Dear Death

Written by Michael Latchana for Indo-Caribbean World on

On Tuesday, March 19, I had the pleasure of listening to Sasenarine Persaud read from his novel, Dear Death, and talk shout his writing. The venue was Toronto’s Harbourfront and Sasenarine was participating in the (by now, well-known) Harbourfront Reading Series. As a member of that audience, I was very much impressed by the performance; as a fellow Indo-Guyanese I was very happy that one of ‘our people’ has made such an impact.

Sasenarine Persaud was born in Guyana and now resides in Toronto. While still in Guyana (he moved to Toronto in 1988) he attracted the attention of British publishers and in 1988 the novel Dear Death and the poetry collection Demerary Telepathy were chosen for publication by the Peepal Tree Press in Great Britain. Peepal Tree will also be publishing a second novel titled, The Ghost of Bellow’s Man, shortly. In 1989, Sasenarine published privately, another collection of poetry, Between the Dash and the Comma.

I first had the opportunity to listen to Sasenarine read from his work in 1988 at York University at the Indo-Caribbean Studies Conference marking the 150th Anniversary of East Indian presence in the Caribbean. I recall him as being the only writer who had chosen to read a political piece and since then I have come to realize that one of the best things about him is that he prefers to deviate from the norm, since it somehow makes him stand out from the rest of current new(er) Caribbean writers.
In the fall of 1990, Toronto experienced its first Street Festival of the literary kind when a part of Queen Street, West and a few adjoining streets were closed off to traffic for the installation of booths and book displays. Part of that festival was a set of readings in, of all places, a little restaurant called the Chicago Diner. As the luck of the draw would have it, one of the ten from hundreds of poets drawn from a lottery was Sasenarine Persaud. The setting was far from perfect, with the clinkering of dishes, constant movement of patrons and restaurant staff, and the fact that the stage from which the writers were reading was located between the kitchen and the dining area. What was important, though, was the appearance in front of a more mainstream audience. It led to the invitation to read at Harbourfront.

The novel, Dear Death, is a retelling of what is going on in the mind of its protagonist, Dalip, a Hindu of Indo-Guyanese descent. Dalip is about twenty-four years old when he starts to question himself about the soul, about reincarnation, about life and death, and to reflect on what he has become. To find some answers, Dalip decides to delve into his memory, to recall as much as he can, as far back as he can remember. He finds to his wonder that he cannot remember anything from the first four years of his life and his memory of a house was explained by his father as the one they had lived in when be was about five years old. His first distinct memory is an event when he was six. The events that do stand out, however, are the deaths in his family and Dalip questions himself on the impact those deaths, and his responses, have had on his life. The novel deals with a series of deaths: Dalip’s aunt’s, Careen, from cancer, his mother’s suicide, the death his Cha Cha, and then finally, his elder brother Roy’s, as a result of jaundice. The book’s prologue is a discourse on the soul and the belief that only someone who has realized himself can recall previous lives. The epilogue has Dalip concluding that: ‘Realization was better than reincarnation - to become part of some great soul - the Paramata - was better than the cycle of rebirths.’

In between, Dalip’s search takes the reader to the Indo-Guyanese family, to the extended family of cousins and grandparents, to the nightmares in which his late mother talked to him (and later also to his father), at a young boy’s dreams of scholastic achievement, to a father raising a young family and to an elder brother’s unselfishness. It is only later that Dalip realises that his romantic relationships have all involved women who reminded him of his mother in same way (he was not yet ten years old when his mother, for whom he felt a seemingly unnatural attraction, killed herself). The end result is that Dalip realizes that death has to be confronted for life to be embraced fully. The novel is
filled with Indian symbolisms and, according to Sasenarine, the protagonist Dalip’s answers were found in yogic principles, and the fact that the father feels that all is Maya. Another image that Sasenarine uses in the novel is that of the liberated woman, in this instance, Dalip’s girlfriend Jannet who is a nurse (and with the extra ‘n’ aside, adds connotations of another Janet - who since the 1950s has continued to make a big impression in Guyana). Sasenarine Persaud’s beliefs are deeply rooted in Hindu philosophy and many feel that this is what sets his writing apart from others’ on the subject of East Indians in the Caribbean. His poetry also reflects these beliefs as he expounds the eastern philosophical tradition of all life being sacred, as opposed to the western thinking which sees man as the supreme creature. A lot of his poetry also deals with political and cultural oppression.