From the country to the city

From the departure of Jane Burrell from her village to come to work in Kingston in H.G. De Lisser’s Jane’s Career (1914) or the moment that Mohan Biswas is hauled onto a bus heading to Port of Spain (in A House For Mr Biswas, 1961), or when Jamini’s family leaves their country ajoupa, also for Port of Spain, in The Jumbie Bird (1961), the movement of people from country to city has continued to be a focus for Caribbean fiction. In ‘The Red Ball’ and ‘The Magic Ring’ in A Day in the Country, Khan explores the experiences of Indians who have moved from the country into the city. Both stories, seen through the eyes of a child, have abusive fathers who release their own bitterness that they have merely exchanged rural poverty for city poverty in alcohol and violence towards the child. ‘The Red Ball’ powerfully conveys a country child’s disorientation by the movement of the city, his feeling that ‘people were chasing him down’

The journey encompasses all groups. Roger Mais’s The Hills were Joyful Together (1954) and Michael Thelwell’s The Harder they Come (1980) follow an Afro-Jamaican story, but in more recent fiction it has been predominantly an Indo-Caribbean narrative. Cyril Dabydeen’s The Wizard Swami, Lakshmi Persaud’s Butterfly in the Wind, for instance, bring the story further forward in time. Devan is the misfit of Providence Village in the Canje, with dreams of becoming a missionary. What happens exceeds even his hopes when he is brought to Georgetown by Mr Bhairam, a rich business man. But in the city, Devan cannot escape what he still really is: a villager, ill-educated, and without the skills to manage complexities of the city’s puzzlingly multi-cultural life. What follows is rich comedy, though for Devan a painful but salutary experience. In Butterfly in the Wind, Kamla feels the stresses of being a country girl still living within a whole, rich and supportive Indian family life when she comes to school in Port of Spain, ‘a displaced person between two worlds whose rules of etiquette were foreign one to another’. The smells of the city are powerfully evoked to convey Kamla’s sense of hazard in the city: territory which is racially and culturally alien, but which is her only route to a wider world.

In fiction that deals with more recent times, such as ND Williams’ Prash and Ras, the journey from country to city may be directly to the cities of America and Canada. If the work of earlier writers frames the movement as one from rooted simplicity to puzzling complexity, N.D. Williams’s ‘What Happening There, Prash’ emphasises what has perhaps has always been a hidden truth: that the culture of country has long been penetrated by the city. Prash and Sookmoon escape the shortages and racial oppression of village life in Burnhamite Guyana for New York. For Sookmoon, sexually oppressed and socially confined in the village, the city is a place for reinventing herself as an individual, independent woman pursuing the myth of happiness. For Prash, less adept at shedding old skins, the tension between mimicry of city ways (‘Just show teeth and lie’) and authenticity is more painful and there are times he dreams of the old life waiting for him and even thinks of Guyana as ‘a blemished paradise.’ Prash also discovers that his village knowledge leaves him frighteningly unprepared for some the world he encounters as a janitor. What Williams shows above all in the story is that the village and the city are no longer at opposite poles. Prash comes from a community whose culture is being undermined by the lure of American plenty in magazines, a culture that ‘had lost its ancient power to shape their lives.’ Prash’s and Sookmoon’s journey to the city begins long before they leave their village.

Fiction here represents a movement in Caribbean actuality that is in many ways as significant as the scale of emigration overseas. The population of Kingston, Jamaica, for instance, doubled between 1923-1943, when the Jamaican urban population comprised just 20% of the whole. By 1960 it was 30%, by 1970, 40%, by 1982, 40% and thereafter reached to around 50%. This rapid growth is reflected in Orlando Patterson’s The Children of Sisyphus, which focuses on the results, rather than the process of movement. His novel echoes, for instance, the richly detailed study of Colin Clarke’s excellent Kingston, Jamaica, Urban Development and Urban Change, 1692-1962 in seeing how the growth of a middle class brought many country girls and women into widening opportunities for domestic employment. Port of Spain went through a similar pattern of urban growth, almost doubling between 1901 and 1946, though over the past 40 years the resident population of Port of Spain proper has declined to below the 1901 level, such has been the level of suburbanisation. Around a quarter of a million people commute into Port of Spain daily. Even more than Jamaica, Trinidad as a whole is essentially urban, with less than a quarter of the population still living in rural areas.

Within literature, there are a number of persistent themes around this journey. It is a move from community to individuality; sometimes of escape from social restriction to the possibility, at least, of personal space. Jan Shinebourne’s Timepiece puts Sandra Yansen’s journey from rural Berbice to take up work as a journalist in Georgetown into the context of the bitter debate between her parents concerning the relative virtues of country and town. Her father, convinced of the inner richness of village life, despite its material poverty is against her going. Her mother wants her to leave so that she can better herself. For Ben, ‘Town people don’t care bout one another. Is pure dog eat dog does go on in town’. That indeed is Sandra’s experience, but in that ‘sea of streets, cars and buildings’ she can connect to a larger world, make use of her education and try to find an independence that does not betray her father’s values. Sandra is portrayed as a highly self-conscious and opinionated reflector on the differences between country and town and what the journey means for her growth.

A similar ambivalence is explored in Peter Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy which ends at the point of Lilboy’s new beginning when he arrives on the bus from the sugar estate to Georgetown, ‘that town of sin and damnation’. But his father also knows that ‘for a long time that you’ve been growing out of this place’. The novel leaves Lilboy on the first morning of his arrival in the city, in streets stirring with energy and ‘my new life’. Yet though the novel has portrayed the restrictions and ‘slavish ways’ of estate life, it also suggests a sense of loss in the sights, smells, sounds and other sensual pleasures of a rural childhood that Lilboy must leave behind. The pastoral myth of the city as fallen space serves as a structuring element in Churaumanie Bissundyal’s Whom the Kiskadees Call, where Challu comes to the putrid slum of Donkey Bugle in Georgetown not so much to escape from the crime he has committed on Leguan Island (an Eden but for the tyrannical behaviour of Challu’s father), but to punish himself, to find an objective correlative for his guilt in the city’s zone of most spectacular physical and moral squalor.

It is frequently a journey of cultural shedding and transformation, of learning how not to be seen as a country ‘bookie’ in a city whose inhabitants (themselves often recent migrants) look down on country people as backward. In a good deal of Indo-Caribbean writing the movement is seen as a culturally transformative process. It is not particularly a journey from the natural to the man-made, because the sugar estate backgrounds that several protagonists leave are no less man-made than the city, though there is in most case a strong sense of loss in leaving behind the natural places that sometimes exist in the vicinity of the estate. It is rarely a story without ambivalences.

Perhaps the most profound and ambitious attempt to explore the personal dimensions of this journey from rural to urban is charted in Raymond Ramcharitar’s Here (2013), an Indo-Caribbean exploration of roots and change that references both Walcott’s Another Life and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure as inspirations. Here moves from a rural Indo-Trinidadian memories of fields “that remember the mud between the forlorn toes/ that threaded furrows, behind the iron wheels/ Of oxcarts pregnant with cane-stalks, and whispered/ Bhojpuri curses beneath acidic breath…” to education in a Christian seminary and thereafter the city and “the waiting idle hands/ of the world outside, the Creole conurbation/ whose vice, and music, and laughter, were Caliban’s”. Part two of Here is subtitled “Yearning for the City”.