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Sastra

Written by Lloyd Searwar for Mirror (Guyana) on no date provided

We are in the season of the publication of and the launching of books. And what a month it has been. At Ovid Holder’s Universal Bookshop there was the launching on successive Saturdays of Fernandes’ Book on The Birds of Guyana to be followed, the next week, by Arnold Gibbon’s study of Walter Rodney. Then earlier this week there was the launching across the road from us at Houseproud of the History of The Portuguese in Guyana by Sister Noel Menezes. I have also seen this week Sallahudin’s book The Struggle for Liberation 1945-1992. A wise old Oxford scholar and Times Editorial writer visiting Guyana in the mid 1940s as Cultural Adviser to the British Government described Georgetown as the Athens of the Caribbean and spoke of the passionate intellectual curiosity of its citizens. We are probably still a long way from recovering the intellectual leadership which we once had in the Caribbean but the arrival of these books, one after another, shows that there is something of a renaissance and that we are well on our way.

We are here this evening for still another launching, this time of the novel Sastra whose author is Lakshmi Persaud of whom I will say more in a minute. The publisher is Peepal Tree of Leeds, a press which is owned by Jeremy Poynting who is now playing an important role in development of West Indian Literature through the publication of much new writing. Lakshmi Persaud was born in Trinidad but she also has strong ties with Guyana. At one stage, she was a teacher at Queen’s College and as many of you must know she is the wife of Dr. Bishnodat Persaud, the Guyanese who was for many years Director of the Economic Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat and who is now Professor of Caribbean Sustainable Development at UWI in Jamaica.

Biographical details of authors provide in my view only limited insights into works of creative imagination but you may wish to know that Lakshmi was born in a small village in Tunapuna, Trinidad. She read Geography at Queen’s University in Belfast, went on to a Post Graduate Diploma in Education and after teaching at secondary schools in Trinidad, Barbados and Guyana, she obtained a Doctorate at Queens.

Sastra is Lakshmi’s second novel. Her first novel Butterfly in the Wind was highly praised in the English-speaking world. The London Sunday Times described that first novel as ‘a tremendous celebration of life’ and the even more prestigious British paper The Observer spoke of ‘the empathy with which Lakshmi writes... and the warmth of her descriptions’. But we are here to speak of her new novel Sastra. All my life I have been the avid reader of books including novels but as I have grown older, I have tended to read only the old classic novels. So, I started to read Sastra, I must confess, from a sense of duty as a novel written by a friend but within a few pages, I was being swept along by Lakshmi Persaud’s narrative power and the story which she was telling. I am not here to provide a summary of the novel or even a critique as I am sure that this will be done by better hands in the weeks ahead but let it suffice to say that it is a story of a young girl growing up within the living tradition of the Hindu way of life with both its opportunities for spiritual growth and at the same time the constraints which it imposes on a person born into the Trinidad society in the 1950s with its strong westernising influences. The Pundit warns Sastra’s mother that her daughter’s birth signs foretell two possible ways, one of prosperous security if she keeps to the orthodox path, the other of happiness and tragedy if she deviates. Those are Sastra’s choices, between the traditional, collective Hindu society of her parents, and the world of individual destinies and responsibilities to which her generation is increasingly drawn.

It is a moving love story with tragic consequences redeemed in the end by a deep sense of
fulfillment. Lakshmi Persaud has the true novelist’s skill to leave in your mind indelible scenes as for example of the suicide of a village girl but when one re-reads the pages dealing with that incident, one is astonished to find how little of the scene was actually described, such is her skill as a storyteller.

On the one hand she etches in delicate nuances of feelings, on the other hand she describes the dishes for a dinner so that you can actually smell and taste them. Reading Lakshmi’s work I am reminded of E.M. Forster, the same carefully crafted seemingly matter of fact style which can unexpectedly rise through image and phrase to the intensity of poetry.

A creative work like Sastra can be read at several levels. One can read it for the love story. Or one might be sensitive to the backdrop to the novel namely the ethnic cultural divisions in the Trinidad society in the 1950s. Or one can read it as a depiction of the ancient struggle between fate and individual choice.

Sastra is a welcome addition to the lengthening shelf of distinguished West Indian novels, welcome because there has been so few female novelists among them. And it is not the least of the graces of this book that it tells the story through its women characters with their special insights and intuitions. Let me conclude by quoting some of the remarkable reviews which Sastra has already attracted.

Kenneth Ramchand, one of the foremost literary critics of the Caribbean, now a Professor at Colgate University, has written about it and I quote: ‘To enter the world of Mrs. Persaud’s novel, ...is to enter a world whose pace is controlled by custom, ritual and ceremony, a world where the delicate play of head and eyes and shoulders can express the strongest emotions, where passion can declare itself without any loss of modesty; a world wrapped in manners that are not the exterior polish of those with social skills but the outflow of natural grace, and delicate feeling...’

Another West Indian critic, Dr. Bhoeie Tiwarie, who was formerly Head of the English Department at UWI, St. Augustine has noted that: ‘If the job of a novelist is to explore the inner world of individual human beings caught up in their problems, dilemmas, traumas and anxieties, then Lakshmi Persaud has done a marvelous job and it is in the exploration of the workings of the mind of the major character and the probing of the feelings of these characters that the novel derives its intensity and power.’

At the other end of the Caribbean, a Jamaican critic Pamela Beshoff writing in the Weekly
Gleaner had this to say about Sastra: ‘It is a context with which the readers of Caribbean literature is already familiar from Vidia Naipaul’s House for Mr. Biswas, Ralph Boissiere’s Rum and Coca Cola, Alfred Mendes’ Pitch Lake and C.L.R. James’ Minty Alley. Comparisons are invidious but inevitable and in this case do the author no harm. True, there is not the cutting, often cruel observation of Naipaul, nor the political message of de Boissiere and James, not the dark drama of Mendes but there is a quality in this writing which makes it perfectly capable of bearing comparison with the best of the existing Trinidad literary canon.’

At Sastra’s launching at UWI in Jamaica, Dr. Mervyn Morris, Reader in English Literature at Mona described the novel as an exploration of ‘tension between fate and human choice’. At the beginning of the book, the notion that ‘you hold fate in your own hands’ is criticised by the pundit who has been divining Sastra’s fate. The novel shows Sastra making choices which lead to the intense but shadowed happiness she achieves. Many of these are decisions about how she will relate to the demands of community, whether in Trinidad, Ireland or Canada. At the end of the novel, we read of people from all parts of the world ‘making lives for themselves’ in Toronto. ‘For all, Sastra thinks there were choices: they could be part of communities or they could be whom they pleased. Each choice carried its own cost: now she (that is, Sastra) could not envisage being without the choice.’

There has been increasing recognition of Lakshmi Persaud’s work at a strictly academic level. Both of Lakshmi Persaud’s novels are now set books in the Caribbean literature courses at Warwick and Birmingham University and Goldsmith College, London University. One hopes that both UG and UWI will take similar action shortly.

This is a review of Sastra

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