Friday, December 22, 2006

Up From The Canefields

Coming after publications of poetry and a novel, High House and Radio (1991) is a collection of Rooplall Monar’s short stories. If the back cover is a reliable guide readers are invited to follow the lives of characters who once occupied cramped living quarters on a Sugar Estate, and who now live independently in their own individual houses. These issues of upmoving transition might not have been the author’s intention, and the stories don’t quite succeed that way.

The stories come draped in the satins of Guyanese Indianness, and on that level they might intrigue those pursuers of groups and constituencies, the pollsters and formula-ready academics who like framing what we think about the plight of our favourite collectives. But collectives (ethnic or religious) are ice cages for the human spirit. You expect our writers to chip away at them so that individual fates might be freed, and minds be made open again to multiple points of view.

Monar’s fiction has encouraged snappy comparisons with writers working a similar literary terrain, Sam Selvon (in Ways of Sunlight, 1957) or V. S Naipaul (in Miguel Street, 1959). Those older writers brought to bear incisive scrutiny and humour on a mosaic of desperate living. After his remarkable achievement with Janjhat (1989), Monar in this collection creates a world that showcases the Indianness of his Indians. The stories, which are delivered with a stage performer’s excitement, don’t probe deeper than that; nor do they expand our understanding much beyond surface perceptions.

His Indian folk occupy a self-contained village on the coast (Annandale). They no longer work for the sugar estate, but lack of education has severely handicapped their life prospects. The old estate worker solidarities have started to crumble; anxieties and divisions develop sharper edge. “Over me dead body, no Hindu blood in me family”, a Muslim father shouts at his daughter who’s thinking of getting married. “Greed and selfishness invade people spirit”, another character says in a bitter-jokey rum shop mood.

Monar has set his own limits for these stories – intense creole talk and amusing vignettes that release ripples of laughter and recognition. Characters often get drunk and feel emboldened to perform reckless acts. Village tricksters use their wits to survive. And humour is at the level of the unemployed man whose day to day problems are compounded at night by his unhelpful wife whose bulky body and thick thighs make bedroom intimacy strenuous if not completely satisfying work.

On occasion black creoles from an adjacent village (Buxton) cross boundary lines: a woman, unhappy with her black obeahman, searching for a Hindu spiritman. Then there are “thiefing black people” who raid backyards for poultry; and idle black youth whose crude sexual comments as Indian girls walk by raise tension & alarm.

Tension swells into aggression as when politically generated violence sweeps across the land. A few stories (“Election Fever”) look at the volatile situations especially during Election time when Indians became random targets. Though Monar doesn’t write with an activist’s eye for Indian victims, the stories shed light on an underlying predicament. People may feel securely entrenched in their village culture, but that communal self-sufficiency sometimes half-blinds them to the world around. Hiding true selves behind walls of old habits and beliefs, they are often naively surprised when violence bursts into their homes.

Monar’s prose – “And don’t talk, them coolie people beetee yapping while one-two coolie women beating they chest dab dab: ‘O Bhagwan, is real murderation.’” – lies like thick-thick paragrass on every page. A character in this collection, in an effort to motivate the author, must have whispered in his ear, “Man, write if yuh writing”; and Monar with great exuberance proceeded to do that. Sometimes he appears to be flaunting his easy way with creole words. At other moments the narrator’s voice wears you down with its revved-up mono-speak.

You sense the need for editorial trimming and control so that the language hews to the task of delineating character, providing insight. A worldwide Indian reader, drawn to the book’s Indianness, must slow down and tread gingerly through a word-field like this: “But gat luck, she nah gat none big brodda in the house, else he mighta fat-eye she, cause nowadays, you cyan trust some buddy an sissy never mind them come-out pon one mumma-belly.”

So much of any book’s success depends on the cast of invented characters. Monar has called up folk from his own village experience; but Danky, Mule, Bansi, Bungu, Naimoon & Shairool don’t stay on in the imagination after you’ve closed the book. They behave in hilariously recognizable ways, arguing & cussing, scheming & daring, beating tassa drums & cooking mutton curry; and on drunken occasions they dish out “one proper cut-rass” to their wives.

(Back in the days, if you remember, the women screamed “Murda, murda, O Gawd, dis man gon kill me”, and eavesdropping neighbors minding their own business often shrugged as if a village woman screaming “murda” was nothing to get excited about.)

Still, when you consider, for instance, the Naipaul inventions (in Miguel Street) – Hat, Titus Hoyt, Bhakcu and Eddoes – Monar’s village folk sound as if they’d walked straight off a punt trench dam onto the author’s page. Which is saying, there is more to the process of character creation and the short story form than just rushing narrative and creole intensity.

In the Booker sugar estate days of the 60s (where these stories are set) when folk creativity helped stoke anticolonial fires, fiction like this gave cause for awards and celebration (In this collection one story is dedicated to our pioneer folklorist Wordsworth Mac Andrew). Monar’s fiction may have emerged too late for Guyana Prize awards, though his work received a special Judges’ Prize in 1987. And Janjhat will be valued as his remarkable breakthrough Guyanese novel.

But new territory is already laid out and waiting for Monar’s attention. Up from the estate canefields more of his Indians have moved through the villages to new uneasy residence in the city, where they dispense political patronage and must “look outward”, share residential space and intermingle with non-Indian creoles and strangers. Life for many in the city (depending on the rains, the visa hunt) feels saturated with sullen & resentful arse-catching. Add to that political skullduggery, abrasive public manners and flourishing careers in banditry & river piracy and there’s enough material to engage the ingenuity of any writer.

Edgar Mittelholzer and Jan Carew once worked like porknockers in similar areas of human scramble & depredation. They’ve left us enduring literary models.
Too besides, screams of “Murda, murda” in the city and surrounding villages these days are like “Businessman Shot Dead” headlines, matters for our nation to be gravely concerned about.

Imagine, then, new literary forays into narco-crime fiction, or political-murder mysteries; or melodramas filled with the creole anguish of desperate G/town housewives. In this day and age, if serious literary fiction seems unwanted or must stay locked up overseas in institutions of higher reading, a second tier of well-crafted books could keep us pleasurably engaged. Writers with Monar’s storytelling talent would appear to have their work cut out for them.

Book Reviewed: High House and Radio: Rooplall Monar: Peepal Tree Press, England, 1991, 176 pgs. (w. w.)

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