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The New World
The islands of the Caribbean dot and dash their way through the sea, linking different worlds. Central America joins the southern and northern hemispheres, taking you up through Colombia, Panama and Nicaragua by the land route until you reach Mexico, or down through the shallows of the Atlantic from Florida to the Bahamas, skirting Cuba and Jamaica, passing Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, until you find yourself in the sprayed arc of islands known as the Lesser Antilles, some no more than a few miles across: Anguilla, Sint Maarten, Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Martinique, Grenada. At the tip of the chain lies a larger island which, beneath the sea or geologically, is part of the South American mainland. Almost square, with a low promontory at its south-western corner pointing to Venezuela, this is Trinidad.
In the summer of 1498, three ships approached the shores of the island. The men on board were exhausted and burned by the sun, surviving off raisins, salt pork and sea biscuits, their supply of water running low. They were led by a white-haired voyager in his forties named Christoforo Colombo, known also as Christóbal Colón or Christopher Columbus. He was ill, his body inflamed and his eyes bleeding. It was Columbus’s third voyage in search of Asia, and the one on which his future depended. A few months earlier, Vasco da Gama had reached Calicut, opening Europe’s sea route to India. Renowned for his acute sense of smell, Columbus would have drunk in the lush, flowering vegetation of the island with its easy, humid, tropical climate, home to rainforests of bamboo and hardwood, flashing birds like the silver-beaked tanager, rivers, waterfalls and an array of caymans, snakes and beasts such as the nine-banded armadillo. There were no cocoa estates, no sugar-cane plantations, no breadfruit trees; Captain Bligh had yet to bring them from Tahiti. The only inhabitants were families of Amerindians who lived by farming and fishing, having paddled across the sea from the Orinoco river delta many centuries before.
Seeing three ranges of mountains running across the island, Columbus named it La Isla de la Trinidad after the Holy Trinity, in the Christian way. Later that day his sailors landed on the south coast to take on fresh water—the moment of first contact. Over the following weeks they navigated neighbouring waters, and became the first Europeans to see the mainland of South America, the fresh green breast of the New World. Columbus suspected as he charted the wide mouth of the Orinoco river that he was on the edge of a continent rather than another island. With his health failing, he ordered his ships to sail north through the stretch of water between Trinidad and the mainland—the Gulf of Paria—until they reached the island of Margarita.
The outbreak of the sixteenth century brought adventurers to the island of Trinidad, who enslaved the indigenous Amerindians and sent them to work in Spanish colonies overseas. The old world disappeared: land was stolen, new settlements were made. The English, Dutch, French and Spanish all battled and schemed for supremacy in the islands of the West Indies. Using the legal formalities of the time, local chiefs lost their inheritance and power. Sir Walter Raleigh, an English marauder who raided Trinidad in 1595, found five desperate, dispossessed men in the custody of the Spaniards. They turned out to be “the last aboriginal rulers of the land, held together on one chain, scalded with hot bacon fat, and broken by other punishments.”
Nearly three centuries after the appearance of Columbus, Trinidad had barely been colonized. By 1783 it had 126 whites, 259 free coloureds, 310 African slaves and 2,032 Amerindians.3 To encourage settlement, King Charles III of Spain offered land and tax breaks. Roman Catholics of French descent moved from neighbouring islands, accompanied by their slaves, and started farming cocoa, tobacco, cotton and sugar. By 1797, when the Spanish surrendered Trinidad to the British during the French Revolutionary Wars, the population had risen to just under 18,000. In the nineteenth century, migrants flooded in, and by 1900 there were around 300,000 inhabitants. Unlike most other islands in the West Indies, the people of Trinidad came from many different places: there were Africans who spoke French creole or Yoruba, sailors and indentured labourers from China, neighbouring Venezuelans, German and French labourers, Syrian and Lebanese business families, wanderers from Grenada and Barbados, residual Amerindians, visitors from Madeira, demobbed black British army veterans, Portuguese and Spanish-speaking farmers of uncertain ethnicity and free slaves from the United States. Most Caribbean islands were homogenous by comparison, with white planters and black slaves, but Trinidad was uniquely and enduringly ethnically complex. Even its place names were various: Amerindian (Chaguanas), Spanish (San Fernando), French (Sans Souci) and British (Poole).
When slavery was formally abolished across the British empire in 1834 and cheap labour was needed for the sugar-cane plantations, malnourished Indians were shipped over from Calcutta and Madras. While the white planters of the West Indies had grown rich on sugar cane, their cousins in India had made fortunes from land revenues; and many beautiful houses were built in the English countryside. North India, under British control, was awash with dislocated, landless peasants. A voyage across the oceans and a stint as a bonded or indentured labourer was an alternative to destitution. In Trinidad, the newly arrived East Indians were nervous of the alien society in which they found themselves. They feared the island’s black majority: Negroes seemed physically stronger, had rough manners and their dark skin identified them with the lower castes of Hinduism. The Negroes, for their part, came to regard these East Indians as heathens with peculiar customs who kept to themselves, were mean with money, cooked strange food and were servile to the plantation owners. Black agricultural labourers found their wages being undercut. They looked down on the Indians, who had to work long hours in the cane fields, as the “new slaves.”
Christmas 1894: Picture the tropical island of Trinidad with its sandy beaches, bursting coconuts, leaping howler monkeys and freshwater mangrove swamps teeming with scarlet ibis. A ship approaches Nelson Island, a parched limestone islet overlooking the capital, Port of Spain. The passengers who have survived the three-month sea voyage from Calcutta are loaded into open rowing boats. Quickly, the holding barrack is filled with men, women and children, their names recorded in a ledger under the supervision of a government official, the Protector of Immigrants. Their possessions are fumigated. They are housed, both sexes, in a long shed lined with wooden bunks filled with hay, infested with mosquitoes and sandflies. Most are Hindus, driven to flight by starvation or debt or trickery. All are desperate. They do not even know where they have come to; all they know is the name of the hot place to which they have been shipped, transposed into Hindi as “Chinitat.” Soon, an overseer will come from a plantation and indenture them as estate labourers, or coolies. The Handbook of Trinidad and Tobago states that when visiting the colony, “Elaborate tropical outfits are not necessary . . . For ladies, the same clothes as would be worn during a hot English summer are suitable all the year round.” Photographs of these new arrivals from India show them dressed almost in rags: a kurta and dhoti and light turban for the men, or a sari with the pallu, or tail, of the sari draped over the head in modesty for the women. These broken-down, thin-limbed immigrants with their tiny bundles of possessions can only have made the journey to Trinidad as a last resort.
One man among the many—his name recorded as Kopil—is a Brahmin, from a family of hereditary pundits in a village near Gorakhpur on the Nepalese border with India. He has pretended to be from a different background, since the recruiter back in India told him he might not be accepted as a labourer if he admits to being from the highest caste. For thirteen generations, Kopil’s family have presided over the religious destiny of their neighbourhood, reading the Sanskrit texts and lecturing on spiritual practice to those who seek enlightenment. Wishing to study, he had walked south to Benares, the sacred Hindu city on the banks of the Ganges, where he met a recruiter who told him stories about the Caribbean, and how in this far-off place he would be given a gold coin each day as a reward for sifting sugar. If Kopil emigrated, he might even want to have a broad canvas belt made in which to store the gold coins. He is brought to a depot in Calcutta, and taken aboard the ship Hereford. At once, he feels his difference from the other immigrants. On board ship, he finds a piece of beef in his food. Although the voyage is terrible (forty people die from an outbreak of cholera, their corpses thrown overboard) Kopil starves himself for two days in horror at this contamination by cow meat, until the surgeon-superintendent intervenes and he is given a separate daily ration of raw potatoes and rice, which he cooks himself.
He reaches an island far from the large country and ancient civilization he has left behind. It is Kopil’s misfortune to be indentured to Woodford Lodge in Chaguanas, an estate in central Trinidad where the regime is especially severe. Each morning, to preserve his caste identity, he sets his own pot of khitchri—rice and spiced lentils—on an earthen oven before going to work. Kopil is assigned to the shovel gang, to digging and planting. It breaks him. He is put on the weeding gang with the women and children, and later made responsible for clearing the dung from the animal pens, a sweeper’s job. Kopil’s health breaks. He is twenty-one years old, alone, a minority within a minority in the most fragmented place on earth. Then, by chance, an Indian sirdar—a driver or overseer—learns that he is a Brahmin and can read Sanskrit. Kopil might have some use; he can read the scriptures. The sirdar, a Bengali called Govinda, has a fifteen-year-old daughter, Soogee. A marriage is arranged, and Kopil is saved from extinction. Govinda “cuts” Kopil—he pays the government a fee to buy him out of his indenture, and installs him in a small house near the Catholic church in Chaguanas. With Soogee, he will manage a general store for his father-in-law.
The shop does well. Decades pass. Kopil adjusts his name to the regal-sounding Capildeo Maharaj. He becomes renowned as a pundit, explaining sacred texts and duties at impromptu services, and conducting pujas or ceremonies. Sometimes he takes his congregation on a pilgrimage to the sea for religious bathing, the Atlantic standing in for the Ganges. With Soogee, he has nine surviving daughters and two sons, but spends much of his time alone, reading the scriptures and meditating. He is conscious of his status; once, when an illiterate pundit tries to officiate beside him at a wedding, he has the man sent away. Capildeo Maharaj is a good businessman too, trading goods on a return trip to India. He buys land in Chaguanas and employs labourers to grow rice, peas and eddoes, an edible root. Soogee persuades him to send the children, girls as well as boys, to a local school run by Canadian missionaries, despite his misgivings about Christianity. To display his new wealth, Capildeo Maharaj has a heavy gold necklace made for his son Simbhoonath, and builds a solid white house on the main road in Chaguanas with thick walls and pillars at the front, close to the railway station, the police station and the court house. It has a blank facade, blocking the view of any outsiders on the passing road, and is modelled on a building he remembers from Gorakhpur. He calls it Anand Bhavan, or the Abode of Bliss, after the family mansion of the Nehru family back in Allahabad. In 1926, Capildeo Maharaj sails to India to arrange a holiday for his family. While travelling back to his ancestral village, he is struck by a stomach ailment, and dies.
Not long after this Seepersad Naipaul, a twenty-two-year-old Brahmin from a poor family, is employed to paint a sign at the general store on the ground floor of Anand Bhavan. He likes the look of the sixteen-year-old girl behind the counter, Droapatie Capildeo. Not realizing she is a daughter of the house, he passes her a note. It is discovered, the formidable Soogee intervenes, and on 28 March 1929 Seepersad and Droapatie are married at the warden’s office in Chaguanas.6 They have a daughter, Kamla, the following year, and on 17 August 1932 their son Vidyadhar is born. He is named for a Chandela king, the dynasty which built the magnificent Hindu temples at Khajuraho in northern India. His name means “giver of wisdom.” Back in the early eleventh century, King Vidyadhar had fought against Mahmud of Ghazni, the first of the infamous Muslim invaders of India. It was an apposite name for the boy. Years later, as V. S. Naipaul, he would say, “It’s such a grand name, a very special name—I cherished it for that reason. I think great things were expected of me.”
How much of Capildeo’s personal story, passed down as family lore, is true? Would this small, shrewd man have been so easily duped by the recruiter? Were his forefathers revered as pundits in their village? Were they even Brahmins? The name Capildeo sounds like a dialect rendition of Kapil Dev (he would have spoken in Bhojpuri, a language similar to Hindi used around Gorakhpur), a name which gives no indication of caste, and the suffix Maharaj was certainly bogus. How would he have cooked rice and potatoes on board ship, where the fire regulations were so strict? Why was Govinda so concerned that Capildeo was a Brahmin, and able to read Sanskrit, when he himself was a convert to Roman Catholicism? Might the marriage to Soogee have been essentially a practical arrangement, a recognition of Capildeo’s talent for business? Was he really planning a holiday in India for his family when he died? Shortly before sailing he had mortgaged much of his land and left Soogee and his children; he was accompanied on the voyage by another woman, Jussodra, who was the wife of a man named Phagoo. Was the story that Seepersad Naipaul told his family about his accidental courtship (which his son Vidyadhar would one day fictionalize in A House for Mr. Biswas) an elaboration or the reality?
From the Hardcover edition.