Mahadai Das 1954 – 2003
Preserving our literary heritage
By Petamber Persaud
July 9, 2006
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DEATH could not silence her, a voice exploring debilitating ethnic and gender issues, a voice coming to grips with identities – Guyanese consciousness and Indian sensibility, but more importantly, a voice of anticipation and hope. Such was the essentially volatile life of Mahadai Das.
A LEAF IN HIS EAR: SELECTED POEMS is a posthumous publication celebrating that remarkable life. It is the essential Mahadai Das for she left instructions on what the book must portray, a map of her struggles, her shortcomings and her triumphs, of her use of literature to lobby the cause of the marginalised, the subjugated and the disempowered.
Das’ life was one of crises. Crises she transformed into challenges; challenges of which some were pyrrhic victories.
Born in Eccles, East Bank of Demerara, Guyana, on October 22, 1954, Mahadai Das left her footprints in Uitvlugt, West Coast Demerara, lived for a number of years in the USA and died on April 3, 2003 in Barbados where her mortal remains were laid to rest.
Oldest of ten children, she was a first child, burdened with the concomitant of a female first child and visited by numerous trials. When Das was only seventeen, her mother died, leaving Das to care for her nine siblings. All of this was happening while Das was still at secondary school, aiming for the higher education – the University of Guyana - aiming to break the mould of the disadvantaged woman, the disadvantaged Indo-Guyanese woman.
In 1972, she became part of the Messenger Group with Janet Naidu, Rooplall Monar and others. It was Rajkumari Singh who initiated the formation of the organisation ‘dedicated to bringing to public notice that “Coolie art forms” were equally a part of the Guyanese tradition’. Later that same year, Das took part in the Caribbean Festival of Arts, Carifesta, held in Guyana.
In October of 1973, she was crowned queen of Maha Sabha Dewali Jalsa in the midst of turmoil at home, another evidence of the seesaw effect of her existence. During that same period, Das performed her poem in vernacular ‘Chile is who yuh foolin’ at the Theatre Guild as the Messenger Group staged a three-day celebration of the Coolie Art Forms.
Between 1973 to 1975, she was a significant part of the Guyana National Service, serving in its Cultural Division, burning with patriotic fervour and idealistic revolutionary imagination. This showed up in her first collection of poems I WANT TO BE A POETESS OF MY PEOPLE,1976. This collection also traced her roots from indenture to independence and included her most performed poem ‘THEY CAME IN SHIPS’.
Das was fortunate that she was able to move on with her literary development. Many other writers swayed by idealistic revolutionary and revolutionary clichés fell by the wayside and were alienated. Those radical rantings couldn’t sustain their literary aspirations.
A few years later, although she became disillusioned with the policy of the then government of the day, her patriotic fervour did not diminish. In fact, she was more mature in her thinking when she joined the Working People’s Alliance. Here, she came under the influence of Walter Rodney but when he was killed in 1980, she was forced to flee…to the USA, leaving behind her homeland but not its politics.
Das’ second book of poems MY FINER STEAL WILL GROW, 1982, is a better crafted work than her first. Here she moved to another level of consciousness: metaphysically exploring the importance of politics through the relationship of man and woman, how personal relationships were compromised due to political despair and frustration. This book also portrayed her still nursing wounds of her disillusionment with the then government of the day but appreciably singling her out as a fresh new voice with which to reckon.
Her poems could be found in local journals like Kykoveral, and Kaie. While at Columbia University, she published in student magazines like Common Ground and Black Heights. Of great significance also is that her poems have found their way onto the syllabi of Caribbean, North American and European universities. That alone speaks volumes of the quality, content and import of her writing.
In 1988, she published her most accomplished collection BONES, confirming her individuality and her place as a top crafter of verse.
Mahadai Das was educated at Bishop’s High School in Georgetown before moving on to the University of Guyana and then the University of the West Indies. She gained a B.A. in philosophy at Columbia University and a M.A. in the same subject at the University of Chicago.
While awaiting her Ph. D candidature, she underwent open-heart surgery from which she never fully recovered, truncating her academic career in 1987, a career that was fraught with so many obstacles, battles that she overcame only to lose the war. Undaunted, still resolute, she cried out for attention, ‘I mourn unflowered words, unborn children, inside me…absent water can has never lent itself to flowers’.
So when ‘Millicent’ (so fondly called by her relatives and friends) became unwell, many of her colleagues rallied to her assistance.
Mahadai Das dyed her name in the country’s literary heritage because she was in that first ripple of women writers of Indian ancestry staking a claim to the word ‘Guyanese’.