Savi Naipaul Akal: her side of the story | Snapshot

They’re the Caribbean’s great literary dynasty, but for decades their story has been written only by the Naipaul men. A new memoir by Savi Naipaul Akal tells another side of the tale, reports Ingrid Persaud

  • Savi Naipaul Akal. Photo by Mark Lyndersay
  • Photo by Mark Lyndersay

Savi Naipaul Akal exudes poise and presence. And charm. Buckets of charm. For our interview at her home in Valsayn, east of Port of Spain, she leads me to a table covered with a crisp white tablecloth weighed down by homemade cakes and finger sandwiches. The huge floral arrangement sitting in the middle stems from her own garden.

I am here to find out what motivated her to trade the ease of her twilight years for the graft of writing her recently published memoir, The Naipauls of Nepaul Street, launched in April 2018 at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest.

Akal offers a selection of teas from her family’s own luxury brand. I decide on the evocatively named Tobago Afternoon blend. As she pours, Akal remarks that although she knew the story of her parents, Ma and Pa, deserved to be written, she never imagined it would be by her pen. Writing was the purview of the Naipaul men — starting with her father, Seepersad Naipaul, and her brothers Shiva, who died young, and of course the Nobel laureate, Vidia — known to the world as V.S.

If any of the five Naipaul sisters were to write the family history, then Kamla, the eldest, once seemed the most likely. Indeed, Savi halted work on an earlier draft of her book because Kamla had declared her intention to undertake a similar project. Despite their differences, Savi graciously gave way to her sister, reasoning that Kamla had eight years more information and perspective on their shared history — and, as first born, was entitled to a certain deference. But Kamla passed away in 2009 without publishing a text.

With Kamla gone, and Vidia now aged and incapacitated, it was Akal’s moment. The stories begged to move from her mind and become words on a page. Still, she dithered. But a chance lunch with Arnold Rampersad, emeritus professor at Stanford University, changed everything. He encouraged, no, insisted that Savi write her memoir. Jenny Naipaul, Shiva’s widow, echoed Rampersad. Akal is certain the book would not have happened without their active encouragement. Draft after draft landed on Rampersad’s desk. With kindness and patience, he read, argued, and gently pushed her, while Jenny did the final editing before UK-based Peepal Tree Press snapped it up.  

While she had never previously published anything, Akal found writing her memoir a natural and fluid process. I was stunned to hear that, even though her drafts were handwritten before being passed on to be typed up, it took her only eighteen months to complete her two-hundred-plus-page work. It turns out Akal has always been a secret writer, filling journal pages daily, the act of writing her mode of making sense of her lived experiences.

As she speaks, her voice breaks slightly, tinged with regret at not having, in her eyes, a proper career. I find this interesting coming from a woman, now in her early eighties, who has had a portfolio of careers. In her time, Akal has been a respected high school teacher, a decent administrator, and for more than three decades a successful businesswoman running an upmarket boutique. All this she did while raising three impressive children and supporting her husband’s career as a much-sought-after physician. 

 

While Akal makes light of what she has achieved, it could not have been easy producing a book when so much has already been written about the Naipauls. A House for Mr Biswas (1961) is V.S. Naipaul’s highly fictionalised account of Pa’s relationship with his wife’s people — the wealthy and politically prominent Capildeo clan. Later, he also wrote explicitly of his father’s thwarted writing ambitions and his indebtedness to Pa in Finding the Centre (1984), and the family correspondence was published in Letters Between a Father and Son (1998). Whatever was not publicly known about Sir Vidia was exposed by Patrick French in his biography The World Is What It Is, published a decade ago. 

Yet in these narratives the Naipaul women are at best secondary, and sometimes almost invisible — even after Pa passed away. A corrective text was necessary. Brought up to fulfil the role of a traditional Hindu wife, Droapatie Capildeo, Ma, was by nature conservative. She obeyed her husband, brought up the children, and accepted her lot in life. Discipline in the form of quick slaps came from Ma, leaving Pa free to indulge their children. Whenever Pa, a journalist, regaled the family with embellished tales loosely based on events he covered for the newspaper, Ma would admonish him for filling the children’s heads with foolishness. Of all the siblings, it was Savi who was home the longest to enjoy Pa’s stories, and was perhaps closest to him. And of course it also meant she inherited the pain of her father’s unfulfilled ambitions. 

But Akal believes it is also time to recognise Ma’s contribution. The family could not have risen from their humble beginnings to produce a Nobel laureate in the lightning speed of one generation without her. Like many immigrants, both parents believed in the power of education to dig their way out of poverty. Usually this meant churning out children who become professionals — doctors, lawyers, or, at a push, accountants. But Pa had an audacious plan. They would write their way out. Ma may not have understood how this was possible, or even agreed with the idea, but she dutifully followed, endlessly sacrificing to help her husband fulfil his dream. Three generations later, look how far Pa’s crazy idea has come. 

 

Ma’s contribution wasn’t only in the scrimping and saving and making-do to ensure that both her sons — and, remarkably for that time, all five of her daughters — received a university education. She was also the main repository of the family’s oral history. Much of the research for V.S. Naipaul’s books came from what Akal describes as savage “interrogations” of their mother. Ma remained proud and loyal of that son, despite finding out about both his knighthood and his Nobel Prize only from the newspapers — and she certainly was never invited to any of the celebrations. 

Akal’s memoir also charts Ma’s quiet path to a state of independence. Without seeking anyone’s permission, she took a job at her brother’s quarry, saving her wages to help the household and later paying for a trip to India which, at her insistence, she did alone. I ask Akal what else her readers might be surprised to learn. Her eyes twinkle. Unusually, for both her parents this was a second marriage. And while their family were atypical in being urban Indo-Trinidadians, many were surprised at her in-depth knowledge of the life of Indians in the countryside. Few also knew of the Naipauls’ precarious finances, never seeing beyond the smart dresses they sewed themselves or the polished wooden floors of their home. 

What I also discovered from The Naipauls of Nepaul Street was that the self-effacing woman in front of me had sacrificed her own education and intellectual fulfilment several times for what she saw as the greater good of her family. Akal possesses a deep sense of duty and loyalty to her family — a loyalty that meant she always kept Ma close, nursed her dying sister, and loves her youngest sibling fiercely, even if that baby sister, Nalini, is now herself a grandmother. Even as Akal exposes the chaos and uncertainty of their upbringing, it is clear it comes from a place of love.

The quiet of the house is interrupted by her eldest son Rai dropping by for an unexpected visit. Her charming husband appears, and announces teatime is over. Would I try one of his famous martinis?

And, just like that, I am welcomed into their daily routine of a dry martini, as we watch the sun set fire to the sky.


In Nepaul Street 

An excerpt from chapter three of The Naipauls of Nepaul Street, by Savi Naipaul Akal

My father had bought the house in Nepaul Street from a young man and his mother, named Nieves. Of Portuguese descent, Mr Nieves worked as a solicitor’s clerk. He had supervised the building of the house, where sills and frames were often crooked (I know, because I made the draperies). Apparently his aged mother was no longer able to climb the steep and uneven steps to the upper floor. 

Our home, which seems so small today, was bright and beautiful and inviting. A two-storey building, the bedrooms and the bathroom were on the upper floor, while the living-room, dining-room, and kitchen were on the ground floor. Upstairs, between the two bedrooms and facing the street was an open-sided gallery on the southwestern corner which was immediately turned into a half-bedroom for Vidia. The wooden partitions between the rooms had open woodwork grilles at the tops. The windows remained open except during rain, and the winds skipped through both bedrooms. The openness of the ground floor, with its lattice panels on which a bleeding-heart vine grew, mitigated the smallness of the house and allowed plenty of light and good ventilation. No part of that small, compact house was dark or claustrophobic. 

Our parents’ bedroom had its SlumberKing bed, with the hat-rack pinned on the back of one of its doors. A tiny desk was in the corner and later they would add a cypre wardrobe with a full-length mirror. The girls’ bedroom had a tall iron four-poster with a smaller bed in which Kamla and Shiva slept. There was room for a decent corridor between the beds. We also had a bureau with four drawers to hold our belongings and a draped makeshift cupboard behind one of the doors that held our dresses, with shoe-boxes on the top. The two-tiered cotton curtains, graduating from cretonne to broderie anglaise over the years, allowed privacy and easy laundering. All laundry was done by hand over a washtub by our mother. 

With Pa’s gardening skills, through each bedroom we could view greenery: the hills and acacia tree to the north, our neighbours the Sudans’ breadfruit tree to the south, and our struggling plum tree to the east, which finally grew into view bearing few fruit but shiny leaves. That the property faced west into the afternoon sun was a definite drawback. But with everyone out of the house except on weekends and during the school holidays, we managed the heat of the early afternoons. We had a very small yard with a curved driveway to the garage. In retrospect, the size of the plot made it easier to manage, with a tiny garden on three sides and a back area for the laundry lines. 

Our arrival at 26 Nepaul Street was unforgettable. There was a hubbub of activity involving only our family. Pa and Vido had to mount the beds while Ma and Kamla were putting up the salmon-pink draperies and encasing the cushions of the Morris chairs with matching flowered cretonne. The Morris chairs had come as part of the deal with the house. 

With polished floors and matching rugs, a small table and a shining brass pot with three legs and the heads of lions, and the smell of new linoleum on the kitchen floor, we were buzzing with joy and experiencing a lightness that would carry on for days. Mira, Shiva, and I had nothing to do but keep out of the way. Sati must have been doing some kind of pleasurable chore like hanging our teacups on the cup-hooks left by the previous owners. The Rediffusion box on the wall in the gallery upstairs provided news and music, and our world seemed complete. (These boxes, or closed-circuit transmitters, rented by the month and operated by Radio Trinidad, were everywhere in homes before radios became cheap and the government granted licences for other stations to operate.) With time, the old kitchen table that held our pots and pans would be replaced and Ma would enjoy working on her two-burner kerosene stove. We as children were happy and carefree, but we had no idea what this, our new home, would have meant to our parents, who had struggled over the years to get to home base. 

The Naipauls of Nepaul Street (ISBN 97818452323648) is published by Peepal Tree Press