Literature… Guyanese Writers – Rooplall Monar

Extract from the novel MASSALA MARAJ

by ROOPLALL MONAR

Maraj crawled out the old iron-framed bed silently and rushed into the kitchen, built in front the logie.

His heart thumped as though he had suffered a nervous spasm. He picked up an enamel cup from the shelf and filled it with water, drawn from a clay goblet. He drank the water in quick gulps, sat on a low wooden bench, belched and uttered: “Think me stoopid? Me is a brahmin. Backdam work is not proper fo me caste. Me have to get one transfer morning time… have to tell overseer Brown…”

Maraj paced the kitchen now as though he had envisioned a triumph.

The big Sugar Factory brass bell had announced One. Factory grinding cane like mad, Maraj told himself. It was dark outside. Crickets and beetles whirred and hummed outside the long barrack range, divided into twelve barrack rooms called logies. The wind blew in gusts.

Rooplall Monar
Rooplall Monar

Maraj knew whenever much rain fell the Nigger Yard was quick to be inundated. Malaria and dysentry created havoc. The place turned gloomy. Death followed. Maraj hoped it didn’t rain much.

Maraj felt suffocated. The logie with its dark musty kitchen threatened to strangle him. An eternal enemy ever since his wife and himself moved in ten years ago.

“Damn bloody matchstick house,” Maraj would curse, scratching his head as if looking for a solution… to escape this cramped living. “Is like you in coffin. No place to stretch you hand,” Maraj would say at times, watching at his wife accusingly.

His wife, an orthodox brahmin woman, would smack her tongue perplexedly, and hustle into the bedroom. She knew Maraj would slap her if only she answered. But her mouth was strong, the words vibrating in the logie. Can’t allow this man to push he finger in me eye, she would say whenever Maraj was out, then burst into a Hindi bhajan.

Maraj had a terrible temper. In such moments Maraj’s temper would flare like a lighted dry bush in a cow pasture. He would curse the Estate, his brahmin caste, and wished he had never been born in this blood sucking Sugar Plantation where the driver and overseer “think you is some mule. Kicking you like football about the place,” clenching his fist, and felt like cuffing the logie-walls, buff-buff, as though gripped by a fever. The fever that made him feel divided. “One foot here. One foot in India,” as the elders said.

He paced the kitchen a few more times, then sat on the low wooden bench, braced to the wall, dividing the kitchen from the dining room, and began thinking. He wanted a perfect excuse to give overseer Brown. An excuse that would warrant him a transfer from the Chop-an Plant Gang to another Gang until he worked out another excuse. Another transfer until his goal, his true calling in life had been realised. Eh eh, is what the use living when you can’t find you true self?

“1s been a long time now since me wukkin in this Estate. Every day me turning like packsawal mango. All juice from me body draining out.

If me don’t make a move this time, me going to come like dry bamboo. Empty inside. And me is a brahmin. High caste Hindu. Me na suppose to work in canefield. Is why me never take up the pundit work? Is Ramdass pundit cause it. He alone want be pundit in this Estate. Badminded brahmin bitch. They should put two cent-piece on he eye top when he drop dead. Is tikkay Ramdass pundit throw blight at me? All brahmin in this Estate cunning like spider. Heh! You could never trust them shadow self.”

Maraj churned over this self-monologue which had increased in dimension throughout the years. It was like another person speaking inside him. A person whom he was unable to quell, specially when he was alone, sitting between the front door of the logie in the evenings, self-absorbed. Impassive.

Soon after, he would burst out with a Hindi bhajan, sweet like sugar, people said.

During some nights while lying in bed, pretending to sleep, he felt this person wanted to come out, out of him like a chicken wriggling out of an egg. Take form like a man, and do the things he was unable to do: cut-ass Ishmael driver and Nauth driver. Twitch overseer Brown balls. Break Ramdass pundit neck, then ascend the Sugar Factory and laugh.

Me is the boss now. Me is the big Manager …heh heh heh, feeling like the Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, flying over the whiteman’s compound, a lighted torch in his hand. Heh heh heh…

Maraj shook his head twice as if to dismiss the person speaking inside him, aware now that dogs barked in the Nigger Yard, perhaps glimpsing the Moon in the western sky. Dawn was on its way. He had to work out an excuse quickly, join his fat snoring wife in bed, and wake up early. Excuse in his head. Use me brahmin sense.

He scratched his head, ruffling his sparse hair, caved-in his brain, struggling, seeing himself a weary traveler
trudging up a mountain, ideas rebounded in his head like cane punts clanging against each other.

Crickets and beetles whirred, buzzed among beezie-beezie, and blacksage bush outside the logie. Maraj felt they were buzzing inside the musty kitchen. He wanted to scream, shooing away mosquitoes which surrounded him in a circle droning an incessant chorus. He wanted to crush the kiss-me-ass mosquitoes, feeling triumphant. But the killing sound, mosquitoes crushed on his bare skin, would awaken his wife.

“Like you get jumbie in you head man,” his wife would say when she saw him in the kitchen at this hour in the
morning. “Is why you na see pundit? Is every two three night this asura jumbie coming in you head…” Blasted woman can’t understand cent from big jill, Maraj would tell himself whenever such an encounter had taken place. He couldn’t sleep while the other person in him kept on talking. Sitting alone in the kitchen, drinking cupfuls of water, scratching his head, he would slowly, patiently quell the voice in him, putting the person to sleep.

His wife, Marajin, believed an asura, a Hindu evil spirit, haunted Maraj especially when Maraj woke-up during midnights, complaining of terrible nightmares, sweating, eyes glazed.

Stoopid woman! Don’t know head from bullfoot, Maraj would say to himself. If me no break me back in canefield to get money, is how she going to eat? Is me badluck to get brahmin wife. And is shame and disgrace fo brahmin wife work in canefield. Chu chu chu… stoopid woman. She ain’t know is me god does talk in me?

Maraj became alert. A fat mosquito droned around his head. He wanted to trap it. Crush it. The dank musty smell emanating in the kitchen invaded his nostrils. He wanted to vomit. The mosquito kept threatening, buzzing, bent on the kill.

Extract to be completed on next issue of The Guyana Review

Rooplall Motilal Monar

Rooplall Monar was born in a mud floor logie on the Lusignan sugar estate, East Coast Demerara, in 1945. His parents were both caneworkers, and his mother continued to work on her own ground provision plot daily, long after she retired. The family moved to Annandale Village in 1953 to a houselot with its own plot. This, much extended over the years, remains Monar’s home. He attended Lusignan Government school, Buxton Congregational School, Hindu College and Annandale Evening College. He has worked as a teacher, accounts clerk, freelance journalist, broadcaster and practitioner of folk healing (herbal cures).

He began writing in the mid-1960s and came to notice in 1967 with a prize-winning poem, ‘The Creole Gang’. His early poems were published in New World, Kaie, Voices and various anthologies. His first published collection, Meanings (1972) begins his exploration of the the consciousness of the Indo-Guyanese ‘divided by horizon’s edges, yet/ telling of no other worlds/ but mine’. His second collection, Patterns (1983) continued the creative but painful potential of this limbo consciousness, asking ‘Who am I/between buried copper trunks/voices in the cemeteries?/Oh whom am I/between a dying consciousness,/a growing vision.’

Monar also began to write short stories, encouraged by his blood brother, the folklorist and poet Wordsworth McAndrew, pushing the use of an Indo-Guyanese inflected Creole to a depth not seen before. The result of extensive interviews and listening to older people, these stories began to be broadcast on GBS around 1976, though it was almost another ten years before they saw publication as the classic Backdam People first published in 1985 and in a new edition in 1987. At this time, in the 1970s, Monar was part of the Messenger group, which included Rajkumari Singh, Guska Kissoon and Beatrice Muniyan, and part of an Annandale group of poets which included Bramdeo Persaud, George Vidyahanand and Randall Butisingh. However, deaths, emigration and the despairs of the later Burnham years broke up most of these associations.

After Backdam People, Peepal Tree brought out a collection of Monar’s poems, Koker (1987), followed by his novel, Janjhat (1989) which explores the tempestuous first year of a marriage under the interfering pressure of the boy’s mother. The move from estate to village life is explored in the short stories of High House and Radio which sees the backdam people leave their logies for their new high houses and the coherent Indianness of the estate challenged by the new visions brought by the radio, politicians and the pursuit of more individual lives.

Since then Monar has written two works of popular fiction, Ramsingh Street and Tormented Wives (1999).

In 1987 he was awarded a special Judges’ Prize for his contribution to Guyanese writing.

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