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Butterfly In The Wind

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for Toronto South Asian Review on no date provided

This first novel by a Trinidadian living in England focuses on Indo-Trinidadian experience, territory well traversed by literary sojourners that include members of the Naipaul clan, Samuel Selvon, Ismith Khan, and non-Indian Trinidadians such as Ian McDonald, Michael Anthony and Merle Hodge. But none has given the detailed and sensitive study of female childhood and adolescence, observed specifically from a woman’s point of view, that we get in this novel.

In Butterfly in the Wind the narrator Kamla Maharaj describes her career through primary and secondary school to the time when she prepares to leave Trinidad for university in Northern Ireland. Kamla’s father is a small businessman - a rum-shop owner and grocer - and what we get from his daughter’s narrative are sharply etched vignettes of day-to-day living in the household, incidents in the shop, business dealings, functions at church and school, and relationships with family, neighbours, teachers and officials. It is astonishing that the author can remember so much in detail. Her book is a densely illustrated catalogue of memories, recollections, reminiscences and commentaries that form a warm tribute to the mixed blessings of a colonial upbringing in Trinidad. While the tribute is directed primarily towards the Indian community, the larger community is multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan in every sense, as illustrated by shared religious festivals, Catholic schools attended by Hindu pupils, and mixed social practices of all kinds. This is perhaps the most successful feature of the novel: the accuracy of its observation in catching the exact flavour of life in pre-Independence Caribbean society with different races, classes, and religions vying for survival under the imposed tutelage of British institutions, manners and standards.

Kamla’s earliest memories are of people such as her first teacher, Miss Medina, who had a passion for straight lines. She also remembers Renee who did the family’s washing, and who after a hard week’s work could find solace simply by greasing herself with candle wax, ‘wrapping up’ herself against possible draught, swallowing a drink of local rum, and smoking a cigarette. There are teachers like Mr Brathwaite who ‘had a secret desire to be a proper Englishman,’ and Mr Skinner whose theory of education began and ended with corporal punishment: ‘When we were confused we were flogged, when we were frightened we were flogged, and the dull were flogged daily’ (p.65). Since she belongs to a Hindu family, Kamla celebrates Hindu festivals and receives instruction from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but because of the mixed nature of her society, she also celebrates Christmas. A sinister implication of living in a multi-cultural society is the discrimination the narrator suffers when she is told that she will not be sent on to St Joseph’s Convent because she is not a Catholic. Religious discrimination suggests the potential for discrimination in other areas. But Butterfly in the Wind is notable for its concentration on the more positive features of the narrator’s life and her social milieu. Her parents seem paragons of virtue and in a society noted for drunken brawling and the ill-effects of colonial exploitation it is striking to read that drunks ‘would sing all the way home, becoming over-friendly to anyone they met.’ Yet these features fit quite smoothly into the narrative of a young woman who looks back on her early experiences. The narrator dwells lovingly on details drawn from the landscape, on customs and ceremonies and a variety of social practices, and in this way she evokes a way of life whose principal aspects are probably already obsolescent.

In the end, when one considers the accuracy of terms used and of actual place names and institutions, together with the autobiographical structure and the sociological coverage of Indo-Trinidadian culture, one comes to regard Butterfly in the Wind as fictionalized autobiography or autobiographical fiction, without implying thereby any pejorative judgement on its artistic value. A novel like Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack Monkey is not devalued by being placed in the same genre. In both books the main appeal is one of aching nostalgia for the people, places and customs that indelibly shaped the narrator (or author) but have themselves succumbed to the ravages of time, history and political change. In the following passage the narrator remembers an Indian Independence Day ceremony in which a little boy sang:

‘Before me, this slender grain of rice, with the sun and wisp of hair in his eyes, sang with such youthful assurance that I wept for the supreme courage of the weak; and I wept too for those daring dauntless runaway slaves who never made it; and for the heroism and valour of the Red Indians of North America who did not have India’s good fortune. Not for the first time in my life, as this stanza of Tagore’s song came to an end, I felt a deep kinship with the courage of the vanquished.’ (pp. 186-7)

If there is any temptation to regard these brave words as mere rhetoric, the reader of Butterfly in the Wind will be discouraged from doing so by the novel’s authentic chronicle of self-development in one colonial situation. It is a chronicle that establishes solidarity with colonized peoples everywhere, and since it comes from a woman, it speaks for a group who were doubly colonized. As such Butterfly in the Wind seems all the more intense, poignant, and eloquent.

This is a review of Butterfly In The Wind

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