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Book Review - Tales of West Indian life hits mark

Published:Sunday | October 21, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Glenville Ashby, Contributor

  • Title: Voices of Working Class West Indians
  • Author: Jerome Teelucksingh
  • Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby

Voices of Working Class West Indians is a literary callaloo - a showcase of Caribbean political history with more than a whimsical and comedic underbelly. University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Jerome Teelucksingh remains an unorthodox novelist - bereft of the aesthetics and clichés that labour the most promising tales.

Teelucksingh will not flatter the creative writing connoisseur, but time and time again, he has proven that his cadence - abrupt and even perfunctory, is able to capture West Indian life with all its fanciful twists, peculiarities, rawness, and unpredictability. As a naturalist, Teelucksingh is fast becoming a marquis narrator.

'Voices' triumphs in its historical resourcefulness. Story after story - a collection of 13 classics - ably limns key moments in the islands' past. The author joyrides from island to island, presenting a people of varying struggles, political ambitions, and shortcomings - yet distinctly West Indian, they are.

To an outsider, politicking on the island is uncanny, even abstruse. Political stakes are always high in plural societies where suspicions, insecurity and mistrust run deep. Teelucksingh's actors are hardly political dilettantes. They well articulate their needs but engage in brazen partisanship.

They are savvy, promulgating the right to assemble and to strike. But their articulations implode under the weight of sophistry, declamations, self-righteousness and clannishness.

Time and time again, the spectre of racial politics rears its head, delivered with a dark humour that is annoyingly tantalising. In 'Voices from St Lucia', the protagonists Ramjohn and Mahadeo are furious that their friend Sunil, an Indian Christian, does not belong to the 'Indian' political party. Says Ramjohn: "Allyuh Indians who is Christians tink dat allyuh better dan we. All dem missionaries came and brainwash yuh ancestors. Allyuh feel all yuh is ah set as big sawatee. Ah sure for de cricket matches at the Oval yuh does support de West Indies team and not India or Pakistan."

Clearly, a withering verbal assault that raises perennial questions on race and nationality in the region.

Racial politics

And in 'Politics in Guyana', Cheddi Jagan's supporters predict a resounding electoral victory, adding, "We did it in 1957 and 1961, and when we finish wit dem Negroes ... dey go boil dong like bhagi."

Dogma and racial politics pollute even the well intentioned. On the one hand, 19th century Hosay celebrations are seen as a unifying event where Hindus, Muslims and Negroes participate, according to Dookeram in 'Education in Belize'. But minutes later, he advises his daughter: "Yuh need to be controversial. Start talking about how we Indians facing discrimination. Blame another race or religion for de problems ... criticise other people and religion. The media love dat."

In 'The Protest', one antagonist questions the love affair between unionists and Cuban revolutionaries. "If dey try to march and strike in Cuba, dat same Castro who they adore would ah lock de tail up for donkey years, even kill dem."

But Teelucksingh changes gears handsomely, mollifying the angst of racial politics, replacing it with vintage West Indian jocula-rity and bucolic splendour. Miss Phillips, the protagonist in 'Never Dirty', is bacchanalia embodied. A Grenadian hairdresser with an unbridled larynx, she counsels a client on how best to rid his hair of lice. "Ah usually recommend aloes but your case different. For a week you have to use Breeze, Clorox or Skip soap powder. If dat not working, den sprinkle some rat poison on your hair in de morning. De louses go eat it and dead." The rest of the narrative spews hilarity.

And again, in that gritty tale, 'Education in Belize', a wistful father imparts Indian culture to Sunita, his daughter. Reflecting on Trinidad's cold, lukewarm relationship with V.S. Naipaul, he argues that the Nobel Prize winner is unappreciated by his countrymen. Tongue in cheek, he offers: "Sunita, you have to understand that Trinidadians have more important things to do. Dey have to spend every minute of the whole year planning fêtes, parties, liming in de rumshop, making Carnival costumes, rehearsing steelband songs, planning protests, organising political parties. Dey very busy. If dey have to honour you ... is after yuh dead."

In 'Another Great Jamaican', colour, class, caste and racial identity collide with a seve-rity, lightened only by the characters' flights of fantasy. "Make friends with students who are from the middle class ... . Remember your ancestry could be traced to the famous Alexander the Great," Mohan tells his son.

In the end, Voices of Working Class West Indians proves a veritable tour de force - austere, but equally buoyant. It is a gem of a narration - a rare fusion of history, biting social commentary and definitive island humour. Seldom should a reader demand more.

Ratings:: Highly Recommended

Available: Barnes and Noble/