Arts & Entertainment

Living the dream knowing a wake-up tap wonít come


By Bernard Heydom

Itís been a year since my wife and I moved (retired) to the shores of Lake Erie in Norfolk County Ė a region almost unheard of by metro Toronto dwellers. We were amongst them and only discovered this place accidentally through a retired friend. It was in the early fall last year that I first saw the brilliant sunrises through the fields in our backyard and heard the hundreds of birds chatting in the trees overhead.

For us, itís been almost like a dream Ė too good to be true. At times I feel that someone will soon tap me sharply on my shoulder and say, "Hey! Heydorn Ė the game is up! You donít deserve to be happy. No one does. Man is born to wuk, suffer and die. Life is a valley of tears. You are an imposter!"

Weíve had our sad moments Ė such as the death of our dog Kane in the spring but overall I feel that time and tide have been on our side. Itís nice to have the time to do the things you enjoy doing and to watch the tide come and go along the beach.

We have been lucky to have health, family, friends, and just enough to get by. We had a lot to be thankful for at the recent Thanksgiving. Life is simple (if that is possible), reminding me of areas of rural Guyana in the old days when I was a child. I go to bed early and rise early. I wake up at night to gaze at the canopy of brilliant stars. I love to watch sunrise.

"I spend my time by enjoying nature around me through all the seasons"

Weíve had a constant stream of visitors over the summer. Inevitably they ask the same questions Ė Are you lonely? How do you spend your time? Who are your friends? Donít you miss the city, the malls, the shopping, restaurants, the culture and people? Are there any Guyanese or West Indians in your neck of the woods?

Yes Ė it can get somewhat lonely in the winter, especially if you are housebound. Itís not unusual to see some seniors going to their front windows religiously at 8:00 a.m. in the morning and again at 3:00 p.m. to watch the school bus load and unload a few kids Ė the highlight of their day. If the school bus does not run, these folks can feel quite lost.

I spend my time by enjoying nature around me through all the seasons. I take long walks along the beach and through woodland. I take bike rides, garden, chore, lawn bowl, dance, listen to music, drive my Spitfire sports car along windswept country roads, join local naturalist groups and organizations in their activities, read, research, write, watch a little T.V., and sip some wine. I think perhaps I live a decadent lifestyle devoid of charitable good works and thatís why I expect the tap on my shoulder. My wife says I think too much.

Friends are few but true Ė the neighbours, the dogs, the birds and animals, visitors who drop by to check on us.

I donít miss the city at all. I still get nightmares of being woken up by the go-train before light, rushing to get dressed, to go down to work in the bowels of the city, and coming back in the evening brain dead. The stress, the noise, the rat race, the impatient crowds are not among my favourite memories. Give me the quiet life.

There is culture in the countryside albeit different from the city. Folks here look out for each other. They are also not averse to owning guns and taking pot shots at bird and beast. I do some shooting too but only with my camera. Sometimes it does get wild in the country at a hoedown, country fair or game hunt.

I donít know of West Indians here except the migrant workers who make an annual trek from the Caribbean to work on the farms in the summer. I am perhaps a pioneer, not for the first time in my life. Some of my relatives gave us a year to stay here. I think we have beaten the odds and proved them wrong. If the sun still shines and the creeks donít rise, Iíll be talking to you.



'Lantern' casts light on Indo-Caribbean women

Lakshmi Persaud, Raise the Lanterns High, London, Blackamber Books, 2004, ISBN 1-901969-20-7.

A review by Frank Birbalsingh

Raise the Lanterns High is the authorís fourth novel; it follows Butterfly in the Wind (1990), Sastra (1993), and For the Love of my Name (1999), and suggests that Trinidadian Lakshmi Persaud is the most productive novelist among a group of contemporary, Indo-Caribbean women writers that includes Ramabai Espinet and Shani Mootoo from Trinidad and Tobago, and Oonya Kempadoo and Narmala Shewcharan from Guyana. Her earlier novels reveal Ms. Persaudís skill in evoking idyllic, Indo-Caribbean rusticity, her penchant for gothic romance, and mastery of political and economic analysis; but while her fourth novel relies on some of these skills, it introduces a more ambitious narrative that blends an account of Hindu marriage rituals with a dream-like invocation of other Hindu conventions in nineteenth century India, and a more contemporary polemic that advocates liberation for women from sexist customs and traditions.

Lanterns opens in 1955 with a dramatic, if shocking scene of voyeurism in which the narrator, a twelve year old school girl, Vasti Nadir, uses binoculars to observe the rape of another school girl in a sugar cane field. Although Vasti cannot make out the identity either of the rapist or his victim, she detects the rapistís ring which has an eagle with a scroll engraved on its back. Since the cover of the novel reveals crucial elements of the plot, it gives nothing away to say that this clue helps the narrator, years later, after she has returned with her degree from university studies in Britain, to identify the rapist as the very man chosen by her family, according to traditional, Hindu rites, to be her husband.

Vastiís ensuing dilemma forms the first part of the twofold plot of the novel: whether she should marry her chosen fiancť, Karan Walli, a medical doctor, despite what she knows about him, or whether she should cancel the elaborate wedding plans, and give offence both to her own family and the family of her intended husband. The second part of the plot dramatises theoretical issues that underlie Vastiís dilemma through the evocation of scenes from the nineteenth century Indian kingdom of Jyotika, and discussion of the Hindu custom of suttee which required wives to immolate themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands, during their cremation. The two parts of the plot are united, for example, by their discussion of Hindu conventions, and by scenes from India in which Indian characters are shown, ready to take the plunge, and venture overseas as indentured labourers, after they suffer disappointment or misfortune at home.

The novelís chief theme - sexism - is broached by Vasti, early on, when she suggests to her older sister Pushpa that, in conventional Hindu marriage, the wife becomes: "a decorated house servant. A household slave. Nothing more." This idea of womenís victimisation or oppression grows upon Vasti as she reflects on examples of sexism in other cultures, for example, in ancient Peru where it was the custom to sacrifice young Inca women to the gods; and she wonders about the source of the belief that renders: "females less worthy than males". As narrator, Vasti admits that what she calls "biology" may be one source, but another is: "the denial to women of the martial tradition of power, choice and control." Queen Meena, one of the wives of Paresh, King of Jyotika, also observes that a wifeís existence is engineered to serve her husbandís, and asks: "Is this ordained by God or by men?" This, surely, is the fundamental question: whether unequal sexual roles, between male and female, are "biological", in the sense that they are dictated by natural, physiological differences between men and women, or whether they are imposed by man-made rules of social convention. The trouble is that the question becomes difficult when we consider the intimate, historical encoding of perceived inequalities between men and women, not only in secular conventions but also in religious texts, the world over.

Toward the end of the novel, however, again in discussion with Pushpa, Vasti declares it is not the ancient Hindu texts that are to blame for womenís victimisation: "Considering how old these [marriage] vows are, we must blame the interpreters of our sacred texts for the low position that women have been forced into." The result is that after much introspection, discussion and self-questioning, Vasti agrees to marry Dr. Karan Walli, but only after she makes some changes to the prescribed, time-honoured vows of Hindu marriage. Vasti deletes rules such as: "the bridegroomís need to assist her parents if hard times befall them" in an obvious attempt to update the rules without altering their basic aim of offering practical guidelines for a successful marriage.

In the end, though, rather than condemn old traditions, the novel seems to act as a diplomatic arbiter between old and new. Some contemporary feminists might wish Vasti to take a stronger stand against her future husband, but Lanterns is pervaded by a tone of sweet reasonableness that discourages any hint of stridency. Not that Vastiís stand, or the authorís, for that matter, is unrealistic or fantastical. The author acknowledges, for instance, the existence of a corrupt court, politicians, middle-ranking officers and clerics in the Kingdom of Jyotika. But the title of the novel advertises ideals which Vashti describes as: "our lanterns in the dark", and suggests that: "we need to raise them high on the roads engineered by men." Thus, while the novel makes an open-and-shut case for womenís liberation, what remains in the readerís mind is the authorís formidable powers of research, her concrete record of the preparations, negotiations and rituals in a Hindu marriage, her brilliant re-creation of the suspense, adventure and intrigue of an Indian princely state, nearly two hundred years ago, and her solid documentation of Indo-Caribbean womenís experience in the middle of the twentieth century.