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Backdam People

Written by Subhash K. Jha for Indian Express on no date provided

ROOPLALL Monar’s background is similar to that of V.S. Naipaul and Shiva Naipaul - all three writers are trapped in a peculiar state of rootlessness and are products of a neo-colonial society. Their forefathers made the long historic voyage from India across the seas to the West Indies in the latter part of the last century. While Naipaul’s ancestors went to Trinidad, Monar’s parents worked on a Guyanese sugar estate. (His mother still works as a weeder.) Whereas V.S. Naipaul has been working to erase the ‘shameful’ marks of indenture from his soul through his writings, Monar is not ashamed of his past. He writes of the Indo-Guyancse sugar estate communities between the ‘30s and the ‘50s with wit, warmth and wistfulness. By this time, the British had forced the Indians out of their indentured labour contract - they either returned home (as a quarter of the labourers did), or stayed on in the West Indies to make a life for themselves.

Monar’s stories circumscribe the world of the Indo-Guyanese labourers in the post-indenture period, when they are partly independent, partly dependent (as are casual labourers on estates) but fully frozen in a cultural hiatus. It is a time of bitter upheavals for the Indian community in the West Indies, Guyana to be more precise. Yet, the older generation can look back upon its estate experiences, when the Indians were united in their mutual bondage far from home, without a trace of bitterness. Monar’s stories adopt the voice of that long-gone spirit.

Monar is evidently much less troubled by his past than are the Naipauls. He has unhesitatingly written all the 11 stories in this collection in the local dialect: a queer concoction that has the flavour and bite of Hindi. This ‘Creole’ dialect is used to maximum advantage in ‘Dhookie’, a story about squabbling and oneupmanship at a school on a sugar estate. Dhookie is the star of his class, in spite of being ‘the biggest dunce man attending Estate old school’. Monar’s story successfully depicts the hilarious levels of self-deception and hypocrisy in this colonial community, mainly through the language (which becomes wildly enjoyable, as soon as one is able to get a hang of it - there is a disarming disdain for every grammatical rule of the English language). The students speak the Creole dialect, which makes telling use of the Indian style of thought-expression. Teachers must, of course, speak a superior, more sophisticated language, more suited to their status - ‘I am not concern,’ says Teacher Johnson snootily to a colleague.

The story paints a delightful picture of a society in a state of confusion. The teachers are taught a lesson by Dhookie, who soon has the entire staff in a state of perpetual subjugation. The story ends on a note of pessimism that is appropriate to the society Monar describes: ‘Dull or brilliant, they all end in the sugarcane field,’ the headmaster mumbles, ‘looking sad.’

Rivalry and black magic are recurring motifs in the collection. ‘Bad-Bye And Shit-A-Lap’ is about rivalry between two individuals. The juxtaposition of American and oriental expletives in the dialogues is effective. In ‘Sukul’ the chaotic cross-current of cultures - African and Indian - collide. In ‘Who Is The Real Ole Higue?’, rivalry on an estate between two midwives takes on racial overtones, as the Indian, Sancharrie, who gets far less ‘baby-wuk’ than the Negress, Miss Norma, plots to have her rival in the business declared an ‘ole higue’ (literally, ‘old hag’ - a witch) through the systematic practice of black magic. The plan, however, backfires on the frustrated Indian midwife. Goodness triumphs in the end when Sacharrie is found dead.

Caste-snobbery is also ‘imported’ into Guyana across the seven seas. In ‘Massala Maraj’, the protagonist feels ‘backdam wuk na so prappa for he caste’ since he is a Brahmin. In order to escape from common drudgery, he sets to work on ‘big manager missie’ (the European estate manager’s wife) with his ‘dal-purri and massala fowl-curry’. Before long, he has the whole European community on the estate literally eating out of his hands, as he cooks the deadly combination ‘fo all them whiteman and them Missie living in the compound’ - hence the name ‘massala maraj’ (‘maharaj’ - cook).

The farce is often tightly terse. Just how much of the Indian conservatism has been preserved becomes evident in perhaps the finest story of the collection, ‘Jan-Jhat’, where the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law battle it out, first over the new bride’s dress sense, then the son/husband’s pay-packet, and finally over the man himself. Seldom has this traditional conflict been handled with more amusing results.

The urge to escape manual labour recurs in ‘Lakhan Chase Dispenser’ and ‘Hakim Driver’. In the former, the workers on an estate take shameless advantage of Negro dispenser Mathew’s goodwill by wangling fake sick leave. Lakhan feigns illness in order to attend his friend Ragbir’s funeral on a neighbouring estate, since ‘Ragbir pappa and he pappa been come from India with one jehaji (ship)’. All hell breaks loose when the doctor gives Lakhan a laxative to teach the truant worker a harmless lesson. Lakhan returns in a livid rage, to ‘swipe-out Mathew’s neck just like pujaree does swipe-out goat neck at Kali puja’. Lurking just below the never-ending farce and drama of Monar’s backdam scenario is the tragedy of non-being, of illiteracy, ignorance, racialism and frustration. The sense of despair of the West-Indian Indian is strongly felt in ‘Bully-Boy’.

In ‘Hakim Driver’, the protagonist sweet talks the ‘big manager’ to escape manual work. (‘which he frighten more than jail’). The story throws satirical light on the sexual promiscuity on the estates. Hakim’s insatiable fornication (‘giving sweetness’) comes to a reluctant end when an enraged husband wounds him in a rather delicate spot. It is then that he decides to become a ‘majee’ (priest) like his father.

The stories make fascinating reading, the hybrid prose providing an enlightening insight into a society that is homeless, rudderless and bereft; rootless, and hence often ruthless, in its dealings. The author obviously knows the milieu intimately; the ‘inside’ knowledge and the authentic dialogue make the stories urgently alive.

This is a review of Backdam People

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