Development of Imaginative Literature written by Guyanese of Indian Ancestry
Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
May 6, 2007
“They came in ships…hearts brimful of hope” wrote the poetess, Mahadai Das, one of the first Guyanese women writers of Indian ancestry.
Some 169 years have elapsed since the first batches of Indian indenture labourers arrived in British Guiana from India. They came to El Dorado with “hearts brimful of hope”. That ongoing journey (extending to other lands called the Diaspora) is being captured in the literature produced by this community.
The first writings by East Indian immigrants were the letters sent back home to India and the replies, none of which have survived. The first examples of writings in English by Indian immigrants were letters to the press mainly about the deplorable living and working condition.
The most outstanding exponent of this genre was Bechu of Enmore Estate whose remonstrations surfaced in the late 1800s. Around that same period, Joseph Ruhomon who was born in Guyana in 1873 came to prominence as a journalist and lecturer.
Ruhomon was a pioneer and pacesetter on many fronts, gaining honours like “the first modern Indian intellectual in British Guiana”, “a litterateur of outstanding ability” and “thinker”. In 1894, he delivered a groundbreaking lecture in Georgetown.
That lecture entitled, “India: the Progress of her People at Home and Abroad and How those in British Guiana may Improve themselves” was published later that year.
The first book-length work by an East Indian was “London’s Heart Probe and Britain’s Destiny” by Ayube Edun published after his visit to England in 1928.
The first anthology of writings by East Indians was An Anthology of Local Indian Verse” edited by C. E. J. Ramcharitar-Lalla in 1934.
However, most of the twenty one poems in that collection were steeped in Victorian influence as seen in a poem by W. W. Persaud, “reluctant be to throw aside the reins of England, as thy guide”. This work also included the poetry of the editor, the Ruhomon brothers (Peter and Joseph), and J. W. Chinapen.
The early 20th century saw the rise of an Indian intellectualism which gave birth to formation of social and cultural organisations. Drama played a major role in the development of this new thrust by Indians. During the 1940s, the British Guiana Dramatic Society which was established in 1936 came to prominence but for most of its existence it was guilty of producing plays from out of India as was the case with the other groups mimicking English, Dutch and German plays.
It must be noted that this society was an East Indian group promoting such ethnic interest in Georgetown; it was started by the Singh clan comprising of J. B. Singh and his wife, Alice Bhagwandai, with their daughter, Rajkumari Singh, and grandchildren carrying the torch into present day. This society distinguished itself by publishing a journal, the DRAMAG, and also established cultural ties between this country and Surinam.
Peter Kempadoo is the first Guyanese of Indian ancestry to write a novel. That book, Guiana Boy, was self-published in 1960 by a small press, New Literature (Publishing) Limited, founded by Kempadoo. One of the reasons for self-publishing was that major English publishing houses at the time wanted the language of book to be refashioned to suit English readership.
But the author was not inclined to follow suit as did most of the other Guyanese and Caribbean writers.
The 1960s seemed to be a fertile period for women writing and on the whole Guyanese literature. Rajkumari Singh was part of the Guyana Writers’ Group which was very active and established herself as the first recognised East Indian woman writer in Guyana, pioneering and enhancing the slighted “coolie art forms”, and becoming the “surrogate cultural and artistic mother to younger writers and artists”. In 1960, she published “A Garland of Stories” exploring various themes like racial prejudice and racial integration. In 1966, she won the prize for the best radio play with “Roraima”. Her other plays are “Hoofbeats at Midnight”, “The Sound of her Bells”, “A White Camellia and A Blue Star” and “Bohemian Interlude”. In 1971, she published “A Collection of Poems”, which tells of her perception and true feeling about issues affecting her.
In the 1970s, Sheik Sadeek, a poet, novelist, and playwright became a one-man publishing industry. As a publisher, Sadeek holds a record that is unmatched even unto today in a fast-paced electronic world. Many of his publications including his three novels totalling some six hundred pages rolled off of duplicating machines.
Now there are many significant writers from the Indian community adding to the potpourri of Guyanese literature, some prolific others versed in many genres of writing, some internationally recognised and scores of emerging writers. A few names to be mentioned in a long and growing list of writers of Indian Ancestry include David Dabydeen, winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry and three times winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature, Sasenarine Persaud, Cyril Dabydeen, Gokarran Sukhdeo, Harischandra Khemraj, Janice Lo Shinebourne, Narmala Shewcharan, Oonya Kempadoo and Ryhaan Shah.
Guyanese literature is still young but is getting better each day, thanks to each member of the Guyanese family especially the writers from the Indian community who are making a significant impact on the literature of the country.
Responses to this author telephone (592) 226-0065 or email: email@example.com
* Books to be launched: ‘Selected Poems by Egbert Martin edited by David Dabydeen, a Derek Walcott book, and ‘An Anthology of Short Stories from Guyana’ edited by Petamber Persaud, published by Dido Press, UK.