|PETRAS ESSAYS IN ENGLISH|
Januari 23, 2002
Early on Biperdhar Sukumar was resentful of everyone and everything around him: when Mukarjee's son Ravi got a brand new bicycle, he told himself it was because his shop keeper father cheated his customers, taking advantage of the ignorant cane cutters. When he nagged his father into eventually buying him a bicycle, he rode through the streets and country roads enjoying the sight of the broad leaves of the wild tunnia plants ignoring the barefoot carriers loaded with bundles of cut cane. His father spoke to him of his grandfather, a Brahman, a man of soul and dignity who came over as an indentured servant, a day laborer, but a man of vast spiritual depth. B.S. as he later called himself was short and stubby, and he too imagined India's great spiritual depth, his wondrous ancestral past. He despised the agile Africans and the lithe Indians with their bats in hand who competed in the cricket matches. "What they lack in brains they make up in muscle, even between their ears," this was one of B.S.'s first aphorisms. He was a precocious social commentator, whose first hand knowledge of the Caribbean would later be rewarded in his second home, England. His first home was India, he was born in Trinidad through a misunderstanding.
Early on B.S. had an uncanny knack for manipulating his skin color and national origins to ingratiate himself to his British school masters. In the classroom he would be the first to his feet and in a full throated monotone sing 'God save Queen' to the pleasure of his teachers and the ire of his schoolmates. He valiently resisted the spitballs which bounced off of his extended ears. He was the most studious of the studious students and not only of Shakespeare, Swift and the Victorians: he also consumed and regurgitated the class and racial prejudice of his favorite British authors. He shared the colonial belief in the therapeutic effect of 'sports' for the over sexed African and (East) Indian political trouble-makers: but not for himself. His one and only complaint in school was the compulsory exercise class: even at an early age he had trouble touching his toes. He loved the praise his teachers bestowed on his essays and his studied imitation of the literary style of Dickens and other Victorians. One of his British trained schoolmasters found B.S.' over-weening embrace of the values of colonial overlords, and their public displays of civility and quaint county-life as embarrassing. He encouraged B.S. to be more discerning -- that a lot of the outward civility and displays of courteous behavior masked callow cant and brutal acts. But B.S. would not be moved: whatever possible wrongs might be attributed to the British middle class, were far out-weighed by their basic decency. They were exemplars of a civilized people, something lacking on the Island.
His childhood was one of isolation, in part self-imposed by his sense of superiority, a feisty Caribbean Brahmin. Most Afro-Caribs, ignored him because of his awkward mannerisms, while the sons of the Indian cane cutters taunted him for his air of superiority. Later he got his revenge on all of them: he took all of his basic learning skills from the Island's schools and then credited England and his misunderstood and mythical India for his success. What bothered him most on the Island was that no one knew their place. The Caribbean was a jumble of races, impurities and he knew that miscegnation could produce nothing of value, just endless clap-trap, wiggling backsides and boisterous phony laughter. "They show more teeth than brains," he once confided to an English editor.
In England he thought he found the next best thing to caste: a rigid class system that sustained a highly civilized polity. Curiously enough B.S. came to England precisely when the old class system of bigoted gentleman as patrons of the arts was coming to an end. With the expansion of the welfare system, progressive taxation and the conversion of the old rentier elite to the sharp elbows U.S. style of capitalism, Old England was dead. Being a late-comer with little sense of the changing historical and social realities, B.S. sought to resuscitate the Victorian story book view of England as the land of civility, democracy and patrician concern for the poor. Suez didn't bother him: nor did he flinch at the slaughter of the Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising or of British complicity with the U.S. war in Indo-China. His obsession with standing loyal to the Tory virtues overrode any blemishes on the Queen's gin soaked cheeks. His drive for recognition and money as much as his contempt for his past -- the Caribbean, Africans, the Third World -- fueled his rabid polemics dressed in the clothes of his literary characters. His cleverness in turning a phrase, in providing an incisive close-up of everyday life and fusing it with his banal philosophical reflection certainly gave his work a gloss of realism and universalism. But only the appearance.
Biperdhar Sukumar's adoption of a two initial name came with his reincarnation as a gentleman scholar. Later on the two initials were preceded by the honorific but debased knighthood. Sir B.S. Nodpol was quietly unnerved by the fact that his knighthood was granted after Mick Jagger's who apparently earned more foreign exchange for the British Exchequer with his gyrations and ranting than Biper's books. The double initials fit his self image of an English gentleman and helped him forget the ugly pejorative nicknames ("Viper") which his schoolmates greeted him in the Island.
What he could not do or performed badly, he hated. Perhaps that was not an unusual response -- but what was hardly normal was the degree to which B.S. raised his dislikes to universal principles. An abject failure at sports and dance, a control freak devoid of any spontaneity or sense of solidarity, he made up for all of that by sucking up to his superiors, especially those who could help him up the ladder of success.
He converted his vices into virtues. He justified his breezy narratives of history devoid of any tedious research of primary resources by arguing that his deep philosophical reflections could not be boxed in by "pedanticism." What his essays lacked in documentation they made up in clever, well-honed phrases. The literary elegance and forceful articulation of his peculiar sensibility to the nuances of every day Caribbean life covered up his shoddy research and disdain for the historical and social record. What propelled his career was a combination of style and imperial prejudice. The former seduced the liberals, the latter appealed to the conservatives. His jaundiced eye's caricature and ridicule of the critics of the new imperialism entertained the City, the snobs, and the aficianados of the Times Literary Supplement. The counting house aesthetes and the gate-keepers of the literary establishment were central to being invited to the Big House, as the Indo-Caribs of Trinidad called it. B.S. did marvels for the English language, but not in the way that some of his liberal acolytes contended.
After his first literary successes and as he became a quotable author, he became a virtuoso in emptying concepts of their classical meaning and refilling them with his own self-serving prejudices. For example when Biper spoke or wrote of "respect for civic virtue" he really meant sycophancy to the Establishment; when he spoke of "maintaining high literary standards" he really meant "dishonest and unfounded polemics."
He fit Adorno's authoritarian personality: at the toes of Her Majesty and at the jugular of those without power and influence. This was clearly illustrated by his response to upper and lower class flatulence -- farting in public places. At a reception in his honor at Buckingham Palace, he was listening to Her Majesty chatting to a circle of friends when she let go with a noisy and subsequent smelly fart, without pausing a comma. Impressive performance, but he dare not even smile to himself. He later wrote a piece about the importance of the Monarchy in maintaining civil manners in public places. On one of his rare visits to Trinidad, and one of his rarer passages through a public market, a Rasta street vendor approached him selling ganga. Inadvertently he farted, and immediately apologized, with a smile. The enraged Biper turned the incident into an imaginative philosophical diatribe against Caribbean people "whose obscenities in public places is a well known fact."
From his Trinidad days B.S. had his eyes on the prize, a keen ear for picking up elite prejudices and a sharp tongue for expressing them. Fanon could have had Biper in mind when he wrote Black Masks, White Faces, an essay on colonized Third World intellectuals. In a more popular idiom his schoolmates in high school called him "Coco," coconut: brown on the outside and white on the inside. These slings and arrows were hardly a misfortune because B.S. was proud of being identified with the British colonial authorities. He knew these stupid Africans were organically incapable of understanding that his family came from a long lineage of Brahmans, whose servants, cleaners of the night pans, were of superior character to this plebeian African mob.
When the black power and negritude movement of Aime Cesaire' began to gain influence B.S. was highly disturbed, as it challenged his fundamental values, not to speak of his chosen path of social mobility. After the initial shock, he developed a sense of inner superiority and outward malicious glee. He told one of his acquaintances Mahendra Sen, "Black power won't get then anywhere." "Anywhere" being a scholarship to an English university.
Biper's sychophany however did not attract the attention of the scholarship givers either on the Island or in London. This disappointment he attributed to the mediocrity of the Afro Caribbean Committee and their cowardly Indian colleagues. The highly respected Brits were not responsible for overlooking this genius in the rough. They were misled, trusting souls, by the prejudicial locals who nominated their own cricket playing kin. It was an incident at the British Embassy which precipitated Biperdhar Sukumar to shorten his name to B.S., (though it was something he had longed to do in imitation of several British Lords and literary lions). The Embassy clerk called him Viperarse Kumar Naughtypo. When he flushed and meekly corrected him, the clerk was visibly annoyed and sent him back to his bench. B.S. Nodpol was born and since then nobody has mispronounced his name.
In his political travel books, particularly to the Third World Biper was particularly ingratiating to his colonial literary masters in London and New York. They loved the way he skewered all the nationalist leaders and loved the delightful way B.S.'s acerbic humor destroyed their pretensions of challenging "neocolonialism" by exposing their pecuniary improprieties. "How lovely that one of them says it for us," was a common refrain heard at the literary cocktail parties in Mayfair. Few really enjoyed his presence. "I prefer the book to the man," commented one Oxbridge stock broker.
"He really is an obnoxious bore, despite his obvious talents", one gracious hostess commented, wrinkling her nose, after a bout of flatulent exuberance interrupted a polite conversation between Lady Footsie and Sir Biperdhar.
His trip to Latin America was quite revealing of his literary talent. At the Sheraton in Buenos Aires he had a brilliant conversation with a shapely Porteña hooker, who claimed direct lineage to a famous land owning family. His book contained a memorable chapter on Argentine politics. Predictably it was a vitriolic panegyric ridiculing national-populism and the irrationality of the rowdy Peronist mob who only had beef steaks and soccer in their eyes. "The Golden Years at the turn of the century, under British hegemony were destroyed and in their place the mob worshipped the histrionic ex-bar maid, Eva Peron."
When historians and even some knowledgeable literary scholars of Latin American literature reviewing his book pointed out egregious errors of fact, of names, dates, sequences, and events, B.S. grandly dismissed them as missing the deeper interpretive truths that he uncovered while clumsily and greedily undressing his statuesque Argentine informant. "The world of literature is a work of the imagination not a replication of the world of fact," he pontificated, in an essay in the Times Literary Supplement. In response to critics, B.S. wrote: "Any journalistic hack can duly register dates and times and copy names properly. The important point in writing any political essay is to have a clear eye on the big picture, to have an interpretive framework that transcends everyday facts and illuminates our understanding of the ultimately moral meanings of Culture and Politics."
The Tories and even the New Labor yuppies understood B.S. thoroughly. They also transcended the everyday squalor of the National Health System, the Tube and the mendacious homeless loafers who cluttered the doorways and sidewalks, with their visions of a prosperous and moral England.
The vocal chorus of critics bothered B.S. He always was better at dishing out than taking it. On one occasion, when he was a schoolboy he ridiculed a neighboring Hindu child, Shipra Guha, for his ungrammatical English, whereupon the child turned on him and spat in his face "my grandfather paid his own way over here, yours didn't." Biper wiped his face and ran home, his lower lip trembling with shame and anger.
As he grew in stature and recognition, and the invitations to black tie receptions multiplied, B.S. wrote a brilliant piece on civic consciousness in the civilized West as the key to the stability of democracy while fulminating against the "failed states" of the Third World which relied on charismatic demagogues and totalitarian or medieval ideologues. When the Voice of America invited him to speak on Islam, Third World client regimes put their police on high alert.
Each year B.S. expected to receive The Call from Stockholm, feigning disinterest when he didn't receive it and expressing surprise and gratitude when he did.
It was purely coincidental that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and was praised as one of the world's most creative writer, the same year in which the Anglo Saxon countries bombed Afghanistan into the stone age - pulverized stone at that. He was a gracious and amiable recipient -- as he always was toward his upper class benefactors.
Even when Sir B.S. was at the pinnacle of success he couldn't escape his roots in the "sordid" Caribbean. The "incident" occurred after drinking toasts with the lily-white His and Her Majesty in Stockholm and putting his stubby fingers in the mitt of several dozen political dignateries, cultural celebrities and global swindlers of all faiths and colors. On his return to London he came across a tour bus full of middle aged Trinidadian tourists taking advantage of off-season rates parked not far from Trafalgar Square. As our Nobel literary giant was passing, someone yelled "Yo Coco." B.S. jerked his head -- an uncontrollable reflex response. "Hi mon," a burley black man hastened toward him with an extended hand. B.S. tried to quicken his pace but the black man stood in front of him big as a door.
Against his wishes he was forced to shake the man's hand (an action which he later despised for "truckling to the masses").
B.S. stared at the big grin on the man's face as he spoke. "I want to congratulate you for winning the Nobel Prize. You know its not only a personal honor, its an honor for all Trinidadians." B.S. flinched, bit his lip and his bladder almost gave out.
"Yes, thank you" Biper muttered, "I must go now." He tried to move around the big man.
"We were delighted that a local boy won the prize, someone educated from the same school you know," he let out a loud laugh. "I told the fellows at our weekly domino game, that your level of perception of the world is of the highest and your prose is the perfect instrument for realizing those perceptions on the page." He reached down and patted B.S. hunched back.
Biper walked on visibly shaken and annoyed, cursing alternately in bazaari Hindi and back ally cockney.
"That's it, the charlatan, he never talked to the domino loafers about me. He picked up those comments from Martin Amis in The Guardian. Typical Caribbean hustler, that's what he is, emblematic of everything that region stands for."
B.S. was a bit unfair. After all the big fellow did read the Guardian, and the cultural page at that.
He washed his soft plump hands and looked to see if the rough calloused hands of his tormentor had left any marks. He then sat down and wrote a memorable essay on "Counterfeit Cultures: The Caribbean and Western Civilization." It was an unusually vehement denunciation of what he called "garbage cover banging music, vulgar crotch gyrating dances." He described "reggae" as a repetitive fascist like rhythm whose lyrics were crude, derivatives from primitive African copulation rituals."
He recalled with shame the night he took his elderly parents to supper in a supposedly prime restaurant and while sitting in an outdoor terrace, a street troubadour began singing out "my love longs for the big bamboo."
"The passion of his hostility toward his Afro-Indo-Caribbean homeland was tempered by the elegance of expression," commented one of his reviewers in the Guardian.
As was to be expected, the "street intellectual" were unsympathetic to B.S. An uncertified psychologist diagnosed his violent ejaculations against Afro-Caribbean culture to penis envy. "I mean not to say that he doesn't have one but that he has problems, using it." A budding transplanted poet said Biper was an "inspired writer, writing from the profound depths of his own self-hatred."
Radical Indo-Caribbean and Pakistani intellectuals were divided.
Those with access to the mass media, thought it was a pity that such a talented writer who so beautifully portrayed the character of the East Indians should so vehemently deny his cultural identity. The younger more outspoken race conscious Indians said he was an "ass kisser," and went on peddling their pirated videos, CD's and hash on the busy sidewalks of London.
Viperdhar Sukumar had the credentials to win a Nobel Prize. Apart from his elegance of style, much commented by the literary critics, there was his trashing of the Third World: "the failed states," the internal corruption, demagogic leaders, ignorant and backward masses and dogmatic intellectuals who always blamed "Western Imperialism" for their failures. Alone among the Anglo-Saxon literary figures B.S. embraced Orientalism precisely when it was out of fashion. The Eastern masses were prone to irrational ideologies and authoritarian leaders. Their political system was inherently hostile to a civic culture. B.S. was a virulent critic of wimpy anthropologists and their literary accomplices who patronized the degenerates in Africa with their cultural relativism. He, a brown man, appreciated the profound distance between Western democratic values and high culture and the Third World's paltry achievements and phony attempts to restore a dead or decrepit past of mass murders and blood rituals. His unashamed celebration of Western Culture and Democracy occurred at a time when a handful of white Anglo-Saxon intellectuals were criticizing the Anglo- American bombing of Yugoslavia, the indiscriminant destruction of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the prolonged boycott of Iraq causing a half million infant deaths. B.S. Nodpol did not go to 10 Downing Street for tea or to a luncheon at the White House in order to be briefed. He didn't need to because he was intuitively tuned in to the voices of Western imperial power. He cherished it, or better, still the benefits that accrued from it. B.S. sincerely believed he was lauded and rewarded for being exactly what he was: a very talented and perceptive writer with an unmatched imagination for defending the privileged few in the name of British civilization.
His deep hatred for "plebeian culture" resonated with the new rich Thatcherite swindlers who flaunted their wealth. Above all he excoriated working class consciousness and culture as "an aggressively plebeian culture that celebrates itself for being plebeian."
B.S. was extremely personal in his assaults on authors who dared to tread in his self-assumed proprietary literary subjects. He described E. M. Forester's famous novel A Passage To India as rubbish. On Forester he was less kind. "He was somebody who didn't know Indian people. He just knew a few middle class Indians and the garden boys whom he wished to seduce." B.S. felt uneasy because of Forester's deep insight into the sycophancy of upwardly mobile Indians. His vivid psychological insights resonated too close to home. B.S. behavior and worse his writing matched too closely the hypocrisy and cant of the colonized Indian functionaries who Forester so aptly skewered.
Above all else the Nobel payoff was facilitated by Sir Biper's trashing of Islam at a time of imperial conquest and destruction. The rumor was that the literary award was made on the basis of political criteria, Sir Biperdhar's unstinting service in defense of imperial civilization.
Indian scholars, feminists and not a few writers protested vehemently when B.S. was awarded the distinguished scholar of the century award by the BJP government. The historians were particularly incensed because of Sir Biper's demonstrated ignorance of recent scholarship on India's emerging 'national culture' during and against the colonial regime. "His views are those of a third generation immigrant. He has an idealized view of what India was, what it is today and where it is going. His narrative is little more than ill-informed speculation to titillate overseas Anglo-Indians," a prominent professor of gender studies commented. A sociologist, of lower caste origins, found "an absolute ignorance of Indian popular culture and creative indigenous forms of resistance. His book must have been written in a Soho café or a tea room in Grovsenor Square."
Needless to say there was an army of Indian scribes, editors, and pundits, who (whatever their private reservations on his scholarship) felt pride of place in receiving their long lost son, and Nobel Prize winner as one of their own. Those in the past who might have named their sons Vladimir now rushed to register a multitude of Biperdhars.
There were of course the usual suave and deliciously circumventional British literary functionaries who found a way around the Brahman's ill-informed diatribes against Islam and its "calamitous effect" on Society. Forgetting several hundred years of Islamic rule during which Jewish philosophers, Greek merchants, Arab mathematicians and Western classical scholars and scientists flourished, the Nobel Prize winner condemned Islam, plagiarizing the rhetoric of U.S. Defense Security Donald Rumsfeld. "To be converted to Islam you have to destroy your past, destroy your history. You have to stamp on it, you have to say 'My ancestral culture does not exist, it doesn't matter.'" British functionaries unctuously softened B.S.'s crude diatribe, against Islamic societies by diluting it in vacuous generalities. "The present situation perhaps will make room for a more muted reaction. What he is really attacking in Islam is a particular trait that it has in common with all cultures that conquerors bring along, that it tends to obliterate the preceding culture." B.S. of course did not refer to "all conquerors." He never ranted against Anglo-American's B-52 war planes and their 15,000 pound "daisy cutters" which were doing a most thorough job of "stamping out past and present" Afghan cultures, along with villages, hospitals, schools and any two stones stacked on top of each other.
It is easy to give sway to the poetic license of a great author, even in his most prosaic flights of colonialist fancy.
Even among his most ardent conservative supporters, there were some from the 'Old School' who had some reservations about B.S. particularly those who had some family experience in colonial India. At his private club Lord Anthony Blimpton once told his bridge foursome "I know he's good for the Empire, but you know back then our Indian gardeners, with a respectful smile would say one thing in front of you and then bad mouth you among their own. Never invite an Indian to supper, if you value your silverware!" His colleague Percivile objected.
"Come now Anthony, didn't you hear what Biper said about phony Tony Blair, 'he's destroying our civilization.' Right on the mark, I'd say. I'd have him over for supper, or at least a glass of sherry."
Sir Blimpton flushed: "Out to supper perhaps but never have that brown monkey to my house. Enough of that! What has it come to when we have to have a Caribbean Hindu defending our Civilization. Three cheers for our Anglo- Indians." Sir Blimpton bent over to see his cards; vanity precluded the use of specs.
It is rather doubtful that Sir Biper ever hears Lord Blimpton's derogatory comments, but it is certainly the case that he shared his zoological view of Trinidadians. To the British Lord he was a monkey. To the Nobel Prize winner, the people of Trinidad fit the description precisely, according to an interview published in the Guardian. "I can't see a Monkey -- you can use a capital M, that's an affectionate word for the generality reading my work. These Trinidadians live purely physical lives which I find contemptible. It makes them only interesting to chaps in universities who want to carry on compassionate studies about brutes."