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IN THIS essay Janice Shinebourne’s novel, The Last English Plantation (Peepal Tree Press, 1988), is critically recalled for its portrayal of Indian female experience in the Caribbean. Until recently, the portrayal of the Indian woman in the regional novel was the preserve of male authors. Jan Shinebourne's The Last English Plantation is the first novel by a Caribbean-born woman writer that attempts to reconstruct and reaffirm Caribbean Indian female experience. The work is set in a rural plantation in what is recognisably British Guiana in the period before Independence.
Indians owe their presence in the Caribbean to the indentureship system. After the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834 and the abrupt halt to the Apprenticeship system shortly afterwards, the demand for a controllable labour force became pressing. Approaches were made to several countries of the Old World including China and Madeira, but Indian labourers were found to be the most hardy. Between 1838 and 1917, more than 239,000 Indian men, women, and children were shipped from Calcutta and Madras to British Guiana on contracts to labour on the colonial plantations. A good many of them returned to India at the expiry of their contracts, but the vast majority of Indian indentured labourers chose to remain and pursue their destiny in the new land.
I have argued elsewhere that in many novels authored by non-Indian males, female Indian characters have fractured experiences. In such novels, sexual exploitation and victimisation arising from social schisms based on race, class, and creed seem to form the core of Indian female experience and women characters are not allowed any integrative experiences. Instead, they are exploited for their outward charm, beauty, and graces, in romantic encounters with other racial elements in the multicultural society. Ultimately, they suffer painful separation, rejection, and, in some instances, death. In each instance, her sexuality contributes to the predicament of the Indian heroine and, too often, her Indianness hinders her from rising above her victimisation. Roy Heath's The Shadow Bride is a classic document of psychic devastation and tragic psychological disintegration of an Indian woman shipwrecked on an alien shore.
On the other hand, works by male Indian authors tend to idealise women characters in marginal roles given to them, and to depict motherhood and the stability of the family unit as the most viable and desirable means to self-fulfilment. Samuel Selvon, in Turn Again Tiger leaves the reader with a last and lasting image of a female character who is emblematic of the idealised Indian woman: "Tiger walked away to meet Urmilla and Chandra, who were coming up the trail from the village to look for him.” For his part, the protagonist, Tiger, explicitly chooses to accept devoted wife and child as the centre of his universe.
The stoic silences of Shama in V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas speak of the devoted wife and mother entirely dedicated to the stability of the family unit. Harold Sonny Ladoo's No Pain Like This Body presents a martyr-like Indian immigrant woman stranded in the Caribbean, the ultimate symbol of self-sacrifice. Ma struggles against multiple indentureship to consolidate her family in the face of the insurmountable odds posed by Man, Nature, and God. Finally, this female character becomes disassociated, pushed over the brink into the depths of despair and madness. Her quest for identity as a woman in her own right and as an Indian Caribbean woman could not be realised in the early colonial shipwreck depicted by Ladoo.
Some of the best insights of Indian female experience have come to us through novelistic efforts. Analyses of a representative sampling of contemporary works do seem to suggest that, by and large, Caribbean Indian women have struggled to achieve, not self-integration, but the security and integration of the family unit. Perhaps the very fact that a substantial novel by a Caribbean Indian woman has been so long in coming signifies a positive correlation between life and art.
Further, even though we find assumptions in our imaginative literature about the invisibility and marginalisation of the Indian woman, it is possible to argue that the Caribbean Indian nuclear family is matriarchal in nature although patriarchal in appearance. The crucial role played by the woman is ambivalent, in that she is not the location of power, and her status is devoid of opportunities for independence. Yet she wields an unquestionable influence in the home and in the consolidation of the family. If the preservation of the family unit is any indicator of the stability and wholeness of society, then the fictional Indian Caribbean woman has made a significant contribution to the social and spiritual development of the plural Creole society.
This conclusion has been corroborated by Gayle Greene and Coppelia Kahn (Making a Difference: Feminist Literary Criticism), who advance the argument that "an understanding of the interdependence of spheres reveals that women have wielded more power than has been apparent, and that aspects of women's lives which appear to be restrictive may actually be enabling." Gerda Lerner, in The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History, concurs: "While men conquered territory and built institutions which managed and distributed power, women transmitted culture to the young and built the social network and infra-structures that provide continuity in the community." The foregoing theory will provide a useful introduction to the discussion of Jan Shinebourne's novel, The Last English Plantation.
The feminist movement, now some three decades old, has eroded some old assumptions about women. However, the challenge for Caribbean feminist scholarship is no longer primarily to deconstruct predominantly male cultural paradigms in an effort to change the tradition that has silenced and marginalised women, but to analyse the centrality of female experience that has so far remained unexplored and to reconstruct female experience from a female perspective.
The problem with some of the regional male-authored texts is that such works came into being within the context of an institutionalised patriarchal system called colonialism. In this system, women are on the periphery with little opportunity to subvert the two polarised stereotypical roles ascribed to them: Victim or devoted wife and mother.
Yet, there have been notable exceptions: Edgar Mittelholzer's Corentyne Thunder offers the first possibility of the independent, self-realised Indian Caribbean adolescent woman in regional fiction; Selvon's Turn Again Tiger offers the promise of self-actualisation for the next generation of Indian Caribbean women through the quest for knowledge; and Ismith Khan's The Jumbie Bird1 depicts a positive, independent figure of Indian Caribbean womanhood in its mother figure, Binti. However, the subtle nuances of fictionalised Indian Caribbean experience are often subsumed and lost in mainstream criticism, and as such, Indian experience is often misunderstood and neglected.
The Last English Plantation is the first novel of the Anglophone Caribbean to present an Indian Caribbean heroine, one whose potential for growth is not undercut by the two prescribed roles of mother and shrew, nor have the feminine "virtues" attributed to respectable womanhood been reserved for her. This novel does deal with what feminist critic Toril Moi, in Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, describes as the "deviant, unrepresentative experiences discoverable in much female, ethnic, and working class writing.”