If you walk some distance west in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital, you will come to a gritty neighbourhood, somewhat like our Lajpat Nagar, where the streets are named Calcutta, Delhi, Madras, Bombay, even Agra and Lucknow. They bear witness to the homesickness of indentured labourers who were brought to this distant country from the small towns and villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar more than a century ago. Here the street food vendors will sell you roti and goat curry with a flavour all its own, robust and more delicious than any you had tasted before. The recipes that the ancestors of these people brought with them have remained fossilised, rustic.
This is St James, a ghetto where many Indians settled after their five-year period of servitude was over. They had decided not to return to India. I went there in search of the place where V.S. Naipaul grew up before he left, aged 18, to study in England. The modest house is still there and, despite Trinidad’s decidedly mixed feelings towards its most famous son, it is designated a historical landmark.
THAT house in St James wasn’t the model for the Hanuman House of Naipaul’s masterpiece, A House for Mr Biswas. It’s assumed the house in the book is based on Lion House in Chaguanas, a town further south. Lion House is the author’s birthplace and the ancestral home of his mother’s family. It was built in 1926 by Pandit Capildeo, who had arrived as an indentured labourer from Gorakhpur in 1894 at the age of 20. He prospered and became a land owner and businessman. Between 1845 and 1917, when the indenture system ended, 1.45 lakh Indians were transported to this country, often on false promises, to replace the slaves on the sugarcane estates. Their living conditions were practically indistinguishable from those of the slaves who preceded them. You will find a fine description of their lives in the 1930s in Naipaul’s novel: “They could not speak English and were not interested in the land where they lived; it was a place where they had come for a short time and stayed longer than they expected. They continually talked of going back to India, but when the opportunity came, many refused, afraid of the unknown, afraid to leave the familiar temporariness. And every evening they came to the arcade of the solid, friendly house (Hanuman House), smoked, told stories, and continued to talk of India.”
Only one Indian author has won the Nobel for literature, and that was over a hundred years ago. Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of a little over a million, has achieved this feat twice: Naipaul in 2002, and earlier, poet-playwright Derek Walcott in 1992. Both have INSpired generations of young writers here and made Trinidad the cultural and intellectual hub of the English-speaking Caribbean. It also has a lively music scene, being the birthplace of calypso, Harry Belafonte and all that, and steel bands with instruments crafted from old oil barrels. If you are fortunate to be in Port of Spain around Easter, you will witness the annual carnival, an explosive event with no-holds-barred debauchery and enough music, singing and dancing to last you a lifetime. The two-day event is fuelled with rum and beer. Thousands of people take to the streets in colourful and outrageous costumes. For a more laidback holiday, you should head for the island of Tobago, a 20-minute hop on a plane from the capital. The beach at Pigeon Point is as good as any anywhere in the world, with sand soft as powder. It’s supposed to have inspired Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, but I don’t know about that.
Now a word or two about Trinidad’s gift to the world, Sir Vidia Surajprasad Naipaul, should be in order. He is perhaps the world’s most gifted living writer in English. He is also one of the most difficult persons I have ever met. A few years back, he was getting bad press in India for his incendiary views on Islam and Muslims. His wife asked me to organise a dinner for him in Delhi to meet the media and give his point of view. Or so I was told. We sat around a large table and throughout the evening he refused to say anything substantial. At another party in Mumbai, he asked for vodka, which the hostess, Dolly Thakore, didn’t have at home. Another guest would have settled for something else. Not Sir Vidia. He sulked throughout, reducing the hostess almost to tears. On the plus side, his wife Nadira is divine.
My best meal was at Asha’s, a ramshackle place in Maracas Bay. Fried flying fish jazzed up with garlic, hot peppers, tomatoes and onions. Served with toasted bread and local beer.
Twenty-six years with the UN, Delhi-based Bhaichand Patel is the author of four books that are unlikely to win him a Nobel Prize
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