Mahadai Das had a brilliant mind. Her poems were great. Several of her poems are a self-reflection. I interacted somewhat with Ms. Das in New York and in Guyana after her return from studies in America. She was a troubled soul but it is important we know the reasons.
I would rate Mahadai Das poetry better if not on an equal footing to Martin Carter – just take a read of her work, simple with clarity and a reflection of society where and the people among who she dwelled. To me, her poems are the best from a West Indian and an Indian in the diaspora. She really was a fantastic poet. She also had a beautiful heart and mind, perhaps naïve believing she could change society and that if the people cooperate with (Burnham) government. They can transform the nation. She learned the hard way through national service and banned goods.
I interacted with Ms. Das in New York and in Guyana. Her heart was indeed broken but not out of love for a young man but of being betrayed by a political leader, a dictator, she believed in, and coerced into supporting him. Her heart was also broken by individuals who encouraged her into politics and by emotional lovers and by that government she innocently supported. She never expected the abuse and ill-treatment meted out to her by the government and men who were only interested in her body for their sexual liaisons (pleasure). The PNC government used and abused her as it did with several Indians.
I knew of Mahadai Das in Guyana before my departure in 1977 and in NY during the struggle against Burnham’s ethnic dictatorship. I met Ms. Das around 1985 to 1987 at events organized by and at the home of the great Guyanese classical dancer Gora Singh, son of Rajkumarie Singh (daughter of Dr. JB Singh). I knew of Ms. Das thru her crowning of the coveted title as Ms. Diwali Queen and her controversial support for national service that almost the entire Indian population opposed. I too fought against national service when I was a student at Corentyne High School.
As Mahadai revealed to me and Ravi Dev, national service destroyed her life and it had a psychological effect on her development. Dev used to lead a group called Guyana United Democratic Movement with an office at 168 Place. Activists used to gather there where I met Mahadai on a few occasions. She also met with Dev and myself at CUNY Graduate Center (42nd Street) where I was enrolled for my PhD studies in International Politics. Das was doing graduate studies in Literature at Columbia University (116 St.) and I was also at CCNY (138 St.) completing another MA in Economic Development, just two miles away. We had several exchanges when she visited CCNY several times a week for several months, just two miles away from Columbia. She confided in us that was raped at national service. She also described other problems she encountered in Guyana and sought our help. We did help her. She expressed apology for her support of national service and of Burnham’s banning of basic goods Indians indispensable to Indians.
As Dev would attest, Das was absolutely brilliant, an accomplished poet, finest product of Guyana. She was also widely read. I read a lot of world renowned literary works. She read everything I read and more and she provided unique interpretations of literary works. She knew literature extremely well having read the works of virtually every literary figure imaginable.
She said she got no empathy or support from the Burnham government following her rape. She brought her abuse to Burnham who took no action. Rajkumarie and Gora also knew of her rape and they were also helpless in getting justice. She was an excellent product of Eccles/Peter Hall.
Das was an idealist who really believed national service was good for Guyana. She was a cheerleader for national service until she became its victim of rape. She revealed that other girls were also raped at national service. But both Dev and I could detect psychological issues affecting Das. At times, she was not ‘normal’. McDonald said she was stricken by ‘madness’. I am not a psychologist (although a course was mandatory for my BS in Bio-Chemistry and six courses were required for my licensing in teaching). And I am not expert on rape. But I detected in Das an anxiety syndrome, depression, and stress. Her voice, thinking and speech were not at times normal. There were deep scars and psycho-trauma. She looked frail. There were flashbacks of the trauma of rape. She displayed anger and aggression and distrust of men. Dev and I discussed her ‘issues’ and tried to assist as best as we could.
Das completed her MA at Columbia and transferred to University of Chicago for her PhD. Something went wrong in her Chicago Studies which was suddenly discontinued. Dev funded her travel to Barbados to be with a family member. Some time later, during my visits to Guyana, I would see Das frequenting WPA office on Croal Street and interacting with Rupert Roopnarine. Conversations with her revealed she was emotionally disturbed.
Mahadai Das as a teenager at UG lacked the capacity to understand the dishonesty of political figures the wretchedness and travails of politics. She was coerced into supporting national service and banning of goods, thinking she would be protected from violence and she wont be a victim of food shortages. Even the big ones and her support for Burnham could not protect her from being violated and from basic goods. Talent, skills, culture didn’t/don’t matter. She would become immersed in culture that gave her the spirit to live on.