Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Everybody wore painted toenails then"

I had read and heard so many malicious accounts of Mrs. Jagan that I was prejudiced in her favour. Although she has suffered much from visiting writers, she received me kindly in her small air-conditioned office. She sat behind a large desk, neatly ordered, on which were photographs of her husband and children. Her bag was on the floor. I thought her far more attractive than her photographs: women who wear spectacles rarely photograph well. A plain cotton frock set off her balanced figure; large hoop ear-rings and red toenails gave her a touch of frivolity which seemed incongruous in that office, the door of which was marked: Hon. Janet Jagan, Minister of Labour, Health and Housing. She looked tired, and her talk was frequently broken by nervous laughter.

-- V.S. Naipaul, The Middle Passage, 1962

Janet ... talked of what I had written about her nearly thirty years before.

"People remembered two details mainly. You wouldn't believe. The first was that I painted my toenails."

I had forgotten that, forgotten the fact, forgotten that I had written it.

"I don't know why that should have caused such interest," she said. "Everybody wore painted toenails then."

"Everybody," Cheddi said.

She said, "I looked at the book just the other day. And the other thing you mentioned that people talked about--I checked that, too--was the book I was reading."

I had forgotten that as well.

"It was Colette. The Vagabond."

That would have made an impression: the boastfulness and shallow sensual vanities of Colette, in a setting so removed: muddy Guyanese rivers, old river steamers. And then, in a distant reach of my mind, the two details together did bring back an impression, rather than an idea, of a trip in the interior with Janet Jagan, when she was minister of health.

She said, "I looked for it among my books the other day. I don't think I have it anymore."

-- V.S. Naipaul, "A Handful of Dust: Cheddi Jagan in Guyana", 1991

(Janet Jagan, 1920-2009)

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