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Book Review
Jahaji–An Anthology of Indo-Caribbean Fiction. TSAR, Toronto. 2000
Edited by Frank Birbalsingh


Reviewed by D. Gokarran Sukhdeo
(Winner, 1998 Guyana Prize for Literature)

The short story is not an abridgement of a novel. It is a unique art form that, like a well written sonnet, is generally more difficult to produce since it sets strict parameters for the writer. The particular characteristics of the short story are its metaphorical presentation, the pace at which the plot develops, its dramatic denouement and resolution, its continuous challenge of the reader’s interpretation, and its sudden ending so as to leave the reader still searching. Its impact is immediate and concentrated; the moment in the story is now, often with only hints of what went before and only a suggestion of what comes after. The unanswered why generated by the story sends us searching deep into our own experience and understanding. In a real sense, it is the reader who not only interprets the story but also completes it. A popular and classic example of an excellent (long) short story is The Pearl by John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Literature Prize, 1962. Said Steinbeck of his story, "If this story is a parable, perhaps everyone takes his own meaning from it and reads his own life into it."

Similarly, in looking through the microscope at the pieces compiled by Professor Frank Birbalsingh in Jahagi: An Anthology of Indo-Caribbean Fiction, we see, as the name Jahagi implies, a soulful search for identity, an empathy for and a kinship with a people who, seeking adjustment in their first diaspora, is suddenly thrust into a second through political and economic circumstances. And the reader cannot help but finding himself fitting congruently into the characters of the various stories, so widespread and traumatic has been, and still is, the experience of Indo-Caribbean marginalization. But Birbalsingh argues that political marginalization of Indians was not a result of Marxist pursuits (as is commonly contended in the case of Guyana), but of another factor, since Indians in Trinidad, Suriname and Fiji were also marginalized even though Marxism did not play a role in it.

It is this factor, Birbalsingh contends — a deep scorn for the coolie and their culture which others perceive to be frozen in patterns of cultural primitiveness — that has kept them ostracized, and stigmatized as coolies even though many are doctors, attorneys, scholars, entrepreneurs and landlords.

The hurt and trauma has been great, and has resulted in Indo-Caribbean literature experiencing an upsurge in the last fifteen years or so, a period marked by an intensification of political oppression of Indians by the PNM in Trinidad and the PNC in Guyana, resulting in an increase in migration of Indians to North America. This explains why thirteen of the sixteen stories in Birbalsingh’s book are from expatriate Indo-Caribbeans. It also explains why at the last Guyana Literature Awards, of the twelve writers shortlisted for prizes, five were Indo-Guyanese, four being expatriates; and of the four actual winners, two — Gokarran Sukhdeo (US), for First Book, Fiction, and Paloma Mohamed (UK) for drama, were Indo-Guyanese. Of the sixteen contributors to Jahaji..., five were finalists for the Guyana Prize, and two — Harischardra Khemraj and Rooplall Monar — actually won the awards in 1994 and 1987 respectively. (It must be noted, and regrettably so, that Guyana and Cuba are the only South American/Caribbean countries that actually give national awards for literature.)

Indo-Caribbean literature has generally centered on the themes of the indentured system, its harsh and culturally traumatic conditions, the coolie status of Indians in relation to other races, the cynical ‘divide and rule’ tactics of the colonial government — an institution fervently maintained by post-independent governments, and the birth, development and pathos of the second diaspora. All of these themes are covered in Jahaji....

The stories in Jahaji... chronicle the historical hurt of the Indian, his struggle for a place in the Caribbean, the development of the second diaspora as he eventually departs to the sanctuary of the cold and unfriendly metropole.

There was no place for him in the Caribbean, or if there was, it was, according to Eric Williams, "on the lowest rung of the ladder". For, the boorish coolie who ate "cardboard and grass" – bhagi and roti, (Pooran, Pooran — the first story in Jahaji..., set in Tunapuna, Trinidad) with his fingers was unclean and unfit to mingle with the christianized and westernized whites and Blacks. A barrier had to be erected to keep him out. Many attempt to get over this barrier. Many failed (as in Pooran, Pooran) because of the culture shock, or their reluctance to totally surrender their Indian-ness. Those who did and succeeded became the G. Ramsey Muirs, Ramphals and Luckhoos of the Caribbean. But there were others who succeeded and failed at the same time — like those who return to Guyana (as in Going to Guyana, the eleventh story in Jahaji...) and manifest a massive superiority complex, with boasts of "working on behalf of the Canadian government", their current date being "French Canadian", and the ease in which they can catch and romance a poor Guyanese air hostess. But superiority complex aside, the moral of the story may be that the Indo-Caribbean was versatile enough to still eat bhagi and roti, achieve the success of Ramphal and Luckhoo, and return to the mudflats of Canje. In other words he could retain his Indian-ness; westernization could not totally deculturize him as it did to other early immigrants to the Caribbean.

In pre-independence days many Indians made conscious efforts to resist deculturization as seen in Swami Pankaj and Bruit, and also Pooran, Pooran, all three set in Trinidad. In The Marriage Match it is noted that the Chinese also, in the early days in Guyana, made similar efforts to resist this process of deculturalization, going at great lengths to arrange a Chinese matchmaking marriage between the children of two Chinese families in Georgetown and Rosehall, and keeping the arrangement hidden from the Catholic Society to which one party, the Chinese family in Georgetown, belonged.

But after independence, in addition to the struggle to maintain a cultural identity (Mai, Mai, Mai), a new type of struggle began, particularly in Guyana — a struggle against government-instituted injustices, depicted in Janjhat: Bhola Ram and the ‘Going Away’ Plan. It seemed like everybody wanted to go away, as the second diaspora intensified.

One particular myth that has developed out of the second diaspora, is the impression by those left behind, that life in North America is a bed of roses, and this has led to the concomitant development of an idyllic complacency among those in the Caribbean waiting their turn to join their relatives in North America. This complacency has often led to disaster as portrayed in the story Buckee. The planeload of people, and in particular, the protagonist in Going to Guyana are largely to be blamed for the development of this myth. But as illustrated in the stories: Far From Family, American Dad, The Job Interview, and Sushila’s Bhakti, it can be seen that life in North America is nothing close to the myth. Old problems of identity and economic struggle still continue, while new ones develop — family disintegration, and cultural ambivalence of children of the diaspora, to mention only two.

Three special styles are noted in these stories: the cynical, comical and postcolonial chaos of Naipaul; the historical and metaphysical melodramas associated with Mittelholtzer; and the dialect and striking depictions of the disadvantaged rustic Indo-Guyanese that Monar excels in. But each writer has shown his/her own unique way in presenting these styles. The distinction in which they do so has been proven by the numerous commendations and awards they have won.

Indo-Caribbean contribution to West Indian fiction is therefore second to none, and Jahaji… has properly represented some of the cream of the crop that has emerged from the second diaspora.

Those wishing to identify with the stories, and perhaps take their own meaning from them, and read their own lives into them, may obtain Jahaji: An Anthology of Indo-Caribbean Fiction from Dr. Frank Birbalsingh by calling him at 416-733-7858, or contact him by e-mail at birbalsi@yorku.ca.

GuyanaJournal, Vol. 5, No. 11, November, 2000
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