Recollecting Shiva Naipaul in Africa and Sri Lanka

By Charles Sarvan, Berlin

Shiva Naipaul
Shiva Naipaul (courtesy www.

Shiva Naipaul’s reputation is over-shadowed by that of his brother, world-famous V. S. Naipaul, Nobel Prize winner for Literature, knighted by the Queen.  Both were born in Trinidad; V. S. in 1932, and Shiva in 1945; both studied at Oxford. Shiva’s sudden and early death at the age of forty cut off a promise of genuine literary greatness. His novels, The Chip-Chip Gatherers and Fireflies, won several literary prizes.

Walking one morning down the corridor to my office in the Department of English of the University of Zambia, and seeing a man who seemed somewhat lost, I stopped to ask whether I could be of help. It was Shiva Naipaul. Later in the day, I took him home and thereafter gave him such help as I could. The result of his visit, North of South, appeared the next year: Penguin Books, 1978. The title’s “South” refers to apartheid South Africa; “North”, to Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. Some of the chapter-headings show the satirical streak in Shiva: ‘Taking the Socialist Road’, ‘Animals and Men’, ‘The Haven of Peace’ (shown to be anything but a place of peace), and ‘Into the Void’. The momentous event in the background was Idi Amin’s decree of 4 August 1972 expelling Uganda’s Asians, giving them ninety days to leave a country which they loved and had lived in for generations. ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’ (to give his full self-awarded titles), claimed that Allah had in a dream ordered the measure.  Once again, God is made use of to sanction and sanctify base human action.

V.S. Naipaul
V.S. Naipaul (courtesy

Naipaul found that in the region he was not seen and reacted to as an individual, but as a member of a group, as an Asian. The generic and uncomplimentary label was “Patel”: all Asians were assumed to be shopkeepers and traders. Shortly after arriving in Lusaka, having bought a car with the help of a university-loan, my wife and I drove to the nearest petrol-station where the Zambian attendant asked, “Full tank?” When I specified a much lower amount the man, friendly and convivial, asked, “Why, where’s all the money?” Puzzled, still unaware of stereotypes, I asked in turn, “What money?” “From your shop”, came the cheerful reply. We thought it was a case of mistaken identity. The Asian was seen (not knowing how things are in the present, I use the past tense) as a miserly dukawallah who exploited and cheated innocent Africans, never giving back anything: Naipaul, op. cit., page 110. A further resentment was that Asian women didn’t enter into relationships with African men: see, Sarvan, ‘Ethnicity and Alienation: The African Asian and His Response to Africa’, the Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol 20, No, 1985. Naipaul was struck by the fact that though the real exploiters in history had been whites, it was the Asians – small in number and powerless  –  who were resented and victimised. (For similarity with Sinhalese attitudes to Tamils, see my Public Writings on Sri Lanka, Volume 2.) “Hounding the Asian is a legitimate blood-sport”. Indira Gandhi may preach “the gospel of Afro-Asian solidarity” but if a man from Mars were to visit, he would conclude that the threat to the region was the Asian – not apartheid South Africa nor illegal, whites-only, Rhodesia (p. 322).

unfinished journeyAn Unfinished Journey was published by Penguin Books in 1986, posthumously. The book’s last chapter, ‘An unfinished journey’ (pp. 65-136) is on Sri Lanka. Naipaul writes that there is a vast gap between what even intelligent and informed individuals know and accept mentally, and what they subconsciously believe, feel and act on. This was, he comments, particularly evident when it came to subjects such as caste in Buddhist society, ‘racism’, Buddhist clergy, mythology and practice, and the real condition of the Island. It was a contradiction that did not trouble them; it did not lead them to re-think basic beliefs and values.

Arriving shortly after the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983, Naipaul was horrified and revolted by what he learnt: a young boy hacked to “limbless death” (p.111). Murderers, looters and incendiarists “often had to rely on the information derived from the electoral registers…Their blood-lust was, in effect, regulated by the bureaucratic endeavours of the Civil Service. Before the axes could be wielded, before the petrol bombs could be thrown, before the pillaging could begin, a little paperwork was necessary” (p. 112). Here as elsewhere the writer’s anger and indignation throb beneath the urbane, seemingly detached, ironic tone. Of two Tamil sisters, aged about eleven and eighteen, the younger one has her head chopped off; the elder one stripped naked and, when “there were no more volunteers, when there was nothing worth the violating, petrol was poured over the two bodies. They were set alight” (p.113). As a critic has commented, this animosity was symbolic for Naipaul of the hatred that arises when anyone’s, or any people’s, otherness isn’t freely granted. Impeccably wrought and morally charged, the essays are a testament to Naipaul’s generous humanism.

cover chip-chip gatherersIn some (Sinhalese) Naipaul encountered despondency: “Go and see our ancient cities… we knew how to create. But not today” (p. 82). Naipaul is at once both satirical and sympathetic towards the Island’s artists and writers. The social environment does not appreciate, encourage and reward their efforts. Theirs is a doomed, despondent struggle, and it’s not surprising that many make recourse to alcohol, at cost to their families and to themselves.

fireflies Like his elder brother, Shiva Naipaul could arrive in a country and, through observation and inter-action, be the latter with the so-called ‘man on the street’ (“This is violent country, sir”, an adult ‘room-boy’ informs him: p. 84) or with others, gain a penetrating insight that those familiar with the country fail to grasp. It is not surprising that the ‘reception’ of their books swings between the two extremes of admiration and incensed rejection.


Charles Sarvan is a retired Professor of English Literature, now living with his German wife in Berlin, Germany.