(Clive Sankardayal, The Brown Curtains (Jako Books, New York, Toronto, Vieux Fort: 2005. 249p))
Guyanese fiction treating the East Indian ethos is now quite common, but it only truly emerged in the 1990s. The novels covering migration have been much more prevalent and earlier established, exploring this long-standing theme in various ways, sometimes excellently, often unobtrusively, and certainly including that rising corpus out of communities in Canada or the UK to which so many Guyanese have migrated. Almost non-existent, however, has been fiction focusing on intra-Caribbean migration.
Even rarer are novels concerned with all those issues within the same pages, despite a few outstanding examples combining treatment of some of them. Nothing has surpassed Harris's Carnival, which in its uniquely original way concerns migration to England, and which is also at the centre of Dabydeen's Disappearance and The Intended. Cyril Dabydeen and Arnold Itwaru have been prolific on the subject of the diaspora in Canada; Rooplall Monar has treated the East Indian traditions in Janjhat, while D'Aguiar's Dear Future and Harischandra Khemraj's Cosmic Dance reveal the horrors of the notorious seventies. Khemraj excellently combines his treatment of the unspeakable atrocities of that era with the issues of race, politics and the East Indian ethos.
One new novel has emerged, however, which stands somewhat alone in the way it has brought all those themes together in one drama, including the issue of Guyanese running off to work in the West Indian Islands.
The Brown Curtains (2006) by Clive Sandardayal is clearly not in the same league as Harris, D'Aguiar or David Dabydeen, and is somewhat limited in artistic achievement, but its importance is owed to the comfortable manner in which it deals with intra-Caribbean migration along with all these other issues. It adds to the growing store of fiction of that type, subtly revealing characteristics of the Burnham era and, with much over-projection, revealing characteristics of the East Indian sub-culture. Significantly, it creates a plot which makes those themes work in complicity with Guyanese migration in one very credible situation.
Guyana is the greatest exporter of trained professionals in the Caribbean. Although Guyanese believe that the University of Guyana is good for nothing, it is that institution that has produced the vast majority of these trained professionals. In turn, they have formed the backbone of the teaching services and a significant proportion of the medical services as well as other professional areas in several islands. Those graduates have been largely responsible for the success of CXC and Cape students in Antigua, the Bahamas, Grenada, Turks and Caicos Islands and St Lucia, among others. The contribution of medical doctors in St Lucia is significant.
Sankardayal's The Brown Curtains is built around four of these Guyanese graduates, all of Indian ancestry, three teachers and a pharmacist, who escaped from their contract in Guyana to work in St Lucia. These illegitimate 'escapes' have been a norm out of Guyana since the 1970s, especially in those years when the push factors were enlarged and complicated by the undemocratic dictator-style politics of the time, and the depressing economic situation. These war-time conditions included scarce and restricted foreign exchange, and drove many to engage in corruption, bribery, subterfuge and secrecy, which Sankardayal's tale manages to reflect. Alongside these he manages to capture the Guyanese Indian family situations, the importance of remittances, the life of the Guyanese immigrant community in St Lucia, as well as the cultural peculiarities and differences between Guyanese and St Lucians on the one hand, and Indian and Black Guyanese on the other.
But these highlights of the novel also become its bane, contributing significantly to its weaknesses. The author seems unable to control his obvious fascination with peculiar cultural traits and, in particular, the St Lucian language. This often interferes with the natural flow and rhythm of both narration and dialogue. This is obviously a semi-autobiographical first novel with many shortcomings of the type. The authorial obtrusiveness continues through his treatment of Indian lifestyles and customs, where they depart from those of black Guyanese and St Lucians, differences in religion and tradition among Hindus and Roman Catholics.
Sankardayal treats most of these in documentary fashion, in statements rather than art, listing rather than dramatizing, presenting quaint peculiarities for a tourist manual or notebook. Where he gets into the real techniques of fiction he exhibits a surprising mistrust of his readers. The devices are at times well deployed, but then killed off by over-repetition and because Sankardayal leaves nothing to chance. Not trusting his readers to pick them up unaided, he succumbs to a compulsion to explain what he is doing.
Yet there are saving graces. The main symbol, however hackneyed, is the brown curtains which represent barriers of race and tradition in need of tearing down. It is of note that the novel's sympathies lie with their removal, and that it is the younger generation of Indians from Guyana who are prepared to defy the fierce opposition of older family members to break with stale customs, racial divisions, bitterness and traditional prejudice.
The Brown Curtains is a novel that is prepared to give forthright treatment to race, ethnic divisions and prejudice. The ending is moving. An ageing Indian father sees traditional beliefs being wrenched from him and is pictured in the final paragraph in an emotionally wracking resignation and acceptance of change.