The designation of Naipaul House as a heritage site is long overdue.
Naipaul House was immortalised in VS Naipaul’s classic A House for Mr Biswas, in which Naipaul, now 82, used the actual house located at 26 Nepaul Street as a setting in his novel. Although he lived there for only four years before emigrating to England at the age of 18, the house in the book and in real life represented a personal triumph for Naipaul’s father, Seepersad.
As the opening chapter says: “How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it...to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
VS Naipaul is considered one of the world’s greatest writers in the English language, and A House for Mr Biswas has been ranked among the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. This is no small achievement for an individual born in the then-colony of Trinidad, even if he had to emigrate to Britain to fulfil his literary potential. And, given such stature, turning Naipaul’s homes into heritage sites should have been a matter of course.
Of course, it was not. The project came to fruition only through years of unflagging effort by private citizens, and in the face of official indifference. Prof Kenneth Ramchand and his team are to be commended for carrying out what, in a developed society, would be standard practice. Nonetheless, with no trace of irony, Minister of National Diversity and Social Integration Rodger Samuel, who gave the feature address at the official opening, called on citizens to be “keepers of the national heritage”.
But in no nation does this responsibility devolve on ordinary citizens. Instead, it is either the State or private philanthropists who take on this task. The latter are lacking in Trinidad and Tobago, insofar as preserving historical buildings is concerned. And the State has an entirely sorry record in this regard, with the crumbling Magnificent Seven buildings of the Queen’s Park Savannah only being the most outstanding examples.
Similarly, therefore, there is now a danger that Naipaul House would come to ruin through official neglect. Prof Ramchand has given a hedged assurance on this, saying that, “During our watch, the house shall not fall. And it will not fall because it will be the centre from which we seek to nurture literature and the literary arts.”
That is all well and good, but Prof Ramchand’s watch will only be for a few years more. Hopefully, before then, Naipaul House will be a self-sustaining entity or have guaranteed financial commitment from the State.