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Sastra

Written by Jeanne Wilson for Sunday Gleaner on no date provided

THIS is a love story of an unusual, even rare, beauty. It has the elements of a classic opposition from the family, the tragedy, the bitter-sweet ending. It is written in a style that is all the author’s own. This is her second novel, the first Butterfly in the Wind, was received with enthusiasm in the national international press. The Sunday Times wrote ‘...a tremendous celebration of life...’ The Observer ‘The empathy with which Lakshmi Persaud writes...and the warmth of her descriptions...’ the Trinidad Guardian ‘...disarmingly powerful...’ Whilst the India Weekly states that she ‘...maintains the high tradition of Indian Caribbean writing set by V.S. Naipaul...’ whilst the Toronto South Asian Review states ‘...it is intense, poignant and eloquent...’

That and more
It is all that and more: inevitably she would be compared to Naipaul, all brilliant new writers from Trinidad have come to expect that, yet there is no comparison. She has a style that is intensely her own, that is poetic on one plane and yet intensely practical another. The book begins with a prophecy from a pundit that Sastra’s birth signs foretell two possible karmas, one of prosperous security if she follows the well tried path of tradition and parental obedience, the other of mixed joy and misery if she should attempt to fly in the face of fate.

The reader is kept guessing from the first which road she would take. Gradually the realisation dawns that she will take the second road where she will experience exquisite happiness and bitter despair. Set in Trinidad in the 1950’s when that island was in a period of change, Sastra finds herself torn between two worlds, the traditional Hindu society of her parents, where she is expected to marry the man of their choice and become a good wife, mother, housewife and bow meekly to her mother-in-law, or the world where women make their own choice of a husband, pursue a career and fashion their own destiny. It was a time of deep division between the Indian society and the black society, when the latter resented the fact that the Indians clung to their culture and rejected West Indian culture: 
‘Yet we are very similar, too,’ Sastra said. ‘That is true,’ said Rabindranath. ‘We are both loving, warm hearted people: sensitive, sensuous in our foods an art, overgenerous to our friends...’
‘So you don’t think that they are different in any way at all from us?’
‘I think that what we have in common is more important than our differences.’

Later, another character says, ‘...I had been taught to think that only things from England, created in England, had any value, that Africa was some darkness in the past, destroyed in any case by slavery. I don’t think that now, but I can’t accept that only things from Africa can be mine... Nothing stands still. We change. Our cultures change...’

The difference in marriage customs constantly recurs. Sastra says to Rabindranath, ‘Life is far more complex than you think, Rabindranath. I need the reassurance and the affection of my family; they have been like gods to me, they are older and wiser than I am; they have more experience of life, marriage, than either you or I have...’ This is the point where the reader believes that she will choose the safe, secure path; then Rabindranath urges: ‘Think Sastra, what do you want out of life? What sort of life would you consider ideal for a thinking young woman? Your life should be different from that of your mother’s or grandmother’s... Yours must be very different, Sastra... Fly, Sastra. Fly.’

Torn in two
Sastra is torn between duty and her growing love for Rabindranath, the young man who used to be her school teacher. He becomes ill through overwork and she helps him with his pupils. Her parents are upset over the situation which they see is about to develop, but he recovers and their days and evenings of working together are over. He goes away, she goes to Ireland to university, she writes to him and he doesn’t answer. She returns to Trinidad, to the little village where she was born and grew up, and meets Rabindranath again, and learns why he had not replied to her letters. She does know joy and she does know deep sorrow, just as the pundit foresaw before her birth - but she never regrets the road taken.

The writer Lakshmi Persaud was born in the small village of Streatham Lodge, which was later called Pasea Village, in Tunapuna, Trinidad. She read geography at Queen’s University in Belfast and taught at Queen’s College, Guyana; St Augustine Girls High School in Trinidad and Harrison College and St. Michael’s Girls School in Barbados. She currently lives in Jamaica. One asks oneself if the book is not partially autobiographical - there are many parallels - first books are supposed to be, quite often they are not. 

In this most unusual love story, a sensuous ambience is created without resource to explicit scenes. Of course, at the time in which the action takes place, life was very much more circumspect. It would be interesting to read Mrs. Persaud’s interpretation of a 90s love story - I am sure that it would be just as delicately written, absorbing and convincing as Sastra.

This is a review of Sastra

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