1. A Resting-Place for the Imagination
These Antipodes call to one’s mind old recollections of childish doubt and wonder. Only the other day I looked forward to this airy barrier as a definite point in our journey homewards; but now I find it, and all such resting-places for the imagination, are like shadows, which a man moving onwards cannot catch.
Charles Darwin: Voyage of the Beagle
You’ve been reading the wrong books, the businessman said. But he did me an injustice. I had read any number of the books which he would have considered right. And India had in a special way been the background of my childhood. It was the country from which my grandfather came, a country never physically described and therefore never real, a country out in the void beyond the dot of Trinidad; and from it our journey had been final. It was a country suspended in time; it could not be related to the country, discovered later, which was the subject of the many correct books issued by Mr Gollancz and Messrs Allen and Unwin and was the source of agency dispatches in the Trinidad Guardian
. It remained a special, isolated area of ground which had produced my grandfather and others I knew who had been born in India and had come to Trinidad as indentured labourers, though that past too had fallen into the void into which India had fallen, for they carried no mark of indenture, no mark even of having been labourers.
There was an old lady, a friend of my mother’s family. She was jewelled, fair and white-haired; she was very grand. She spoke only Hindi. The elegance of her manner and the grave handsomeness of her husband, with his thick white moustache, his spotless Indian dress and his silence, which compensated for his wife ’s bustling authority, impressed them early upon me as a couple who, though so friendly and close – they ran a tiny shop not far from my grandmother’s establishment – as to be considered almost relations, were already foreign. They came from India; this gave them glamour, but the glamour was itself a barrier. They not so much ignored Trinidad as denied it; they made no attempt even to learn English, which was what the children spoke. The lady had two or three gold teeth and was called by everyone Gold Teeth Nanee, Gold Teeth Grandmother, the mixture of English and Hindi revealing to what extent the world to which she belonged was receding. Gold Teeth was childless. This probably accounted for her briskness and her desire to share my grandmother’s authority over the children. It did not make her better liked. But she had a flaw. She was as greedy as a child; she was a great uninvited eater, whom it was easy to trap with a square of laxative chocolate. One day she noticed a tumbler of what looked like coconut milk. She tasted, she drank to the end, and fell ill; and in her distress made a confession which was like a reproach. She had drunk a tumbler of blanco fluid. It was astonishing that she should have drunk to the end; but in matters of food she was, unusually for an Indian, experimental and pertinacious. She was to carry the disgrace till her death. So one India crashed; and as we grew older, living now in the town, Gold Teeth dwindled to a rusticoddity with whom there could be no converse. So remote her world seemed then, so dead; yet how little time separated her from us!
Then there was Babu. Moustached, as grave and silent as Gold Teeth’s husband, he occupied a curious position in my grandmother’s household. He too was born in India; and why he should have lived alone in one room at the back of the kitchen I never understood. It is an indication of the narrowness of the world in which we lived as children that all I knew about Babu was that he was a kshatriya
, one of the warrior caste: this solitary man who, squatting in his dark-room at the end of the day, prepared his own simple food, kneading flour, cutting vegetables and doing other things which I had always thought of as woman’s work. Could this man from the warrior caste have been a labourer? Inconceivable then; but later, alas, when such disillusionment meant little, to be proved true. We had moved. My grandmother required someone to dig a well. It was Babu who came, from that back room where he had continued to live. The well deepened; Babu was let down in a hammock, which presently brought up the earth he had excavated. One day no more earth came up. Babu had struck rock. He came up on the hammock for the last time and went away back into that void from which he had come. I never saw him again and had of him as a reminder only that deep hole at the edge of the cricket ground. The hole was planked over, but it remained in my imagination a standing nightmare peril to energeticfielders chasing a boundary hit.
More than in people, India lay about us in things: in a string bed or two, grimy, tattered, no longer serving any function, never repaired because there was no one with this caste skill in Trinidad, yet still permitted to take up room; in plaited straw mats; in innumerable brass vessels; in wooden printing blocks, never used because printed cotton was abundant and cheap and because the secret of the dyes had been forgotten, no dyer being at hand; in books, the sheets large, coarse and brittle, the ink thick and oily; in drums and one ruined harmonium; in brightly coloured pictures of deities on pink lotus or radiant against Himalayan snow; and in all the paraphernalia of the prayer-room: the brass bells and gongs and camphor-burners like Roman lamps, the slender-handled spoon for the doling out of the consecrated ‘nectar’ (peasant’s nectar: on ordinary days brown sugar and water, with some shreds of the tulsi leaf, sweetened milk on high days), the images, the smooth pebbles, the stick of sandalwood.
The journey had been final. And it was only on this trip to India that I was to see how complete a transference had been made from eastern Uttar Pradesh to Trinidad, and that in days when the village was some hours’ walk from the nearest branch-line railway station, the station more than a day’s journey from the port, and that anything up to three months’ sailing from Trinidad. In its artefacts India existed whole in Trinidad. But our community, though seemingly self-contained, was imperfect. Sweepers we had quickly learned to do without. Others supplied the skills of carpenters, masons and cobblers. But we were also without weavers and dyers, workers in brass and makers of string beds. Many of the things in my grandmother’s house were therefore irreplaceable. They were cherished because they came from India, but they continued to be used and no regret attached to their disintegration. It was an Indian attitude, as I was to recognize. Customs are to be maintained because they are felt to be ancient. This is continuity enough; it does not need to be supported by a cultivation of the past, and the old, however hallowed, be it a Gupta image or a string bed, is to be used until it can be used no more.
To me as a child the India that had produced so many of the persons and things around me was featureless, and I thought of the time when the transference was made as a period of darkness, darkness which also extended to the land, as darkness surrounds a hut at evening, though for a little way around the hut there is still light. The light was the area of my experience, in time and place. And even now, though time has widened, though space has contracted and I have travelled lucidly over that area which was to me the area of darkness, something of darkness remains, in those attitudes, those ways of thinking and seeing, which are no longer mine. My grandfather had made a difficult and courageous journey. It must have brought him into collision with startling sights, even like the sea, several hundred miles from his village; yet I cannot help feeling that as soon as he had left his village he ceased to see. When he went back to India it was to return with more things of India. When he built his house he ignored every colonial style he might have found in Trinidad and put up a heavy, flat-roofed oddity, whose image I was to see again and again in the small ramshackle towns of Uttar Pradesh. He had abandoned India; and, like Gold Teeth, he denied Trinidad. Yet he walked on solid earth. Nothing beyond his village had stirred him; nothing had forced him out of himself; he carried his village with him. A few reassuring relationships, a strip of land, and he could satisfyingly re-create an eastern Uttar Pradesh village in central Trinidad as if in the vastness of India.
We who came after could not deny Trinidad. The house we lived in was distinctive, but not more distinctive than many. It was easy to accept that we lived on an island where there were all sorts of people and all sorts of houses. Doubtless they too had their own things. We ate certain food, performed certain ceremonies and had certain taboos; we expected others to have their own. We did not wish to share theirs; we did not expect them to share ours. They were what they were; we were what we were. We were never instructed in this. To our condition as Indians in a multi-racial society we gave no thought. Criticism from others there was, as I now realize, but it never penetrated the walls of our house, and I cannot as a child remember hearing any discussion about race. Though permeated with the sense of difference, in racial matters, oddly, I remained an innocent for long. At school I was puzzled by the kinky hair of a teacher I liked; I came to the conclusion that he was still, like me, growing, and that when he had grown a little more his hair would grow straighter and longer. Race was never discussed; but at an early age I understood that Muslims were somewhat more different than others. They were not to be trusted; they would always do you down; and point was given to this by the presence close to my grandmother’s house of a Muslim, in whose cap and grey beard, avowals of his especial difference, lay every sort of threat. For the difference we saw as the attribute of every group outside our own was more easily discernible in other Indians and more discernible yet in other Hindus. Racial awareness was to come; in the meantime – and until how recently – for the social antagonisms that give savour to life we relied on the old, Indian divisions, meaningless though these had become.
Everything beyond our family had this quality of difference. This was to be accepted when we went abroad and perhaps even forgotten, as for instance at school. But the moment any intercourse threatened, we scented violation and withdrew. I remember – and this was later, after this family life had broken up – being taken to visit one family. They were not related. This made the visit unusual; and because it became fixed in my mind, no doubt from something that had been said, that they were Muslims, everything about them had a heightened difference. I saw it in their appearance, their house, their dress and presently, as I had been fearing, in their food. We were offered some vermicelli done in milk. I believed it to be associated with some unknown and distasteful ritual; I could not eat it. They were in fact Hindus; our families were later joined by marriage.
Inevitably this family life shrank, and the process was accelerated by our removal to the capital, where there were few Indians. The outside world intruded more. We became secretive. But once we made an open assault on the city. My grandmother wished to have a kattha
said, and she wished to have it said under a pipal tree. There was only one pipal tree in the island; it was in the Botanical Gardens. Permission was applied for. To my amazement it was given; and one Sunday morning we all sat under the pipal tree, botanically labelled, and the pundit read. The crackling sacrificial fire was scented with pitch-pine, brown sugar and ghee; bells were rung, gongs struck, conch-shells blown. We attracted the silent interest of a small mixed crowd of morning strollers and the proselytizing attentions of a Seventh Day Adventist. It was a scene of pure pastoral: aryan ritual, of another continent and age, a few hundred yards from the governor’s house. But this is a later appreciation. For those of us at school at the time the public ceremony had been a strain. We were becoming self-conscious, self-assessing: our secret world was shrinking fast. Still, very occasionally, some devout Hindu of the few in Port of Spain might wish to feed some brahmins. We were at hand. We went; we were fed; we received gifts of cloth and money. We never questioned our luck. Luck indeed it seemed, for immediately afterwards, walking back home in trousers and shirt, we became ordinary boys again.
To me this luck was touched with fraudulence. I came of a family that abounded with pundits. But I had been born an unbeliever. I took no pleasure in religious ceremonies. They were too long, and the food came only at the end. I did not understand the language – it was as if our elders expected that our understanding would be instinctive – and no one explained the prayers or the ritual. One ceremony was like another. The images didn’t interest me; I never sought to learn their significance. With my lack of belief and distaste for ritual there also went a metaphysical incapacity, this again a betrayal of heredity, for my father’s appetite for Hindu speculation was great. So it happened that, though growing up in an orthodox family, I remained almost totally ignorant of Hinduism. What, then, survived of Hinduism in me? Perhaps I had received a certain supporting philosophy. I cannot say; my uncle often put it to me that my denial was an admissible type of Hinduism. Examining myself, I found only that sense of the difference of people, which I have tried to explain, a vaguer sense of caste, and a horror of the unclean.
It still horrifies me that people should put out food for animals on plates that they themselves use; as it horrified me at school to see boys sharing Popsicles and Palates, local iced lollies; as it horrifies me to see women sipping from ladles with which they stir their pots. This was more than difference; this was the uncleanliness we had to guard against. From all food restrictions sweets were, curiously, exempt. We bought cassava pone from street stalls; but black pudding and souse, favourite street-corner and sports-ground dishes of the Negro proletariat, were regarded by us with fascinated horror. This might suggest that our food remained what it always had been. But this was not so. It is not easy to understand just how communication occurred, but we were steadily adopting the food styles of others: the Portuguese stew of tomato and onions, in which almost anything might be done, the Negro way with yams, plantains, breadfruit and bananas. Everything we adopted became our own; the outside was still to be dreaded, and my prejudices were so strong that when I left Trinidad, shortly before my eighteenth birthday, I had eaten in restaurants only three times. The day of my swift transportation to New York was a day of misery. I spent a frightened, hungry day in that city; and on the ship to Southampton I ate mainly the sweets, which encouraged the steward to say when I tipped him, ‘The others made pigs of themselves. But you sure do like ice-cream.’
Food was one thing. Caste was another. Though I had quickly grown to see it as only part of our private play, it was capable on occasion of influencing my attitude to others. A distant relation was married; it was rumoured that her husband was of the chamar
, or leather-worker, caste. The man was rich and travelled; he was successful in his profession and was later to hold a position of some responsibility. But he was a chamar
. The rumour was perhaps unfounded – few marriages are not attended by disparagement of this sort – but the thought still occurs whenever we meet and that initial sniffing for difference is now involuntary. He is the only person thus coloured for me; the marriage took place when I was very young. In India people were also to be tainted by their caste, especially when this was announced beforehand, approvingly or disapprovingly. But caste in India was not what it had been to me in Trinidad. In Trinidad caste had no meaning in our day-to-day life; the caste we occasionally played at was no more than an acknowledgement of latent qualities; the assurance it offered was such as might have been offered by a palmist or a reader of handwriting. In India it implied a brutal division of labour; and at its centre, as I had never realized, lay the degradation of the latrine-cleaner. In India caste was unpleasant; I never wished to know what a man’s caste was.
I had no belief; I disliked religious ritual; and I had a sense of the ridiculous. I refused to go through the janaywa
, or thread ceremony of the newborn, with some of my cousins. The ceremony ends with the initiate, his head shaved, his thread new and obvious, taking up his staff and bundle – as he might have done in an Indian village two thousand years ago – and announcing his intention of going to Kasi-Banaras to study. His mother weeps and begs him not to go; the initiate insists that he must; a senior member of the family is summoned to plead with the initiate, who at length yields and lays down his staff and bundle. It was a pleasing piece of theatre. But I knew that we were in Trinidad, an island separated by only ten miles from the South American coast, and that the appearance in a Port of Spain street of my cousin, perhaps of no great academic attainment, in the garb of a Hindu mendicant-scholar bound for Banaras, would have attracted unwelcome attention. So I refused; though now this ancient drama, absurdly surviving in a Trinidad yard, seems to me touching and attractive.
I had contracted out. Yet there is a balancing memory. In the science class at school one day we were doing an experiment with siphons, to an end which I have now forgotten. At one stage a beaker and a length of tube were passed from boy to boy, so that we might suck and observe the effects. I let the beaker pass me. I thought I hadn’t been seen, but an Indian boy in the row behind, a Port of Spain boy, a recognized class tough, whispered, ‘Real brahmin.’ His tone was approving. I was surprised at his knowledge, having assumed him, a Port of Spain boy, to be ignorant of these things; at the unexpected tenderness of his voice; and also at the bringing out into publicof that other, secret life. But I was also pleased. And with this pleasure there came a new tenderness for that boy, and a sadness for our common loss: mine, which he did not suspect, the result of my own decision or temperament, his, which by his behaviour he openly acknowledged, the result of history and environment: a feeling which was to come to me again more strongly and much later, in entirely different circumstances, when the loss was complete, in London.
I have been rebuked by writers from the West Indies, and notably George Lamming, for not paying sufficient attention in my books to non-Indian groups. The confrontation of different communities, he said, was the fundamental West Indian experience. So indeed it is, and increasingly. But to see the attenuation of the culture of my childhood as the result of a dramatic confrontation of opposed worlds would be to distort the reality. To me the worlds were juxtaposed and mutually exclusive. One gradually contracted. It had to; it fed only on memories and its completeness was only apparent. It was yielding not to attack but to a type of seepage from the other. I can speak only out of my own experience. The family life I have been describing began to dissolve when I was six or seven; when I was fourteen it had ceased to exist. Between my brother, twelve years younger than myself, and me there is more than a generation of difference. He can have no memory of that private world which survived with such apparent solidity up to only twenty-five years ago, a world which had lengthened out, its energy of inertia steadily weakening, from the featureless area of darkness which was India.
That this world should have existed at all, even in the consciousness of a child, is to me a marvel; as it is a marvel that we should have accepted the separateness of our two worlds and seen no incongruity in their juxtaposition. In one world we existed as if in blinkers, as if seeing no more than my grandfather’s village; outside, we were totally self-aware. And in India I was to see that so many of the things which the newer and now perhaps truer side of my nature kicked against – the smugness, as it seemed to me, the imperviousness to criticism, the refusal to see
, the double-talk and double-think – had an answer in that side of myself which I had thought buried and which India revived as a faint memory. I understood better than I admitted. And to me it is an additional marvel that an upbringing of the kind I have described, cut short and rendered invalid so soon, should have left so deep an impression. Indians are an old people, and it might be that they continue to belong to the old world. That Indian reverence for the established and ancient, however awkward, however indefensible, however little understood: it is part of the serious buffoonery of Ancient Rome, an aspect of the Roman pietas
. I had rejected tradition; yet how can I explain my feeling of outrage when I heard that in Bombay they used candles and electric bulbs for the Diwali festival, and not the rusticc lay lamps, of immemorial design, which in Trinidad we still used? I had been born an unbeliever. Yet the thought of the decay of the old customs and reverences saddened me when the boy whispered ‘Real brahmin’, and when, many years later, in London, I heard that Ramon was dead.
He was perhaps twenty-four. He died in a car crash. It was fitting. Motor-cars were all that mattered to him, and it was to continue to handle them that he came to London, abandoning mother and father, wife and children. I met him almost as soon as he had arrived. It was in a dingy Chelsea boarding-house whose facade was like all the other fac¸ades in that respectable, rising street: white, the area railings black, the door an oblong of vivid colour. Only milk bottles and a quality of curtaining betrayed the house where, in a passageway, below the diffused, misty glow of a forty-watt bulb, I first saw Ramon. He was short, his hair thick and curling at the ends, his features blunt, like his strong stubby fingers. He wore a moustache and was unshaved; and in his pullover, which I could see had belonged to someone else who had made the pilgrimage to London from Trinidad and had taken back the pullover as a mark of the voyager to temperate climes, he looked shabby and unwashed.
He was of a piece with the setting, the green grown dingy of the walls, the linoleum, the circles of dirt around door handles, the faded upholstery of cheap chairs, the stained wallpaper; the indications of the passage of numberless transients to whom these rooms had never been meant for the arranging of their things; the rim of soot below the windowsill, the smoked ceiling, the empty fireplace bearing the marks of a brief, ancient fire and suggesting a camping ground; the carpets smelly and torn. He was of a piece, yet he was alien. He belonged to unfenced backyards and lean-tos, where, pullover-less and shirtless, he might wander in the cool of the evening, about him the unfading bright green of Trinidad foliage, chickens settling down for the night, while in a neighbouring yard a coalpot sent up a thin line of blue smoke. Now, at a similar time of day, he sat choked in someone else ’s pullover on a low bed, how often used, how little cleaned, in the dim light of a furnished room in Chelsea, the electric fire, its dull reflector seemingly spat upon and sanded, making little impression on the dampness and cold. His fellow voyagers had gone out. He was not bright, as they were; he cared little about dress; he could not support or share their high spirits.
He was shy, and spoke only when spoken to, responding to questions like a man who had nothing to hide, a man to whom the future, never considered, held no threat and possibly no purpose. He had left Trinidad because he had lost his driving licence. His career of crime had begun when, scarcely a boy, he was arrested for driving without a licence; later he was arrested for driving while still banned. One offence led to another, until Trinidad had ceased to be a place where he could live; he needed to be in motorcars. His parents had scraped together some money to send him to England. They had done it because they loved him, their son; yet when he spoke of their sacrifice it was without emotion.
He was incapable of assessing the morality of actions; he was a person to whom things merely happened. He had left his wife behind; she had two children. ‘And I believe I have something else boiling up for me.’ The words were spoken without the Trinidad back-street pride. They recorded a fact; they passed judgement neither on his desertion nor his virility.
His name was Spanish because his mother was part Venezuelan; and he had spent some time in Venezuela until the police had hustled him out. But he was a Hindu and had been married according to Hindu rites. These rites must have meant as little to him as they did to me, and perhaps even less, for he had grown up as an individual, had never had the protection of a family life like mine, and had at an early age been transferred to a civilization which remained as puzzling to him as this new transference to Chelsea.
He was an innocent, a lost soul, rescued from animality only by his ruling passion. That section of the mind, if such a section exists, which judges and feels was in him a blank, on which others could write. He wished to drive; he drove. He liked a car; he applied his skill to it and drove it away. He would be eventually caught; that he never struggled against or seemed to doubt. You told him, ‘I need a hubcap for my car. Can you get me one?’ He went out and took the first suitable hubcap he saw. He was caught; he blamed no one. Things happened to him. His innocence, which was not mere simpleness, was frightening. He was as innocent as a complicated machine. He could be animated by his wish to please. There was an unmarried mother in the house; to her and her child he was unfailingly tender, and protective, whenever that was required of him.
But there was his ruling passion. And with motor-cars he was a genius. The word quickly got around; and it was not unusual some weeks later to see him in grease-stained clothes working on a run-down motor-car, while a cavalry-twilled man spoke to him of money. He might have made money. But all his profits went on fresh cars and on the fines he had already begun to pay to the courts for stealing this lamp and that part which he had needed to complete a job. It was not necessary for him to steal; but he stole. Still, the news of his skill went round, and he was busy.
Then I heard that he was in serious trouble. A friend in the boarding-house had asked him to burn a scooter. In Trinidad if you wished to burn a motor-car you set it alight on the bank of the muddy Caroni River and rolled it in. London, too, had a river. Ramon put the scooter into the van which he owned at the time and drove down one evening to the Embankment. Before he could set the scooter alight a policeman appeared, as policemen had always appeared in Ramon’s life.
I thought that, as the scooter hadn’t been burnt, the case couldn’t be serious.
‘But no,’ one man in the boarding-house said. ‘This is conspiracy.’ He spoke the word with awe; he too had been booked as a conspirator.
So Ramon went up to the assizes, and I went to see how the case would go. I had some trouble finding the correct court – ‘Have you come to answer a summons yourself, sir?’ a policeman asked, his courtesy as bewildering as his question – and when I did find the court, I might have been back in St Vincent Street in Port of Spain. The conspirators were all there, looking like frightened students. They wore suits, as though all about to be interviewed. They, so boisterous, so anxious to antagonize their neighbours in the Chelsea street – they had taken to clipping one another’s hair on the pavement of a Sunday morning (the locals washing their cars the while), as they might have done in Port of Spain – now succeeded in giving an opposed picture of themselves.
Ramon stood apart from them, he too wearing a suit, but with nothing in his face or in his greeting to show that we were meeting in circumstances slightly different from those in the boardinghouse. A girl was attached to him, a simple creature, dressed as for a dance. Not anxious they seemed, but blank; she too was a person to whom things difficult or puzzling kept happening. More worried than either of them was Ramon’s employer, a garage-owner. He had come to give evidence about Ramon’s ‘character’, and he again was in a suit, of stiff brown tweed. His face was flushed and puffy, hinting at some type of heart disorder; his eyes blinked continually behind his pink-rimmed spectacles. He stood beside Ramon.
‘A good boy, a good boy,’ the garage-owner said, tears coming to his eyes. ‘It’s only his company.’ It was strange that this simple view of the relationships of the simple could hold so much force and be so moving.
The trial was an anti-climax. It began sombrely enough, with police evidence and cross-examinations. (Ramon was quoted as saying at the moment of arrest: ‘Yes, copper, you got me now, sah.’ This I rejected.) Ramon was being defended by a young court-supplied lawyer. He was very brisk and stylish, and beside himself with enthusiasm. He showed more concern than Ramon, whom he had needlessly encouraged to cheer up. Once he caught the judge out on some point of legal etiquette and in an instant was on his feet, administering a shocked, stern rebuke. The judge listened with pure pleasure and apologized. We might have been in a nursery for lawyers: Ramon’s lawyer the star pupil, the judge the principal, and we in the gallery proud parents. When the judge began his summing up, speaking slowly, in a voice courthouse rich, sombreness altogether disappeared. It was clear he was not used to the ways of Trinidad. He said he found it hard to regard an attempt to burn a scooter on the Embankment as more than a foolish student’s prank; however, an intention to defraud the insurance company was serious. . . . There was an Indian lady in the gallery, of great beauty, who smiled and had to suppress her laughter at every witticism and every elegant phrase. The judge was aware of her, and the summing up was like a dialogue between the two, between the elderly man, confident of his gifts, and the beautiful, appreciative woman. The tenseness of the jury – a bespectacled, hatted woman sat forward, clutching the rail as if in distress – was irrelevant; and no one, not even the police, seemed surprised at the verdict of not guilty. Ramon’s lawyer was exultant. Ramon was as serene as before; his fellow conspirators suddenly appeared utterly exhausted.
Soon enough, however, Ramon was in trouble again, and this time there was no garage-owner to speak for him. He had, I believe, stolen a car or had pillaged its engine beyond economic repair; and he was sent to prison for some time. When he came out he said he had spent a few weeks in Brixton. ‘Then I went down to a place in Kent.’ I heard this from his former co-accused in the boarding-house. There Ramon had become a figure of fun. And when I next heard of him he was dead, in a car crash.
He was a child, an innocent, a maker; someone for whom the world had never held either glory or pathos; someone for whom there had been no place. ‘Then I went down to a place in Kent.’ He was guiltless of humour or posturing. One place was like another; the world was full of such places in which, unseeing, one passed one’s days. He was dead now, and I wished to offer him recognition. He was of the religion of my family; we were debased members of that religion, and this very debasement I felt as a bond. We were a tiny, special part of that featureless, unknown country, meaningful to us, if we thought about it, only in that we were its remote descendants. I wished his body to be handled with reverence, and I wished it to be handled according to the old rites. This alone would spare him final nonentity. So perhaps the Roman felt in Cappadocia or Britain; and London was now as remote from the centre of our world as, among the ruins of some Roman villa in Gloucestershire, Britain still feels far from home and can be seen as a country which in an emblematic map, curling at the corners, is partly obscured by the clouds blown by a cherub, a country of mist and rain and forest, from which the traveller is soon to hurry back to a warm, familiar land. For us no such land existed.
I missed Ramon’s funeral. He was not cremated but buried, and a student from Trinidad conducted the rites which his caste entitled him to perform. He had read my books and did not want me to be there. Denied a presence I so much wished, I had to imagine the scene: a man in a white dhoti speaking gibberish over the corpse of Ramon, making up rites among the tombstones and crosses of a more recent religion, the mean buildings of a London suburb low in the distance, against an industrial sky.
But how could the mood be supported? Ramon died fittingly and was buried fittingly. In addition to everything else, he was buried free, by a funeral agency whose stalled hearse, encountered by chance on the road only a few days before his death, he had set going again.
The India, then, which was the background to my childhood was an area of the imagination. It was not the real country I presently began to read about and whose map I committed to memory. I became a nationalist; even a book like Beverley Nichols’s Verdict on India
could anger me. But this came almost at the end. The next year India became independent; and I found that my interest was failing. I now had almost no Hindi. But it was more than language which divided me from what I knew of India. Indian films were both tedious and disquieting; they delighted in decay, agony and death; a funeral dirge or a blind man’s lament could become a hit. And there was religion, with which, as one of Mr Gollancz’s writers had noted with approval, the people of India were intoxicated. I was without belief or interest in belief; I was incapable of worship, of God or holy men; and so one whole side of India was closed to me.
Then there came people from India, not the India of Gold Teeth and Babu, but this other India; and I saw that to this country I was not at all linked. The Gujerati and Sindhi merchants were as foreign as the Syrians. They lived enclosed lives of a narrowness which I considered asphyxiating. They were devoted to their work, the making of money; they seldom went out; their pallid women were secluded; and all day their houses screeched with morbid Indian film songs. They contributed nothing to the society, nothing even to the Indian community. They were reputed among us to be sharp businessmen. In so many ways, as I now see, they were to us what we were to other communities. But their journey had not been final; their private world was not shrinking. They made regular trips to India, to buy and sell, to marry, to bring out recruits; the gap between us widened.
I came to London. It had become the centre of my world and I had worked hard to come to it. And I was lost. London was not the centre of my world. I had been misled; but there was nowhere else to go. It was a good place for getting lost in, a city no one ever knew, a city explored from the neutral heart outwards until, after years, it defined itself into a jumble of clearings separated by stretches of the unknown, through which the narrowest of paths had been cut. Here I became no more than an inhabitant of a big city, robbed of loyalties, time passing, taking me away from what I was, thrown more and more into myself, fighting to keep my balance and to keep alive the thought of the clear world beyond the brick and asphalt and the chaos of railway lines. All mythical lands faded, and in the big city I was confined to a smaller world than I had ever known. I became my flat, my desk, my name.
As India had drawn near, I had felt more than the usual fear of arrival. In spite of myself, in spite of lucidity and London and my years, and over and above every other fear, and the memory of the Alexandrian cab-driver, some little feeling for India as the mythical land of my childhood was awakened. I knew it to be foolish. The launch was solid enough and dingy enough; there was a tariff for fair weather and foul weather; the heat was real and disagreeable; the city we could see beyond the heat-mist was big and busy; and its inhabitants, seen in other vessels, were of small physique, betokening all the fearful things that had soon to be faced. The buildings grew larger. The figures on the docks became clearer. The buildings spoke of London and industrial England; and how, in spite of knowledge, this seemed ordinary and inappropriate! Perhaps all lands of myth were like this: dazzling with light, familiar to drabness, the margin of the sea unremarkably littered, until the moment of departure.
And for the first time in my life I was one of the crowd. There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me from the crowd eternally hurrying into Churchgate Station. In Trinidad to be an Indian was to be distinctive. To be anything there was distinctive; difference was each man’s attribute. To be an Indian in England was distinctive; in Egypt it was more so. Now in Bombay I entered a shop or a restaurant and awaited a special quality of response. And there was nothing. It was like being denied part of my reality. Again and again I was caught. I was faceless. I might sink without a trace into that Indian crowd. I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary to me. I felt the need to impose myself, and didn’t know how.
‘You require dark glasses? From your accent, sir, I perceive that you are perhaps a student, returned from Europe. You will understand therefore what I am about to say. Observe how these lenses soften glare and heighten colour. With the manufacture of these lenses I assure you that a new chapter has been written in the history of optics.’
So I was a student, perhaps returned from Europe. The patter was better than I had expected. But I didn’t buy the lenses the man offered. I bought Crookes, hideously expensive, in a clip-on Indian frame which broke almost as soon as I left the shop. I was too tired to go back, to talk in a voice whose absurdity I felt whenever I opened my mouth. Feeling less real than before behind my dark glasses, which rattled in their broken frame, the Bombay street splintering into dazzle with every step I took, I walked, unnoticed, back to the hotel, past the fat, impertinent Anglo-Indian girl and the rat-faced Anglo-Indian manager in a silky fawn-coloured suit, and lay down on my bed below the electric ceiling fan.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from An Area of Darkness by V.S. Naipaul. Copyright © 2002 by V. S. Naipaul. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.