July 4, 2012 issue

Book Review

Jamaican family life, social relations pour out in 'Cascade'
Author Barbara Lalla holding her novel, Cascade

Barbara Lalla, Cascade, Kingston, Jamaica, University of the West Indies Press, 2010, pp.299. ISBN 978- 976-640-233-4

A review by Frank Birbalsingh
Cascade is the second novel of Barbara Lalla who, since 1976, left her native Jamaica for Trinidad where she is Professor Emerita of Language and Literature in the Department of Liberal Arts, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Like her first novel Arch of Fire, (1998) Cascade studies Jamaican family and social relations, but with special emphasis on perils of ageing in conditions of crime, violence and insecurity in post-colonial Jamaica. While the main action of Cascade unfolds in Jamaica, characters who engage with others in Trinidad and even Canada give the impression that issues of ageing are common worldwide nowadays.
In Cascade three main characters - Rosemarie (Rummy) and a married couple Ellie and Dan, all Jamaican seniors - shun life in their crime-infested capital city of Kingston for a guest house which is owned by their friend Ivy and being converted into a home for the elderly in the hills of rural Jamaica. Although Ellie and Dan move to Trinidad to be with their daughter Rachel and her Trinidadian family, contact is maintained throughout with the Jamaican guest house in Cascade through accounts from multiple narrators including not only Ellie, Rosemarie, Dan and Ivy, but also from a host of relatives, servants, care givers and other associates.
As we might expect, voices of different narrators create multi-faceted versions of events and characters, although so many voices in the novel - twelve - sometimes test our alertness as readers, especially in the case of narrators who are minor characters with concerns of their own. Still, we do not lose track of the main story of "elder rights" of protagonists being threatened, partly by dementia that is part of the normal process of ageing, and partly by the machinations of family members or care givers who take advantage of their physical decline and mental frailty. Not that elder abuse is new, but the author's exposé of it is timely because of the recent spectacular increase in the life-span of populations in most countries, leading to the emergence of a universal care-giving industry that is today more institutionalised and therefore more open to organised abuse of elders.
In Cascade the plan for Ivy's guest house as a refuge for the elderly relies on care-giving services from Rosemarie who has nursing and administrative experience in a hospital in the US; but the plan is transformed into a more commercialised one of a sleek resort with luxurious accommodation for tourists at ground level while, according to Sibyl, resident seniors are confined in prison-like conditions upstairs: "Don't talk bout iron bar, Missis... is crime they say. Stupidness. Whoever hear bout crime inna country? Besides, they not trying to protect us, is jail they jailing us." To complicate matters the person who engineers this transformation of Cascade from guest house to tourist resort is Scotty Cunningham, Rosemarie's stepson who, along with his wife Pansy, gradually take over control from Rosemarie.
Although Ivy, Rosemarie, Ellie and Dan are brought up during the period of British colonialism in the Caribbean when human rights were restricted, they paradoxically display more humane and caring attitudes than Scotty and his associate Ashmead who belong to a younger, more selfish and calculating generation of "free" post-independence Jamaicans. As Rosemarie says of her stepson: "Scotty is like a animal with the whip cracking over his head...Scotty mad fe money, and is that send him to Ashmead in the first place."
Professor Lalla seems to make a clear, if ironic, distinction between the moral climate in colonial Jamaica, despite limits on political freedom during that period, and the grasping greed that seems to follow after independence. Yet, for all its post-colonial coarseness and commercialism, Professor Lalla who is either author or co-author of several academic studies of Jamaican creole, contrives a fictional portrait of Jamaica in Cascade that is at least partially redeemed by her magnificent command of Jamaican creole speech and dialogue. For Jamaican speech allows the author to deploy oral strategies that eloquently express the deepest thoughts and most profound feelings of her characters, and elicit the essential humanity of their resilience in coping with historical change.
Apart from the vocabulary, rhythms and cadences of its Jamaican speech, the dialogue in Cascade reflects a range of oral strategies, for example, the jokes of Basil whose motive seems to be nothing more than his irrepressible urge to provide comic relief. In one instance, water running down the hillside instinctively prompts him to ask: "Miss Petrona, what lie down inna bed an him bed always wet?" and then supplies the answer: "Ribba." Basil's pun on the word "bed" is not related to any activity or conversation he has with Petrona: it simply records his position as an underling (like Sibyl in a previous quotation) within the hierarchy of Jamaican class structure, and their shared acceptance of their fate. Basil addresses another joke to Ellie: "What make cow walk over hill, ma'am?" and again provides the answer: "cause him cyan't walk under it." While such jokes do not advance the action of the novel, they may heighten or relieve tension and help to produce a more rounded and complete portrait of Jamaica.
One of the most effective oral strategies in Cascade is the author's use of aphorisms or apophthegms drawn from resources of traditional Jamaican folk wisdom, for example, the delicious paradox of: "There are two tragedies in life, they say. One is not to get your heart's desire; the other is to get it," or the blatant sexism of: "Mankind nat to be hold in subjection to womanhood." The wonder is that such reflections can emerge from people who live daily under threat of violence from either police and gangs: "Bullet a rain – blam blam! Me' queeze under the divan. Yes, sah. Gunshat. 'Queeze me have fe 'queeze. Blam blam round me I smell de gunpowder inna de room."

 

Dr Ragbeer's treatise shows how Indian cultural values influenced Guyanese
"Dr. Mohan Ragbeer's 'The Indelible Red Stain' is a powerfully explosive adventure of kinship and historical overtures of the fragmentation of his country, Guyana. His crisp, witty and yet serious narrative style does not only make him a good story teller, but someone who evidently brings the readers to view the Marxist red stain that shrouded our people's social and cultural fraternity inherited from indentureship and slavery. Religious beliefs and practices were compromised, as much as their economic well being. And migration served as the release mechanism of neglect and oppression. Once you start reading Part I, you will certainly make time to complete Part II."
~Leonard Dabydeen ( author of Watching You, A Collection of Tetractys Poems [2012] ).

Mohan Ragbeer, The Indelible Red Stain, CreateSpace, 2011,
2 volumes, pp. 1390

A review by Ram Sahadeo
I have finally read Dr. Mohan Ragbeer's mini encyclopedia - The Indelible Red Stain - and can state unequivocally that it will be used repeatedly as a guide in furthering my knowledge about my country of birth [Guyana], the way people lived and the cultural values that guided our forebears during their most difficult years in a strange and harsh environment.
The book has made one strong point - that although there was racial harmony among the races prior to independence the races knew little or nothing about each other's culture.
It is one of the better descriptions of a concise history of Guyana (book 1, chapter 2) and of India (book 2, chapter 5).
Many will see the two volumes as an incomplete critical assessment of political personalities in the crucial 1960's and particularly the influence of cold war politics and the struggle for independence in another third world country. There has been and there will continue to be numerous books on the personalities, politics and history of Guyana but this one is unique and not because of the author's command of language and his inimitable literary style. It is detailed and pleasant to read, and introduces us to the values of the world's most ancient civilization with the arrival of citizens from India and their contribution to the development of the nation.
This incisive chronicle constantly refers to culture and history and the democracy practised in the Vedic civilization as expressed in the pages of the Ramayana and other epics. Guyanese were deluged with experiments of recent social/political systems known as Communism, Socialism, Capitalism, Feudalism and the impact of the cold war politics and Eurocentric values. They were taught and still believe that success meant accumulation of personal wealth even if it meant destruction of the very resources that we need for long term survival as a species as a whole.
The adventures of Hari whose parents came from India commands continuous reading. This colourful personality gives us a glimpse of the Vedic Saraswati civilization which can serve us whether we are in the deepest jungles of South America or the most industrialized complex societies of the West. The author's repeated reference to the epics, the Mahabharata (which includes the Bhagawad Gita), the Ramayana, the Vedas, and lessons that these have handed down over the centuries is not a trend that I have seen in any previous discussion of the detailed politics and history of the nation. In fact the point is brought home very vividly that had Dr. Jagan looked to the ancient proven values of the East instead of the most recent doctrine of Communism with no evidence of long term success, there would not have been the fears that resulted in a significant brain drain from Guyana.
While Dr. Ragbeer's scholarly and professional achievements listed on the back cover of his book gives us a glimpse of his life, he recognises that there are many who have achieved stellar success in all fields since they fled their native land. What many would not do, however, is credit some or all of that success to the childhood upbringing in a humble home where the religious epics of India were read to children by their parents each night before they go to bed - an experience that contributed to his survival in the remote jungles of then British Guiana.
Dr. Ragbeer brings our imagination alive as a young man for the first time in the forest allaying his fears by reciting the Hanuman Chaaleesa, and thinking of Rama and Seeta and then the Pandavas, all of whom found the forest a source of sustenance, hope and strength and not something to be afraid of. In fact it is where men go to find solace once they have given up family responsibilities at the appropriate stage in life.
The chosen path to progress in the country which sees the continued destruction of the forest there, and elsewhere, is a constant reminder that more is not necessarily better and that we have not been demonstrating that we understand nature and our oneness with it as revealed in the Vedas.
Our continued survival and success is inextricably linked to the cultural values handed down by our foreparents many of whom could neither read nor write. No longer are we questioning the relevance of these values but we still have to learn and then share this knowledge with all on this planet as our contribution to any country in which we live.
The evidence is now clear that the ancient Vedic empire was not destroyed by foreign hordes invading the country or changes in political masters with different ideologies but by dramatic climate change caused in part by human behaviour. Once again this possibility looms. With the threat of global warming today Dr. Ragbeer's literary masterpiece may also serve as a warning that our philosophical, religious, social, political and cultural values all have roots in the eternal natural way known as Sanatan Dharma and we should be keenly aware of its lessons.
The Indelible Red Stain however does not shy away from the themes of passionate romance and the importance of sex as a source of happiness in human relations. One can find within the approximately 1400 pages, intricate and graphic details of Hari's first love with a young prostitute whom he met in a bawdy house where she escapes the pangs of poverty and where she trained to meet the demands of her clients by practising poses described in the Kamasutra and Koka Shastra, books brought from India. Chapter 10 in Book 1 will be read again and again by those looking for a break from the conflict, intrigue and tragedy of political misadventures. The book has something that will be of lasting interest for every personality.
(The books are available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and major booksellers in North America, Europe, Japan, India, Australia and as e-book on Kindle; in Toronto, at A Different Book List on Bathurst St or through the author's email contact.)

 

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