Funny as hell
By Ayanna Gillian Lloyd
The Ten Days Executive and Other Stories, by Rhoda Bharath
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845232931, 180 pp)
Anyone who has read Rhoda Bharath’s satirical political blog, The Eternal Pantomime, or been on the receiving end of her barbs on Facebook over one political issue or another, knows she is funny as hell. Not just “ha ha” funny, but possessing a keen, ironic wit that she wields to expose issues of corruption and political foolishness that seem to be the order of the day in Trinidad and Tobago. The Ten Days Executive, her debut short story collection, is not just a funny book, however. While it manages to reveal the follies of the society her characters inhabit — with impeccable comedic timing — the collection as a whole gives us individuals broken by a space suffering from deep-seated issues of race and class divisions, seemingly hopeless relationships between men and women, and a corrupt political elite that leaves ordinary citizens floundering to make their way with whatever tools they have at their disposal.
Part of the success of these stories is born out of Bharath’s ability to “see” — not just to look at or exist in the society around her. She has often spoken about being on a “Split Level”, the title of one of her stories. She is mixed-race (Indian and African) and mixed island (one parent from Trinidad and one from Tobago), and as a result she is part of her country’s fractured discourse on race relations, but somehow excluded from it; some strange anomaly that in fact is not strange at all. The result is a book that is by turns comical and tragic, with stories that take us from laughing out loud at the selves we recognise in her characters, to soberly quieting down and nodding, “Yes, yes, that is us, in truth” — and, in rare instances, wanting to close the book and turn away from the starkness of her portrayals. Bharath’s debut book illuminates an urban, racially mixed, classist, unequal society with characters who do their best to live their lives in this transient state.
“The Ten Days Executive”, the book’s opening and title story, really sets the tone. It gives us the modern, urban Trinidad of mobile phones, political Facebook memes, and CEPEP (government make-work) gangs, where real people have no choice but to try to manoeuvre around systems that make no sense — a kind of mas-playing upon which survival depends. The convenient religious conversion of Basil, the story’s main character, makes any reader familiar with this space chuckle, while you shake your head in solemn recognition.
“Before I Dead” is, in parts, riveting. Bharath really shines when she gets right up close to her protagonists and lets them speak in their own voices, with little to no intrusion. This story of casual violence and its consequences in schools manages to capture the matter-of-fact way violence has become a reality of young people, without feeling moralising and pedantic. We hear the main character explain the difference between killing with a knife and a gun:
With a knife now, is you they does respect, because knife is skill. You could stab a man and make as little damage as a scratch or you could kill him . . . Guns good to kill fellas you ain’t really know or care about; but knife is for more personal things.
Immediately we wander into territory that is tricky underfoot. We are drawn into the cold and efficient logic of a boy for whom killing is a matter of skill, and at the same time we are horrified by his rationalisation.
Many of the stories in The Ten Days Executive — such as “Circles and Lines”, “Sweet Hand”, and “Redemption” — feature female protagonists who seem to be at the mercy of men who can’t commit, won’t commit, or commit conveniently. Some of the male characters struggle with unemployment or breaking or broken marriages, and have grandiose dreams for themselves that never really materialise. It is usually the women in their lives who are the victims of their broken selves. Sometimes they even get their own back. But I felt a little adrift wondering about the interior lives of these women who seem to be often at the mercy of men in their relationships. What else is happening with women in the worlds that are being created here? Even when they are empowered or take back their power in these broken relationships, I was left wondering: is this all there is for the women in these stories? Must they always struggle between being perpetual victims, or victims that eventually find some qualified triumph? I wanted a bit more from a writer who seems perfectly capable of giving her male characters more complex interior lives.
Having said this, Bharath’s stories of girls and women dealing with incest, sexual abuse, infidelity, and mental illness are nuanced and told with great sensitivity. There are no winners here, no epic victories for these women. All they can do is survive, keep going, and find what peace they can, when there is no protection for women and girls except what they manage to wrest for themselves. In “Action Reaction” Bharath takes the reader into the mental wilderness of Cheryl and gives us no clear moral compass with which to navigate. Here, madness is beautifully told. Cheryl tells her story of rape, neglect, and murder with no filter between her thoughts and the reader. “Breast Pocket” gives us the only glimpse of a sweet, even if qualified, redemption. Again, there is no neatly packaged healing, but Bharath’s light touch manages to create some payoff for the reader, giving us a man and a woman who work together to heal their marriage in the wake of her history of sexual abuse.
I appreciated that there was no neat story about happy, harmonious race relations in this collection. While some families certainly do live peaceably, and there is genuine love across racial lines, as in “Split Level” and “Gaps”, there is always a keen awareness of how race, class, and social difference colour the everyday lives of these characters. Their relationships cannot escape them, and the stories are richer for it.
The opening paragraph of the final story, “Calendar of Events”, cuts to the heart of the main character in Bharath’s book — the island nation in which all her stories are set. Isabella is unmistakably Trinidad and Tobago, with all its flaws, idiosyncrasies, and complexities:
Isabella has always been an island of transshipment . . . the convenient port of call between the myth of El Dorado and the hard truth of the metropolis. In fact, Isabella become used to the role of loyal side chick. Always there. Always willing. Always able. On the surface, cheerful and carefree. Hiding the insecurities and bitterness that such transient attentions nurture.
This is a fitting allegory for so many of the women in these stories. Whether they are wives or mistresses, victims or getting their own back after victimisation, they seem caught in this web, forever dodging, getting over, or navigating the attentions and abuses of men. “Calendar of Events” is a triumph, an extrapolation and fictionalisation of actual news stories, blog posts, and rumours over the last few years in real-life Trinidad and Tobago. Bharath illuminates the “real” people behind these events and connects them in a dirty complex web of deceit and corruption. From high-powered businessmen to bumbling politicians, from clever reporters to cunning socialites, from opportunistic hustlers to shadowy crime bosses, “Calendar of Events” shows that in Isabella, as in Trinidad and Tobago, truth is stranger than fiction — and if you sit back and observe, the stories write themselves.
In many ways, The Ten Days Executive is really talking to us, the people who inhabit Isabella, the people who recognise it and have business with it. Bharath has successfully joined the growing ranks of Trinidadian fiction writers who are tackling the reality of contemporary Trinidad and Tobago. It’s about time.
The Caribbean Review of Books, August 2016
Ayanna Gillian Lloyd is a fiction and creative non-fiction writer from Trinidad and Tobago. Her work has been published in The Caribbean Writer and shortlisted for the Small Axe Literary Competition and the Wasafiri New Writing Prize. She has also been featured in the Bocas Lit Fest “Who’s Next?” segment in 2014 and 2015. She is a consulting fiction editor for Moko magazine and a 2016 Callaloo Writing Workshop Fellow.