Authors: V. S. Naipaul
Tags: #Contemporary, #Historical, #Classics, #Modern
Books by V S. Naipaul
Between Father and Son: Family Letters
Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples
India: A Million Mutinies Now
A Turn in the South
Finding the Center
Among the Believers
The Return of Eva Perón (
The Killings in Trinidad)
India: A Wounded Civilization
The Overcrowded Barracoon
The Loss of El Dorado
An Area of Darkness
The Middle Passage
Half a Life
A Way in the World
The Enigma of Arrival
A Bend in the River
In a Free State
A Flag on the Island
The Mimic Men
Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion
A House for Mr. Biswas
The Suffrage of Elvira
The Mystic Masseur
Published in an omnibus edition
The Nightwatchman’s Occurrence Book
Vintage International Edition, March 1989
Copyright © 1979 by V.S. Naipaul
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions.
Published in the United States by Random House, Inc., New York.
Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in May 1979.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Naipaul, Vidiadhar Surajprasad.
A bend in the river.
PZ4.N155Be 1980 [PR9272.9.N32] 823′.9′14 79-22317
The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.
Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn’t think I would have it easy when I took over. The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence. The town in the interior, at the bend in the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.
I drove up from the coast in my Peugeot. That isn’t the kind of drive you can do nowadays in Africa—from the east coast right through to the centre. Too many of the places on the way have closed down or are full of blood. And even at that time, when the roads were more or less open, the drive took me over a week.
It wasn’t only the sand drifts and the mud and the narrow, winding, broken roads up in the mountains. There was all that business at the frontier posts, all that haggling in the forest outside wooden huts that flew strange flags. I had to talk myself and my Peugeot past the men with guns—just to drive through bush and more bush. And then I had to talk even harder, and shed a few more bank notes and give away more of my tinned food, to get myself—and the Peugeot—out of the places I had talked us into.
Some of these palavers could take half a day. The top man would ask for something quite ridiculous—two or three thousand dollars. I would say no. He would go into his hut, as though there was nothing more to say; I would hang around outside, because there was nothing else for me to do. Then after an hour or two I would go inside the hut, or he would come outside, and we would settle for two or three dollars. It was as Nazruddin had
said, when I asked him about visas and he had said that bank notes were better. “You can always get into those places. What is hard is to get out. That is a private fight. Everybody has to find his own way.”
As I got deeper into Africa—the scrub, the desert, the rocky climb up to the mountains, the lakes, the rain in the afternoons, the mud, and then, on the other, wetter side of the mountains, the fern forests and the gorilla forests—as I got deeper I thought: But this is madness. I am going in the wrong direction. There can’t be a new life at the end of this.
But I drove on. Each day’s drive was like an achievement; each day’s achievement made it harder for me to turn back. And I couldn’t help thinking that that was how it was in the old days with the slaves. They had made the same journey, but of course on foot and in the opposite direction, from the centre of the continent to the east coast. The further away they got from the centre and their tribal area, the less likely they were to cut loose from the caravans and run back home, the more nervous they became of the strange Africans they saw about them, until at the end, on the coast, they were no trouble at all, and were positively anxious to step into the boats and be taken to safe homes across the sea. Like the slave far from home, I became anxious only to arrive. The greater the discouragements of the journey, the keener I was to press on and embrace my new life.
When I arrived I found that Nazruddin hadn’t lied. The place had had its troubles: the town at the bend in the river was more than half destroyed. What had been the European suburb near the rapids had been burnt down, and bush had grown over the ruins; it was hard to distinguish what had been gardens from what had been streets. The official and commercial area near the dock and customs house survived, and some residential streets in the centre. But there wasn’t much else. Even the African
were inhabited only in corners, and in decay elsewhere, with many of the low, box-like concrete houses in pale blue or pale green abandoned, hung with quick-growing, quick-dying tropical vines, mattings of brown and green.
Nazruddin’s shop was in a market square in the commercial
area. It smelt of rats and was full of dung, but it was intact. I had bought Nazruddin’s stock—but there was none of that. I had also bought the goodwill—but that was meaningless, because so many of the Africans had gone back to the bush, to the safety of their villages, which lay up hidden and difficult creeks.
After my anxiety to arrive, there was little for me to do. But I was not alone. There were other traders, other foreigners; some of them had been there right through the troubles. I waited with them. The peace held. People began coming back to the town; the
yards filled up. People began needing the goods which we could supply. And slowly business started up again.
Zabeth was among the earliest of my regular customers. She was a
—not a market woman, but a retailer in a small way. She belonged to a fishing community, almost a little tribe, and every month or so she came from her village to the town to buy her goods wholesale.
From me she bought pencils and copybooks, razor blades, syringes, soap and toothpaste and toothbrushes, cloth, plastic toys, iron pots and aluminum pans, enamel plates and basins. These were some of the simple things Zabeth’s fisherfolk needed from the outside world, and had been doing without during the troubles. Not essentials, not luxuries; but things that made ordinary life easier. The people here had many skills; they could get by on their own. They tanned leather, wove cloth, worked iron; they hollowed out large tree trunks into boats and smaller ones into kitchen mortars. But to people looking for a large vessel that wouldn’t taint water and food, and wouldn’t leak, imagine what a blessing an enamel basin was!
Zabeth knew exactly what the people of her village needed and how much they would be able or willing to pay for it. Traders on the coast (including my own father) used to say—especially when they were consoling themselves for some bad purchase—that everything eventually had its buyer. That wasn’t so here. People were interested in new things—like the syringes, which were a surprise to me—and even modern things; but their tastes had set around the first examples of these things that they
had accepted. They trusted a particular design, a particular trademark. It was useless for me to try to “sell” anything to Zabeth; I had to stick as far as possible to familiar stock. It made for dull business, but it avoided complications. And it helped to make Zabeth the good and direct businesswoman that, unusually for an African, she was.
She didn’t know how to read and write. She carried her complicated shopping list in her head and she remembered what she had paid for things on previous occasions. She never asked for credit—she hated the idea. She paid in cash, taking the money out from the vanity case she brought to town with her. Every trader knew about Zabeth’s vanity case. It wasn’t that she distrusted banks; she didn’t understand them.
I would say to her, in that mixed river language we used, “One day, Beth, somebody will snatch your case. It isn’t safe to travel about with money like that.”
“The day that happens, Mis’ Salim, I will know the time has come to stay home.”
It was a strange way of thinking. But she was a strange woman.
“Mis’,” as used by Zabeth and others, was short for “mister.” I was mister because I was a foreigner, someone from the far-off coast, and an English-speaker; and I was mister in order to be distinguished from the other resident foreigners, who were
That was, of course, before the Big Man came along and made us all
Which was all right for a while, until the lies he started making us all live made the people confused and frightened, and when a fetish stronger than his was found, made them decide to put an end to it all and go back again to the beginning.
Zabeth’s village was only about sixty miles away. But it was some distance off the road, which was little more than a track; and it was some miles in from the main river. By land or by water it was a difficult journey, and took two days. By land during the rainy season it could take three. In the beginning Zabeth came by the land way, trekking with her women assistants to the road and waiting there for a van or truck or bus.
When the steamers started up again, Zabeth always used the river; and that wasn’t much easier.