Writers don't often get recognised for their craft. But on May 25, novelist Rabindranath Maharaj received the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha (SDMS) Indian Arrival Day Award for his work. The annual award ceremony and dinner was held at the Crowne Plaza, Wrightson Road, Port-of-Spain. Maharaj's award was overdue. The Trinidad-born Maharaj has been a fiction writer for the last 25 years and has eight published books on his shelf. His novels and short stories are set in Trinidad and Canada. Maharaj prefers short stories though, because they are "easier to write." They include: The Book of Ifs and Buts-nine stories that mainly deal with the experiences of ethnically Indian Trinidadian men who have immigrated to Canada. And The Interloper-stories highlighting the whirlwind of emotions felt by many immigrants who left their homelands in search of a better life.
Receiving the accolade for his contributions, he says, points toward a greater recognition for local writers in the future. "Writers always feel a bit of more satisfaction to be recognised by their home countries, because it's there that really shaped you as a writer and gave you the material with which to write your early books," he said. "I went to Rio Claro Hindu and Robert Village Hindu schools, so getting the award from the SDMS was a good feeling. "The fact that they decided to recognise a writer is also significant." Although Maharaj, 57, has only just been rewarded for his work in T&T, he's been hailed for his talents in Canada, where he has lived for the past 20 years. He's received the City of Toronto Book Award (2011) and the Trillium Book Award (2010) for his novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy. The novel, which references comic books and superheroes throughout, tells the touching story of a 17-year-old Trinidadian boy named Samuel who is sent to live with his father in Canada after his mother died. Samuel then embarks on a quest to find himself and explore what Toronto has to offer. Librarian Debbie Jacob is a fan of the novel and of Maharaj's writing.
Jacob, also a T&T Guardian columnist, describes Maharaj as "my favourite writer of his generation." "His ability to capture the whole structure and feel of a comic in a novel form is just brilliant. I have followed his stuff from the beginning," she said. "The way that he captures the experience that most of us have in the world who are struggling with more than one culture is brilliant. Other writers have done that admirably well too, but it's always the feeling that it's a Trinidadian trying to deal with his 'Trinidadianess,' whereas Rabindranath makes it a universal experience. "Anybody from any culture who has made his home in another place can relate to it."
Several of Maharaj's books have also been short-listed for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize (Canada and Caribbean region), and the Chapters/Books in Canada First Novel Award. Secretary general of the SDMS Satnarayan Maharaj told the T&T Guardian that his organisation was happy to award Maharaj, as he was "one of the best writers of the English language coming out of T&T." He added, "He has written a number of books and the Canadian critics have described him as the VS Naipaul of Canada. We thought a writer with such recognition should also be recognised in his native land."
While Maharaj, the founding editor of the Canadian literary journal Lichen, acknowledges steps are being taken to recognise writers for their hard work, he says more needs to be done to encourage young writers to realise their full potential. He's doing his part to help. Maharaj hosted a creative writing workshop at the Bocas Lit Fest, which took place at the National Library in Port-of-Spain in April. The festival is the brainchild of Marina Salandy-Brown and featured 70 celebrated writers and speakers from the region and around the world. "I was pleasantly surprised that there was an organisation promoting writing which actually gained corporate sponsorship. That's quite substantial," Maharaj said. "The main reason I left Trinidad was to pursue this profession. We don't have the infrastructure to take young writers' work and transform it into publishable material." He believes the time has come for citizens to "change their mindsets" towards writing and literature. "Trinidad is an oral society, where people tell stories, so when people write a story it doesn't seem to be anything special. People tend to feel that they can hear the same story in the rumshop or street corner," he said, jokingly. "I'm not sure that people in authority like writers too much either. Maybe it's because they tend to remove the curtain...But writers should be honest and put aside their pride to write."
Maharaj always knew he would become a writer-even though his parents told him he should follow in his father's footsteps and become a school principal. Maharaj taught English for a while at Rio Claro Senior Comprehensive and is now a part-time creative-writing lecturer at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Today, Maharaj, the father of three, has "absolutely no regrets." Always working on honing his skills, he says his next project is an exciting one. He is the creative mind behind the upcoming film Crabman and Sandboy, which will be directed by Trinidadian actor Errol Sitahal. It will be shot in Mayaro, and Maharaj says it will be a narrative that represents the rich history of Trinidad.