Birbalsingh's book is disappointing, to say the least
Frederick Kissoon

Kaieteur News
May 11, 2007

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A book that consists of a series of interviews would hardly constitute objective historical material from which scholars can make dispassionate analyses. History-makers cannot be relied on to tell the truth.

We can start with Hamilton Green. In any discussion on Burnham, Green is not going to tell us about the dark side of Forbes Burnham. The reason is simple; Green doesn't believe and will not accept that Burnham pursued disastrous policies that involved the deliberate denial of human rights of a large number of his subjects that he ruled over.

Take Cheddi Jagan's “The West on Trial.” If you are going to judge historical characters based on what Jagan wrote about them in his autobiography, you will end up being immensely unfair to many dead Guyanese that did a lot of good for their country.

Jagan viewed the totality of British Guiana from a communist perspective. It meant therefore that when one appeared anti-communist in Jagan's eyes, that person was irredeemable.

Jagan then was contemptuously dismissive of persons who opposed his communist ideology, even though they were engaged in selfless work in the community.

If one then is to accept what Jagan wrote about certain Hindu pundits and anti-communist businessmen in the fifties, then one is left with a much distorted view of the history of one's country.

However limited a book of interviews is to scholars interested in historical evidence, a skillful academic can frame his/her questions so ingeniously searching that the book becomes more than just the interviewees offering their own personal opinions.

In this context, Frank Birbalsingh's “A History of the PPP of Guyana, 1950-1992: An Oral History” is a palpable failure. A large number of questions are too banal and ordinary. At times in the line of questioning, Dr. Birbalsingh comes across as a journalist that doesn't want to ruffle his guests. At times he appears somewhat servile in his questions. At other times, he miserably fails to pursue a line of probing that would have filled huge missing links in Guyanese history.

I don't want to be too harsh on the editor (it would be an edited book, since the contents are based on edited discussions with several persons) but there appears to be two dishonest dimensions to this book. Surely, Dr. Birbalsingh had to know that his interviews were about the events in the fifties, yet he puts the period, 1950 -1992 in his title. The book is not an oral history of the PPP up to 1992.

Dr. Birbalsingh was being unfair and deceptive when he titled his book, “An Oral History of the PPP, 1950 -1992. There is no discussion of the PPP in opposition since 1964 in any of the interviews.

This certainly cannot be an oversight by the editor, Dr. Birbalsingh. The PPP was in opposition for 28 years, yet not one question was asked about the post-1964 nature of the PPP by the interviewer. I get the impression that Dr. Birbalsingh's area of interest was the PPP in the fifties and the reason for the split between Jagan and Burnham. If that is the case, then why inform readers that the historical period you are looking at includes the 28 years that the PPP was in the opposition.

The second suspect motive of Dr. Birbasingh is that the interview with Cheddi Jagan was done in 1984. Again, one has to be harsh on the editor because he deceives the buyer of his book. Cheddi Jagan's party is being assessed through a question and answer methodology, yet the only published interview with Jagan was done in 1984. The questions were confined to the fifties. I bought the book because I thought that Jagan would have expressed himself on a wide range of topics including the turbulent seventies. This is a most disappointing aspect of the entire publication.

Many of the interviews are too short to tell us anything substantial about Guyanese history. One wonders why a scholar would publish a book of discussions with persons who are familiar with the contours, configurations, vicissitudes and vagaries of their country, and a majority of the interviewees are allotted just two pages. The interviews take up 171 pages and 27 persons were Dr. Birbalsingh's guests. How many elaborations can you get out of a dialogue with 27 persons in an allocation of space consisting of 171 pages?

It would have been best if the editor had cut down on half of his selections and let the 13 interviewees speak longer. Of the 27 persons that responded to the editor, three of them would not have been deeply acquainted with the PPP so one wonders why they were chosen in the first place.

There are some worrying omissions. For example, how can one undertake an oral history of the PPP without seeking a dialogue with Professor Clive Thomas? If Thomas declined an audition, then that is fair. But for the little I know of Clive Thomas, I can't see why he would have rejected Dr. Birbalsingh's invitation. Only one woman was allowed space in the book. Janet Jagan offered her views. Did the editor seek out Andaiye or Bonita Bone-Harris or Philomena Sahoye or the wife of Moses Nagamootoo.

Dr. Birbalsingh is a sleek guy. Or at least he thinks so. When Mrs. Jagan leads on to a new topic, he let her speak. Mrs. Jagan is cruel and harsh in her condemnation of Eusi Kwayana. So vicious was her critique of Mr. Kwayana that one feels that Mr. Kwayana seems to have done something unforgivable to Mrs. Jagan.

The editor does not seem interested in Guyanese history at all. On several occasions, when the missing links were there to be filled, he let down his readers. Take Moses Bhagwan. He explained that the Jagans could be ruthless people when it serves their purpose and they were ruthless with him. But the editor either didn't ask Bhagwan to expand or Bhagwan did but he left it out of his book. The Rupert Roopnarine interview was the best. It shows the power of analysis in Roopnarine.

All in all, this is a failed project. Dr. Birbalsingh missed a priceless opportunity to inform the next generation what happened from 1950 to 1992. One hopes someone undertakes a similar project and does it with more competence.