NOT SINCE Vidia Naipaul’s Miguel Street and Sam Selvon’s Ways of Sunlight has a collection of short stories so captured the texture of a people as Backdam People from Guyanese writer Rooplal Monar. This collection of 11 short stories published by Jeremy Poynting’s Peepal Tree Press captures the life and conversation as few Caribbean writers have done. Monar writes of the Indian sugar cane workers who lived in the squalor and poverty of the ‘backdam’ in the thirties and forties in Guyana. They are an oppressed people, kept down by the white managers and drivers and by their own ignorance and superstition.
Yet his stories are not sad. They bubble with life and energy as he relates the comedy, the vulgarity, the violence, the trickery, with the touch of a master storyteller. Monar’s strong point is his perfectly tuned command of the style, intonation and images of the village storyteller. That peculiar mixture of Anglicised Hindi words and creole that make up the Guyanese dialect rolls out like oil.
He starts with the class dunce Dhookie getting benched and whipped for copying his homework.
‘Swwy, swwy - them lash rebouncing on Dhookie betee while Dhookie cussing-up in he mind and saying how he gon learn Teacher Johnson one prappa lesson. Swwy, swwy, swadai - and like them picknie seeing dust coming out from Dhookie pants, while Teacher Johnson sweat dropping down blop, blop, blop and he blowing eehaa, eehaa, as if he done one marathon race.’ Dhookie of course pelts Teacher Johnson with some bricks while hiding in cane field and fear of further deeds causes him to become a sudden favourite. He ends in the mule gang, while Headmaster John says ‘Dull or brilliant, they all end in the cane field.’
And so they do. The cane field and the estate dominate their lives, but it does not oppress their spirits. These are not grim stories, but surprisingly lively ones. He relates how Bad-by is cured of wickedness by a good ‘cut-rass’ from Shit-A-Lap, whom he had stoned down for no reason at all.
The best stories deal with the interplay of the Backdam people, like Massala Maraj who escapes the hard work through making ‘dal-purri and massala fowl curry’ for the big manager and he missie.
There is Bully-Boy who after pushing around the boys gets his comeuppance from Barnwell: ‘""Hey,"" Barnwell walk up to Bull-Boy and talk, and when Bully-Boy raise he head; Barnwell leggo two proper slap bladai blai on Bully-Boy face. When Crabdog and them boys see that they freeze and conclude that today is murderation. And when Bully-Boy notice that Barnwell was more big and hefty than he, he didn’t resist. He just cry like lil picknie and walk out the rumshop saying ""Is murderation today.""’
It is absolutely true to life, as is the story of Bahadur, who pretends to be a Dutchman ghost to get an easy job as a ranger.
One of the best is ‘Jan-Jhat’, which relates in hilarious detail the battle between Big-Boy mumma and his new wife Data:
‘Then one bright Saturday afternoon Data act as though she get mad. You see Big-Boy mumma walk in the bedroom with one parcel in she hand and say ""Me buy nice cloth fo you, doolahin."" Then Big-Boy mumma smile.
‘Eh-eh, Data whole inside come alive. She believe all to Gawd Big-Boy mumma buy fancy clothes for she. In she eagerness she tear open the parcel. Then she and Big-Boy mumma eye make four, while Big-Boy mummna say with one big smile; ""You must sew dress with it, doolahin.""
‘""Eh-eh, what wrong wid yuh, doolahin? Dis is nice dress material,"" Big-Boy mumma assure she, and add that long time people does kill to wear shamberry dress.
‘""Nice dress material fo yuh,"" Data say as she stamp out the bedroom.’
Monar’s bitterness comes out in the final story ‘Cent and Jill’ as he watches the children fighting for sweets and coins thrown down by the estate manager’s wife and daughter, but it is untypical.
His stories bring out the tremendous vitality of the backdam people, and his excellent narrative technique makes it leap into life. It’s a book that improves with re-reading, well worth its place on the Caribbean shelf.