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Sastra

Written by Mervyn Morris for Speech given at launch on no date provided

I am happy to share in the Jamaican launching of Sastra, Lakshmi Persaud’s new novel. We shall shortly be hearing the author read from the novel, and then we shall hear what some of the reviewers have written. If I had serious reservations about Sastra I could safely voice them this evening - for the book will speak for itself, and we shall hear other readers speak in praise of it. But I like the book, and I recommend it warmly.

Primarily Sastra is a love story, a very moving one, set mainly in Trinidad among Indians who are Hindu descendants. The immediate community in which the main characters interact is convincingly rendered. But, as I suspect some other readers might - if, like me, they haven’t lived in Trinidad - wish the book had included a glossary. Words such as churia, chulha, lothar, tharia, jeera kheer, kalownjee, shataigne do not always explain themselves as used in the novel. I found some of the unfamiliar words, but by no means all, in a pamphlet called A Dictionary of Common Trinidad Hindi (compiled by Kumar Mahabir and Sita Mahabir). Dhal is a word I happened to know, but what is ‘Dhal chaunkayed with jeera, garlic’ etc in the exciting feast on p. 144? Since gulab jamum signals ‘sweets: type of plum’ (according to the Mahabirs) why not give information of that sort at the back of the book when it is being reprinted?

Traditional Hindu assumptions and practices are under pressure in the novel from what pundits call ‘the modern way’ (p. 9, p. 250), from the younger generation and the wider, non-Hindu, society. Sastra, promised by family to an attractive, very suitable, young man Govind, who is about to study medicine, finds herself drawn increasingly towards her former teacher. Rabindranath, who is only a little older, and whose formation has been less conservative than hers: his father had become a Christian - ‘how else could a Hindu become headmaster of a Presbyterian school?’ (p. 73) The novel explores a tension between fate and human choice. At the beginning of the book, the notion that ‘you hold fate in your own hands’ (p. 10) is criticised by the pundit who has been divining Sastra’s fate. The novel shows us 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’ (p. 272) in Toronto. ‘For all, 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’ (p.272).

Lakshmi Persaud accords respect and sympathy to all her characters. Those who most comfortably adhere to traditional Hindu practices are, like those who challenge them, complex human beings who have desires and fears, and can be deeply hurt. It is conceded in the novel that, in committing children to an arranged marriage, parents may prove wise, thinking ‘of the tomorrows, or the qualities that will last, of what a marriage needs’ (p. 105). But there are counterbalancing insights. For example, Sastra’s sister Sati ‘saw her own mother and all those upright conservative Hindu mothers and grandmothers for the first time, as having once being young and vulnerable and not unacquainted with passion, despite the many veils of tradition and the passing of time’ (p. 153). And Sastra comes to think of marriage as a wonderful thing, not merely a duty, a tradition, a family ceremony, an honourable thing, but a thing of joy, ‘an intoxication to be shared’ (p. 175).

One of the novel’s most striking qualities is the assurance with which it registers inner turbulence. It often suggests a web of feeling that trembles within a framework of courtesies. One of my favourite passages links Sastra and Dr. Lall in Toronto, in the final months of his life.

‘When the long summer evening dispersed warmth and light and colour far and wide, they would together sit in the park, beside the lake, on a weathered bench in quiet alcoves, wreathed in green and freshly turning yellows, and stroll side by side each comforting the other, just by being there. When they strolled past shop windows, and saw each other’s gentle face imprisoned in the glass, catching a glimpse of each other’s longings caught unguarded, they would move on and say some idle word to cover that revelation’ (p. 251).

The novel is less successful, I think, in its attempt to sketch in some of the history of Indian indenture and Indian-African relations in Trinidad. Except as expressed through the African woman Milly, who has been taught the secrets of Hindu cooking, and who has become virtually a member of Rabindranath’s family, some of the information - much of it retailed through leisurely dialogue in the first third of the book - seems to me insufficiently integrated with the novel’s compelling centre.

At its considerable best Sastra is impressive work. It recognizes the value of community, its conventions and ceremonies, and is a record of gradual change. It seems to acknowledge the problematic workings of fate. It celebrates emotional honesty and the rewards of responsible choice.

This is a review of Sastra

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