Off to Trinidad

I am going to Trinidad next week with family. The ostensible reason is to attend, and present, at a conference at UWI on Global South Asian Diasporas (see the conference program here).

But I am also very much looking forward to exploring in person an island that has figured large in my thinking for years (largely because of V.S. Naipaul). I feel I already know Trinidad, but what I know is a series of representations and abstractions; I am looking forward to replacing those abstractions with at least a brief glimpse of the reality.

Apropos of the trip, I am posting a chapter of my 2006 book, Literary Secularism, online in case anyone wants to have a look at it: here.

The chapter is first and foremost on Naipaul's evolving relationship to religious communalism in India; I am perhaps predictably critical of his extremist statements, though I find that they are quite different from the more even-handed tone of Naipaul's earlier writing (where he was critical of all forms of religious or ideological fanaticism).

Naipaul has had an outsize influence on subsequent generations of postcolonial writers and critics, especially South Asian diasporic writers. In the second half of the chapter then, I look at how Amitav Ghosh and Amitava Kumar, both of whom are self-consciously Naipaulian in their approach to mixed-genre travel writing, have critiqued Naipaul's posture of detachment regarding specifically religious fanaticism. Both writers have written movingly about the difficulty in standing up to religious extremism at different historical moments (Ghosh, during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, and Kumar, in response to Ayodhya and the riots that followed in 1992).

Finally, I return to Naipaul's own early autobiographical writings, which reflect a highly anxious, even tortured personal relationship to his family's religious practices. My larger argument is that Naipaul's posture of secular, writerly detachment is an attempt to counter a version of religious experience and identity, inherited from his father, that threatens to fundamentally undermine his sense of personhood.

A long time ago I also posted chapter one of Literary Secularism as an HTML file. You can read that here.