The Baptism of Soil: Rooplall Monar and the Aesthetics of the Kala Pani Modern

Article excerpt

   I long to fertilize your womb
   begetter of many sons
   to baptize you with brown soil
   staining my hands
   in the hour of twilight,
   the hour of creation

   I long to sacrifice that clay god
   and shape you in the likeness
   of my own god of the canefields and ricefields

   Rooplall Monar, excerpt from "Darling of the Rising Sun"
   (Koker 22-23)

Introduction

Rooplall Monar is a Guyanese writer who has published three short story collections--Estate People (1994), High House and Radio, Backdam People--a poetry collection, Koker, and a novel, Janjhat. With the exception of Koker, all of Monar's writing is either entirely in Guyanese Creole or, where the narration employs formal English, all the characters speak in what Josephine V. Arnold calls a "modified Creolese." (1) The commitment to telling these stories in Creole is twofold. It is a commitment to what Kamau Brathwaite has referred to as "nation language." (2) It is also a commitment to depicting in that language the material, cultural, and spiritual realities of Indo-Caribbean peoples, specifically the production of Indian belonging to the New World out of the indenture experience through which roughly a half a million Indians came to the region between 1838 and 1917. Monar's work thus chronicles both the labor experience of indentured workers and their eventual transition off the sugar plantations and into village communities. High House and Radio, for instance, is concerned with the same journey Monar himself made as a child from Lusignan Estate to the village of Annandale, both on the East Coast of Guyana. In the short story collection, the journey illustrates the broader struggle of indentured peoples to maintain Indian cultural values in the face of increasing integration into (Afro) Creole society. Collectively, Monar's work reveals the tension between history, diaspora, and nation that informs IndoCaribbean belonging: between what was to be a "temporary" stay based on initial indenture contracts of five years and the quotidian relationship to the material world of the colony through which Indians recreated their communities, histories and futures when faced with the difficulty and, for all but a quarter of the migrants, the impossibility of return to India.

The epigraph to this essay, taken from Koker, reflects Monar's consistent attempt in poetry and fiction to acknowledge what has been preserved of Indian cultures, while in no way endorsing them as dogmatic and unaltered. "Darling of the Rising Sun" and Koker as a whole offer the clearest lens for interpreting Monar's work as a negotiation of sorts. In his introduction to Koker, Jeremy Poynting has said of the titular poem that it demonstrates the "cultural tensions between ancestral voices and the difficult commitment to an Indo-Guyanese beginning ..." (Poynting). According to Poynting, "Monar writes out of a conflict between an ancestral consciousness which he can never really declare is dead, and an IndoGuyanese vision which he can never be sure has real roots." The work reflects, Poynting argues, the constant "limbo" between what has been lost of continental Indian culture and "the beginnings of a native tradition." However, what Poynting reads as a largely cultural tension, the poems also frame as both a physical and metaphysical struggle. They reflect a complex relationship to material labor which produces the intangible "meanings" through which material heritage is attached to a new cultural discourse of belonging. (3) "Darling of the Rising Sun," in particular, reveals Monar's conception of the shift from being Indian (prior to India's independence from Britain) to becoming Creole as a rebirth or baptism in "soil" (read labor) through which the gods of Indian history are re-envisioned as "my own god of canefields and ricefields": literally a divinity that is not across the ocean in orthodox Hinduism but the product of the workers hands as they shape a new way of being. …