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The Ghost of Bellow's Man

Written by Odaipaul Singh for Caribbean Daylight on no date provided

Sasenarine Persaud is among a rapidly growing community of young Indo-Caribbean writers and poets ‘banished’ from their homelands and now living and writing in ‘exile’ in North America. He was born in 1955 Guyana where he received his early education. He taught English and English literature at Central High School in Georgetown. He is the author of two novels, Dear Death (1989) and The Ghost of Bellow’s Man (1992), both published by Peepal Tree Pres,. Leeds, England. He is also the author of four collections of poems: Demerary Telepathy (1988), Between the Dash and the Comma (1989), The Wintering Kundalini and Under the Golden Apple Tree (1994). His poems, short stories, and essays have also appeared in other anthologies and journals.

I first met Persaud in 1979 when I myself began teaching at Central High School. He showed great interest in the fact that I was a student at the Banaras Hindu University, in Varanasi, India’s sacred city. He was particularly interested in the fact that I had studied Indian philosophy and religion. I soon discovered the Persaud was not only an aspiring poet and writer but also that he was much involved in the cultural life of his community. He and several other young Hindus, some of them graduates of the University of Guyana, had formed a progressive and dynamic affiliated group to a temple in Greater Georgetown. The group as a whole was deeply committed to the work of education among young Hindus, but they soon clashed with the established order in the temple and were ruthlessly ejected. Whether he knew it or not then, this entire episode was to provide the raw material for his second novel, The Ghost of Bellow’s Man.

If, according to the tenets of the canon, literature indeed reflects the human condition and provides the forum for the interrogation of that experience and a ‘window of opportunity’ for our liberation, then The Ghost of Bellow’s Man is a perfect example of the genre. Referring to this work Jeremy Poynting observes: ‘Since V.S. Naipaul’s classic novel The Mimic Men few other Caribbean writers have achieved that kind of complexity of vision.’ What happened in that greater Georgetown temple many years ago where the event of The Ghost is located might on the surface of it appear as a defeat and negation for an honorable and progressive group of young people. However, the fact that the author was able to excavate the episode from his subconscious and transform apparent despair into a statement of affirmation is an indication of his genius and skill as a writer, a cultural critic, and a visionary. And thus, in his own transformation and liberation, we all become transformed and liberated.

This process reminds me of an appreciation I once heard of the works of Martin Carter, Guyana’s poet laureate whom, for reasons to be stated elsewhere, Persaud believes to be the greatest poet of the English language in the Caribbean. According to this wisdom the poet is a person of heightened powers of perception and sensitivity who is able to internalize the experiences of the oppressed masses, their songs and stories of life and death, the agony and the ecstasy and, churning and meditating upon these experiences, reproduces them as a work of art itself endowed with the power to free.

Persaud and the Indian Worldview
What is the stuff that forms the poet’s experiences that are to be chiseled and refined as the art of redemption and emancipation? Clearly the immediate historical condition, whether it is the struggles for freedom in South Africa, the cries of the Palestine, the confusion and conflict in Guyana, or racism in Canada, is a component of that experience. Where Persaud blazes a new trail however and where he is bound to evoke controversies in the literary world, is in his conscious application of traditional Hindu theories of esthetics and poetics: the theories of Alamkara, Rasa and Dhvani. What is more, and this is perhaps where the controversy will emerge, Persaud claims that much, if not all, of Indo-Caribbean literature including the works of Sam Selvon and V.S. Naipaul exhibit, consciously or unconsciously, evidences and traces of these esthetic principles.

Persaud makes an equally bold claim, both for himself and other Caribbean writers of the Indian Diaspora, that there is a deep and primordial ‘Indic Consciousness,’ something perhaps similar to the Jungian idea of archetypes, that informs their writings and work of art. The living echoes of India, much like the theory of Dhvanni itself, the myths of Mahabharata and the Ramayana, the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gata, the metaphysics of the Upanishads, the rhythms or bias of the Shiva’s eternal drums, and the melodic structure of the Indian raga reverberating in the cosmos as Om, are all found in Indian art and life in the Caribbean. After all was it not ‘Hanuman House’ on which V.S. Naipaul built his House?

Indo-Caribbean Identity

The question that follows from all of this is, if Persaud formulates his literary expressions on this spiritual Indic foundation, then is it a valid question to ask what is it that makes him a Caribbean writer? Is there implied in this question an assumption that there is an inherent contradiction or a division of loyalties between being Indic and Caribbean? Is it simply a matter of having one’s physical location or origin in the Caribbean? People of great creativity, such as poets and writers, often live in the interstices of both time and space. It is as if in order to discover their inner reservoir of talent and unlock the flow of literary consciousness, they must first dislocate themselves, geographically and or psychologically, from their native environment. Is it a matter of wonder then that some of the most enduring literary works have come from the pens of exiles? The exilic existence possible even in one’s own native land and full of the tensions of being or not being here or there, is the bed of artistic creativity. Recognizing this what does it matter whether one is Caribbean or not?

Persaud himself attempts to answer this question for me. ‘I am as Caribbean as anyone else who can claim to be Caribbean.’ This, however, does not help me. It seems to be taking us in a circle hitching one’s definition on how the other person defines that identity. It appears to me that many Indo-Caribbean people have a problem in emphatically and unequivocally declaring themselves Caribbean. Somehow the feeling exists that to identify themselves as full fledged citizens of the region compromises on their Indian identity, and in so doing are prepared to relinquish over one hundred and fifty years of their experience in the Caribbean. Is this really possible? Are we fooling ourselves? Are we not confirming the equally erroneous contention implied in much of the political and cultural life of the region that Indians do not belong? After all the Caribbeanness of Indians of the region is often a matter for speculation.

I do not want to let my personal experience emerging from my life in the Caribbean and my life and study in India be an absolute standard of judgment, but I am prepared to hazard a guess that Caribbean Indians are much more Caribbean than they are Indian. It is in this grain that I will offer the view that Persaud as a writer, whose historical experience has been forged in the crucible of the ‘bitter-sweet’ struggle for which the Caribbean is a unique region, can only write the way he does because of his Caribbean background.

Indian Continuity, Caribbean Present
Having said this let it also be stated that the Indian experience in the Caribbean is not a mere embellishment of the region adding a little more diversity and color to the overall mosaic. We are much more central and integrated in the history of the region than some people make us out to be. But our historical and cultural past is not limited to the last 150 years. There is a clear continuity that links us to the cultural heritage of India. We may have changed, but change is not discontinuity. Therefore, I will agree with Persaud when he claims that the world-view that informs his writing is Indic. My contention is that it is also Caribbean. The propensity to reach into the eternity of his Indian foundation and the youth and freshness of his Caribbean self, is evident in Persaud’s expressions. But the Indian and the Caribbean are not parts making up a composite identity rather they are much more subtly fused and interwoven so that ‘each is the other’.

To say that one is Indian as much as one is Caribbean in no way does harm to our identity from whichever perspective it is seen. As a matter of fact to be Indian and Caribbean can be described as a very Indian way of being. Indian culture seems to reflect the principle of multiple identity. It is not uncommon to find Indians all over the subcontinent demonstrating this phenomenon: a person who is a Vaishnava is also a Shakta and a Shaiva. The same person may go to a Buddhist temple and participate in a Jain ceremony, and in the next moment may be seen at the graveside of a pir, a holy person in the Islamic tradition. And to the consternation of Christian leaders in the west this is also beginning to happen to Christianity in India. It is entirely a western mind set which locates the individual in rigidly demarcated camps based on the either-or principle. The Indian is much more inclined to follow the and-also principle.

This is a review of The Ghost of Bellow's Man

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