Backdam People

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for TSAR on

Backdam People is a collection of eleven stories which are unique in West Indian literature because they are written entirely in Guyanese dialect. This is not the dialect used in full-length narratives by authors such as Samuel Selvon (Trinidad) and Vic Reid (Jamaica). Selvon and Reid write about more creolised West Indians, whereas Monar’s characters are unlettered, Indian, sugar estate labourers whose speech reflects some influence from Indian languages. Monar does not reproduce this speech with complete, literal exactness. Words such as ‘morgue, expectation, rehearsing, spectacle’ are unlikely to be used by Monar’s characters; but they don’t alter the fact that the narrative of Backdam People captures, with great accuracy, the ribald earthiness and frank outspokenness of speech that flourished in rural Guyanese, during the first half of this century, and still survives today. In a general sense, the vocabulary, phrasing, syntax, imagery, and intonation of the narrative in Backdam People are all accurate. ‘Slippery like ochro’ (p. 73), ‘thick-thick like conky’ (p. 31), and ‘rattling like cane-punt chain’ (p. 51) are images that have special resonance for the ears of Guyanese, and for rural rather than urban Guyanese.

Most of the stories in Backdam People are set in the period around World War Two. At this time most Indians lived on sugar estates with a feudalistic structure bequeathed by the Caribbean plantation system of preceding centuries, when white proprietors owned everything, including their (African) workers. Although most of the overt brutality by which plantation owners enforced their authority had gone by World War Two, an atmosphere of enforcement remained. It is evident in the humiliating sycophancy, the debased grovelling, the insidious influence-seeking and peddling, and the all-pervading violence and brutality which affect most people in the stories in Backdam People. In these stories, the estate manager is mentioned in tones of hallowed respect and awe, as someone who could never be contacted directly by workers. If a worker had a request, he would pass it through intermediate stages of the feudalistic hierarchy until it reached the manager. Meanwhile, the worker waited in cowering expectation. This system spawned widespread scheming and plotting, envy, fear, suspicion, deceit, treachery and deviousness, all in the interest of survival.

We get a glimpse of the system from ‘Lakhan Chase Dispenser’. It was common for workers to feign illness or exaggerate the seriousness of genuine illness, in order to evade the more gruelling forms of labour. In ‘Lakhan Chase Dispenser’ the negro dispenser (chemist and druggist) who is extremely popular with the labourers, is given instructions that they should be treated quickly for minor illness, and made to resume work as soon as possible. Absenteeism was to be curbed and productivity increased because of war conditions in Europe which increased the European demand for sugar. In an effort to follow these instructions without damaging his good reputation with the labourers, Matthews hits on a scheme of secretly administering laxatives to people who appear to be feigning illness. In this way, the individual becomes truly indisposed for one day and can resume work the next day, feeling all the better for having had a purge. The scheme backfires when Lakhan wants time off to attend a funeral. The laxative he is given produces so many bowel movements, and so weakens him, that Lakhan is unable to attend the funeral. He angrily attacks Matthews with a cutlass and forces him to reveal his scheme.

The story is typical in so far as it illustrates the secrecy, trickery, and endless double-dealing and violence that pervade estate society. The workers’ effort in resisting oppression is seen through their deliberate absenteeism. In the end, despite his murderous pursuit of Matthews, Lakhan and the dispenser are both presented as victims of the ‘bacra’ or white administration. Lakhan ‘smack he tongue again as though he sorry for Matthews’ (p.50). Lakhan’s story is also typical because of its comic technique. It is in his use of comedy to reveal oppression and injustice that the author achieves greatest success in Backdam People. In most stories, the injustice is not explicitly mentioned: it is evident in the social structure and the relationships and situations of characters. Yet these relationships and situations are largely comic, whether they involve school pranks, superstition, domestic wrangles, cowardice, bullying or sexual infidelity. When the schoolboy Dhookie is flogged for cheating, his retaliation by stoning the teacher is so successful, that he eventually becomes the teacher’s favourite. The main interest in Bully Boy’s story is that, despite his strong-armed tactics, he is a coward at heart, and is afraid he may be found out. Sukul sneers at ‘jumbies’ or ghosts until he is scared by one, and thereafter cannot venture out without being accompanied. Massala Maraj ingratiates himself to worm a favour out of the estate manager. Through his greed he loses the favour, but regains it through further ingratiation. ‘Bahadur’ is another story about successful trickery, and ‘Who is the real Ol Higue’ about superstition and gullibility. These brief descriptions suggest the essentially comic treatment of most relationships and situations in Backdam People.

The success of Monar’s comic treatment is that it enables him to present scenes of gross violence and brutality without sentimentality. His stories win sympathy for the victims of oppression without lamenting over the conditions of oppression. Comedy highlights rather than conceals these conditions. The Ol Higue (witch) Sancharrie eventually commits suicide. Bully Boy is seriously injured by a ‘strong man’. There are numerous beatings and threats, the favoured weapon being the cutlass which all labourers possess. Matthews has to jump through his dispensary window, knocking over pills and medicine bottles. Hakim and his paramour are caught ‘in flagrante delicto’, by the paramour’s cutlass wielding husband. We laugh at all these incidents, but do not ignore the cruelty, pain and suffering involved. What we laugh at are the dramatic conflicts and confrontations. At any rate, the harsh lot of Monar’s characters is never lost sight of:

‘it dawn on me true-true that the estate mule and oxen receiving better treatment and care and food than the sugar worker them, who punishing generation after generation, night and day, to make sugar profitable, and believe is they duty as the pandit and immam does say.’ (p. 91)

Explicit comments of this sort are not common in Backdam People. The book more effectively exposes injustice in those stories where the situations are recorded and their injustice implied. But the comments confirm the plight of Monar’s characters whose lives are circumscribed on all sides, by social, political, economic and religious limitations. The world of these characters has much in common with the world of Chekhov’s muzhiks and Zola’s peasants whose raw, early, elemental concern for survival is all. But Monar’s treatment has more in common with Mark Twain’s comic reproduction of an equally raw, New World, frontier environment in Huckleberry Finn. His petty rivalries, unsubtle jockeying for advancement, and prankish violence for the sake of itself match the mindless feuding and vigorous, outdoor escapades in Twain, Chekhov and Zola are Old World Europeans. Twain and Monar write of new societies struggling to establish stable existence in a new environment.

In Backdam People the narrative technique matches this simple struggle for survival. Characters border on caricature, and many events are touched by exaggeration and stereotypical elements. Reactions can be automatic, and schemes instantly successful. In several stories, the plot is identical: A physically chastises B, and B seeks revenge through similar or worse physical chastisement. In some stories, the revenge pattern is a little more subtle, but on the whole, relationships are unsophisticated and events simplified. The gesture of Jameela’s father sharpening and testing the blade of his cutlass in anticipation of revenge seems transparently obvious. Swearing or cursing is a standard reaction to express anything from enthusiastic approval to blind anger. But these apparently simplified reactions and gestures are part of a technique that is related to the conventions of fairy stories or the tall tale. Such conventions deliberately stimulate our sense of drama and wonder, and this certainly occurs in Backdam People. Yet the drama and wonder emerge from perfectly shaped plots which present conflicts and resolve them with almost geometrical precision. When, for example, Hakim is injured by Jameela’s father at the end of ‘Hakim Driver’, the sweetness of revenge is accompanied by the vindication of justice, and the re-establishment of moral order. It is fitting that Hakim should become a ‘majee’ or Muslim priest, the vocation he should have followed from the beginning.

The uniqueness of Backdam People lies in the combined treatment of its subject as well as in its language. This combination makes the volume a pioneering work many features of which are discussed in a useful introduction by Jeremy Poynting. Dr. Poynting’s reference to ‘the neo-colonial business of metropolitan publication’ raises an important issue, so far as the intellectual and imaginative resources of Third World people are concerned. It was one thing for Western nations, to plunder the natural and economic resources of Third World countries when formal colonial rule was the order of the day. It adds reckless insult to grievous injury if metropolitan publishers are now to exploit the imaginative efforts of Third World people for purely commercial reasons. To be sure, this is not what Dr. Poynting has done. As he suggests, even if paper were available in Guyana, there is no tradition of book publishing and buying to support the successful production and marketing of a book like Backdam People. In these circumstances, Dr. Poynting has performed an invaluable service. It is a service one should expect from Guyanese living abroad. If they are unable or unwilling to do it, one should not blame Dr. Poynting for doing it.