art in all its forms

art in all its forms


Naipaul's St James

Photo courtesy John Hill. Hosay in St James, 1950s.

THE JOURNEY of A House for Mr Biswas from the oppressive setting of Chaguanas to St James, Port-of-Spain, is not only about one man's discovery of freedom. The house on Sikkim Street which Mohun Biswas comes to purchase after a lifetime of drifting is a symbol of nationhood. His life story dramatises a movement from an alien, all-powerful hegemony to independence.

And just as the complexities of freedom would be underestimated by the newly free state, so too is Mr Biswas' real estate purchase romanticised:
He had seen the house like a guest under heavy obligation to his host. If it had not been raining he might have walked around the small yard and seen the absurd shape of the house. He would have seen where the celotex panels on the eaves had fallen away, providing unrestricted entry to the bats of the neighbourhood. He would have seen the staircase that hung at the back, open, with only a banister, and sheltered by unpainted corrugated iron. He would not have been deceived into cosiness by the thick curtain over the back doorway on the lower floor. He would have seen that the house had no back door at all. If he had not had to rush out of the rain he might have noticed the street lamp just outside the house; he would have known that a street lamp, so near the main road, attracted flies like moths. But he saw none of these things. He had only a picture of a house cosy in the rain. (565-566)
A House for Mr Biswas was published on the eve of Independence. The wife of the solicitor's clerk who sells Biswas the house is even referred to as "the old queen". This is a book that venerates the dream of Independence, then stares the complexity of post-colonial countries in the face. It remains relevant to a society where even mas bands today evoke strong debate over the role of the past within our present.

Locations within Naipaul's work, while specific, come to have complex symbolic meanings, even if rooted within the writer's personal life. St James is St James, yes, but it is also the whole of Trinidad.

A House for Mr Biswas

However, two recent events have shown the fruitfulness of a psychogeographic reading of the work of the entire Naipaul family. One was the talk given tonight by writer, journalist and filmmaker Robert Clarke, hosted by the Friends of Mr Biswas, which traced St James within the fictional world of VS and, particularly, Shiva Naipaul. The other was September's award of the Forward Prize to Trinidadian British writer, a relative of the Naipauls, Vahni Capildeo for Measures of Expatriation, a stunning book about how national boundaries do not matter.


Clarke's engaging talk at City Hall, Port-of-Spain, marked the City's adoption of 26 Nepaul Street, St James, as a national heritage site. He traced fictional representations of St James' streets and townsfolk through books ranging from Shiva's Beyond the Dragon's Mouth, to Vidia's short story 'My Aunt Gold Teeth' (later collected in The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book).

"Aunt Gold Teeth was a family friend who actually existed," Clarke said. "In other words, characters have been altered for dramatic effect."

"But it is in Shiva’s stories that you are invited into his St James, just as you were introduced to the characters of Woodbrook through Vidia’s Miguel Street, written from observations made from the safety of his grandmother’s yard while living at the Capildeo house at Luis Street, Woodbrook."

For Clarke, St James was a perfect setting for Shiva's examination of complex themes relating to racial and religious diversity.
It is Shiva, the third writer in the family, who has left us the best portraits of a fictionalized St James. He spent his formative years there, from the age of one well into his teens and beyond. So perhaps it is fitting that we should begin with him. Or rather, my imagined version of his 5-year-old self: 
From the second story of 26 Nepaul Street, Shiva heard the first rap-pap-pap of the Hosay tassa. He tumbled down the staircase, past the oil portrait of his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul, snatched a piece of roti from the tabletop bowl, gave Gyp the family dog a friendly kick and bounded into the yard. 

Robert Clarke
St James' status as a microcosm of Trinidad and Tobago society led writer Anu Lakhan, in an introduction to Clarke's presentation, to describe the suburb as, "the most cosmopolitan space in Trinidad." Prof Kenneth Ramchand, chairman of the Friends of Mr Biswas, put it simply, "St James is Trinidad."


In opening remarks to tonight's event, Ramchand also pointed out that the Capildeos were a presence at the house at St James, where Vidia spent his last four years before leaving for university. The house had been bought by Naipaul's father Seepersad (who provided the model for Biswas) 70 years ago in 1946. Shiva grew up there, and Drupati Capildeo was once resident.

Life has a way of making neat patterns, though Vahni Capideo's poetry defies such limitations. Her formal recognition last month for a book that brazenly stares at the complexities of migration and belonging forces us to re-evaluate the idea of fixed geography, whether in the world of fiction writers or otherwise.

The poet's books, from her first, No Traveller Returns, right up to her most recent, Expatriation, examine the idea that a person is never where they really are: is everywhere and nowhere at once; resides within a higher integrity - call it soul, call it persona, call it figure. In book after stunning book, Capildeo has shown how as global citizens we deploy far more creative and complex ideas of place. We travel with entire worlds in our heads, in the process dissolving the distinctions between different countries, peoples, norms.
        Dawn's cloth, cut out to try on,
slides light along the Northern Range,
pins pricking scams of sunrise that graze
the iron-pink mountains
that start showing their temper.
Like Indian cotton,
so fragile in its brilliance...  
                                  (Undraining Sea, 55)
Capildeo's poetry processes what, perhaps, her distant relatives fictionalised. A complex transnational life familiar not only to the Naipauls, but all the residents of Sikkim Street.


The next event by the Friends of Mr Biswas takes place on November 23, 2016, at 6pm. It is on FEM Hosein, a mayor of Arima, MP, writer and playwright. Venue: Arima Town Hall.

Tonight's lecture was part of an ongoing exercise in which persons with information about cultural ties to St James (whether literary or otherwise) are invited to contact the Friends of Mr Biswas to continue a process of mapping. "Tell us," says Prof Ramchand.