Bath Estate: Short Stories About the People of Bath Estate
by Ernest Persaud. Self-published. New York. 2002.
Reviewed by Gary Girdhari
Guyana Journal, October 2004
"To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward," mused Margaret Fairless Barber. So it appears that this is what Ernest Persaud has done in placing me in "a time warp remembering childhood days" to use his words. Now at age 77 (he finished writing his stories in 2002) he is refreshing his memories of "that time, long ago", and also triggering flashbacks in others of that time.
The short stories of the people of Bath Estate in British Guiana obviously synopsize Ernest Persauds memoirs (although there is a disclaimer). The stories that he relates are based on his clear and vivid memory while growing up in Bath Estate, Guyana and he is a great story-teller.
The book makes easy reading, but the stories are profound if one delves deeply. His descriptions of people, places and events are recognizable and rich. His expressions are to the point aided by his use of uncomplicated short sentences. He tells of people and events without any overt attempt to use flourish. This kind of matter-of-fact conversational writing style evokes empathy and stirs up feelings of experiential commonality of country life, particularly life in on sugar plantations Guyana.
Certainly, the memory of life then is being revealed as good and fun. But I am reminded by Doug Larson that "Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days." The idyllic memory must match the reality of hard labor (including 'child labor' which is mentioned in a benign manner) of the sugar workers in the rain, heat, and mud. For Persaud calls attention also to the painful toil, unsanitary out-houses over the trench (the water of which was used for domestic purposes), ?sand-flies, mosquitoes [malaria] ... [that] murder you and ... eat you alive", of not having indoor plumbing but dependent on "Miss Mary" (also "referred to as 'potty', 'posy' or "tensel'") in the night. "Miss Mary" is sometimes "full to the rim" so one "had to be careful ... to empty it without spilling any." Treatment by 'Sick Nurse' for any sickness was a "large glass of 'Cascara' (bitters) and Epsom salts". Let it be emphasized: this life is more bucolic than glamorous! The going was tough!
Persaud paints a graphic picture of class and social stratification. It could not have been a pleasant experience to see 'Manga' house as "sacred as 'Mecca'", where the "grass was mown daily and it was like a billiard table" with "beautiful flowers [that] bedecked the driveway", where "[t]o set your foot on the lawn was a privilege and a joy"... with "lawn tennis court laid out for the 'white' personnel to use", and where "only the [houses of the] 'white' staff were graced with electricity..."
The existentialist Albert Camus philosophizes: "Those who weep for the happy periods which they encounter in history acknowledge what they want; not the alleviation but the silencing of misery." Persaud is not silencing or distorting history; he is giving us an 'oral' history with accuracy and authenticity of conditions of estate life of hardships, of constraints in moving out of the 'gutter', of the perennial rum-drinking lifestyle that festered the canecutter's mentality, being augmented by the disproportionate number of rumshops in a small population. They would buy rum from "Ferrera's rum shop" and "drink and get drunk," which is related as being a common norm for the laboring men. So in fact he is not "silencing [the] misery"; he is saying it as it is, while embellishing childhood lingering simple tastes of "dankey calla", "quinches" and "gill" ice, of having fun swimming in the trench, and of "tiefing" fruits and eating "till your belly hurts". He also tells of happy times during festivals of Deepawali, Phagwah, Eid, and Christmas when all participated. He remembers the traditional details of Indian weddings when the entire village is given "[n]ewta" to partake of seven-curry and parsadam from "Dig Dutty Night" (Friday night) to the departure (Sunday evening) of the bride and groom with their "Lucknie".
In an agonizing manner he reminds us that (though Guyana is independent and enjoys modernity) people have lost some of the basic values like respect for elders and teachers, noting that every adult was addressed as 'uncle' or 'auntie' by the young. "Respect was taught at home and reinforced at school," he observed.
Today's anachronistic debate on corporal punishment in schools was not passé in Bath Estate. The children got licks on their "batty", and this has not changed even now!
Persaud did not attain a high level of academic education just Third Standard (~Fifth Grade); but his life?s experience and his keen observation cannot be obtained in the cloistered halls of learning institutions. And it's his memory... and memory is important. His pride is almost palpable when he boasts of "Bathians" who 'make it' Sri Deva Ramsukul, Victor Geet Gangadeen, Seereekissoon Gossai, Muriel Hentzen, Norman Henry, Ganesh Persaud, Winston Bishram Persaud, Dr. Balwant Singh, Dr. Raymond Wallace (Teacher Wallace?s son), Dr. Rambharat Ramsakal (son of Walter Ramsakal), Indera Persaud (his daughter). But one wonders: what has happened to Kulee Boy, Pochee, Nama, Bleeder, Dull Dull, Uncle Greece, Uncle Bullock, Quarter, Bass, Baboi, Badman, Photo, Brown Bottle, Lettuce, Duck, Uncle Lolo, Pursebag, Kaka Rass, Uncle Bhunda, Lillboy, Bigboy, and the others with such onomatopoeic names? Did they 'make it'?
This first book, which is self-published, would have benefited from a bit of editorial oversight. (He did other short writings on Hinduism.) These stories can easily be the nucleus for a detailed history of Bath Estate so that people would not forget what used to take place at the Managers house, Market Line, the Cricket Ground, Crab Dog Quarter, Bound Yard, and neighboring villages such as Fort Wellington and Hopetown.
Gary Girdhari is the Editor of Guyana Journal
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