“The Miguel Street”, third fictional work by Sir V S Naipaul was first published in 1959 and won the Somerset Maughm Award in 1961. The book is a collection of the prose pictures of various characters living on the Miguel Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The story is told in first person as the experiences of a young, fatherless boy living in the street with his mother. As he says, Miguel Street would have appeared just like any other slum to a passer-by, but to those who had opportunity to observe its characters for many years, it presented a collection of humane characters, each unique in his/her own way.
Each story describes the life and eccentricities of a single character. The people that we meet on the Miguel Street with the author are: Bogart: the patient one, Popo: the carpenter, George who lived in the pink house, Elias: the hard working boy who ended up as street scavenger, Man-man: the mad man, B. Wordsworth: the poet, Big Foot: the bully, Morgan: the pyrotechnicist, Titus Hoyt: the self-proclaimed educator, Laura: mother of eight children from seven different men, Eddoes: the junk king, Mrs Hereira: the love-sick runaway woman, Uncle Bhakcu: the mechanical genius, Bolo: the barber, Edward: who worked with Americans and Hat: the eternal voice of Miguel Street.
In addition to the main characters listed above, each story introduces us to side-characters from the families and friends of those. The book provides excellent portrait of a colonial neighborhood where the residents though not starving are poor, amoral about man-woman relationships and marriages, where the most common outlet for anger and frustration is beating up their wives, children and pets and drinking and the only way out is to study hard.
The book is written in the local dialect of Trinidad and is alive with the sparkling humor present throughout. It is to the author’s credit that though each of the character is eccentric, none of them appear to be caricatures here. The dose of humor is subtly balanced with the apparent reality of these people and the misery of their situation in life that lead to their eccentricities. We learn to appreciate these odd, comic and yet attractive and moving characters as the authors takes us to the Port of Spain of ‘40s and ‘50s.
Sir V S Naipaul admired R K Narayan’s work when he was young and this book reminded me of “Malgudi Days” in its set-up and the style of the narrative. But, the similarities end there. Though both Malgudi and Miguel Street are full of endearingly real characters, their nature and lifestyle are quite different. Malgudi characters do represent the variety of Indian society in terms of caste and creed, in essence they belong to the village where their families had been living for generations. But, the Miguel Street characters are unique and much different with their varying ancestry, color, race and ethnicity. They have no age-long history, except that of a generation or two of their ancestors, who came to the colonial plantation and kept moving from place to place. Fate and life has brought them to Miguel Street and the bond that keeps them together is their struggle for survival rather than the cultural one.