Difficult to divorce literature of Guyanese of Indian ancestry from Guyanese history

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THE final lecture in the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) wrapped up with a presentation by Guyanese writer Petamber Persaud at the National Library last Friday.

“It is difficult to divorce the literature of Guyanese of Indian ancestry from the whole gamut of Guyanese History…”, Persaud offered. Chairman of the proceedings, Dr. Prem Misir, in his introduction of the guest speaker, pointed out that it is not Indian Arrival but rather Arrival Month that was celebrated, he stressed the importance of acknowledging other peoples who came to Guyana and their roles of resistance to slavery, without which he said “We would not have had arrivals.” Misir also mentioned the significance of remembering historical points which played a massive role in a holistic way.
In his presentation entitled ‘An outline of the Imaginative Literature of Guyanese of Indian Ancestry’, Persaud stressed the importance of taking pride in our achievements as part of the whole Guyanese identity and also as Guyanese of Indian ancestry. “We must bear in mind, Guyanese literature is still in its formative years and the contribution of every writer is important to the whole, to the overall development of Guyanese literature,” he noted.
He informed the audience about the genesis of East Indian writing by mentioning an anthology of works. He revealed that the first writings on Guyana were done by European explorers, colonisers, missionaries and administrators which lasted well into the 20th century. Even the first novels on the Indian experience were written by non-Indian non-Guyanese namely, Edward Jenkin’s Lutchmee and Dilloo (1877) and A. R. F. Webber’s Those that be in Bondage: A Tale of Indian Indentures and Sunlit Western Waters, (1917). Other publications on the immigrants experience included Rev. Pearson’s The New Overseer’s Manual’ (1890), Rev. MacKay’s Under the Southern Cross (1904) and Edward Jenkins’ The Coolie: His Rights and Wrongs (1872).

It was highlighted that the first writings by Indian immigrants were the letters sent back home to India and the replies, none of which Persaud mentioned, have survived.
“Those letters” he said “would have added significantly to the better understanding of our ancestors.”

Many contributors to early literature in Guyana were also recognised, among them, Joseph Ruhomon who was born in Guyana in 1873 and came to prominence as a journalist and lecturer. Ruhomon was a pioneer and pacesetter on many fronts, gaining honours like ‘the first modern Indian intellectual in British Guiana’, ‘a littérateur of outstanding ability’ and ‘thinker’.
The first Guyanese of Indian Ancestry to write a novel was Peter Kempadoo, who wrote the  book, Guiana Boy,  which was self-published in 1960 by a small press, New Literature (Publishing) Limited, founded by Kempadoo.

The 1960’s saw the emergence of women writing and a heightened period for Guyanese literature. Rajkumari Singh was part of the Guyana Writers’ Group which was very active and established herself as the first recognized East Indian woman writer in Guyana, pioneering and enhancing the slighted ‘coolie art forms’, and becoming the ‘surrogate cultural and artistic mother to younger writers and artists’. Other women writers of Indian ancestry were Mahadai Das, and Shana Yardan.

Apart from the writers themselves, the lecturer also paid homage to the bodies that contributed to the emergence of Literature from Guyanese of Indian Ancestry. Alluding to this, he said “we may include organisations like the British Guiana East Indian Association, 1916, The East Indian Young Men’s Society (EIYMS), 1919, The Corentyne Literary & Debating Society, 1937, The British Guiana Dramatic Society, 1936. Coming out of the British Guiana East Indian Association was the journal Indian Opinion which was a platform for the Indian voice. There were other platforms for the Indian voice like the column called ‘Indian Intelligence’ in the Sunday Chronicle edited by Peter Ruhomon during the 1930s and his brother Joseph Ruhomon who was the editor of THE PEOPLE, a  Berbice newspaper founded by Rev. H. J. Shirley who was a radical English Congregational Minister.”

In closing, Persaud applauded the works of more contemporary Guyanese writers of Indian Ancestry like Professor David Dabydeen, winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Poetry and three-time winner of the Guyana Prize for Literature, Sasenarine Persaud, Cyril Dabydeen, Gokarran Sukhdeo, Harischandra Khemraj, Harry Naraine winner of the ‘Casa de las Americas’ literary prize, Janice Lo Shinebourne, Narmala Shewcharan, Oonya Kempadoo, Elly Niland, and Ryhaan Shah.

Persaud said “Guyanese literature is still young but is getting better each day, thanks to each member of the Guyanese family especially the writers from the Indian community who are making a significant impact on the literature of this country.”

This was the fourth lecture held in May, hosted by the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and the Indian Commemoration Trust, to celebrate the 172nd Anniversary of East Indians’ Arrival to Guyana.
Members of the audience included, Mr. Al Creighton, former Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Guyana, Professor Victor Ramraj and Ms. Elfrieda Bissember, curator of Castellani House.
The first lecture was delivered by President of GOPIO (Guyana Chapter) Dr. Yesu Persaud, which focused on the ‘Contributions of Indians to the development of the various countries they settled in’, followed by Dr. Prem Misir’s delivery on ‘the roles of East Indians in Guyana and Fiji’ and then ‘Indentureship system and the resistance in colonial Guyana’ by Mr. Tota Mangar.

Formed in 1989, GOPIO is a non partisan organisation engaged in promoting the well being of people of Indian origin, enhancing cooperation and communication between Indians living in different countries.