THERE is something of a coincidence in the literary historical tradition of Guyana that Rooplall
Monar’s collection of poems, significantly called - or named - KOKER - should be published in 1987. The collection was published by the Peepal Tree Press in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. 1988 is the 150th anniversary of the coming here of the first batch of indentured immigrants from India, the ancestors of the so-called Indo-Guyanese community. In a sense, Monar’s collection is almost celebratory of the great historical event which promises to feature substantially in the social calendar of this country.
Monar himself is a product of the sugar estates of Guyana or British Guiana, as it was, up to 1966, 128 years after the first boats from the Indian sub-continent discharged their human cargo here in the continuum of slavery and plantation bondage. From a detestable serfdom the East Indians of Guyana have risen in the closing years of the Twentieth century to prominence in the social and economic spheres. Their numerical dominance is an inescapable fact of life which must be loaded with meaning for the future of both themselves and the country which, a century and a half after the inaugural event is the genuine home of the children, the grandchildren and the great grandchildren.
Monar idolises the environment of his nativity, the sugar estate which was the environment of his forefathers and foremothers, and which were the most meaningful units in this country’s economy. The text and language of Mr. Monar’s poetry encompass the religious and social tradition of the estate labourers, the machinery and equipment of the industry, the flora and fauna of Lusignan where he was born a while before the catastrophic slaughter at Enmore. In ‘Babu’, early in the collection, we get something of his dedication to history, the Indian ethic, and his racial (not used in a pejorative sense) awareness.
‘... Huddled by the front door
of a decayed, rat-infested logie,
victim of rain and sun,
Babu’s eyes scan the canefield horizons...’
The horizons were panoramic in many ways.
‘... images of immigrant ships
cutlasses, decapitated women,
dance in the rhythm of seasons...’
‘... an enclosed world of canefields,
waves of spluttering factory smoke,
days of rotating nothingness...’
‘Generations nurtured from my seeds
will clasp their hands and say
our ancestors carved those fields
which have given us meanings
meanings to stand tall
‘This land is ours...’
(‘This Land is Ours’)
Banal, perhaps, and quite unrepresentative of the sententious magic of Monar which is one of the characteristics of his poetry, but full of meaning as a Gospel truth for the descendants of the Indian, immigrants of five or six generations ago. But there is a veiled dubiety here which, one is sanguine the poet in the magnanimity of his muse does not intend.
The harking back to the ancestral is a fetish with the poet. ‘Ancestral blood still seeps in my veins,’ he writes in ‘Limbo’, one of the stronger poems in the meritorious collection.
‘Were my great great grandfather’s lean brown hands
chained eternally round jointed stems of night and day.
his loins spanning barren lands
for his dynasty of sons?
My nannie’s sagging breast
cruelly devoured by eyes of another harsh world
so cruel-between the immovable sun
and the ever-present cane scorpions?’
The present and the past and the continuity of the blood line is enfolded in a powerful quatrain of profound poetry.
‘Perhaps there will be a flood
for dying is the beginning of our birth
death the beginning of my great-grandfather’s
dynasty of sons...’
The images are agricultural, born of the plantation and the fields of sugar cane, like the poet, the obsession with genealogy ever present.
‘I walk wearily in barren fields
not a root giving sap to my sterility...
‘Not even a grain of paddy crowning the palm of my hands...’
‘How many stars - have poisoned my lineage?’ the poet asks before a final invocation to Shiv whose ‘dances enchant the Cobra’ in ‘Metamorphosis.’
The poetry of Monar is one of reflection and subdued sadness, a search for the solution of a mystery linking him with his ancestors, and the indestructibility of the whole. There is nostalgia for an origin that he does not know in physical terms; but spiritually comprehends because he is the great great great grandson, of his great, great, great grandfather. So he writes:
‘I am a stranger
among Kumaka Trees and black streams
scorching sun and angry rain.
I know no god from that ocean
who listens to me
in case I should pollute an ancient pride.
Here am I split by a past
that now manifests as a dream
reminding me with shame,
""I am not of here.""’
This is a statement of power. The poet, vivid, and full of conviction, must be taken seriously, and one wonders whether this expression of spiritual hurt does not authenticate Monar as the spokesman, for our East Indian brothers and sisters and identify the cultural oxymorons of the group; a group which has always had the benefit of the precepts, practices, philosophies and religions of their foreparents in an ‘Alien’ land. He empathises with, and emphasises the agonies of the experience of indenture in unmistakable anger and in weird metaphors of intensity and daring vulgarity:
‘My grandmother’s raped cry re-echoes
a vision of lashes on bare backs,
virgin breasts exposed for white gods...’
‘Paralysed hands grasp for music
in the sanctum of sorrow
as Shiv’s dances make confused
patterns with penis and clitoris
original birth appears...’
My favourite poem, however, is ‘The Chimney at Chateau Margot.’ It versifies the monumental immortality of the chimney and the men and women who built it in language that is as skilled and crafted as the chimney itself with its historical associations and landmark quality
It began in antique ingenuity
like the pyramids
paging the histories of generations
in an alien land
It stands unconquered
defying time’s saddened moments,
its form patiently mortared
by hands which lived for release
on beds of straw,
dreaming of a Messiah in apocalyptic hope.
As Dutch masters ravished
awaiting the next arrival of the fleet
to ship hogsheads of rum,
as Quamina brooded in anger,
as John Smith, consoled only with a Bible
and another tomorrow,
clawed death in triumph,
these tired goldsmiths
costumed the colossus’
The monument, he writes, is ‘brooding upon the builders it has slain.’ With sweet exceptions, Monar’s collection is itself essentially a thesis of delectable brooding.
But in the Brahmin Girl’s ‘Kingdom
mantras and flowered gods
have no place
but what’s received at payday.’ (‘Brahmin Girl’)
In ‘Was a Time’ the poet comments on the economy of inflation, the deepened and widened criminality, the depressed morality, and the new political mechanics:
‘Was a time when
oblivious of heat,
you rolled the crisp dollar bills between your fingers
and a world of silk and perfume
greeted your tempted eyes...’
‘Was a time when freedom
enlarged your shadows
your feet planted in the city
seeds your ancestors have sown...’
This collection is not one of triumph and elation matching the magnificent achievements of the sons and daughters of the immigrants in a plural society, but more is to come from the prolific pen of Mr. Monar who says, quite truthfully that his ‘poetry is grounded by a deep awareness of the Indo-Guyanese tradition’ - and which his publisher posits as ‘a conflict between an ancestral consciousness which he can never really declare is dead, and an Indo-Guyanese vision which he can never be sure has real roots.’ That conflict creates problems for social integrity and assimilation here.