Written by Wyck Williams for Book Shelf; guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com on

There are Indians and Indians. Good fiction - not mewling and puking newspaper prose - helps us understand and respect the differences between Indians in, say, Fiji, Trinidad and Jamaica. One could talk of Naipaul's Hanuman House Indians and Roy Heath's Georgetown Indians, knowing they came out of separate colonial crucibles, reflecting different formative experiences. This way one can ignore the cries one hears these days from unhappy Indians, many in the diaspora and affiliated with institutions of higher learning, who would have all Indians submerge their psychic differences, gather under some giant pan-Indian tarpaulin, as if to perform a set of intercontinental, self-cherishing rituals for scattered souls. 

Jamaica's Indians are probably more Jamaican than Indian, when you think about it, though their representation in Jamaican literature is miniscule. Reading V.S. Naipaul's Biswas, a Guyanese must strain sometimes for communal resonance or self-recognition; his Indians are not our Indians; then again Port of Spain, Shorthills, Arwacas in no way resemble the Courentyne with its backdams and rivers and giant blue skies. There are, of course, Wilson Harris' Indians who swallow their Indianness and become difficult metaphors for the transcendental points his mythic novels are making. One is delighted, therefore, to engage real Indians in the realist fiction of Rooplall Monar's Janjhat. 

The temptation is to approach this slender novel with the expectation that like Naipaul the author would tear away veils, show us the humanity in his characters; the private demons they wrestle with in their transplanted worlds; their loves, their fears and hatreds. Though the range in this book is narrower and the skills (at least back then: Monar has published much more since, including Tormented Wives, 1999) not as assured, Monar takes us behind the tattered bamboo flags, under the shiny saris, into the souls of his troubled Indians. 

You get the impression, for instance, that when his older Indians are not talking about the Estate days, the greatness of ‘ahwe culture’, the importance of raising good Hindu sons and daughters and resisting the seductive power of those Christian Sunday schools, their thoughts drift not surprisingly to sex: to women - young, old, too old -- their bubbies and wining behinds; and the stained wedding sheets as tests of doolahin chastity. Take away their Indianness and these obsessions are like those of any grey-haired ethnic group in Guyana. 

Monar's larger concern would seem to be human desire: transplanted through slavery and indentureship: forced now to deal with new, postcolonial dilemmas -- the 'emancipated' body, its sexual unease, its curious preferences, its 'modern' fear of failure. Sex, the great ethnic equalizer. Pointing Indian men to whorehouses in the city. Enticing young Hindu women to try on new fashions and fabrics that reveal more than navels and midriffs. 

In Monar's Indian world, creoles are a non-interfering but unsettling presence; creole behavior serves to reinforce the values and norms of wary Indian generations. Big-Bye, the central character, ‘always admired girls who dressed fancy - pants, short dresses, lipstick, powder - but his mooma...oh, she was against that. 'Not propa fo Hindu gal dress so...That fo black girl.’ Big-Bye's mooma worries about the volatile state of his identity: ‘Sometime me going hear you eating black pudding and souse. You must see Hindi film, never mind you na understand the talking.’ (p.66). 

Data, the girl he marries, lived with her parents in a logie ‘two hundred rods away from the Nigger Yard section of plantation Lusignan’; she likes to swim, she enjoys the sensation of her body submerged in a stream of lilies and moss; but ‘swimming is not proper for a young girl, her mother always warned.’ Young Indian girls are frowned on for dancing with abandon at weddings, shaking their bubbies and behinds. ‘Only black man doam that.’ (p.8) 

(A minor theme is this novel is education as a way out of the canefields. The central character's best friend 'succeeds' but only because a punitive father keeps his nose to the grindstone of books and 'eddication'; he becomes a clerk at Enmore Estate Pay Office. Big-Bye, newly married, accepts a life as a mule boy, liming after work at street corners on bright evenings, with visits to the cinema in Buxton on Saturday nights; then returning home to his wife, pulling up her nightdress even if she's fast asleep. The author might have missed an opportunity to follow the parallel paths of the two friends as they drift apart in their constricted world.) 

What Monar does with lighthearted fidelity is examine the anxieties of the young bride who must share living space with her mother-in-law. After weeks of learning the daily routines, the chores and family habits, and despite due respect and loyalty shown, Data feels estranged; her personal identity is all but invisible. She longs for some measure of freedom. ‘People in the street still referred to her as 'doolahin'...she wanted people to know her by her name.’ (p.76) 

Venturing out to the main road one day she is stopped at the door by the mother-in-law and berated for wearing clothes that show off her shapely hips and breasts. ‘Take out that monkey dress this minute’ the mother-in-law screams. Reassured that her husband doesn't mind (‘She's no stupid woman. She's a modern woman’ her husband liked to think) Data challenges her mother-in-law by stepping out again, this time in tight-fitting pants. And again she runs into generational fury: ‘Women like them does give the Hindu religion bad name. If them been want wear pants them shoulda turn fullah woman and black woman.’ (p.88) 

The novel will move towards its resolution: the three central characters in a house (with its miniature dramas, not unlike the one Mohun Biswas struggles to escape from): a young bride, her husband, her mooma-in-law: the forces of ethnic conformity; the individual's struggle for personal freedom, for riskier choices; and the creole world, causing disquiet and alarm simply by being there. 

Published in 1989 when -- is it accurate to state? -- feminism and cultural relativism were not yet full-bodied preoccupations, with a stridency of message and a ripeness of appeal, Janjhat succeeds in striking so many chords at the heart of Guyana's ongoing ethnic and gender antagonisms. No group-exonerating sermons here; characters bare their fears and longing almost without authorial permission. Monar shades in their trembling humanity without pleading some case for the Indian right to exist in a polarized land, since they have always been proprietors of a landscape their forefathers with cutlass, file and fading memories claimed as their stake in the Guyana of here and now. 

There's an inward-turning innocence, too, about this humanity; a polite reserve and a substratum of unexamined fear that makes it vulnerable to the tribal animus, the predatory impulses that still plague our land. Janjhat has been praised elsewhere for its preferred use of Guyanese Creole, for its apparent validation of a community whose canal and canefield lives are considered underrepresented in Guyanese fiction; for its depiction of Indians whose dignity and right to exists have been violated at painful periods in our history. Like Oonya Kempadoo's stylish and more accomplished Buxton Spice, Monar's novel runs the risk of being co-opted by advocacy groups and touted for its sexual frankness, or its affirmative cultural message. 

In some respects Monar's Indians are Naipaul's Indians and Roy Heath's Indians, for his novel is really about individuals who elect to shape their own destinies while fighting off the johncrows of history swooping at their genitals, peck-pecking at their courage, their hunger for new worlds, nontraditional roles, bright new possibilities. 

At another level, where generations clash, where sexual longing makes us search for salvation in forbidden places, we can hear in the chests of the characters our own shallow breathing, see in theirs our own time-worn faces. In a hop, skip and leap of the imagination we might even recognize our own stupid prejudices and fears in the marginal lives of Monar's Indians.