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Shiva Naipaul: Fireflies

Naipaul’s first novel focuses on the Kohoj family and, in particular, Baby Lutchman. She had an arranged marriage with Ram Lutchman, a bus driver. For Baby, the marriage was a bad one, but it never entered her head that she might complain or refuse to marry Ram. Ram was not good-looking, he was not affectionate or loving, he was not kind and he was not faithful. Baby knows that she has to perform the duties expected of her as a good Indian wife and mother. As Baby is a Kohoj, it is a coup for Ram to marry into the family and he uses it to his advantage. Much of the novel is how Baby survives not only her husband but also her two sons, who resemble their father more than they do her. Her younger son, Romesh, goes to prison and then goes off to America, where he marries a Puerto Rican, while Bhaskar suffers from depression. About half-way through the book, Ram dies but Baby struggles on, keeping her head up through adversity and Naipaul’s portrait of an unfortunate woman who manages to survive and even thrive through it all is makes the book worth reading in itself.

However, Naipaul also gives us the story of the Khoja family. Once considered the elite of the Trinidad Hindu society, their influence is fading as other members of the community convert to Christianity and move with the times. The patriarch of the family, revered by his family, is clearly a throwback to old times and out of touch with what is happening around him. He runs for election on behalf of his own party, the People’s Socialist Movement (he is a big fan of Rousseau), against the People’s Democratic Movement, represented by Jagdev. It is not clear which is worst. Jagdev had to resign from a previous position for corruption and he campaigns in an American car, his arms around a beautiful girl and a bottle of rum in the other hand. Mr. Khoja, not to be outdone, also campaigns in an American car, with his wife in a beautiful sari, while he waves his copy of Rousseau at the crowds. Naturally, the electorate prefers the Jagdev approach.

Naipaul’s portrait of Trinidad during a period of change in that country is full of wit and the story of the Khoja family, told with affection mixed with mockery, sees him at the height of his powers, a height he will not attain again in his short career. But it is the resilient, steadfast Baby Lutchman that helps makes this novel one to compare with the work of his brother.

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