Madrassis in Guyana used to pour a drop of white rum in memory of their ancestors. Moses Nagamootoo’s libation is, like the best high wine, an intoxicating mix of fire, sweetness and pungency. Blending fiction and documentary, he reanimates a world now mostly gone, that of the Madrassi fishermen, market-traders, rice farmers, Kali worshippers, cricketers, turfites and see-far practitioners who inhabited the Corentyne village of Whim in the 1950s and 60s.
Though only a small percentage of the quarter million Indians who came to Guyana, the South Indian Madrassis, now much dispersed through emigration to North America, played an influential role in Guyanese life. The Kali-Mai churches they established, for instance, now draw devotees from all Guyanese ethnic groups.
At the heart of the narrative are the stories of the entrepreneurial Naga, like pot-salt in everything, his wife Chunoo, resolute in her sense of community and justice, and Hendree, Naga’s sidekick, an idler, brilliant drummer and would-be healer. In their lives are played out the polarities which gave Madrassi life its extraordinary dynamism: its spirituality and earthiness, its respect for goodness - and delight in scampishness, its faithfulness to Madrassi culture and openness to the culture of others, particularly the Afro-Guyanese.
What is to be savoured above all in this book is its language, particularly when we hear the Whim villagers and the pungent and elegant Creole through which they represented their world and maintained their place in it.