…the creolized Indians rose to the height of reading news, parodying the BBC and never rose beyond!
Prior to the 1950s novels on the Caribbean were written mainly by whites, usually British expatriates and those who have adopted the Caribbean as their home. By the 1950s, following the Second World War and the pending independence of the colonies, British readers were keen on knowing what local writers have to say about the Caribbean. This brought forth writers such as Edgar Mittelholzer, George Laming, Samuel Selvon, CLR James, V S Naipaul, to list a few.
Writing has to be generated from within and must be personal. V.S. Naipaul shared with his readers the challenges he encountered when he ventured into writing. Naipaul said that he could not have written on British society because he was alien to the nuances of its culture. It was only left for him to write on subjects and characters that were integral to him. His early novels and short stories were all about characters he knew and a culture he experienced while growing up in Trinidad and Tobago.
It was therefore shocking to me when a good friend remarked: “I don’t read local writers,” and quickly added that ‘Steven King was his favourite writer.’ I was introducing this friends to Jang Bahadur Bhagirathi, author of Chalo Trinidad, a novel on the Indian indentureship experience. Residing in New York for more than 25 years after migrating from Debe, Jang’s Chalo Trinidad was a story on the life of his father, Sham Bhagirathi.
Prior to the 1980s, our textbooks at the primary and secondary schools were laden with stories from British writers and poets. We learn the Beggar Maid by Charles Kingsley, Pip and the Convict, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. I remember the plethora of British heroes and heroines like John Hawkins and Sir Frances Drakes, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Joan of Arc.
It was later in the 1980s that textbooks began publishing a story on a family’s trip to the Caroni Bird Sanctuary or a visit to the market on a Saturday morning and the identification of the local fruits and vegetables and sno-cone man and sweets vendors. I remember the names Mala and Ravi used in Mathematics problems, thanks to Harry Subnaik, Mitra Rajnauth, and Ramlogan Mahabir. These writers of Common Entrance texts were pioneers in their own rights and their trend continued into secondary school.
Why the success of a V.S. Naipaul and a Samuel Selvon? Both of them wrote on characters and cultures that they lived through. Naipaul was born in an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family and through this prism, he looked at society. Selvon came from Scottish Indian ancestry and looked at the world through that prism. Living in San Fernando and later migrating to Barataria and working with the Trinidad Guardian as a journalist, Selvon boldly captured his social environment in his writings.
Why didn’t Indians who were academically exposed to the novel write? Why Naipaul, an orthodox Hindu steeped in Brahmanism? Those creolized Indians and Africans could have written, after all, they knew grammar and punctuation and were adept in pronouncing the ‘th’- mother, father and not baap and mai, and rose to the height of reading news, parodying the BBC and never beyond!
I have a friend who has a first-class honors degree in English. He can critique short stories, novels, and poems and know grammar and figures of speech par excellence but has never produced any creative writing. And why? I think that in his mind, though living in the Caribbean, he does not experience two seasons-dry and wet but four-spring, summer, autumn, and winter. His concept of having a nice time is not going to Caura River but Disney World and his favorite musical instrument is not the tabla but the piano which he cannot play.
I read of a church choir from Assam, India that visited the US to display their talent. After singing a few hymns that were familiar to their audience, a request was made for them to sing Assamese songs. They went silent and very shyly admitted that ‘we don’t know any.’
Helen Myers, an ethnomusicologist from the University of Edinburg, with the assistance of the late Ajeet Praimsingh, took a troop of local artistes to India. The troop performed folk songs brought by our indentured ancestors using the traditional Indian musical instruments-dholak, majeera, dhantaal, and harmonium- and they were well received at every venue with thunderous applause.
“The audience was not interested in listening to a Trinidadian singing Mohammed Rafi or Kumar Sanu,” said Ajeet Praimsingh. “The audience wanted something that was uniquely Indo-Caribbean and Rakesh Yankeran and Rasika Dindial and the others delivered.”
We are not artificial plants or stuffed animals. We are living entities breathing oxygen and with creativity in our souls. When people cease to be creative and begin imitating or parroting, such people are dead.
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