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Backdam People

Written by Cyril Dabydeen for WLWE on no date provided

Rooplall Monar is a Guyanese poet and short story writer currently living in that country on a sugar estate in the county of Demerara. To the outsider, of course, Demerara is almost synonymous with sugar; in the Caribbean itself the phrase ‘King Sugar’ still symbolizes the dominance it has on people’s lives. Guyana, which is identifiably different from the rest of the Caribbean islands because of its hinterland region, however, has a long coastal belt where the majority of the people live; it is on this belt that most of the sugar cane is grown. Monar’s poetry is essentially that of the sugar estate experience; it is not surprising then that his first collection of stories should reflect a similar milieu. Backdam People depicts the lives of the people on the sugar estate in the period of the 1950s. The characters are by turn extravagant, pecunious, bawdy, cunning, humorous - all possessing a versatility of temperament deriving from the need to survive in an environment of back-breaking work.

Monar’s stories stem from an oral tradition in which East Indian families at weddings, wakes, or simply when they congregate at ‘bottom houses’ spontaneously tell stories as a form of recreation. Simultaneously such storytelling is a form of catharsis in the true dramatic sense as well as a way of passing on the history from generation to generation. It is not surprising then that Monar’s stories are written largely in local argot, closely following the rural dialect with its admixture from a variety of sources such as idioms deriving from the British and the vernacular of the adjacent Caribbean islands. The stories also possess a strong dose of the naturalistic, which isn’t unexpected in view of the sugar estate life, one devoid of meaningful moments of leisure; this naturalism is seen clearly in the frequent use of animal imagery throughout the stories. The animal imagery also provides for speculation about the nature of man in a harsh environment, and may not be far removed philosophically from Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road.

As would be natural in a colonial environment, class boundaries predominate and form the essence of the thematic structure of the stories: on the one hand are the white expatriates as elites on the sugar estates (the managers, overseers, etc. who live in almost palatial homes), and on the other are the sugar cane workers, the coolies (mostly East Indians and blacks). Sometimes there is conflict, not unexpectedly, among the creole types stemming from the changing traditions in the clash of values, customs, and beliefs. In ‘Jan-Jhat’ we see this played out in a Hindu home as a result of a marriage and the ‘westernizing’ influences acting on the daughter-in-law. In ‘Massala Maraj’ the protagonist uses his wits to obtain a better life for himself away from the back-breaking work out in the fields: Maraj’s ploy is to beguile the wife of the ‘Big Manager’ (the general manager), who has a weakness for exotic culinary fare. Underlying this and nearly all the stories is the profit motive; even the local overseers and managers are not immune, for as the omniscient narrator says, ‘them backra in sugar estate gone get prappa blows-up from the bigger backra in Georgetown who running the sugar industry, and them backra in Georgetown gon get blows from the bigger backra in Inglan if them prafit not raise’ (‘Lakhan Chase Dispenser’). Stories like ‘Hakim Driver’ also reflect the pecking order among the estate workers: the ‘driver’ or overseer assistant is usually one of the locals, but in the apartheid system of the sugar estate he definitely isn’t in the same social class as the white overseer.

The demotic tone in the stories gives them their almost Rabelaisian vigour. In each story, the characters are developed quickly for the reader familiar with the locale. The ‘outsider,’ the individual not conversant with the Guyanese creole culture, may find the character development too sparse, but one suspects that Monar would be happy if his stories were read and enjoyed by the audience that he writes for primarily, that is the sugar estate workers themselves. Be that as it may, it is good that Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press has brought these stories, which can catapult a reader in Canada to another time and place.

This is a review of Backdam People

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