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War of words divided my brilliant brothers

Written by Savi Naipaul Akal for The Oldie on Sunday, August 12, 2018

In the late 1940s, only half of our dining table, in our house in Port of Spain was used for our meals. The other half was used for books and Cassell’s dictionaries for my brother Vidia, who was studying for a coveted island scholarship to university.

Vidia was accepted by University College, Oxford, to read English. In 1950, he boarded the plane to head for England, without ever looking back or waving.

Our younger brother, Shiva, thirteen years Vidia’s junior, eventually followed the pattern, winning an island scholarship and a place at Oxford, too.

In 1956, Vidia returned to Trinidad for the first time. At the age of eleven, Shiva was so proud of this almost mythical brother come to life, a father-figure replacement after our father, a journalist on the Trinidad Guardian, died in 1953. He could recite chunks of The Mystic Masseur – Vidia’s first novel - in honour and in awe of his brother.

Sadly he would gaze at a brother who demonstrated little affection and less tenderness for him. Shiva’s image of Vidia would scarcely change over the years. While he admired the work and was in awe of Vidia’s achievements, he was not charmed by the man.

In Shiva’s essay, ‘My Brother and I’, published in his posthumous volume An Unfinished Journey, he set down what Vidia had meant to him as a newcomer at Oxford and in the years that followed.
‘He perplexed me; and I, no doubt, perplexed him. We had, after all, come out of different worlds. The Hindu Trinidad of his youth was not the Hindu Trinidad of my youth … I had vulnerabilities he did not always find easy to understand … there have been a series of small resolutions along that difficult, treacherous road. We have come to recognise each other’s autonomy, to acknowledge the existence of areas of privacy and inaccessibility. Writing has helped, not hindered, that process of slow accommodation. It has offered a means of communication.’

Far less equivocal, and distressingly contemptuous, Vidia would tell his own biographer many years after Shiva’s death, ‘My brother was a gatherer of injustice... When he drew breath, he whined.’ And, later: ‘I was really hoping when my brother came along - before I was told about his alcoholic idleness - that he would, as it were, show me a new way. But he was just using me as a template. He was patterning himself on me.’

… Meanwhile, Fireflies, Shiva’s first novel, was published in 1970 by André Deutsch. It is now a Penguin Modern Classic. Other acclaimed novels and non-fiction works followed, but sadly his literary career was cut brutally short. He fell dead of a heart attack in his and his wife Jenny’s flat in London in 1985, aged 40.

… We bore our grief and mourned our loss of one so young, so loving and so beautiful as a son and brother. Vidia erupted in eczema, caused perhaps by remorse for not being compassionate to his much younger brother, who had grown up without a father and had once idolised Vidia and sought his approval and love.


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