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Cosmic Dance

Written by Eusi Kwayana for Guyana Chronicle on no date provided

To tell this life-like, probable once-in-a-life-time combination of chances, Harischandra Khemraj adopts the identity of Vayu Samphat, g.m.o at Urgben hospital in a make believe country, Aritia, which soon reveals itself as ours truly [Guyana]. It is not his vocation, but his friendship with Ramphal, that brings him into the thick of the events which follow the rape of a young girl in the presence of her father. Our senses anticipate the dance as this father accepts an immediate promotion from his boss, the offender, and thus raises suspicions of complicity.
The offence is also a cross-racial crime and an extreme form of juvenile abuse. The offender is Vernon Ashby, the big one at a state-owned coconut estate, with armed assassins at his disposal.

Ramphal learns of Mala’s violation from her brother, Baljit, his promising English student who has recently become absent and distracted. Baljit is later coaxed into confiding in Ramphal who brings his friend, Vayu, into the picture. Vayu is mostly offended at the offender’s race. This is not unnatural in most communities as that kind of rape can leave a permanent, visible record which can become a curse within any narrow community. Two people see it at once as a capital offence pure and simple. Ramphat, who has long been waging war against racial stereotypes and Indranee, a young lawyer who is later woven into the tense intricate plot. She says with authority to Vayu, 'It is more a man-woman thing than a racial thing'.

There are persons in the story who grow with the plot, because they are so feelingly conceived they ring like real persons and not characters, and there are those who do not grow. Ramphal and Indranee separately insist that there is good in the worst of us. Vernon Ashby, the villain extraordinary, 'grows' kind, receives Ramphal who conceives the idea that he can reason with Ashby and play on his vanity and reputation as a good family man to keep him from destroying the evidence of his crime, Mala, and her confidantes. Ashby appears compliant but in reality sees a rival strategist in Ramphal and moves with lightening speed to kill Ramphal, his child victim and even Vayu, who survives a firearm attack. The primary target, the victim Maya, is dispatched by other means, hanging, so that she can be accused of her own death. On appeal from Indranee, who has let him take her to government receptions now and then, Ravi Bissessar, junior Minister and thug-in-good-standing, calls off Ashby’s dogs through his army links. Under this do-gooders duress, Indranee yields her body, though not herself - at the risk of a precious association with Vayu, who she knows will not understand. These developments deepen Vayu’s puzzlement at the fateful, erratic dance of life and face him with his greatest challenge.

Vayu, as the child of a struggling fisherman, then still poor, had had a best friend, an Afro-Guyanese age-mate. His friend’s mother ordered him out of her son’s life with accompanying racial abuse, but really because of his low-class status. Years later, as a university student he sees a first class railway compartment full of African passengers jointly avert their gaze while a black conductor berates a feeble old woman who has strayed without enough money into the rarified zone. Not only that; the man who assumed to himself the right to speak for all the passengers, on perceiving that Vayu was about to come to the woman’s rescue, served him a visual injunction to keep out of black people’s business. These experiences serve to justify the weight and authority of the narrow tradition of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Khemraj sets a standard in his first novel which will tax the talents of any writer including himself to sustain, much more surpass. In the opening scene as Dr. Samphat he is wrestling with the effect of gunshot wounds in a hospital bed at his work place. Thus we find ourself at one of the story’s climaxes within an ascending scale of them. And when climaxes of episode peter out there are those of the psyche left to experienced in the cosmic dance choreographed out of human drama in Aritia. The mood of the cosmic dance is of comings and goings, conjoinings and severings, rape, death and other extremes of existence that seem inexplicable and driven by forces beyond human control. Those who appear to be in firm control find themselves suddenly being drawn into the orbit, while others calmly wrench themselves from the mindless currents and strike out on their own to make their own sense of things.

The very process of relating the story seems to be dogged with cosmic will. ‘Where to begin? At the beginning of course, but there are many beginnings, and my choice among them will inevitably shape what follows - that’s assuming I do have a choice… To narrate is to distort, but hopefully clarify too.’ With this high sense of responsible non-responsibility Vayu presents many imperilled lives including his own and does his best to clarify them, in their complex yet logical and still surprising turns and twists.

Always sensitive and ruthless with the truth of personality, he knows that he is also in the judgement seat. In this jurisdiction of the imagination he rules that even fiction must be true. His dream people are not minions to be mocked, but spirits entitled to their dignity. His fine sense refuses to do the narrating alone. So he invites, a little clumsily, the rape victim’s brother to witness part of it, but Baljit can do so only by repeating the victim’s agonised narrative. Khemraj seems to regard this as more authentic than he could manage, even with the aid of his faithful tape recorder. The direct victims have a chance to be heard and escape benign representation.

Khemraj, who is really writing a political thriller keeps it from being a traditional description of Aritia or a mere pamphlet while bringing out the likely effects not only of one regime but of the whole of history. With a government in control which accommodates with ease the miscreants of the story because their side holds power, an eye is cast over the shoulder for the counterpart opposition since in Aritia ethnic guilt is a continuous quest and readers look for balance of treatment. This is no concern of the writer’s, mercifully. So the reader’s imagination is saved from the duel of the Innocent and is free to join the adventure of people acting without their tags, discovering and sometimes celebrating one another.

Through the agency and influence of Vayu’s guru, Ramphal, the violation of the woman child grows into a top cause, but only among the guilty and the victim’s support group. Most tellingly, no one dared to report it to the police, a testimony to the power wielded by the subordinate thugs who show their masters a clean sheet and a loyal cast of spirit. As Ramphal recruits more and more people to be active in Mala’s defence, the cosmic dance quickens and taboos are cast aside for a good cause. As it must be, caution is cast to the winds and the price is paid.

The attempt to evaluate Indranee is challenging. She is a typical young professional woman in the sense of being both general and strongly individual. An individual woman, she seems etched out for innovative thought and action. She has a code of public and private behaviour and is not troubled by pre-judgements about life. Many may lament that the author does not employ her as a vehicle of traditional values. They can take comfort that she is not the only model in literature. She is not located in a family situation and this gives her more of that freedom which is usually the preserve of men. In order to go to those places where she wanted to be accompanied, she allowed herself the company of Bissessar, a junior minister in the government and part of the political security arm. Perhaps, just as she is maintaining this role for his own purposes, she is humouring him for her own purposes, not clear even to her at first.

Her quiet resolution on hearing of Mala’s fate came like a chance remark but is really one of the main impulses of the plot. Any man who rapes a child should be shot. It becomes part of her rhythm as she moves to protect Mala from her offender who wants her silenced, setting all other considerations aside. Weighing the balance of forces, she falls back on Bissessar. She determines to use a ‘woman’s way’, confident that the weakness of the male can be counted on. Her belief in herself does not obtrude on others. She never behaves like the one who saved the side from total loss after the exemplary Ramphal’s clumsy blundering.

The author’s other triumph is to lay bare a bloody episode and save it from becoming communal. The final ideological climax comes when he confirms to himself what he had long begun to suspect: that the society is indeed one of ‘us’ and ‘them’, but that in this division, he was grouped with others regardless of race.

This is a review of Cosmic Dance

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