Of Friends, Victims and Strangers

by Barbara Mujica

from Americas,
(magazine of the Organization of American States)

December, 2000

Of Indian ancestry, Raywat Deonandan lived in Guyana as a child, then moved to Canada, where he currently lives. A descendant of the indentured servants that the British brought to the Caribbean nearly two hundred years ago, the author is painfully aware that after decades in the Americas, people of South Asian background often still feel out of place in the West. Speaking of others of his background, he writes that although they call themselves "Indians," they are, "in essence something new." They are "cultural hybrids of Indian, British, Portuguese, African, and Chinese influences, grasping for stronger connections to the homogenous societies left generations in the past."

The stories that comprise Sweet Like Saltwater re-create the various locales with which the author identifies and expresses a search for a sense of identity and belonging. Several of the stories combine elements of fantasy with harsh cultural realities. In "Children of the Melange," for example, a young boy named Ravi finds a sealed bottle off the coast of Guyana and uncorks it. Immediately, he is overcome by the ghost of a Dutchman and begins to babble in archaic Dutch as well as host of other exotic languages. Although a quick-thinking observer named Lal Bharat recaps the bottle and saves the boy, Ravi is no longer what he was. He is a cultural amalgam, an emblem of the mixture of Dutch, Indian, and other influences that make up his ethnic identity.

From this magical mythical beach in Guyana, the scene suddenly shifts to urban Toronto, where Ravi and his half-sister Sheila now reside. Sheila cleans public bathrooms for a living, sometimes picking up a man on the job. As she and the narrator reminisce about the "lands of coconut trees and warm salt water" of their youth, Sheila's sense of alienation grows increasingly intense. The sweet salt water is a symbol of "back home," a place removed temporally and spatially from her sordid present environment. But while Sheila seems to long for the past, the narrator feels comforted by the distance he has put between himself and a land he sees as given to calamities.

In "Motherland," Deonandan expresses his ambivalence about his dual identity by splitting his narrative into twins, each of which corresponds to a different aspect of the narrator's personality. Raul is the brown brother who died in the womb, yet continues to live in the motherland. The narrator is the white brother encased in a "brown sheath" who as a youth "wasn't burdened by the darkness of the unsophisticated Third World" and cared nothing about the motherland. In the night, Raul the narrator's other self calls to him, but with time the narrator learns to suppress that voice, to ignore the reality of his brown skin and Indian roots. He learns to fit in. His brownness becomes merely a "suntan." His behavior and way of thinking are white. And yet, they're not. Not entirely. He is neither one thing nor the other, but rather, a mixture. He cannot be Raul, but neither can he abandon Raul completely.

Not all of Deonandan's stories are concerned with ethnic identity. "The Rhymer" is the charming tale of a street poet named Bort, who ekes out a living composing rhymes for a few cents apiece. Highly respected among the local beggars, Bort takes pride in his work. That's why, when the storyteller Arjazet challenges him to a duel, he cannot refuse. Bort offers up a pert, rhythmic verse fo the occasion. However, when Arjazet steps forward to begin her tale, it is clear he has met his match. Arjazet is a consummate artist, and her delivery is perfect. Still, when the mediants vote, they give the prize to Bort, who is, after all, a friend and fixture in the neighborhood, while the storyteller is an outsider. Instead of huffing off mad Arjazet accepts defeat graciously, and the two artists agree to share a bowl of lentil soup.

In this tale and others, Deonandan celebrates the dignity of the common people. The Indians of his parents' generation often occupied the lowest stratum of society. They were largely domestics and laborers, men and women who toiled in an environment where the people were sometimes as hostile as the weather. Yet they maintained their self-respect, they worked hard, and they produced children who, in many cases, became middle-class and authentically Canadian.

Raywat Deonandan writes with insight and sensitivity about an often-overlooked minority scattered throughout the Americas. Like other writers of South Asian background such as Michael Ondaatje, Cyril Dabydeen, Sasenarine Persaud, and Zulfikar Ghose, Deonandan helps readers to understand the enormous cultural diversity of our hemisphere. Readers will find Sweet Like Saltwater not only highly entertaining but also highly imaginative.

Critic, novelist, and short story writer, Barbara Mujica is a professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown University. Her latest book, Frida, is scheduled for publication in November, by Overlook Press.