Voices of Working Class West Indians is a literary callaloo, a showcase of Caribbean political history, with more than a whimsical and comedic underbelly. University of the West Indies lecturer Dr Jerome Teelucksingh remains an unorthodox novelist, bereft of the aesthetics and the hackneyed frills that labour the most promising tales. Maybe Teelucksingh will not flatter the creative writing connoisseur, but time and time again, he has proven that his cadence, almost staccato-like, ably captures West Indian life with all its fanciful twists, peculiarities, nakedness and unpredictability. As a naturalist, Teelucksingh is fast becoming a marquis narrator.
Voices of working class West Indians triumphs in its historical resourcefulness. Story after story, a collection of 13 classics, ably links key moments in the islands’ past. The author joyrides from island to island, presenting an island people of varying struggles, political ambitions and shortcomings. To an outsider, politicking on the island is uncanny, even abstruse. Here, the stakes are high, and the actors, hardly political dilettantes, are engulfed in suspicions, insecurity and mistrust. They well express their needs, but engage in brazen partisanship. They are savvy, promulgating the right to assemble and to strike.
But their articulations implode under the weight of sophistry, declamations, self-righteousness and clannishness. Time and time again, the spectre of racial politics rears its head, delivered with a dark humour that is annoyingly tantalising. In Voices from St Lucia, the protagonists Ramjohn and Mahadeo are furious that their friend Sunil, an Indian Christian does not belong to the “Indian” political party.
Says Ramjohn: “Allyuh Indians who is Christians tink dat allyuh better dan we. All dem missionaries came and brainwash yuh ancestors. “Allyuh feel all yuh is ah set as big sawatee. Ah sure for de cricket matches at the Oval yuh does support de West Indies team and not India or Pakistan.” Clearly, a withering verbal assault that raises perennial questions on race and nationality. And in Politics in Guyana, Cheddi Jagan’s supporters predict a resounding electoral victory, adding, “We did it in 1957 and 1961, and when we finish wit dem Negroes...dey go boil dong like bhagi.” Dogma and racial politics pollute the well intentioned. On the one hand, 19th century Hosay celebrations are seen as a unifying event where Hindus, Muslims and Negroes participate, according to Dookeriam in Education in Belize.
But minutes later, he advises his daughter: “Yuh need to be controversial. Start talking about how we Indians facing discrimination. Blame another race or religion for de problems...criticise other people and religion. The media love dat.” In The Protest, one antagonist questions the love affair between unionists and Cuban revolutionaries. “If dey try to march and strike in Cuba dat same Castro who they adore would ah lock de tail up for donkey years, even kill dem.” But Teelucksingh changes gears handsomely, mollifying the angst of racial politics, replacing it with vintage West Indian jocularity and bucolic splendour. Miss Phillips, the protagonist in Never Dirty is bacchanalia embodied. A Grenadian hairdresser with an unbridled larynx, she counsels a client on how best to rid his hair of lice. “Ah usually recommend aloes but your case different. For a week you have to use Breeze, Clorox or Skip soap powder. If dat not working den sprinkle some rat poison on your hair in de morning. De louses go eat it and dead.” The rest of the narrative spews hilarity.
Again, in the gritty tale, Education in Belize, a wistful father imparts Indian culture and history to Sunita, his daughter. Reflecting on Trinidad’s lukewarm relationship with VS Naipaul, he argues that the Nobel Prize winner is unappreciated by his countrymen. Tongue in cheek, he offers: “Sunita, you have to understand that Trinidadians have more important things to do. Dey have to spend every minute of the whole year planning fetes, parties, liming in de rumshop, making Carnival costumes, rehearsing steelband songs, planning protests, organising political parties. Dey very busy. “If dey have to honour you...is after yuh dead.” In Another Jamaican, colour, class, caste and racial identity collide with a severity, lightened only by the characters’ flights of fancy. In the end, Voices of Working Class West Indians proves a veritable tour de force—austere, but equally buoyant. It is a gem of a narration–a rare, avant-garde fusion of history, biting social commentary and definitive island humour.
• Voices of Working Class West Indians Jerome Teelucksingh ISBN
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