Butterfly In The Wind

Written by John Wickham for Daily Nation (Barbados) on

It is commonplace that Trinidad (whatever the protocol may require, we have to omit the statutory ‘and Tobago’ from this particular equation) owes its distinct charm and appeal to the mix of races and cultures which, more by chance than by design, make up its rainbow population.
Visitors and residents alike, point with an air of triumphant discovery to the range of skin colours, the combinations of racial features and the fact that they are all Trinidadians living in harmony. Although that facile conclusion may be true, it is only so to some extent. In separate harmony may be nearer the mark.

Lakshmi (named after the Hindu goddess of light and wealth) Persaud’s work, described as a novel, is nevertheless clearly and heavily autobiographical, relying on the remembered contradictions and challenges inherent in a society, in which the numerous components of the population are separated by formidable cultural fences. This fact does not of course make the book less entitled to the name of novel, but it is as well to acknowledge the source of its power and the authority of its plot.
The novel’s purpose, as distinct from its means of achieving that purpose, is to draw attention to the cultural differences which could not, given the racial/cultural components of the Trinidad scene and the circumstances of their arrival on that scene, but be separative in their effects.

The general conclusion of these circumstances has been to lock into rigid stereotypes, the several cultural and racial characteristics of the admittedly fascinating chiaroscuro that Trinidad is. Much of this easy categorisation does not in fact stand up to serious scrutiny, there are substantial exceptions; yet even these quickly harden into beliefs. Thus, words like Indian, Chinese, African, Syrian, French Creole, often vernacularly corrupted, forego their function as biological or anthropological descriptions to become definitions.

Much of the resentment to be found in some West Indian quarters against V.S. Naipaul’s depiction of Trinidad and India, springs from that writer’s refusal to be contained by racial definition.

Success two-fold
Lakshmi Persaud’s novel needs to be read and judged, therefore, both by its success as the autobiographical narrative of a Hindu girl growing up within the protective warmth of a loving family and a strong cultural tradition, as well as a paradigm of the tensions experienced in the context of a number of often mutually conflicting ambitious and objectives. And these tensions exist in what, after all, is a small island society.

The family warmth which enveloped Kamla, the ‘I’ of the novel, is all the more palpable because it is not asserted but implied, wrapped up in a cocoon of recollection. Family prayers are described:

‘Religious ceremonies were held at home. Before anything else you had to decide what kind of ceremony you wanted, whether it was to be a katha, a puja or a Ramayana: a substantial gathering or a homely one.

‘My mother, when she was young and had lots of energy, would invite all our neighbours, as well as anyone who was around my father’s rum shop and any of the wandering poor who slept in the open at nights. I have seen her stop men, ragged and foul-smell as they walked slowly past our shop, and invite them to have some katha food.

‘It was food blessed by God; small portions of it were offered by the pundit to the sacred fire. I used to think that as the sweet smoke lifted up the aroma of gently burning, freshly cut pinewood, ghee, camphor and spiced vegetables, the gods were comforted and this made them well disposed to the family making the offering.

‘Food that has been blessed by God should not be refused by man. Everyone knew this, so when my mother invited the wandering poor, they knew they were obliged to accept the invitation. To refuse was to court the disapproval of the gods, and so the poor could warm their stomachs with good wholesome food and please both God and their hostess at the same time.

‘...There is something serene about a home and its surroundings when they are orderly and bright with cleanliness and sunlight; when, wherever you look, the drains, the yard, the floors are all fresh and pleasing to the eye; one could not but be comforted.

‘The whiter-than-white dhoti and phagree of the pundit; his richly embroidered kurta in golden yellow satin and his long flowing elegant angochar of fine material and dancing tassels, would all help to make a religious ceremony, held at our home, a very special celebration.’

Treasured traditions
And when in due course the time comes for Kamla to leave Trinidad for university, the formality of the farewell is touching in its ritual of gesture infused with deep love so that it is neither empty nor merely formal: ‘And again before my father I bent down with hands clasped as in prayer, touched his feet with the tips of my fingers, and drew them back. What the traditional significance of this gesture is I cannot say, but for me I was acknowledging in private the thousand and one good things my parents had lovingly bestowed upon me and even now were offering me, a female child, disadvantaged by custom, an untold freedom and privilege at much personal sacrifice to themselves.’
But before she reached the university stage, the young Kamla had to come to terms with the reality of transition from the Hindu patheon and worship to life in a Roman Catholic school. There was, first, the question of religious instruction.

‘As we had no such thing in Hinduism, I was intrigued by this neat small book because it asked the most exciting questions imaginable. Questions like: who made you? And why did God make you?
‘It was all very puzzling. And there was the question of hell. Hell is a place, according to Mother Mary Rose, where an everlasting fire rages. This fire burns on and on and on. It never dies. It is a place where the pain inflicted is so intense that no pain on earth can be compared with it.
‘I concluded it was not a place anyone would wish to enter of their own accord. And to my surprise, words such as evil, wicked, the damned, mortal sin - all unpleasing sounds - came gushing out from the milk and honey Mary Rose.’

It was very different from what Kamla’s pundit had said. He had said: ‘Do good, that’s all that matters. Live your life in such a way that every living thing is happier because you have passed that way. ‘If you see a plant drying up, give it water, if a dog is hungry give it food; if a bird is thirsty show it where it can drink.’ Kamla’s father comforted her when she put her confusion to him. ‘Well, I will tell you,’ he said. ‘In my long experience both in business and outside it, I have found that the differences in religion have no effect on the way men live their lives and conduct their businesses... when you are older you can decide; you are too young... and don’t believe everything those nuns tell you.’

The author of Kamla’s story has done a great service to Trinidad by providing precisely those insights which perhaps only a woman can: the domestic intimacies, the preparation of food, the dressing, the concerns which are all shared by humanity.

The writing is sometimes a trifle more sophisticated than might be expected from a schoolgirl and then the reader is caught by a rare surprise. But since it is so very seldom that the ordinary reader is permitted to glimpse beyond the curtain of the stereotypical image, we must be grateful for the sensitive portrait which Lakshmi Persaud has given us of a way of living so often misinterpreted, only because it is different or exotic and not given the chance to be seen as simply human - one of the many responses to the human condition and its collisions on the road between beginning and end.