Eleven years ago, when I was traveling in Java, I met a young man who wanted above everything else to be a poet and to live the life of the mind.This would have been in 1979. The poet-playwright, W.S Rendra, had just been thrown in jail by Suharto's brutal regime. More cautious poet-intellectuals- some who had studied in the U.S on scholarship- cultivated a hermetic art in the 'inner exile' of the academy. However, Indonesian poetry had already taken on protean, populist, yet intensely avant garde forms, precisely because of the repressive political atmosphere.
Unlike the Anglo Saxon world, where poetry declined in political influence and social relevance, Java's poets, some of whom were 'U.S returned', could bridge the gap between elite academia and popular culture in the manner of our own Girish Karnad, who had been a Rhodes Scholar in the early Sixties. India, of course, had a big film industry and so Karnad soon became better known for his films than his plays- like Yayati (which was based on a character in the Mahabharata).
Unlike Indonesia, where the Communists had been massacred fifteen years previously, India was hospitable to Radical poets many of whom found a lucrative market as lyricists for blockbuster films whose stars, in South India, frequently entered politics and became Chief Ministers- like Tamil Nadu's M.G.R or, a little later, Andhra Pradesh's N.T. Rama Rao.
I suppose, the young man Naipaul met would have known of the 'Bollywood' influence on Dangdut music as represented by the superstar Rhoma Irama.
No doubt, the young man was more Left wing and cerebral than Irama who was moving in a homiletic Islamic direction in the Seventies. Thus he may have appreciated a scholarship to study in India, assuming one to Europe or America was out of reach, so as to engage with a flourishing radical intelligentsia- often Muslim by religion- not too differently situated from his own people, socio-economically speaking.
This could have been easily arranged. Naipaul had many admirers among both the Indian bureaucratic elite as well as the moneyed class. Suppose he'd dropped a line to my Dad at the High Commission in London. The young Indonesian poet could have either got a PhD at JNU and then become a sexually predatory Leftist on an American campus or else gotten married & rich working for the likes of Laxmi Mittal.
But Naipaul did nothing for the young man. Why? He doubted there was anything to him because the fellow spoke of a desire to write and cultivate the life of the mind despite being an obvious nig-nog living in some Third World shithole. Thus poetry and the life of the mind were beyond his reach.
This ambition had been given him by his modern education; but it was hard for the young man to explain to his mother exactly what he was up to. This mother was a person of culture and elegance; that should be stressed. She was elegant in visage and dress and speech; her manners were like art; they were Javanese court manners.Which Mom in Hampstead or Bel Air would have felt pride hearing her 28 year old son wanted to be a poet? One might get nachas if one's ugly and unmarriageable daughter escapes a dingy existence working in a dry-cleaners by winning a Pulitzer for a volume of verse about the Holocaust. But, a 28 year old son? What on earth could he write about? Vietnam was not a popular war and Rehab or Bathhouses not yet entirely respectable themes.
So I asked the young man—bearing in mind that we were in Java, where ancient epics live on in the popular art of puppet plays, “But isn’t your mother secretly proud that you are a poet?” He said in English—I mention this to give a further measure of his education in his far-off Javanese town, “She wouldn’t have even a sense of what being a poet is.”
Did anyone, anywhere, have a sense of why being a poet might be a good thing in 1979? What about 1959 or 1939? You'd have to go back to 1919 to find a Mom proud her son had published a volume of poetry- but only if he was dulce et decorum dead and posthumously decorated.
No doubt, there were a couple of Professors in shite University Departments who pretended otherwise but poetry was and is a superior type of finger painting for damaged or retarded people.
And the poet’s friend and mentor, a teacher at the local university, amplified this. The friend said, “The only way he would have of making the mother understand what he is trying to do would be to suggest that he is being a poet in the classical tradition. And she would find this absurd.As would any Mom who learns her son is setting up to be the new Virgil or Dante.
She would reject it as an impossibility.” It would be rejected as an impossibility because for the poet’s mother the epics of her country—and to her, they would have been like sacred texts—already existed, had already been written.Is Naipaul serious? He knew very well that Suharto's goons were arresting poets. The boy's Mum didn't want him to write poetry for that reason. It was not that the Javanese couldn't write a 'Yayati', based on the Mahabharata, or a 'Tughlaq' drawing on their Islamic history, Rather, it was that they might be jailed if they did.
They had only to be learned or consulted.
For the mother, all poetry had already been written. That particular book, it might be said, was closed: it was part of the perfection of her culture. To be told by her son, who was 28, not all that young, that he was hoping to be a poet would be like a devout mother in another culture asking her writer son what he intended to write next, and getting the reply, “I am thinking of adding a book to the Bible.” Or, to attempt another comparison, the young man would be like the character in the story by Borges who had taken upon himself the task of rewriting Don Quixote. Not just retelling the story, or copying out the Cervantes original; but seeking, by an extraordinary process of mind-clearing and re-creation, to arrive—without copying or falsity, and purely through original thought—at a narrative coinciding word by word with the Cervantes book.
The safer course would be to get a foreign scholarship- even to India- and leverage one's language skills to get either an academic gig or something better paid with a Business House.
To be 28 and a poet at ease with foreign journalists is dangerous under a Military Dictatorship.
But Naipaul tells his wealthy American audience- many of whom would be the descendants of refugees from similarly brutal regimes- that the young man couldn't be a poet because he belonged to a culture where no new poetry could exist. But this would also mean that Suharto would have had no need to jail W.S Rendra. This would certainly have been a convenient truth,- for the American foreign policy establishment.
Naipaul next says something extraordinary-
I understood the predicament of the young man in central Java. His background, after all, was not far removed from the Hindu aspect of my own Trinidad background. We were an agricultural immigrant community from India. The ambition to become a writer, the introduction to writing and ideas about writing, had been given me by my father. He was born in 1906, the grandson of someone who had come to Trinidad as a baby. And somehow, in spite of all the discouragements of the society of that small agricultural colony, the wish to be a writer had come to my father; and he had made himself into a journalist, even with the limited opportunities for journalism existing in that colony.Yes. Naipaul's father rose by the pen. Had he lived longer, he would have prospered under the transition to Democracy. He would probably have made a better, or at least more successful- that is richer- politician than Naipaul's Uncle- a Physicist at King's- who claimed that his knowledge of Einstein's theory of Relativity would enable him to speed up Time and thus achieve higher Economic Growth.
Trinidad was small. Java had a huge population. A Javanese poet might wield enormous influence- he might become the equal of a Tagore, an Iqbal, a Faiz or Neruda.
More- he might become a Bob Marley.
We were a people of ritual and sacred texts.As was Tagore. He won a Nobel Prize and had an international following. Eliot, or Pound or Yeats were provincial by comparison.
We also had our epics—and they were the very epics of Java; we heard them constantly sung or chanted. But it couldn’t be said that we were a literary people.Because Trinidad was too small a market. Java, on the other hand, was huge.
Our literature, our texts, didn’t commit us to an exploration of our world; rather, they were cultural markers, giving us a sense of the wholeness of our world and the alienness of what lay outside.Nonsense! These guys had already crossed half the globe and they continued to be mobile- some slipped into Venezuela. Others went to New York. More, like Naipaul himself, went to Britain and did very well there.
I don’t believe that, in his family, anyone before my father would have thought of original literary composition.Because there was no market for it. However, by the Nineteen Twenties, even small towns in Champaran- North Bihar- had high enough literacy and newspaper circulation to make journalism a viable career. But, already, there were novelists who could do quite well for themselves. Once the 'talkies' took off- that is, by the mid Thirties, novelists and lyricists could do quite well. Premchand was able to pay off his own striking workers with the money he earned from a film about a strike featuring evil capitalists.
That idea came to my father in Trinidad with the English language; somehow, in spite of the colonial discouragements of the place, an idea of the high civilization connected with the language came to my father; and he was given some knowledge of literary forms.If Shivprasad Naipaul had sold 'Gurudeva' to a Hindi magazine and it had been a hit- which it might well have been- then he'd have happily switched to Hindi and returned to the motherland to live in a nice bungalow and travel around as a pracharak for the Arya Samaj. After Independence, he'd have got a comfortable sinecure in New Delhi.
Sensibility is not enough if you are going to be a writer. You need to arrive at the forms that can contain or carry your sensibility; and literary forms—whether in poetry or drama, or prose fiction—are artificial, and ever changing.They are also irrelevant, if you have something to say and can do it in a witty, pithy, or otherwise affecting manner.
This was a part of what was passed on to me at a very early age. At a very early age—in all the poverty and bareness of Trinidad, far away, with a population of half a million—I was given the ambition to write books, and specifically to write novels, which my father had presented to me as the highest form. But books are not created just in the mind. Books are physical objects. To write them, you need a certain kind of sensibility; you need a language, and a certain gift of language; and you need to possess a particular literary form. To get your name on the spine of the created physical object, you need a vast apparatus outside yourself. You need publishers, editors, designers, printers, binder; booksellers, critics, newspapers and magazines and television where the critics can say what they think of the book; and, of course, buyers and readers.Trinidad had petrol. There were people there- amidst all that poverty and bareness- who were given the ambition to make money out of that petrol. How did they do so? Did they develop a certain kind of sensibility? No. They found a market and sold the thing as fast as they could get it out of the ground.
Everybody depends on markets for almost everything. Sensibilities can't create markets. However, they can give one the illusion that one isn't serving a market by doing the same thing again and again. Bis repetita placent.
I want to stress this mundane side of things, because it is easy to take it for granted; it is easy to think of writing only in its personal, romantic aspect. Writing is a private act; but the published book, when it starts to live, speaks of the cooperation of a particular kind of society. The society has a certain degree of commercial organization. It also has certain cultural or imaginative needs. It doesn’t believe that all poetry has already been written. It needs new stimuli, new writing; and it has the means of judging the new things that are offered.Naipaul could scarcely have visited Java without reading Benedict Anderson. By the time he made this speech, he would surely have been familiar with the notion of 'print capitalism'. Even supposing he wasn't, the thing is too obvious to need spelling out. Printing presses made books cheap. Then the Cinema came along as did Radio and then Television. As a professional writer, Naipaul knew that only the market mattered. And markets depend on technology- not sensibility. Moreover, markets like linking up with each other, shrinking distances and making the global local.
This kind of society didn’t exist in Trinidad. It was necessary, therefore, if I was going to be a writer, and live by my books, to travel out to that kind of society where the writing life was possible. This meant, for me at that time, going to England.Naipaul went to England to read English Literature. His Professor was Tolkien. However, it was his own stupidity and prejudice which made him his own little Hobbit hole in Universal Literature.
I was traveling from the periphery, the margin, to what to me was the center; and it was my hope that, at the center, room would be made for me. I was asking a lot—asking, in fact, more of the center than of my own society. The center, after all, had its own interests, its own worldview, its own ideas of what it wanted in novels. And it still does. My subjects were far-off: but a little room was made for me in the England of the 1950s. I was able to become a writer, and to grow in the profession. It took time; I was forty—and had been publishing in England for fifteen years—before a book of mine was seriously published in the United States.This was because Trinidad was a Colony. That was why the Brits spent a little money making room for people like Naipaul.
But I always recognized, in England in the 1950s, that as someone with a writing vocation, there was nowhere else for me to go.
And if I have to describe the universal civilization, I would say that it is the civilization that both gave the prompting and the idea of the literary vocation; and also gave the means to fulfill that prompting; the civilization that enables me to make that journey from the periphery to the center; the civilization that links me not only to this audience but also that now not-so-young man in Java whose background was as ritualized as my own, and on whom—as on me—the outer world had worked, and given the ambition to write.No civilization linked Naipaul to that not-so-young poet in Java, the year W.S Rendra was arrest. Common decency- civility, if you like- required Naipaul to do something for the young man- get him a scholarship or a grant or something of that sort-
It is easier today for someone setting out to be a writer from places like Java or Trinidad; subjects once far-off are no longer so. But I have never been able to take my career for granted. I know that there are still large tracts of the world where the cultural or economic conditions I described a while ago do not obtain, and someone like myself would not have been able to become a writer. I couldn’t have become the kind of writer I am in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union or black Africa. I don’t think I could have taken my gifts even to India.Why? It is because India held back Radio and TV. Cinema was heavily taxed and had to rely on music sales- which is why the song-writer was better paid than the script-writer- but R.K Narayan (who had had to self publish after getting his start) was able to sell 'Guide' to a Bollywood-Hollywood collaboration and made a decent sum.
Writing in vernacular languages remained more prestigious and gained perquisites from the Government. However, those who wrote in English barely got by or had to emigrate to an American campus. Thus writing in English remained a 'genteel form of clerkship'. Some 'brown' authors tried the Tolkien route- S.P Somtow & the Rushdie of 'Grimus'- tried it, but it wasn't very profitable. Somtow was an aristocrat and returned to Thailand as a music composer. Rushdie- but we all know about Rushdie. In the end, he turned out to be an Englishman of the Boris Johnson type leveraging an exotic background merely in order to indulge in puerile jibes at the Religion of his Ancestors.