Excerpt From Finding the Center by V. S. Naipaul
"Prologue to an Autobiography" is what its title says. It is not an autobiography, a story of life or deeds done. It is an account of something less easily seized: my literary beginnings and the imaginative promptings of my many-sided background.
From ‘Prologoue to an Autobiography’
It is now nearly thirty years since, in a BBC room in London, on an old BBC typewriter, and on smooth, "non-rustle" BBC script paper, I wrote the first sentence of my first publishable book. ...
It was in that Victorian-Edwardian gloom, and at one of those typewriters, that late one afternoon, without having any idea where I was going, and not perhaps intending to type to the end of the page, I wrote: Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, "What happening there, Bogart?"
That was a Port of Spain memory. It seemed to come from far back, but it was only eleven or twelve years old. It came from the time when we - various branches of my mother's family - were living in Port of Spain, in a house that belonged to my mother's mother. We were country people, Indians, culturally still Hindus, and this move to Port of Spain was in the nature of a migration: from the Hindu and Indian countryside to the white-negro-mulatto town. (At that time in Trinidad black, used by a non-black, was a word of insult, negro was - and remains - a polite word.)
Hat was our neighbor on the street. He wasn't negro or mulatto. But we thought of him as halfway there. He was a Port of Spain Indian. The Port of Spain Indians - there were pockets of them - had no country roots, were individuals, hardly a community, and were separate from us for an additional reason: many of them were Madrassis, descendants of South Indians, not Hindi-speaking, and not people of caste. ...
That shout of "Bogart!" was in more than one way a shout from the street. And, to add to the incongruity, it was addressed to someone in our yard: a young man, very quiet, yet another person connected in some way with my mother's family. He had come not long before from the country and was living in the separate one-room building at the back of our yard. ...
That was Bogart's story, as I knew it. And - after all our migrations within Trinidad, after my own trip to England and my time at Oxford - that was all the story I had in mind when - after two failed attempts at novels - I sat at the typewriter in the freelancers' room in the Langham Hotel, to try once more to be a writer. And luck was with me that afternoon. Every morning when he got up Hat would sit on the banister of his back verandah and shout across, "What happening there, Bogart?" Luck was with me, because that first sentence was so direct, so uncluttered, so without complications, that it provoked the sentence that was to follow. Bogart would turn in his bed and mumble softly, so that no one heard, "What happening there, Hat?"
The first sentence was true. The second was invention. But together - to me, the writer - they had done something extraordinary. Though they had left out everything - the setting, the historical time, the racial and social complexities of the people concerned - they had suggested it all; they had created the world of the street, they had set up a rhythm, which dictated all that was to follow.
© V. S. Naipaul