A Coat of Many Colors


From India Currents Magazine. July 2000.

SWEET LIKE SALTWATER. Stories by Raywat Deonandan. TSAR Publications, P.O. Box 6996, Station A, Toronto, Ontario M5W 1X7, Canada. 113 p. $15.95.

Sweet Like Saltwater is Raywat Deonandan's first book of fiction, and each short story in this volume is exquisitely crafted, as if the writer creates each line like a work of art, linking one line rhythmically to other lines, until the reader wants to read each paragraph out loud to an audience, like a Sanskrit shloka.

While Deonandan writes in English, we hear the music of many countries in the language he composes—he is of Indian ancestry, from Guyana, and he now lives in Toronto, a Canadian citizen. He is very aware of the complexity of his roots. In the introduction to this volume he writes: "The history of a people can indeed be imprinted into its children's blood, to be tasted by the subconscious in times of introspection, love and candor. And for we displaced Indian children of the Caribbean, as distant as our birth from that realm may seem, the taste of our blood's history is as sweet as the saltwater of that warm sea." This rich linguistic history has been well-recognized. Deonandan has won two Hart House prizes and a First Prize in the 1995 Canadian Author's Association National Student Short Story Contest.

Each story in this volume is distinctly different from every other story—whether he is writing about being Far from Family, or In Flight, or Motherland, the narrators and characters in each story honestly examine their origins, attempt to make sense of the environment they are living in, and often take imaginative, even ecstatic leaps across national borders in search of a cohesive, integrated self. This joyous rhythm is perhaps most clearly heard in a short story called The Rhymer, where the central characters are street poets who entertain their audiences with their great gifts of language. One such character is Arjazet, who enchants her audience with sophisticated storytelling: "Her face twisted in visual locution, seeming to redden and lengthen. A new voice erupted from the geologic fissure that had been her mouth … With stick-like animation, her whole body spoke the indirect story. Arjazet wove a fine and layered tapestry of symbol upon sign, calling forth the deepest subconscious hooks that lay buried beneath the human literary psyche." Any of us who have walked down the streets of a country where spoken words are still ancient poetic forms, where the human voice still entertains, uplifts, and is responded to by an audience that has the time to listen to these gifts and ponder, will recognize Arjazet, who might be dressed humbly but is still a princess in her own right.

And yet, not every experience of living across cultures is joyous, spontaneous, poetic. In the tale that ends this volume, Motherland, the narrator creates a twin brother, Raul, who keeps him company in his lonely struggle to understand why his native, brown, Caribbean country was replaced by white Canadian snow. As the narrator's family settles in Toronto, he works hard on reconciling his roots with what he sees and hears in the Canadian culture: "We settled in Toronto-the-Good where everyone got along famously because its unstated intolerance was not famous. My parents worked at hard laboring jobs for twelve hours each day, slept for four uncomfortable hours, and fought for the remaining eight." Cultural paradoxes are difficult for a child to understand: why did every White family on television live in a beautiful home, vacation in the Grand Canyon, while his own parents struggled to survive? Raul, the twin created in his imagination, remains brown, speaks his native language, and allows him to cope with the reality of being neither brown nor white. The narrator felt that visitors from his native land "adjust(ed) their accents" to sound more Western when he entered a room, that "white men stop their activities and adjust their behavior when I enter their environment because I look like a brown man."

This gifted storyteller has us explore the many colors that we have absorbed within us, from the countries of our birth, our travels, our connections with our friends and families from other cultures; through his fiction it becomes a little more possible to realize a multi-colored vision, create a coat of many colors through art.