August 2018

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The Suffrage of Elvira is comically alive and politically relevant at the age of 60. The novel was published in April 1958, two years after VS Naipaul’s first return visit to Trinidad in 1956. His uncle Simboonath Capildeo was a candidate for the “Indian” party (the PDP), and during his visit, Naipaul experienced the campaigning for the election that was to initiate 30 unbroken years of control by one political party (the PNM). The good things that happened during this period have been recognised, but the malformations that set in have not been corrected and may never be able to be corrected.

The racial tensions Naipaul saw in 1956. His fears for the fate of the Indian population and his sense of the communal terrors Independence might bring enter The Mimic Men (1967) and Guerrillas (1975), books written after some time had passed and after further grounding visits to the island had been made.

The mind has its own ways of working. It came to Naipaul during those disturbing weeks that he should write a novel about a rural election. He chose to build the story around the 1950 general elections. He invented a fictional constituency called Elvira in the remote County of Naparoni, and he provided a voters list. Elvira has 8,000 registered voters: 4,000 Hindus; 1,000 Muslims; 2,000 Africans; and 1,000 Spanish cocoa-panyols. The new voters have no idea what the vote means or what to do with it except to sell it to the highest bidder or surrender it to a broker.

The invented constituency used to be a grand cocoa estate, and is named after the plantation owner’s wife Elvira, who had had a baby by an African worker and buried it in the foundation at the time the cocoa house was being built. All Elvirans are afraid to encounter the baby ghost of the cocoa house when darkness falls. (But not, of course, as much as they fear the obeah dog that crawls down the high street like a gunslinger at high noon.)

Naipaul gave to Elvira a geographical setting that is recognisably in Caroni, around Couva, Gran Couva and Tortuga. It is an “innocent” landscape already being exploited for lumber and quarrying. One of the finest views of Trinidad is seen (and can still be seen from Tortuga) from the top of Elvira Hill: “Below, the jungly hills and valleys of the Central Range. Beyond, to the South, the sugarcane fields, the silver tanks of the oil refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre, and the pink and white houses of San Fernando; to the west, the shining rice fields and swamps of Caroni, and the Gulf of Paria; the Caroni Savannah to the north, and the settlements at the foot of the Northern Range.” To Candidate Harbans and the large-scale operators whose lethal coming Naipaul’s novel anticipates, it is “a lot of bush” for lumber; and plenty rock and dirt for quarrying.

The 1950 Elections

In the 1950 elections, the general area in which Elvira is located was divided into Caroni North (won by Mitra Sinanan) and Caroni South (won by Ranjit Kumar). All the island’s constituencies had been adjusted to make sure that each of them would have around 12,000 voters. There were 18 elected seats for which 141 business-minded candidates offered themselves. Of the 90 Independents, six were returned; of those with nominal party affiliations, 12 won places. The Butler party (which always aimed to unite African and Indians) won six, the Trinidad Labour Party (TLP) won two, and the Caribbean Socialist Party (CSP) won two. The moderate Political Progress Group (PPG) also won two seats. It is worth noting that after the election, two winners (Bhadase Sagan Maraj and Tobago’s APT James) pledged support for Butler in the 18-member Legislative Council. But the Legislative Council did not choose Butler or any of the other seven “Butler” members to serve on the Executive Council. With supreme self-contempt, they chose Albert Gomes who wielded great power as Chief Minister, and three Independents (Norman Tang, Roy Joseph and Ajodhasingh), who also became ‘Ministers’. Butler claimed quite justifiably that he had been cheated, and everybody knew why.

Before and after the election there was talk about an alliance of the radical groups, but all the party candidates were individualists to whom the so-called party affiliations were relationships of convenience, with people shifting around to suit their personal interests. The Elections and Boundaries Commission did not bother to list any of the candidates as belonging to a political party. Some of the campaigners complained that the only sure thing you could count on to influence voters was personal influence and bribes.

Personal influence and bribery

Elvira knows nothing about the political parties and doesn’t know the names of the political figures of the time, but it shared in the reliance on personal influence and bribery to get votes. If the native politicians in the Legislative Council of 1950 could have brought themselves to unite, they would have been a potent majority in the Legislative Council and could have held a majority in the Executive Council They would not have been able to take charge since the new constitution left the Governor with the absolute power to curb their enthusiasm. But that was not a good reason to refuse to unite.

Harbans has his home in Port of Spain and Chittaranjan has a lawyer brother in the city. And Elvirans can refer to Hitler or call one another “Nazi spy”, but the constituency is quite closed in upon itself. The national and political issues aired in Port of Spain and other “developed” areas do not figure in The Suffrage of Elvira. There is nothing about political parties or coalitions. But in The Suffrage of Elvira you can see the beginnings of what is to be the power of the party, the beginning of the time when the individuality of the candidate does not matter, a time when, as one Prime Minister would gloat, any crapaud the Party puts up will win the seat.

When candidate Harbans complains about the amount of money he is being called upon to spend and that it wasn’t so in 1946, the cash-extractor Baksh explains that modern times have come: “What you say about 1946 is true. Nobody did spend much money. But that was only the fust election. People did just go and vote for the man they like. Now is different. People learning. You have to spend on them.”

And at one point, Harbans’s campaign committee finds that the whining candidate (mounting expenses, negotiating with tricky voters and demanding allies) gets in their way, and they want him to go back home to Port of Spain and leave them to do what has to be done to win the election.

Among the Indians, the day of the village headman and the religious leader is passing: the modern time of the loudspeaker and the motorcade, the platform and the heckling crowd, the backroom boys, the bread and the circuses is establishing itself.

Hints of coming things

Naipaul started to write the novel at the end of 1956 and finished it in 1957. As social scientist, he sets it down as he picked it up. For instance, none of the campaigners in Elvira targets the female vote. The assumption of the time and the assumption in the novel is that the wife votes as her husband does. But there are signs of the coming thing: there are three women in the book who speak up for themselves and rebel against male control. The deserted “doolahin” works resentfully as an unpaid servant in the house of her father-in-law. (The marriage was a set-up. Dhaniram knew that “the boy” was going away to further his studies, and a servant was needed.) The duped doolahin breaks tradition and elopes with Lorkhoor the broadcaster; the teenager Nelly Chittaranjan refuses an arranged marriage and gets to attend the Regent Street Polytechnic in London where she goes to all the dances; and the stressed-out Mrs Baksh (who reveres Pundit Ganesh Ramsumair of The Mystic Masseur) rules the backsliding Baksh household with a heavy hand and a withering tongue. She sees the family being destroyed by the new dispensation: “Is your fault, Baksh. Is this election sweetness that sweeten you up so. And now you seeing how sour it turning. You having people throwing all sorta magic and obeah in my house, you have all my sons lying to my face, and you have my biggest son talking to me like if I is his daughter. Is your fault, Baksh. This election business done turning sour, I tell you.” (Nimrod!)

Painting an accurate picture

In The Suffrage of Elvira, Naipaul disciplines himself to paint an accurate picture of how his characters behave and interact in society. No more. No less. The mirror that is held up to the society shows the influences of personal ambition, greed, poverty, race, religion, superstition, and language limbo. The registers of Trinidad English used by the characters slide into one another, from rural Indian dialect right through to the grandiloquent utterances of Lorkhoor and Foam vying to be the finest English speaker in the County of Naparoni. Here is Foam, ostensibly mocking Lorkhoor’s spiel but copying him: “People of Elvira, this is the voice of Foreman Baksh, popularly known to all and sundry as Foam, asking you –not begging you or imploring you or beseeching you or entreating you – but asking you and telling you to vote for the honourable and ever popular candidate, Mr Pat Harbans.”

The influencing factors overlap, and work at different times in different ways, with the proportions and dominant combinations constantly shifting, just as they did at that confused time, and as they do now.

“Things were crazily mixed up in Elvira. Eveybody, Hindus, Muslims and Christians owned a Bible, the Hindus and Muslims looking on it, if anything, with greater awe. Hindus and Muslims celebrated Christmas. The Spaniards and some of the Negroes celebrated the Hindu festival of lights. Someone had told them that Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity was being honoured; they placed small earthen lamps on their money-boxes and waited as they said for the money to breed. Everybody celebrated the Muslim festival of Hosein. In fact when Elvira was done with religious festivals, there were few straight days left.”

T&T incongruities give rise to comedy

The scientific observations contained in The Suffrage of Elvira contradict many of our analysts who see race as the defining factor in Trinidad politics. The novel recognises the influence of race, and registers that it is the mindless fall-back position. However, it casts doubt on the promotion of race as the exclusive and dominant active factor. It exposes the discontinuity between our culture and the systems and institutions that we imitatingly work, and cavalierly bend, to suit our partisan and self-seeking purposes. The humour and comedy of the work thrive on these and other incongruities. This is why Lloyd Best described The Suffrage as the exemplary work of an artist and scientist.

The Prologue begins with a host of signs like “Awake”, “We are Witnesses”, “Harbans Transport Service”. It contains portents or apparitions – two white women travelling through Elvira; a black bitch crossing the path of Harbans’s Dodge; and the truck stalls not once, but twice. You can read the whole of The Suffrage of Elvira as a sign portending the irresponsible and unimaginative political practices that have been destroying our country since Independence. But the artist imposes no thesis. There is no thesis. The elements are just found floating around in the not yet Awakened Elvira.

When democracy comes to Elvira, Mrs Baksh, the wife of the Muslim leader, is afraid of what catastrophe the free-for-all might bring into the society: “Nobody ain’t listening to me. Everybody just washing their foot and jumping in this democracy business. But I promise you, for all the sweet it begin sweet, it is going to end damn sour.” Mrs Baksh says this so often that it becomes a motif in the novel. Near the end, the function at which the Committee is to receive a case of whisky for “winning” the election is disrupted by the voting crowd’s protest that it is they who deserve the reward and it is an insult to ask them to come and witness the Committee receiving an award: “Look at these poor people! They come from all over the place. You think a man go put on his clothes, take up his good good self and walk from Cordoba to Elvira in the night-time with all this dew falling, just to see committee get a case of whisky?” Chaos ensues. Like a pack of dogs everybody takes turns attacking everybody else. In the babel, “Rampiari’s husband switched his attack to Baksh. Baksh was attacking Harbans. Foam was being attacked by innumerable anonymous people. Mahadeo was being attacked by people whose illness he had spurned. Haq was poking questions directly under Harbans’s nose. Harbans was saying ‘Ooh, ooh’ and trying to pacify everybody.”

Naipaul works in certain Biblical allusions devastatingly. The Jehovah witnesses in the novel preach that “politics ain’t divine” and an old Cordoban pronounces the name of Nimrod (without fully understanding the allusion to the Biblical figure who invented politics and imposed a destructive Stateism that set itself up as above family, personal relationships, community, country and God). The Presbyterian-educated Hindu pundit Dhaniram slaps his thighs and parrots the catchword “Armageddon” with reference to the bacchanal in Elvira.

Babel and violence

Naipaul rounds off the novel with a witty balance sheet of who gains what and who loses what in the election raffle. But the real climax is babel and violence – the violent action of the mob against the organisers and the elected representative now clothed in jacket and tie, and sporting a shiny Jaguar motor car. It is violence against privilege and the lack of a participatory democracy. Not far away are the explosions of 1970 and 1990, and the sense of doom and danger that many people feel today.