Backdam People

Written by Janice Shinebourne for Race Today on

The Introduction to this new collection of Guyanese stories rightly points to two important features: that it records the living conditions of East Indian indentured labour on Guyanese sugar estates, and that it does so in the ‘distinctive creole of the Indo-Guyanese estates’. But the Introduction goes too far in claiming that the stories provide an ‘unrivalled record’ of Guyanese sugar estate life. Surely Walter Rodney’s History of the Guyanese Working People is the great classic work on the subject. But these stories do complement Rodney’s visionary portrayal of Afro- and Indo-Guyanese as possessing a common identity, that of an uprooted labour force transplanted to the harsh coastline of Guyana where they fought a twin-pronged battle against their masters and the devouring mud and ocean. The author complements Rodney’s vision by giving us proof in the style and content of his stories, that Afro- and Indo-Guyanese share a similar culture.

The introduction also states that the stories ring with Indo-Guyanese culture and linguistic associations. This could be misleading if it leads the readers to expect to find a moral outlook that can be defined as exclusively Indo-Guyanese. The moral outlook which all the stories actually
do share is that of the Anansi story which has always been treated as an Afro-Caribbean tradition. In fact, all the Caribbean races have participated in Anansi stories, as listeners and story-tellers. These ‘Indo-Guyanese’ stories verify now that Indo-Guyanese are qualified Anansi story characters.
As in all Anansi stories, the moral drive in each Monar story is to champion natural justice. The heroes are different in each story, going by the names of Dhookie, Sukul (the moral of folklore shapes his character), Shit-a-Lap (who also symbolises abused Indian culture), Massala Maraj, Lakhan and so on. The concept of natural justice in each story is always highly abstract, and true to the Anansi tradition, it always makes its impact on the hero or anti-hero as the case may be with a moral force which is sometimes understated, sometimes overstated, but always so unforgettable. It has the power to reshape the community and individual.

However, there are features which detract from the collection. It sensationalises the pathology of poverty and so the author indulges the violence of machismo, violence against women and children and most of all, violence against the self. It is a common failure, one that led David Dabydeen to generalise wrongly in his Slave Song that creole is a language of violence. It stems partly from a failure of language, especially the self-conscious use of creole. This failure is easier to spot in the Glossary which anglicises meanings at the cost of rich creole nuances. For example, it gives an exclusively British class connotation to ‘eye-pass’ by explaining it as ‘to insult by assuming superiority’. ‘Eye-pass’ can also be a playful expression of affection by a wide variety of users. ‘Gaff’ is explained in anglicised terms as ‘to hold a conversation’, quite the opposite of the rampant gossiping which it can be.