Tiger in the Stars: Clem Seecharan
Preserving our literature heritage
by Petamber Persaud
February 11, 2007
CLEM Seecharan came out from a “bookless world” but went on to make his name and fortune in books, writing about those very conditions from which he came and about the factors influencing the course of his life and writing.
In fact, Seecharan has become the most prolific writer of the Indian travails, sojourns and triumphs in Guyana and the Caribbean. He was the first to teach a university course in the United Kingdom on Indo-Caribbean History.
His ancestors were “bound coolies” from India who could neither read nor write. This void lent a sort of mystique surrounding books.
According to Seecharan, his great grandmother, Kaila, processed the “Hanuman Chalisa”, a sacred booklet, in such a way that to have opened and read it was to have profaned it. That protracted condition was bolstered by another inspirational event.
Seecharan recalled his “Uncle Joe” Dhanna lending him Jawaharlal Nehru’s “The Discovery of India” whereby Seecharan discovered the great tradition from whence he came and, more importantly, he discovered he wanted to write. He wanted to write like Nehru – elegant prose.
Those two events and the stories he heard added to the mystique of India. That mystique was given flesh when he learned that Rohan Kanhai, also from Berbice, had scored a double century in Calcutta, India. Calcutta was the port from where most of the “bound coolies” had embarked for British Guiana.
Cricket was a social condition for the Indians of British Guiana especially the exploits of Rohan Kanhai; cricket endowed them with hope and the bat of Kanhai carried them through colonialism and post-Independence trauma.
Listening to radio commentary on cricket was never “a solitary exercise; it was a communal experience”.
“Sharing these experiences with cane-cutters, rice framers, fishermen – ordinary village folk- enriched my appreciation for the spoken word, and endowed me with and eternal humility, an unconquerable curiosity, and a love for life. It was indeed a rich boyhood. And I owe it all mostly to the man from Port Mourant, Rohan Kanhai,” he said.
Such was his formative years – “India, cricket, words, books: these were slowly lodging in me”. And politics and the exploits of Cheddi Jagan must be added to that list of influences shaping the life of Seecharan.
Clem Seecharan was an avid reader, devouring literature in such a manner as to fire his imagination and inspire him with the hope that he too could write, turning him into a foremost historian of his time. In 2005, he won the prestigious Elsa Goveia Prize executed by the Association of Caribbean Historians. That accolade was the result of his early venture in reading; he was only ten when he started to cut out and store newspaper clippings.
His early reading list is instructive. Around 1961, he started reading new West Indian writers who were making a name for themselves in London including Edgar Mittelholzer and Peter Kempadoo, both from Berbice; the fact that those men were from his own backyard meant a lot to his dream of becoming a writer one day. But “it was Naipaul, more than anyone, who gave me the idea that books could be written by Indians in the West Indies”.
Around 1963, he was sitting in a tree reading “Middle Passage” about “Naipaul’s visit to my part of British Guiana in 1960-61 and recognising the places and some of the people he had sketched with such precision” when Seecharan’s inspiration gained momentum.
Solidifying that inspiration were books by Indians like “The West on Trial” by Cheddi Jagan, a hero that lost political power but redeemed himself by writing the book, and “Blasting for Runs” by Rohan Kanhai.
Seecharan was to read and re-read many times over “Beyond a Boundary” by C. L. R. James. Like James, Seecharan started collecting data on cricket in his formative years.
Well read, Seecharan was to write well also. The scholarship he produced on Indo-Caribbean History, Indian Thought and the Caribbean, Intellectual History of the Caribbean, Cricket and the British West Indies, Marxism, Socialism and the Sugar Industry in Guyana, Ethnicity and Politics, Slavery and the Shaping of the Anglophone Caribbean, is prodigious and astounding.
Some of his publications include India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination, 1890s-1920s, Tiger in the Stars: The Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana, 1919-29, Bechu: Bound Coolie Radical in British Guiana, 1894-1901, Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell’s British Guiana, 1934-66, Muscular Learning: Cricket and Education in the Making of the British West Indies to the End of the 19th Century.
Educator, historian, writer, Clem Seecharan was born in 1950 in Palmyra, East Canje, Berbice, British Guiana, growing up in a highly charged political and racial arena.
He also grew up in a sugar plantation economy despite the fact that his family were rice and cattle farmers.
At age 16, Seecharan moved to Queen’s College in Georgetown after attending Berbice Educational Institute in New Amsterdam. At Queen’s College, his interest in history was extended. He brought with him his love for books and was not disappointed with offerings of the city – new books and local journals. The political turbulences of the city sucked me in and he revelled in this new role.
A restless Seecharan returned to Berbice to teach, this community work spurred him on. He went on to study for an M. A. degree in Social Anthropology/History at Mc Master University, Canada.
In the 1980s, he went to England with a few (US) dollars to his name but was able complete a Ph. D. in History at the University of Warwick.
Seecharan declared he owes his intellectual mobility to Professor David Dabydeen. Seecharan’s mobility is also due to the man’s stamina for research, his thirst for knowledge and the dissemination thereof.
That little lad who used to read in trees while tending the cows is now barking up the right tree as the cows are coming home, fulfilling his dream, sustaining the dreams of others like a tiger in the stars.
* Seecharan, Clem & Birbalsingh, Frank editors ‘Indo-Westindian Cricket’
* Seecharan, Clem. In Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Out of Historical Darkness. ‘The Arts Journal’ vol. 1 # 1
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