A window to the Caribbean

Renu Ramanath

`Guyana could be a model of what India should be in future.'

`Guyana could be a model of what India should be in future.'  

DAVID DABYDEEN, reputed Guyanese writer says, `Our people were muted for centuries. So, when we began to speak, there was no stopping us. We were a muzzled people, literally. I have seen the iron muzzles that the plantation owners used to clamp on the mouths of their cooks.'

Mr. Dabydeen has roots which can be traced back to India. Much like in Alex Haley's Roots, his ancestors' story too tells a tale of forced labour. "About half-a-million Indian labourers were transported to the British Guyana's sugar plantations between 1838 and 1917, as bonded labour to replace the African slaves, who had begun demanding reasonable wages, after slavery was ended in 1838."

His great-great-grandfather belonged to this flood of ruthlessly uprooted people. The tumultuous journey and penury of plantations wiped out the sense of caste and creed from them, merging them into a single Hindu community.

`There you can be a Christian, yet worship Lord Krishna,' says Mr. Dabydeen. `There's no animosity between religions.

Mr. Dabydeen was describing the oddities of the society into which he was born and raised till migrating to England with his parents at the age of 15. "Guyana could be a model of what India should be in future. How people could co-exist without hurting faiths..."

But, social tensions do exist there. There is tension between Black people and Indians. `Black people have a collective hatred for Indians who were brought in to defeat their demand for fair wages. It is lying dormant in the psyche.' At the same time, educated Black people adore Mahatma Gandhi, who motivated Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. There are even Hindus among the Black people, says Mr. Dabydeen. "The tension between Blacks and Indians is more economical, than anything else."

Guyana became independent in 1966, but the military rule that followed continued till 1992. "They did not kill many people, not much bloodshed, unlike all over Latin America. But all the key people were killed. In 1992, the Indian majority party won the elections. The People's Progressive Party with a Marxist outlook, is still in power."

Mr. Dabydeen's first book, `Slave Song,' was published in 1984. A collection of poems, it won the Commonwealth Poetry Prize and the Quiller-Couch Prize. `Coolie Odyssey,' another poetry collection, was short listed for the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. His first novel, `The Intended,' (1991) won the Guyana Prize for Literature and was short-listed for the Mail on Sunday/ John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.

Other works include `Disappearance,' (1993), the story of a Black Guyanese engineer who arrives in an English village to save its crumbling cliff side. But `The Counting House,' (1996), seems to be closest to his heart. It tells the story of a young Indian couple who had fled India to escape communal violence during the 1830s. He was in Fort Kochi on the way to Hyderabad to receive the Raja Rao Award for Literature instituted by Samvad Foundation for writers who have outstanding contribution towards the literature of the South Asian Diaspora.

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