by Moses Nagamootoo. Peepal Tree Press, England: 2000. 139 pages
Review by Janet Alamelu Naidu
In Hendrees Cure, Moses Nagamootoo has blended fiction and documentary in the stories which reflect the Madrasi culture along the villages of Whim, Albion and Letter Kenny on the Corentyne Coast of Berbice, Guyana. The book is set in the village of Whim in the 1950s and 1960s. In recreating the experiences during this period, Moses Nagamootoo presents themes of friendship, love, marriage and separation in the daily lives of the villagers, primarily those who were fishermen, rice farmers and market traders.
The book contains 11 chapters, beginning with Koolain and Aplamma who were indentured laborers and among the minorities who came from Madras (now called Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu) in the early part of the twentieth century.
While the book begins with an insight of Nagas parents and their Madrasi ways, including praying at the Whim temple and their subsequent delight at the birth of their first child, Naga, it quickly establishes the roots that Madrasis were forming in their new place of settlement. At the heart of their lives centers their ancestral cultural and spiritual practices of pujas in their worship of Mother Kali. Nagas friend, Hendree, who was a devotee of Masta, the Madrasi God, was instrumental in keeping Naga conscious of his Madrasi culture. An orphan, Hendree learned at the Whim temple how to summon the deutas by singing Tamil and Telugu mantras.
Although Hendree is the main character, Nagamootoo introduces several characters as part of the fictional work in the form of short stories and, at the same time, traces the historical Madrasi experience in that post indentureship period. Indians were emerging as a new people whose cultural and religious heritage were important aspects of their survival under colonial rule. These characters, such as Aydoo, Chunoo and Gunraj, give an insight into the villagers lives, be it fishing with a hand-seine, selling at the market or even arranging someones marriage. However, amidst the pulse of the labor-intensive environment, Hendrees first love is the beat of the Madrasis tappu and he became a master drummer, playing at various functions, including at Matikor of the Hindu wedding celebration and at the Madrasi Kalimai pujas.
In the days of colonial power and the domination of the horseracing environment by the upper class, it is heart-warming to learn that Naga, an ordinary fisherman from Corentyne, made it to Georgetown with his winning horse Bright Steel and participated successfully in the horseracing event. When Naga tells them, Thoroughbreds dont cry, they run and die, one wonders about the struggles of the working class rice farmers and cane cutters who were the thoroughbreds of the turbulent 50s and 60s. Undoubtedly, the reader becomes conscious of the class struggles of this period.
While the Madrasis emerged as a unique group in the Corentyne, the book gives an insight into the relations that were harnessed among Hindus, Muslims and African villagers in a way that showed their common bonds of developing friendship, personal relations as well as their enterprises, be it growing rice, rearing cattle or fishing. Through these relationships, the author reminds us of village life that our parents and grandparents shared.
We are also reminded of the interpersonal relations among the villagers whose language and habit may seem strange today (particularly for those of us who have left Guyana for Europe, North America and elsewhere). However, the dialogue reminds us of the local language where communication is understood for its unpretentiousness and is still part of Guyanese ways of interaction. Speaking frankly in Creole, the characters revealed the transformation of their Indian ancestral heritage in a culturally creolized colonial environment.
I have read the book with much interest in the Madrasi culture, learning of the great Madriveeren, warrior god or Masta that Madrasis worship. By recreating these experiences of the villagers, the author takes one back in time to the days when roadside conversations and bottom house gatherings can extend beyond the need for night rest. It gives authenticity to Nagamootoos telling of the ordinary lives of the villagers whose Creole language at times brings back affectionate memories. In other instances, while the dialogue can be perceived as people being disrespectful towards each other, it clearly reflects the acceptable speech patterns of that time, and this form of communication may still persist among the people as part of Guyanese talk.
While there are numerous characters featured in the stories, from time to time, I wonder if their presence were a recollection of the villagers and part biographical, without their details. For example, Nagas mother supervised gangs of planters and their names are mentioned but they never appear in the story again. In another chapter, we are reminded of the early migration of Guyanese leaving for England to improve their education and return to serve Guyana. We learn of another character, Tilokie, who left Whim for England. We learn of his perception and experience as an immigrant and his return to Guyana as a qualified technologist.
While we know Nagas birth and that he died on the 100th year since his parents came to Guyana, we dont know such details of Hendree. But we know that Hendrees devotion to his Madrasi culture exposes Naga to his own ancestral heritage. Since Naga became a Christian, it is very likely that he was alienated from his own culture. Hendres cure is perhaps Nagas cure.
Nagamootoos style of fictionalizing the experiences of the villagers creates a biographical detachment in the form of storytelling, which, with its commanding Creole speech at times, offer eye-opening moments of the lives of a minority group. While the author has created some excellent stories in the various chapters and one is captivated by the characters, folklore and memorabilia, the novel can also be said to be a collection of short stories, some independent and yet inter-related.
Inspired by the story of his father who dropped white rum as a ritual to honor his late father (Nagamootoos late grandfather), the author has not only achieved his objectives in providing the historical realities of the Madrasis in the Corentyne village of Whim in a fictionalized way, but he has also given us a rare glimpse of the many ancestral stories that are often orally passed on but go unrecorded, whether in the form of poetry, documentation or fictionalization.
Hendrees Cure serves as an important part of Guyanese experiences and cultural preservation.
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