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Backdam People

Written by Peter Nazareth for World Literature Today on no date provided

The son of cane-working East Indian parents, Rooplall Monar has won prizes in Guyana for his poems and stories. Backdam People contains eleven stories and a five-page introduction by Jeremy Poynting, who obtained his Ph.D. at Leeds University with a dissertation on East Indian writing of the West Indies and who in fact is the publisher of the volume. ‘In these stories Rooplall Monar writes about the Indo-Guyanese sugar estate communities as they existed between the 1930s and 1950s in what was then British Guiana,’ says Poynting. ‘They were communities whose origins go back to the days of indenture when, between 1838 and 1917, 238,909 Indians were imported as labourers on five year contracts to fill the gap on the sugar estates left by the departure of the Afro-Guyanese ex-slaves in their search for a truer freedom.’ Poynting makes two important critical judgments. First, ‘The raw material for these stories came from hours of listening to older men and women in Annandale, and they show Monar’s recognition that within the circumscribed conditions of estate life an intense individuality was maintained.’ Second, ‘These stories are important though, not only because of what they say but of the way they say it. In particular, Monar exploits very effectively the distinctive Creole of the Indo-Guyanese estates, with its mixture of rural Guyanese Creole with creolised Hindi lexical elements and such Hindi patterns as reduplication, using it as a medium of narration, dialogue and comment.’

The stories are oral in quality, and the reader must hear the sounds in the mind while reading. The use of dialect is frequently very effective. For example, in ‘Jan-Jhat’ a new, initially obedient daughter-in-law uses her sexuality to win new freedoms and take her husband away from his mother’s grip.

‘When Big-Boy and Data on the bed that same night, Data acting like dumb. Don’t matter how much Big-Boy talking to she, it look like she lip thread. Don’t matter how much Big-Boy playing with she, it look like she tun stone. Then suddenly she turn on she left side and tell Big-Boy not to bother she. Eh-eh, the same way she act the following night. And don’t matter how much Big-Boy whispering in she ears and feeling she bubby and legs, she still acting cool as if she ain’t gat feeling.’

Although the story is familiar, through the language, we see people who have their own world and world view. The language works best for stories which are humorous. For example, Bahadur decides he is going to get a higher job, even though he cannot read and write. He pretends to be a ‘dutchman-jumbie’ (explained in the three-page glossary as ‘spirit of a Dutchman, often believed to be the most dangerous kind of jumbies because of the special reputation of the Dutch slave-masters for cruelty’) or a ‘moongaza’ haunting the estate. When nobody wants the job of nightwatchman, he steps in and takes it.

Other stories are serious: we see the degree of manipulation in a person becoming the religious and spiritual leader of the community in ‘Hakim Driver.’ Yet other stories are slight, such as ‘Dhookie,’ in which the biggest dunce succeeds in getting the teachers to treat him well; his methods are so crude that only the use of the dialect makes the story interesting. Dialect is used for all the stories, however, and thus places the simpler happenings and actions on the same plane as the more complex ones, which I feel is a flaw. Still, one of the interesting things about the stories is the way the author places the fates of the people within a wider economic context, extending all the way to the heart of the colonial empire. Even ‘Dhookie’ shows the brutal end to the child’s world: ‘Headmaster John shake he head and say: ""Dull or brilliant, they all end in the sugar canefield.""’ The last story looks into the past and then forward to the time when the people will open their eyes and no longer be exploited.

The backdam was the distant part of the estate to which the workers had to walk for miles in the darkness of early morning to start work. Monar makes us see and hear these people.

This is a review of Backdam People

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