Mahadai Das’ Connection to Ancestry and Land

The literature of Mahadai Das shares common themes with Singh’s, including those of ethnicity, class, gender, indentureship, nationalism, and land. However, Das’ literary oeuvre is more substantial and her poetry is more developed, displaying complex metaphors, providing sustained engagements with the mechanisms of colonialism and exhibiting careful attention to craft. Moreover, she offers broader conceptualizations of indentureship history, working-class experience, and Guyanese land. These divergences may be the result of differences in educational experiences, generation, domestic realities, and the varied roles each woman held within the GNS. As director of cultural activities and as a wife and mother of six, Singh’s professional and personal responsibilities may have disallowed her the time and space to develop her literary craft. Das may have also benefitted from a PNC policy supported by Singh to pay writers to compose socialist literature; after all, Das’ first collection, I Want to Be a Poetess of My People (1977), was issued by the GNS. Additionally, migration to the USA, where she received a Master’s degree from Columbia University and was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, contributed to Das’ growth into a recognized Caribbean poet. She composed three volumes of poetry: My Finer Steel Will Grow (1982), Bones (1988), and A Leaf in His Ear: Selected Poems (2010), which was published posthumously. Departing from the socialist activism of her early work, these later collections center on the suffering female body and a fractured sense of Indian identity. They signal her disenchantment with the PNC, which was becoming increasingly hostile to its opposition. She joined the multiracial Working People’s Alliance (WPA) in the late 1970s.

The first poem from I Want to Be a Poetess of My People, “They Came in Ships,” indicates Das’ mission to insert Indians and women into Guyanese historical narratives. The fourth stanza highlights the heterogeneous composition of indentured immigrants:

All alike, they came—

The dancing girls,

Rajput soldiers—tall and proud

Escaping the penalty of their pride.

The stolen wives—afraid and despondent.

All alike,

Crossing dark waters.

Brahmin and Chamar alike (Das 1977, 1)

The form of the poem mimics the movement of the twin sails of a ship and emphasizes its content: the movement of Indians into the Caribbean. By listings Indians from various social categories—caste, class, and gender— Das destabilizes monolithic, fixed images of the unlearned, low-caste, poor indentured laborer. Her description of women as “dancing girls” and “stolen wives” also disrupts myths of Indian female migrants as being sexually promiscuous, an image employed by colonial officials to rationalize the problems caused by the disproportionate number of female to male laborers. The poem underscores the perilous situation in which this ratio placed Indian women: “Remember one-third quota/Coolie woman/Was your blood spilled so that I might reject my history” (Das 1977, 2).

In contrast to Singh, who gains legitimacy through the indentured woman’s labor and reproductive agency, Das accesses indentureship’s collective memory through her indentured male ancestor:

Today, I remember my forefather’s gaunted gaze.

My mind’s eye sweeps o’er my children of yesterday

My children of tomorrow.

The piracy of innocence.

The loss of light in their eyes. (Das 1977, 1)

While women’s contributions are acknowledged (line 48 states “My grandmother worked in the fields”), the speaker imagines the hardships of indentureship through the “forefather’s gaunted gaze,” a connection that allows her to view with her own “mind’s eye” her “children of yesterday” and her “children of tomorrow” (Das 1977, 1). Das transcends gender and class limitations, claiming the authority to speak for and represent Indo-Guyanese people in general and women in particular as a poet and

PNC party member. While it may seem problematic for her to speak for disenfranchised groups given her educated middle-class status, her lived experience growing up in a peasant family, in which she cared for her nine siblings after her mother’s death, contributed to her understanding of working-class struggles and indentureship history.6

Throughout the poem, Das gains poetic voice and the authority to claim history from male figures. For instance, she references male revolutionaries who resisted slavery (Cuffy, Akkarra, and John Smith) and indentureship (Beaumont, Des Voeux, and Crosby), linking the two histories of domination. Additionally, like the men who championed the plight of the indentures, Das attempts to employ her poetry to give voice to the nameless, “whimpering” coolies, emphasizing how the voice of the Indian indentured had remained, for the most part, unacknowledged in world history in the poet’s present. Das’ reliance on male power may seem to problematize the feminist perspective of her art. Critics Letizia Gramaglia and Joseph Jackson assert: “[Das’] strongly nationalist commitment to a political system that was markedly exploitative of both women and landscape remains incongruous with the ecofeminist stance of her poetry” (Gramaglia and 2013, 129). They go on to say, “[b]y depicting a feminized and fertile Caribbean landscape, Das skirts close to the trap of patriarchal binaries” (Gramaglia and Jackson 2013, 130). In response, I argue that the contentious relationship between gender and power that underlies Das’ work reflects the conflicted position women occupied in the public sphere at the time. Her reliance on male figures of power is the result of an atmosphere where overt displays of female agency may have been read as divisive to ethnic and nationalist agendas. Read in this context, Das’ claiming of poetic authority and highlighting of gender become courageous acts of feminist empowerment.

In “Does Anyone Hear the Song of the River Wending Its Way Through the Jungle?”, Das shifts focus from indentureship to a perception of Guyanese history and identity based on a working-class consciousness. In an initial reading, the poem’s opening phrase, “Make me the poetess of my people,” may suggest that the poet desires to speak for Indians; however, as the poem advances, it becomes apparent that “my people” refers to all working-class Guyanese, regardless of ethnicity or gender (Das 1977, 15). Moreover, the poet presents a broad vision of the Guyanese landscape. Although rice and cane fields are emphasized in references to “Knee-deep paddy-fields” and “acres of cane,” Das also focuses on the interior by pointing to individuals whose livelihoods require them to inhabit the land: the hunter, the logger, the porkknocker, and the cane-cutter (Das 1977, 15-16). Through the poem’s focus on this range of occupations and its linking of Guyana’s seemingly distinct regions, Das creates a more universal vision of the working people’s claim to Guyanese territory than other Indo-Caribbean writers, like Singh, who often focus on spaces of East Indian settlement. Das’ involvement in GNS projects aimed at further integrating Amerindians and the hinterland into the nation, such as a venture in Kimbia that attempted to revive cotton production in the interior, may have impacted her broad poetic vision of Guyanese land and people. Das’ silence on the impact of such projects on the rights and livelihood of Amerindian peoples remains troubling.7

Employing feminine metaphors to depict land, Das suggests gender grants her authority to access unknown histories:

These same gentle waters have diluted the blood of unnamed heroes—

Can tell its tales of quiet suffering never quilled on paper memories [...]

Can tell of childless logies at the edge of fertility,

Nigga-yards barren of one single beat of a drum. (Das 1977, 15)

Similar to the image of the whimpering coolies seen “They Came in Ships,” here, the haunting reference to “unnamed heroes” emphasizes individuals who fought against colonial oppression, such as women, who are invisible in official versions of history. Additionally, Das inverts the dominant trope of woman as land to assert the power of the environment itself and the female poet’s ability to hear the “tales of quiet suffering” encapsulated in the earth.

Making use of gendered metaphors and irony, she juxtaposes the barracks that remain “childless” and “barren of one single beat of a drum” to the fertile cane fields (Das 1977, 15). The absence of the beat of a drum, a symbol of fertility, represents sterility. The poem suggests that the fields mock the workers’ condition since their work allows the cane to reproduce and flourish, but the fatigue that results might make laborers impotent or hinder intimacy. The “childless” barracks can also be read as a metaphor of female agency in which Indian women refused to reproduce laborers for a system that exploited them and their children.

Similarly to “They Came in Ships,” the feminist impulse of this poem is disguised by emphasis on various male subjects who work the land; however, a closer analysis of stanza four reveals that women are also a central concern:

In the full breast of the forest, there lives a hunter, his

wife, his sons, ... his daughters. (Das 1977, 16)

Here, it may appear that women gain value through their relationship with a man. However, careful attention to the syntax of these lines suggests otherwise. In the second and third lines of this verse, the poet purposely separates the possessive adjective “his” from “wife” with a line break that disrupts male ownership of the female body. In addition, ellipsis set apart the word “daughters,” a strategy that further acknowledges the presence of women.

The most powerful treatment of gender in the poem occurs at the very beginning where Das affirms that she is a poetess, in sharp distinction to a poet. Written at a time when Caribbean male poets are more visible than their female counterparts, Das’ assertion is an important claiming of literary space for Caribbean women writers. Furthermore, this first line answers the question that the poem’s title poses, by suggesting through a gendered identification, the female poet can read and record the trauma of the landscape.

In their claiming of literary authority, Singh and Das redefine traditional images of Indian women as bearers of cultural heritage, which often demands adherence to firm prescriptions of womanhood, by suggesting that Indo-Guyanese women must create and disseminate knowledge about Indo-Guyanese history through oral and written forms. Posing a challenge to essentialist concepts of identity, they present Indo-Guyanese culture and feminism as rooted in indentureship. Additionally, in their poetry and in their positions as national leaders, they unsettle myths of Indian women as housewives and economic beneficiaries of capitalism.

In varied ways, Das and Singh gain literary voice and claim Guyanese land by connecting to indentured ancestors and employing gendered metaphors to represent landscape. Whereas Singh primarily focuses on the indentured woman as laborer and mother, devoting an entire poem to this figure, Das represents a wider range of women’s images as indentured migrants and workers, as wives and as daughters, situating female experiences in poems that offer broad perspectives on working-class nationalism and indentureship history (through references to particular events and figures and through depictions of the multiple spaces of indentured life: ships, plantations, and barracks). Moreover, Singh suggests that women connect with Guyanese soil through reproduction, linking the earth’s fertility to women’s reproductive agency. In contrast, Das seems to reject female reproduction and suggests that she connects to the earth through recognition of the trauma it has endured. These diverse approaches may be the result of generational differences. In some ways, Singh’s focus on women is more outright which may be the result of the experience and sense of self-assurance that comes with age. Singh worked in politics and other sections of public life for a longer period than Das. Already established as an artistic and civic leader, her stature may have given her the confidence to compose an entire piece on an Indian woman and to focus on gender and ethnicity in ways that may not have seemed possible for Das. Since previous generations had already excavated the indentured woman to some extent, Das may not have viewed this task as urgent. Consequently, Das presents a more nuanced engagement with gender that emphasizes her own struggle to claim authority as a young female writer and leader. Her choice to not emphasize women’s reproduction may reflect a rejection of traditional gender roles. These differences indicate that women experience gender identity and gender-based oppression differently based on generation, class, religious affiliation, educational background, marital status, family choices, and other differences.

My chapter has traced cross-generational Indo-Guyanese feminist genealogies, illustrating how Indo-Guyanese feminist thought has developed as part of and in response to ethnic and nationalist affiliations. Singh and Das find creative ways to enact female agency within private and public spaces as they struggle to negotiate multiple identities. They employ subversive poetic techniques to navigate tensions between ethnicity and nation and cultural and political activism, to establish a cross-class consciousness based on socialism, and to critique the seemingly liberatory politics of nationalist discourses. My research has brought to light the omission of important feminist concerns from the work of these women: the existence of and challenges in forging cross-ethnic feminist coalitions, the negotiating of multiethnic identities, the prevalence of domestic violence against Indian women, and engagements with women’s and nonheteronormative sexualities. Many of these issues have been taken up in the literature of contemporary Indo-Guyanese novelists, including Janice Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation, Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow is Another Day, and Ryhaan Shah’s A Silent Life, and in the work of Indo-Caribbean feminist groups within the Caribbean and in the diaspora. For example, in various ways, two New York City-based organizations, the Jahajee Sisters and the Rajkumari Cultural Center (established by Singh’s children), continue to build on the tradition of

Indo-Guyanese feminism established by Singh and Das.8 Nevertheless, these gaps demonstrate the need for further archival and primary research on Indo-Caribbean feminist thought and activism, primarily in the Guyanese context.

 
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