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For The Love Of My Name

Written by Amit Roy for India Today International on no date provided

The Caribbean experience, a clever allegorical novel - and a woman of substance

THE ONLY NOVELIST OF NOTE to emerge from Trinidad may not be V.S. Naipaul. We may yet hear more of Lakshmi Persaud, who has written an allegorical novel about the abuse of power set on the mythical Caribbean Island of Maya.

For the Love of My Name could have been located anywhere. As the introduction says, ‘its echoes resonate across the killing fields of Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor - or wherever state power gives free rein to the most primal impulses of kith and kin’. Though Guyana is not mentioned by name, its people will recognise strong parallels with events from four decades ago when Cheddi Jagan, the Leftist leader of Indian origin, was kept out of power for a generation by the CIA. This was done by financing his political opponents.
Persaud, a woman ‘approaching her 60s’, is not a first-time novelist. Two earlier novels, Sastra and Butterfly in the Wind, were well received by critics. For the Love of my Name is not a light read but it is a clever novel. Take for instance, the device of masks deployed by Robert Augustus Devonish, Maya’s president for life, to spread terror among his people.
‘Masks.’ one of Persaud’s characters remarks, ‘are as you well know - disguises, covers, cloaks, a form of concealment.’ Purple masks are worn by the president’s henchman, but those closest to him get to wear the deepest shades of the colour. Perhaps this is Persaud’s way of dealing with racial tensions in Guyana and Trinidad.

By and by, the masks fuse on to the face of their wearers. Persaud observes: ‘If you pretend to be something, you eventually become that something. You become the mask that you wear.’ She examines absolute power and shows how it only takes good people to remain silent for the triumph of evil. ‘It is the silent consensus which allows real horrors to continue.’ The trigger point for her novel was an incident which occurred in Guyana in the early 1960s - a woman protester was cut in two by a tractor. Persaud became haunted by the woman whom she had never met. The tractor driver was tried but walked free. ‘I became that woman,’ says Persaud. ‘Her spirit had grasped me.’

It is easy to understand Persaud’s desire not to be dismissed simply as ‘Raj Persaud’s mother’, even though she is proud that her eldest has become Britain’s best known media psychiatrist. She has two other children - Avinash, and Sharda. Her husband, Bishnodat Persaud, who was born in Guyana, is an economist.

For the Love of My Name also provides insights into the lives of Indians who settled in the Caribbean but who clung to their culture. Born Lakshmi Sitaram, Persaud believes her great-grandfather arrived in the Caribbean, with other agricultural labourers, from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, between 1890 and 1905. The lure was the chance of being able to own land. All she knows is that her father’s father ‘arrived as a babe in arms’. She is sure Persaud began as Prasad ‘but on the plantations, names were written down phonetically by locals. Since the early migrants from India had minimal formal education, we lost the language. There wasn’t anyone to teach Hindi, Gujarati, Urdu. Also Hindu first names were Anglicised so that someone would be called Margaret Persaud.’ She marvels that although Indians in Guyana and Trinidad were influenced by Americans and surrounded by Christians, ‘there is something remarkably tenacious about their Hinduism. There weren’t any comings and goings to India, yet people did not lose their culture. People still celebrate. Shivratri and Diwali.’ This despite the fact that ‘we did not have pundits’, Persaud points out.

She herself has drawn inspiration from the Mahabharata. Early in her novel, a woman called Kamella listens to her mother read a well-loved passage about the heroism of Abhimanyu. Shortly afterwards, Kamella is mown down by a tractor when she and other women refuse to end a protest occupation of a bridge.

At the end of the novel, the president is given a lethal injection by his own family members. And burdened by evil, the very island of Maya sinks into the sea. One man who might usefully read her novel is General Pervez Musharraf. ‘Military might and power,’ reflects Persaud, ‘should not be used to change governments.’

This is a review of For The Love Of My Name

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