The shaping of Guyanese Indian literature
Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton
July 10, 2005
Around the time of the celebration of the anniversary of Indian Arrival in Guyana (May 5), Arts on Sunday made reference to two books by Guyanese historian Clem Seecharan, India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination 1890s-1920s (1993) and Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana 1919-29 (1997). The second is a much more substantial volume which significantly develops the work started in the first. Seecharan provides a very good background and a very meaningful context to the early beginnings and the shaping of Guyanese East Indian literature. While the focus transcends creative writing, it is ever conscious of its importance, its presence and its place in the shaping of the imagination and the intellectual development among Indian indentured 'arrivants' in Guyana.
This is clearly reflected in the title of the second work, which includes the image of the 'tiger in the stars.' This is perhaps the best metaphor for the sustaining source of inspiration that kept indentured migrants focused on the hard task of achieving triumph and progress over adversity. It comes from a story of a man sailing on the ship from India to indentureship in Guyana, who gazed at the stars during the long nights. In the shapes made by the many constellations he made out the image of a tiger leaping in the sky, and that sustained him throughout a journey that lasted some 100 nights sailing on dark waters, and over another several years working in challenging conditions in a strange land.
Against the background analyzed by Seecharan, not only East Indian, but Guyanese literature emerged, and the intention this week is to make another brief inspection of this work. This glance at the early poetry highlights certain ironies in the realities of the literature and what it reveals, as well as the interesting differences to be found among the inspiration, motivation, intentions and achievement of the poems.
Seecharan discusses Joseph Ruhomon, the rising Guyanese intellectual and poet who wrote the monograph India: The Progress of Her People at Home and Abroad, and How Those in British Guiana may Improve Themselves (Georgetown: C.K. Jardine, 1894). This was the first publication by an Indian descendant anywhere in the Caribbean and the virtual beginning of Guyanese literature. Ruhomon was not the first writer, since others such as poet Francis Williams was writing in 1838, but he was an initiator in one of the very important social/cultural movements responsible for the real Rostow-like take-off in the national literature. These 'movements' were driven by racial pride. And racial pride was the motivating force behind the first two extant anthologies of Guyanese poems known to us.
The earliest is Guianese Poetry 1831-1931 (Georgetown: Argosy Co. Ltd, 1931) compiled and edited by Norman E Cameron in 1931, (now available in Klaus Reprint, 1970). It gives a survey of the early poetry from the nineteenth century to the time of publication, including Egbert Martin, Leo, Francis Williams and these pioneers. Cameron was a mathematician who got involved in drama, culture and poetry because of his sense of national pride and then his desire to produce literature which could change the unfavourable image of the black race in the Caribbean at the time.
The Anthology of Local Indian Verse (1934) edited by C E J Ramcharitar-Lalla is the second collection whose publication was moved by similar sentiments regarding the projection of a better image and the progress of the Indian race. Rev Hector Chick, a Methodist missionary, referred to Ruhomon's lecture, which later became the famous publication.
"The burden of that lecture was saddened by a pitiful lament over the backward condition to the East Indian Community. He ended with an eloquent appeal to his fellow-countrymen to form themselves into societies devoted to the intellectual, moral and social improvement of its members."
By 1934, Ramcharitar-Lalla, in introducing his publication was able to develop that theme 40 years later.
"It is but nearly a century since our forefathers first landed in the Colony, yet the progress made in the various walks of life is remarkable. As strangers in a strange Country, however, the Indians have been too far removed from one another. This attempt, therefore, is not only intended to provide a selection of Verse, but also to bring together a few Indians to work to a common end."
Interest in the anthology would therefore include a curiosity in the content and style of the poems to see what they might tell of the thoughts, culture and social environment of that time. Rev Chick was interested in whether the poems "bore some marks of the distinctive lilt and metre of Indian poetry." He found "the English traditional forms rather than the Hindi" but also "certain definitely Indian characteristics" such as "the Buddhist doctrine of Nirvana" including "the realms of everlasting peace." My own search found that they reflected very little of Guyana but are really no different from much of the West Indian poetry of the 1920s and '30s.
In this respect, Ramcharitar-Lalla's The Weeding Gang comes closest to a picture of the social environment in his description of the girls going home from work on the estate weeding gangs, singing and making music with their cutlasses(!).
They fill the silence after,
With their peals of merry laughter
Which float upon the pinion of the air;
And also ease their walking
With some idle, silly talking,
With kheesaz and boojhowals very queer.
But the picture is a very pastoral one, giving an impression of an idyllic, evergreen, happy and romantic environment, bearing no relationship to a history of hardship, abuse and challenges. The poem is a product of its time since similar characteristics are to be found across the early Caribbean poetry which included wide-spread imitation of nineteenth century English verse, imitating both style and subject.
The poem In the Fields by J W Chinapen in the anthology is therefore a very typical example of the Guyanese poetry of the era, heavily influenced by the classics and presenting a similar arcadian pastoral setting. There is no hint of the local fields with their real, less cheerful, musical conditions.
In The Fields
O, sweet it is to ramble through
The cheerful fields,
And drink of that fair stream of thoughts
Their picture yields
Or squat beneath some sylvan shade
Through which the sunbeams peep,
While overhead a host of birds
Their concert deep;
Or listless lie close by a stream
Whose dancing gleams
And murmuring lapse, so soft and clear,
Invite glad dreams.
Amidst these scenes serene my mind
From cares is free
How like a balm, they soothe
O love! Still let the birdies sing,
Still let the winding waters ring,
And breezes play
Their music in the joyful tree,
For in these myriad charms I see