must become revenue earning. It is one of our most important strategic goals. I want to give assurance that Friends are determined not to be buyers and sellers of imported substances but to make and own special products, revenue-earning activities and objects spiritually connected to our work as preservers of the house and spreaders of the literary heritage. Our work is aimed at every creed and race in our society , and as it develops it will spread from the writings of Seepersad Naipaul and his immediate descendants to the work of all the writers of Trinidad and Tobago who are his descendants too.