Friday, November 25, 2005

Unseen daffodils

Amitabh GhoshThe Hindustan Times October 15, 2001
I was in my teens when I read Naipaul's essay on how, in the Trinidad of his youth, the flowers of the Caribbean were rendered invisible by the unseen daffodils of text-book English poets. That essay sparked so powerful a jolt of recognition that the moment has stayed with me ever since. As a child, while reading 'The Mutiny on the Bounty' I'd been fascinated by the word 'frangipani' which seemed to me to be redolent of all that was mysterious, desirable and secret. Then one day I discovered that the gnarled old branches by my window belonged to none other than a 'frangipani' tree: I'd been staring at them for years. My response was neither shock nor disappointment: it was rather a sudden awareness of the anomalousness of my own place in the world. This was not an awareness I had ever seen reflected in anything I'd read - until I came across Naipaul's essay.
This was the magic of reading Naipaul in those years. His views and opinions I almost always disagreed with: some because they were founded in truths that were too painful to acknowledge; some because they were misanthropic or objectionable; and some because they came uncomfortably close to being racist or just plain ignorant (the last, particularly, in his writings on the Islamic world). Yet he was writing of matters that no one else thought worth noticing; he had found words to excavate new dimensions of experience. It was Trinidad, with its fecund cultural intersections, that gave Naipaul his literary ambitions, his distinctive voice and the setting for the novels for which he will be best remembered.
Today, decades later, that essay about language has become so intimate a part of my own experience that I cannot be certain where my own memory ends and Naipaul's narrative begins: was the frangipani mine or his, or was it instead a jacaranda that I was thinking of? From time to time other such Naipaul moments still surface in my memory, like aching wisdom teeth. It was Naipaul who first made it possible for me to think of myself as a writer, working in English... I read him with that intimate, appalled attention which one reserves for one's most skilful interlocutors. I remembered that essay because I too was not by nature a joiner: reading that account I thought I had seen, once again, an aspect of myself rendered visible in Naipaul's pitiless mirror." The word 'influence' seems inadequate for a circumstance like this: it is as though Naipaul’s work were a whetstone against which to sharpen my own awareness of the world.

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