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Sastra

Written by Frank Birbalsingh for Indo Caribbean Toronto on no date provided

Lakshmi Persaud’s first novel, Butterfly in the Wind (1990), painted a mainly accurate portrait of rural Trinidad in the 1940s and 1950s, depicting events that were seen through the eyes of a girl narrator whose childhood and adolescent experiences often appeared genuinely felt and sensitively recorded. Persaud’s second novel, Sastra, reflects some of the local colour seen in Butterfly, including relationships with family, neighbours and teachers, religious practices, and the mixed cultural background of colonial Trinidad.

What is different in Sastra is that the bulk of its action is devoted to a love story narrated in an elaborate and somewhat stilted diction reminiscent of Victorian novels. Not only that, Sastra also reproduces some of the supernatural flavour that helps to make Wuthering Heights such an absorbing drama of thwarted love and dying passion.

The lovers in Sastra - Rabindranath Pande and the eponymous Sastra Narayan - come from fairly well-to-do Hindu families who are upwardly mobile in the sense that their children have access both to secondary school and to professional study abroad. For Indians in a British Caribbean colony where the experience of indenture is still fresh, such mobility represents distinct progress. The time is the late 1950s, and one centre of the action is Tunapuna Presbyterian Primary School where Rabindranath’s late father, Surinder, had a distinguished career as headmaster.

For a time Rabindranath is in charge of the school’s College Exhibition Class which trains pupils for scholarships that would take them to secondary school, but eventually, both Rabindranath and Sastra leave home separately to study in Britain before returning as qualified teachers to Trinidad. The love affair between Rabindranath and Sastra begins even before they go abroad. Nor is its course exactly smooth. The main obstacle is a conflict between traditional, conservative Hindu mores and modernist attitudes and practices endorsed by the emerging creole culture of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society in Trinidad. Although the conflict affects both lovers, it is most acutely felt by Sastra, who is faced with a stark choice between traditionalism and modernism. Without giving away too much of the story, suffice to say that her ultimate choice leads to a mixture of joy and suffering for her lover, her family, and most of all, herself.

Although Sastra contains characters such as Milly, an Afro-Barbadian woman who works in the Pande home, and her nephew Francis, who makes a brief appearance, the novel’s characters are largely Indian and mainly Hindu, expect for those like Surinder Pande who converted to Christianity. Still, realistic racial tensions and social complexities are not neglected. An entire Indian family consisting of five people are killed when their home is set on fire, presumably by Afro-Trinidadians. There is also suspicion of mishandling of the case by the police and fire brigade, because of the head of the dead family was a ‘coolie man’ and a ‘money lender’. Such tensions and suspicions are the result of stereotypes which each racial group holds of the other. As one (Indo-Trinidadian) character argues, Indo-Trinidadians take risks in building businesses and becoming successful farmers despite ‘floods and drought, bacbac ants, disease, birds and wayside thieves,’ whereas Afro-Trinidadians ‘take the government jobs and the pensions and sitting cool on high cushion, telling you to come back when you turn up at the Ministry.’ But while such tensions exist in the background, they do not seriously affect the love story that takes centre stage for a good two thirds of the novel.

As in her first novel, Persaud’s forte in Sastra is her evocative power in describing landscape, weather, and social scenes and activities. Here, for instance, is a market scene: ‘a place of turbulent waves of ripened smells and sounds and scents of life and death; of the cries of those brought to the slaughter, of buyers and sellers weaving amongst mounds of vegetables and fruits.’ Nor is this evocative power restricted only to Trinidad. Since the novel takes its heroine both to Canada and Britain, the author exhibits admirable versatility in her vivid descriptions of these countries as well. But there is no denying that Caribbean subjects and scenes bring out the best in her writing. One of the best features of Sastra is its detailed, rich and aromatic celebration of Indo-Caribbean cookery, an aspect of Caribbean life sadly neglected by Caribbean writers, most notably by the celebrated Naipaul clan. The following description of a luncheon menu in Sastra is nothing less than mouth-watering: ‘kalownjee slowly done in massala, silky soft dhalpuris that bathed you with the warmth of jeera and dhal and pepper when, with the help of your fingers, the enclosed warm air bursts out. Baigan chokha - melongene stuffed with garlic and pepper and onions and grilled; delicious shataigne curried lightly and gently, with firm, sweet-smelling garden tomatoes. Dhal chaunkayed with jeera, garlic, onions, sweet and hot peppers; spinach steam-fried in a little butter and garden peas; followed by gulab jamun in warm cardamom syrup, and rasmela sprinkled with roasted pistachio nuts.’

This is not merely an ‘exciting feast’ as the author calls it, but a banquet fit for kings and queens served by a glittering retinue of liveried retainers. For the sensuousness of the passage - and others like it - is a distinct blessing which may herald even greater blessings not only from Persaud, but from female Indo-Caribbean authors in general who are only now beginning to establish themselves. Such authors could effect a minor revolution by investing Caribbean literature with important but neglected features of Indo-Caribbean experience, namely, food and cookery, which have been traditionally, condescendingly, and narrowly considered to be the peculiar province of women only.

Sastra is a welcome addition to fiction about Indo-Caribbean experience by Indo-Caribbcan women. Persaud is a leader in this field, and it is fitting that her second novel entirely fulfils the promise of her first, not only by maintaining its vivid sense of local colour, but by also infusing a new element of romantic interest.

This is a review of Sastra

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