Trinidad is paradise
By Melissa Richards
Like Heaven, by Niala Maharaj
(Hutchinson, ISBN 0-09-179656-3, 347 pp)
Niala Maharaj’s first novel is boldly, exuberantly Trinidadian. Writing of his own literary beginnings, V.S. Naipaul once noted that when the English or French writer of his age began to write, he did so against a background of knowledge, writing about a world that was more or less explained. Maharaj writes with the confidence of a writer whose world has been explained, and who expects the society she describes to be recognised and understood.
Like Heaven incorporates sex, race, and politics, corruption, murder, and intrigue, in what our narrator would have us believe is a true story. The novel is the story of Ved Saran, the youngest son of an East Indian family from the Croissee, whose father’s illness forces him into the family business at a young age. Probably not coincidentally, Ved is the son of Ganesh Biswais Saran, who has previously made a spectacular failure of the business. The antithesis of his father — and of Naipaul’s Mohun Biswas — everything Ved touches turns to gold. The business is wildly successful, and the family is made wealthy in the process. There begin Ved’s adventures, which include domestic violence, abortion, marriage, divorce, false prosecution, and death. A considerable part of the novel is taken up with recounting his triumphs, but he ultimately reveals his first-person narrative to be primarily motivated by the desire to take revenge against the forces that have intruded on the personal and professional idyll he creates.
Maharaj, who was a respected Trinidadian journalist, but who has lived in Europe for almost twenty years, creates a diverse and believable portrait of Trinidadian society — from Carnival and the culture of the panyard to the interplay of race and politics. Like Heaven is set in a place where race is always simmering at the bottom of things, from politics to personal relationships, and where easy, almost incidental racism is commonplace. The setting that her characters inhabit is fixed and recognisable — they have lunch at the Breakfast Shed and wait for medical care at the Port of Spain General Hospital. Familiar characters pop up, bearing a striking resemblance to well-known people in Trinidad society.
Maharaj proves herself adept at describing the multiple worlds that Ved inhabits, from the shop in the Croissee which is the original heart of the family’s business interests to the family home with its mix of traditional values and upward mobility. And she eschews the vague fictionalised Caribbean landscape favoured by authors nervous of alienating a readership outside the region. Neither she, nor her narrator, is shy of communicating their passion for a place where, for example:
You can squelch into mangroves with the teenage boys at full moon and come back with a crocus bag full of big blue crabs, or help the fishermen pull in their nets at dawn and get as much fish as you want in return. You can collect dasheen leaves and make a wonderful soup with crab and coconut milk . . . You can drink the water in which the fishermen boil little black barnacles they scrape from rocky outcroppings, and get a hard-on when you want a hard-on. You can drink the water in which fishermen’s wives boil soursop leaves, sleep like a stone, and forget you had a hard-on. You can drink milk in which sea moss has been boiled and claim you always have a hard-on.
Perhaps the only criticism that can be levelled against her in this regard is that, in a narrative structured to show how darker forces intrude on the idyll that Ved has created, his Trinidad is too idealised. Of course, Maharaj may be doing no more than representing the way that many Trinidadians see themselves, giving Ved that not uncommon characteristic, a combination of political indifference and a romanticised sense of place in which political disarray is irrelevant to the truth of the society. Even so, the Trinidad Ved describes to us in the early part of the novel occasionally veers close to that naïve, idealised depiction in which — to quote an old tourism slogan — “Trinidad is nice; Trinidad is a paradise.” It is one in which life is filled with an infinite number of avenues through which he can express his creativity, in which business ventures succeed with little business thought, and in which, more often than not, events deteriorate into a kind of good-natured bacchanal.
Witness Ved’s description of the events that follow a cricket match at the Oval attended by Saran’s Symphonia steelband:
The Australian players kept waving their arms at Symphonia, taunting them to play. There was only one response possible. Symphonia struck up. And the Croissee girls never let an opportunity to wine go to waste, so they joined the Australians. Charlo disappeared from the members’ stand and the next thing I saw was the Australian players wearing Saran’s t-shirts, which Charlo had swapped for their winning cricket bats. “Go West Indies!” they chanted, pointing away from the cricket field . . . At about five thirty, I was back at the store when I heard the sound of a disturbance on the Eastern Main Road . . . An immense traffic jam was building up. We heard the thrill of steel band. Symphonia was coming down the Main Road, still playing, which was against the law except on Carnival days. At the front of the huge crowd was the Australian cricket team, their arms wrapped around the Croissee girls.
There may be some truth to this portrayal of Trinidadian society, but Maharaj is often guilty of overkill. The cumulative effect can only be described as corny.
If this is also sometimes true of the characters that she creates, Maharaj can at other times prove herself to be amazingly adept. Ved’s mother is a vivid, recognisable Trinidadian type, a “character” in the Trinidadian sense of the word, a woman so preoccupied with her children’s nutrition that it is said a pigeon pea pod will not enter her house unless it has dew on it, that vegetables do not cross her doorstep if they are more than a few hours off the stem. This is a woman who, we are told, picks rice in the way some women knit.
Even characters who are not fully drawn can very effectively be brought to life. This is true of Ved’s sisters, who are little more than caricatures, but who live in their interaction within the family unit. The author convincingly captures the dynamics of a large extended family and the machinations and manipulations that are part of it.
Interestingly, she is best when representing tension or conflict. She beautifully captures the petty jealousies that arise when Ved brings his new wife, Anji, to the family home. Similarly, the novel is at its strongest when that marriage begins to disintegrate. Maharaj is able to capture the steady drip of external forces that will eventually cause the relationship to break down. She is less successful when it comes to Ved and Anji’s courtship and the beginning of their marriage. Indeed, until it begins to deteriorate, the portrayal of the relationship is so overly sentimentalised that it is at times cringe-worthy. Maharaj would have done well to spare us her description of their honeymoon, for example.
Ironically, given how convincingly she is able to create the life that swirls around him, one of the novel’s failings is that Maharaj never quite succeeds in making Ved likeable, perhaps having failed to take into account the effect of having a first-person narrator describe his own virtues. Ved regales us with tales of his financial success, his commitment to his employees, his good looks, his appeal to women. His only weakness, we are encouraged to believe, is a certain indecisiveness when it comes to settling upon the best way to take advantage of his considerable gifts. Significantly, he feigns indifference to money — he is apparently conflicted because circumstances have led him into business rather than a profession — but spends much of the narrative relaying stories of his financial success, and the unspecified difficulties he endures because of his wealth. Even for the most sympathetic reader, this poor-little-rich-boy routine quickly wears thin.
He claims to feel responsible for every misfortune which befalls those connected to him — the accidental death of an employee at a company picnic at Lopinot, for example — but this does more to convince us of his over-inflated sense of his own importance than of his compassion. And the impassioned speeches he delivers to Anji, both about the difficulty of life in Trinidad and about his troubled relationship with his mother, are never entirely convincing, largely because they appear both inconsistent and self-serving.
There are similar difficulties with regard to the character’s attitude to women and to race. Ved is arguably both sexist and racist. Maharaj does to some extent use Anji to challenge these attitudes, but the narrator manages to circumvent this by portraying the young Anji as guilty of naïve overreaction, born in part of her ignorance of other aspects of his life. Ultimately, there are emotional scenes in which a weeping Anji apologises. Yet Anji’s criticism that he has had sexual relations with a variety of black women but then married the nice Indian girl who is acceptable to his parents is an accurate reflection of the facts of the narrative, and when it is suggested to him that “black people can’t do business” he thinks of the African Charlo and Mikey. “They didn’t save a cent. I never knew where their money went, although they were handsomely paid.”
While his attitudes are perhaps consistent with the character as constructed within Trinidadian society, they do not endear him to the reader, and are at odds with what he appears to believe about himself and what he would have us believe about him. Nor is it clear to what extent our author wants us question the reliability of our narrator.
It is perhaps worth commenting on Maharaj’s treatment of race in the novel. Ved meets Charlo, the African band leader in the mas camp behind his family home, and Charlo becomes his spiritual father, the inspiration behind many of Ved’s creative endeavours. Mikey, the leader of the Saran Symphonia pan-side, is a similar symbol of a type of indigenous creativity. Both play important roles in Ved’s life, and while neither is portrayed as feckless, it is worth asking whether to some extent Maharaj’s characterisation reinforces unhelpful racial stereotypes — the industrious business-savvy East Indian, as opposed to the creative, carefree African. The novel never satisfactorily deals with Ved’s perception of race. Nor is the fact that his most important friendship is with an African character incompatible with his acceptance of such stereotypes.
This is a shame, given how meticulously Maharaj constructs Ved’s character. Indeed, so detailed is her construction of the elements which will affect the denouement that the novel does feel slightly unbalanced. Although the pace picks up in the final third, when the things Ved cares about come under threat, at times the narrative drags in Maharaj’s attempts to build tension. But our author ends with one particularly clever trick likely to pique the interest of the Trinidadian reader in particular. A half-dozen pages from the end, there is the somewhat gratuitous appearance of a young Trinidadian journalist by the name of Niala Maharaj.
It adds little to the plot, and the appearance of a character that shares the name and other distinguishing features with the author is one of those elements which gets novels assigned in postmodern fiction classes. In this case, though, our author has created a setting that is so convincing that it is almost enough to get us to take Ved at his word, and perhaps turn back to the beginning for a second reading to see who we might recognise in this true story.
Melissa Richards was born in Trinidad and studied English at the University of the West Indies and at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She has been a journalist and newspaper columnist. She lives in New York, where she works at The New Press.