My father had bought the house in Nepaul Street from a young man and his mother named Nieves. Of Portuguese descent, Mr Nieves worked as a solicitor’s clerk. He had supervised the building of the house, where sills and frames were often crooked (I know, because I made the draperies). Apparently, his aged mother was no longer able to climb the steep and uneven steps to the upper floor.

Our home, which seems so small today, was bright and beautiful and inviting. A two-storey building, the bedrooms and the bathroom were on the upper floor, while the living room, dining room and kitchen were on the ground floor. Upstairs, between the two bedrooms and facing the street was an open-sided gallery on the south-western corner which was immediately turned into a half-bedroom for Vidia. The wooden partitions between the rooms had woodwork grilles at the top. The windows remained open except during rain, and the winds skipped through both bedrooms. The openness of the ground floor, with its lattice panels on which a bleeding heart vine grew, mitigated the smallness of the house and allowed plenty of light and good ventilation. No part of that small, compact house was dark or claustrophobic.

Our parents’ bedroom had its SlumberKing bed, with the hat rack pinned on the back of one of its doors. A tiny desk was in the corner and later they would add a cypre wardrobe with a full-length mirror. The girls’ bedroom had a tall iron four-poster with a smaller bed in which Kamla and Shiva slept. There was room for a decent corridor between the beds. We also had a bureau with four drawers to hold our belongings and a draped makeshift cupboard behind one of the doors that held our dresses, with shoe boxes on the top. The two-tiered cotton curtains, graduating from cretonne to broderie anglaise over the years, allowed privacy and easy laundering. All laundry was done by hand over a washtub by our mother.

With Pa’s gardening skills, through each bedroom we could view greenery: the hills and acacia tree to the north, our neighbours the Sudans’ breadfruit tree to the south and our struggling plum tree to the east, which finally grew into view bearing few fruit but shiny leaves. That the property faced west into the afternoon sun was a definite drawback. But with everyone out of the house except on weekends and during the school holidays we managed the heat of the early afternoons. We had a very small yard with a curved driveway to the garage. In retrospect, the size of the plot made it easier to manage, with a tiny garden on three sides and a back area for the laundry lines.

Our arrival at 26 Nepaul Street was unforgettable. There was a hubbub of activity involving only our family. Pa and Vido had to mount the beds while Ma and Kamla were putting up the salmon-pink draperies and encasing the cushions of the Morris chairs with matching flowered cretonne. The chairs had come as part of the deal with the house.

With polished floors and matching rugs, a small table and a shining brass pot with three legs and the heads of lions, and the smell of new linoleum on the kitchen floor, we were buzzing with joy and experiencing a lightness that would carry on for days. Mira, Shiva and I had nothing to do but keep out of the way. Sati must have been doing some kind of pleasurable chore like hanging our teacups on the cup-hooks left by the previous owners. The Rediffusion box on the wall in the gallery upstairs provided news and music, and our world seemed complete. (These boxes, or closed-circuit transmitters, rented by the month and operated by Radio Trinidad, were everywhere in homes before radios became cheap and the government granted licences for other stations to operate.) With time the old kitchen table that held our pots and pans would be replaced and Ma would enjoy working on her two-burner kerosene stove. We as children were happy and carefree, but we had no idea what this, our new home, would have meant to our parents who had struggled over the years to get to home base.

In 1946, at the early age of fourteen, Vidia earned his Cambridge University-administered School Certificate with a brilliant performance. By placing among the top sixteen competing students on the island, he won himself a “house scholarship” that paid his way to begin studying at QRC for the Higher School Certificate. Having also won the College Quiz, a well-known local competition, for QRC, his fame as a student began to grow beyond his school. A year later, two years older than Vidia but less precocious, Kamla earned her own SC honours. Without going on to the HSC level, she left St. Joseph’s Convent just as our sister Sati was about to enter the school.

Our parents must have been proud of their children’s successes. While no one knew anything about how Pa had done at school, we children were well aware that he had not gone to high school. We also knew that our mother had topped her class regularly and that her teachers and peers had considered her an outstanding student, one quite capable of winning a bursary or scholarship to go to high school. Her parents, however, would have no part in that venture. In the Capildeo family, only boys went to high school. Our mother had never fully accepted being deprived of further education, but she surely enjoyed knowing that her Vidia was now emerging as an academic achiever who could rival the accomplishments of her brother Rudranath – to an extent beyond the reach of anyone else in the Capildeo family.

At the Trinidad Guardian, which Pa had just left, his prestige would have risen with Vidia’s academic success (the results were published in the newspapers). Now in his new job as a social welfare officer, with no newspaper deadlines to meet, he was finding a little more time to devote to his creative writing.

We girls, ranging in ages from nine to seventeen, while progressing satisfactorily, did not match Vidia’s excellence. Little attention was paid by anyone to our studies, and our parents, grateful that their girls were in two of the best schools on the island, depended on the teachers to inculcate not only academic subjects but the objectives stated on the report cards of good attendance, punctuality, conduct, discipline and the more elusive virtues of deportment and attitude to authority.

1947 went by quickly as we settled into a rhythm. Kamla and Sati took the trolley bus to school, walking through the Mucurapo Cemetery to Ariapita Avenue in Woodbrook. Vidia, now in Higher Certificate, got a bicycle, possibly the one Pa had used while working at the Guardian. Mira and I walked to school at Tranquillity. By seven o’clock in the morning, the house was empty of children except for Shiva.

There were many things in the house to alter, to repair and build. The gate needed repairing and reinforcing. The kitchen had to be altered, the garden had to be created. Having PA 1192, the Ford Prefect, allowed the weekends to be used for both work and pleasure. The older children generally opted to stay at home while Mira, Shiva and I were herded into the car. Ma too, depending on where we were going, sometimes came along.

Apart from visits to Pa’s relatives scattered in the rural areas, many of our excursions were to nurseries for plants, especially rose plants. It is on these visits that Pa toyed with the idea of building a rare orchid collection. His “monkey throat orchid” would be the first of three orchid plants he would begin to nurture, but we all knew he was more serious about the roses than the orchids. The size of the yard did not deter Pa’s ambition to have trees, though. So an avocado tree was planted next to the garage, and along that same north side of the yard an acacia would grow, quickly followed by the ylang-ylang with its perfumed light-green florets.

The colourful crotons along the fence were backed by a long narrow flowerbed at the front of the house. In that bed, we would also grow onion lilies, a delicate white flower that stank of onions after two days in a vase. Miniature red and white carnations, pinks and Michaelmas daisies filled the beds and flower-boxes around the house. We learned quickly to pinch the stems at their nodes and plant them in well-manured beds or boxes. The narrow bed abutting the southern side of the house held anthurium lilies propped up by blocks of rotted, spongy immortelle pieces. We did not have a hose and all watering was done with buckets and cups. A narrow trellis was built above the anthurium bed and the bleeding heart vine prospered. Our garden allowed us to have fresh flowers in our tiny living room. This was quite unusual and somewhat highbrow, given our circumstances.

While Mira and I never seemed to have homework at Tranquillity, Kamla, Vidia and Sati always had a great deal to do after school. After tea each day, our dining table, which stands today in the same position as it did then, served as our study area. The pattern of tea followed by homework continued through the years.

Excerpted with permission from The Naipauls of Nepaul Street, Savi Naipaul Akal, Speaking Tiger.