Documenting the life of estate workers in literature

Creole Gang

Baling and throwing

Among green canes from rusty punts,

their sweated faces

Show how many days and nights have passed

between cane roots and black streams,

sunburnt trashes and parched earth,

Wearied days and restless reality.

Their hands and limbs are but fragments

that walk and bathe

When sun shines, rains fall

And drivers shout.

Who can tell when midday meets

their rest – they eat, they talk?

Their limbs cry and hearts burn.

Is this not the century of dreams,

of tales old by ancestors

of a faith told by life?

Again and again they will bale and throw,

Curse and rest among green canes

And black earth, wishing, wishing…

Rooplall Monar

In 1934 CEJ Ramcharitar Lalla published a poem called The Weeding Gang which remained for a long time the definitive poem about East Indian workers and indentured labourers in Guyanese literature.  It was the most progressive poem at that time about those estate workers in spite of its own limitations, because for a long time poems either avoided the subject or were written in imitative English styles and language.  Even Ramcharitar-Lalla himself was not entirely free of those influences at a time when most Caribbean poets were. The Weeding Gang describes in very musical terms that group of women employed on the sugar plantations whose occupation was weeding and stands out because it attempted to engage not India or Europe, but Guyana’s working people at the grassroots.

The next major work of that era was a novel by Edgar Mittelholzer, completed some time around 1938 but not published until 1941 because that is when it was accepted by a publisher whose editorial terms Mittelholzer was willing to accept. (Mittelholzer is fabled for the large number of rejection slips he received in trying to get his work published.)  That novel is Corentyne Thunder about the family of a miserly cow-minder on the Upper Corentyne with all the details of rural Indian village life in British Guiana.

Another important movement in the development of the literature as far as treatment of local Guyanese Indians is concerned is the rise of playwright Sheik Sadeek in the 1960s.  In plays like Bound Coolie or The Immigrant, a full length drama as well as shorter works like Namaste and Black Bush, he took delight in vivid representations of rustic life and characteristics. This deliberate attempt of his went a long way in introducing Guyanese Indian drama and contributing to the development of Guyanese drama as a whole.

Then there was the work of Rooplall Monar.  This poem Creole Gang is reminiscent of Ramcharitar Lalla’s Weeding Gang in its documentation of these workers, but it takes the literature further.  It is comfortable in Standard English, unlike most of the poems of the 1930s, because in that language it manages to capture the workers within their landscape and environment against a backdrop of cane fields and estate villages.  It also goes further in communicating an emotional state, a tradition, the echoes of a past, the depths and burdens of servitude, and a social situation.  More than most others in the 1980s Monar was documenting the life of estate workers and Indian villagers in Guyanese literature.

Rooplall Monar

The poem comes from the collection Koker, which is itself of some significance.  The title represents a truly Guyanese image which depicts the koker as a characteristic prop on the Guyanese landscape, carrying with it a strong sense of identity.  Monar is concerned with this identity in his choice and treatment of subjects, if not in his attitudes towards them.  Other poems in the collection reflect similar concerns like Limbo which is about ancestral blood, and Babu about an immigrant who seemingly considers himself a victim of the passage across dark waters stranded in his new environment.  Another poem, Temple, presents a disruption of the life rhythms in the Hindu religion and the associated cultural and social traditions by a sinister force.

Koker and the short story collection Backdam People are Monar’s two best works, followed by the novel Janjhat.  The collection of poems contains this writer’s best known verse which travels beyond mere description to be the purveyor of a sad sensitivity which overhangs the condition of the immigrants and their descendants.  In 1987 it marked an important development in Guyanese literature for poetry that engaged these subject areas.

This significance might have been recognised when Monar was awarded a Special Prize in the Guyana Prize for Literature for Koker, which was shortlisted, and Backdam People.  That short story collection remains Monar’s best work to date.  It goes into the sugar plantations, the cane fields, the rice fields, the backdam, the estate villages, towns and other communities to document human existence in the setting of the “backdam people.”  It is a colourful volume with lively narrative and a generous share of humour.  Very often it pits the workers against the plantation management or villagers against authority and follows their attempts to influence change or their own fortunes.  Among the most hilarious and accomplished accounts is the story of Massala Maraj who tries to make capital out of his skill at cooking curry, but becomes overcome by greed. The novel Janjhat examines Hindu tradition as it is inherited by Guyanese.  It tells the story of a bride who ends up under the tyranny of a mother-in-law from which she needed to escape.  Questions are raised about local family traditions and what seems to be expected of the daughter-in-law in her husband’s home after marriage.

Rooplall Monar has not reproduced similar quality in his other works so far.  He seems to have tried a ‘version two’ of his earlier success with another short story collection Estate People without approaching those heights.  Nothing is wrong with the shape of the work or the attempt to produce a parallel volume, but the stories were paler and flatter without the resonance and colour of the earlier book.  He also produced High House and Radio and Ramsingh Street.

By the time we get to the last named short story collection Monar had turned inward to reproduce twisted pictures which seem a shadow of his personal experiences and his home village of Annandale.  In fact his vignettes were so close to home that the villagers could recognize themselves in the stories whose author appears to have done very little or too little to fictionalise the accounts.  Even names were not changed, and there is actually a Ramsingh Street in the village.  When Monar came to recording those activities of his neighbours he seems to have become so cynical he abandoned the art of fictional disguise.

By the time he came to this stage in his writing, it was already time for him to have moved out of the circumscribed village settings and to be seeking new, wider horizons.

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