A novel Shiva Naipaul wrote in his twenties still illumines Mahesh Rao’s world. What if Sir Vidia’s less famous sibling had stuck around a little longer?
A ragged bit of sticky tape holds the top half of the spine together. the corners of the last fifty pages have been discoloured, the white letters on the back cover turning teal with age. My copy of Shiva Naipaul’s first novel, Fireflies, was bought in the Nation bookstore at the New Stanley hotel, Nairobi, in the late 1980s. Since then, whenever I’ve moved, it has been one of the first things I’ve packed.
When I first read the book as a teenager, I was probably most attracted to it by its setting. The Trinidad that leapt out of its pages was excitingly foreign, yet oddly familiar: the boarding houses and rum shops of port of Spain, drab suburbs straining for an unattainable grandeur, villages strung out along narrow roads looping through sugarcane fields. From my own life in Kenya, I recognised something of the complex interactions of the different racial groups in Trinidadian society. And I thrilled at the dazzling dialogue— here at last was English; not the staid textbook version, but a zesty, colloquial idiom, which had a legitimacy I had never known.
It is, however, by rereading the novel every three or four years that I have come to recognise Fireflies as the master-piece that it is. At the heart of the book is Baby Lutchman, youngest of the Khoja sisters, part of a large orthodox hindu family that refuses to acknowledge its declining social and political significance. A superbly balanced synthesis of ruthless tragedy and sublime comedy, the narrative reveals the delicacy of the structures on which this world rests. When the Khoja matriarch finally dies, her position is inherited by her son, Govind, a man whose many concerns include the danger of his name “becoming mud” in Cambridge.
Starting from the Khoja ancestral home, we are led through a great dance of social interactions at weddings, funerals and religious gatherings, in suburban sitting rooms and rural teashops, over garden fences and on debris-covered beaches, all presented with acute psychological insight, as well as a splendid sense of mischief. Yet always we return to the figure of baby. She makes the best of her marriage to ram, a choleric man given to unpredictable enthusiasms who, when considering his wife, tries “to think only of her nose”. Her aspirations lead her into a range of entrepreneurial endeavours and at every stage she remains doughty and optimistic. old orders shatter and random cruelties occur. But baby remains “on the whole, not displeased” with the way her commonplace ambitions are whittled down to the most meagre contentment. Fireflies is above all a tale of the heroism of the ordinary.
Shiva Naipaul died in 1985, aged 40. For those of us who only ever knew him through his writing, there will always be sadness at the thought of the works he might have gone on to create. It is a comfort, however, to think that there are still many readers who haven’t yet discovered Fireflies; to imagine what they will experience when they finish reading it.
I sometimes wish I could read it again for the first time.
Mahesh Rao’s first novel, The Smoke Is Rising, won the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for fiction in 2014.
Mahesh Rao was born and brought up in Kenya. His short fiction has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest, and has appeared in numerous journals and magazines. His first novel, The Smoke Is Rising, won the Tata First Book Award for fiction.