An introduction to the work of Seepersad Naipaul

To mark the publication of Seepersad Naipaul, Amazing Scenes: Selected Journalism 1928-1953, here's an introduction to his published work, as well as some of the important work that discusses his legacy.

Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales

When it was originally self-published as a pamphlet in 1943, Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales was limited to only 1000 copies (of which only a handful remain). Though long sought-after, the book wasn't brought back into print until after Naipaul's death, when V. S. Naipaul arranged for a re-edited version of the book, now called The Adventures of Gurudeva and other stories, to be published by Andre Deutsch in 1976. This new edition of Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales is the first in half a century.

In 1943, Seepersad Naipaul had already had years of practice in writing the most vivid journalism about Trinidad and about Indian politics. He had also gained experience of working as a trained social worker, giving him unequalled access to the lives of rural Indian Trinidadians – lives that were utterly unknown to the rest of the population. But whilst one element of Naipaul’s motivation in writing these stories was to offer a portrait of otherwise hidden lives, his most powerful wish was to achieve a reputation as a writer. And beyond the acute observations of a community in the process of change, and a deep (and sometimes satirical) empathy for the individual characters trying to make sense of their duality as Indians and Trinidadians, these are stories that show a sophisticated sense of shaping. They are not only still immensely readable but must be seen as important steps in the development of the Caribbean short story.

This collection prints in its entirety the collection that Seepersad Naipaul first published in 1943, including those stories that V. S. Naipaul chose to omit from the second edition of the book in 1976. In addition, this volume collects as an appendix those stories published in Caribbean magazines and newspapers and broadcast in the Caribbean Voices programme. In its perception that Indians in Trinidad had to embrace their hybridity, in its sympathetic treatment of women, and in its exploration of the inner worlds of a character such as Gopi – perhaps the nearest to a self-satirising portrait (and the story omitted by V. S. Naipaul) – this collection should restore Seepersad Naipaul as an essential figure in Caribbean fiction in his own right.

With an introduction by Kenneth Ramchand and Aaron Eastley, Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales is due for publication in 2025.

Amazing Scenes: Selected Journalism 1928-1953

Even though readers of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas will recognise how extensively the son borrowed from his father’s life and work to create both the character of Mohan Biswas, it is not as a source book for V. S. Naipaul’s novel that this selection of Seepersad Naipaul’s reports and articles excels. 

In the first place, Seepersad Naipaul, Amazing Scenes: Selected Journalism 1928-1953 is a collection of writing that through its vigour and inventiveness is extremely readable. It makes the case that the very best journalism has every right to be considered as seriously as literary fiction; in a country which has prized the newspaper columnist who combines insight with high style, Seepersad Naipaul claims the status of a pioneer. 

As a body of writing that extends over 25 years, however mundane the story covered, it reveals the persona of its author as a signal, developing a very recognisable voice as an observer of colonial Trinidad. Employed in the first place to report on the lives of “East Indians”, then an almost wholly unknown quantity to the vast majority of urban Trinidadians, Seepersad Naipaul’s columns and stories give an unrivalled picture of the various (not to say fissiparous) strands of Indian lives over the period in which they began to emerge into the wider economy, society and politics of the nation. 

And Seepersad Naipaul’s interests are nothing if not ecumenical. He writes with sympathetic interest, for instance, about the “Shouters”, the Spiritual Baptists just emerging from a long period of being banned. But it will probably be Seepersad Naipaul’s eye for the curious, not to say bizarre, in columns that will still entertain readers many decades after they were written. Meet Trinidad’s hermit Robinson Crusoe, and Trinidad’s ‘worst’ man. Or read of the curse placed upon the columnist for bringing attention to an outbreak of rabies, and the writer's own fearless response.

You can read an exerpt of the book for free online.

Related books

The Naipauls of Nepaul Street

Savi Naipaul Akal’s memoir The Naipauls of Nepaul Street pays tribute to her remarkable parents, Droapatie and Seepersad, who were so different but equal in importance to their large family. Her father’s life is one of heroic self-invention, from virtual orphan in a dirt-poor rural Indian family, one generation away from indentured migration, who through self-education became Seepersad Naipaul, a remarkable journalist and pioneering documenter of Indian Trinidadian life. Her mother, Droapatie, displayed remarkable diplomatic skills in sustaining a relationship with the large and inward-looking Capildeo clan of which she was the seventh daughter, whilst loyally supporting her husband’s insistence on independence and engagement with Trinidadian life. It was Droapatie, after Seepersad’s tragically early death, who held the family together, so that all seven children achieved university education.  

This is a moving story of a family’s beginnings, growth and, in the context both of time and Trinidadian society, its inevitable dispersal. It is an account of family loyalty, sacrifice, and sometimes tensions; pride in the writing achievements of her brothers Vidia (V. S.) and Shiva, and sorrow over estrangements and Shiva’s premature death. Through this focus, the memoir also gives a sharply observed picture of cultural change in Trinidad from colony to independent nation, of being Indian in a Creole society, of the role of education, and of her parents’ encouragement of their daughters to make independent lives for themselves. The memoir gives an acute analysis of the pressures that led many of the family to emigrate, but also of the good lives made by Savi and her husband that led them to “put down their bucket” and stay.

Above all, this memoir offers the pleasure of writing which is elegant and lucid, with a distinctively personal voice. The book is further enhanced by the generous quantity of family photographs that say so much about both people and the times they lived through.

Seepersad and Sons: Naipaulian Synergies

This Seepersad and Sons: Naipaulian Synergies, based on a conference organised by Friends of Mr Biswas, explores the writing careers of Seepersad Naipaul and his two sons, Vidia and Shiva, within the supportive but sometimes painful closeness of family connections – synergies that V. S. Naipaul sometimes laboured to conceal, as the publishing history of his father’s collection of short stories and Letters between a Father and Son both show. 

Essays by Brinsley Samaroo and Aaron Eastley focus on Seepersad Naipaul’s importance as a journalist who revealed hidden areas in Trinidadian society, who boldly creolised reporting styles and showed his sons the possibilities of combining fiction and non-fiction. Arnold Rampersad, in his moving essay on his journalist father, Jerome, further makes the case for a tradition of Trinidadian newspaper writing that achieves literary quality. Not only is the father given long-overdue attention, but so too is Shiva Naipaul exploring from different angles, in his deservedly classic novel, Fireflies, the same family territory opened up by Vidia in A House for Mr Biswas.

Some of the essays find new things to say about V. S. Naipaul: Andre Bagoo writes on his fascination with gay sexuality and cinema; another essay deals with the themes of sadomasochism and incest. Hywel Dix advances the idea of “lateness”, in a reading of Magic Seeds, and other essays focus on issues of race, gender and globalisation in the Naipauls’ work. Kevin Frank, for instance, explores the contrast between the father’s engagement with Creole society, and his sons’ recoil, and Elizabeth Jackson and Paula Morgan write respectively on masculinity and motherhood in the Naipauls’ work.

Seepersad and Sons is highly readable because contributors to this book have followed the example and urging of the keynote speaker, Professor Kenneth Ramchand, to address readers beyond an academic circle, and convey the importance of the Naipauls and their literary heritage to the wider society. Contributions from Sharon Millar, Raymond Ramcharitar and Keith Jardim show just how alive the Naipaulian legacies are. Robert Clarke provides a visual dimension to the book in a photo essay on the St James district of Port of Spain, which contains 26 Nepaul Street, the house for Mr Biswas; and J. Vijay Maharaj writes on the complementary art of Shastri Maharaj.

Contributors include: Kenneth Ramchand, J. Vijay Maharaj, Bhoendradatt Tewarie, Nicholas Laughlin, Aaron Eastley, Brinsley Samaroo, Arnold Rampersad, Robert Clarke, Andre Bagoo, Sharon Millar, Keith Jardim, Raymond Ramcharitar, Kevin Frank, Jim Hannan, Hywel Dix, Elizabeth Jackson, Paula Morgan, Fariza Mohammed, Meghan Cleghorn, Varistha Persad and Nivedita Misra.

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