Guyana books bring summer joys

By Oscar Wailoo

Oscar Wailoo
Oscar Wailoo

“At one magical instant in your early childhood, the page of a book – that string of confused, alien ciphers – shivered into meaning. Words spoke to you, gave up their secrets; at that moment, whole universes opened. You became, irrevocably, a reader.”

– Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading

I wish I could recall as well as Alberto Manguel my first experience with the written word. I may have been just as young, but I recall nothing like Manguel’s epiphany. But while we came from worlds apart, I too “became, irrevocably, a reader.”

Now well past my salad days, I’m glad I acquired the reading habit because it now grants me many glorious, contemplative hours during the lazy days of summer.

Breaking a habit, this summer’s reading was not recommended to me, instead two books were sent to me by their authors, Reuben Lachmansingh and Caribbean Camera’s very own, Shelagh Plunkett. Guyana is central to both works.

According to Lachmansingh, who was born in Guyana, and has lived many years in Guelph, A Dip at the Sangam was first conceived as an account of a journey to India to find his roots but ended up as his first novel.

The Sangam is the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and Saraswati rivers, three of India’s legendary and waterways. It is a holy place where pilgrims go for a cleansing dip of its waters. Raja Singh’s odyssey begins there in 1869 after being seized and shipped, together with thousands of others, to Demerara, British Guiana (BG), as contracted (read: forced) labour to replace the labour once performed by formerly enslaved Africans.

Through Raja’s life, which takes him from India to Demerara to India and back to Demerara, Lachmansingh gives us a sense of the inner workings of the crypto slavery system called indentureship. He does this by telling a sweeping Homeric tale located in 19th century British Guiana, peopled by Kwame, a dignified and compassionate former slave, Shankar, a rebellious scholar, shipped to BG like Raja, and Dutch, British agents and users of indentured labour.

One reviewer says about Sangam: “Against the backdrop of plantation life, the author, a master of innovative historical fiction, lures the reader into a world of intrigue, adventure, and romance.” That’s a fine and true description. I couldn’t have said it better.

While A Dip at the Sangam is set in 19th century BG, and covers the entire adult life of Raja, Shelagh Plunkett’s The Water Here Is Never Blue, is set in Guyana of the 1970s (the final one-third of the book is set in Indonesia). It is a memoire that covers barely two years from age 13 in the life of a Vancouver girl.

Plunkett travelled to Guyana, where her civil engineer father was posted to help develop water systems. The teenager, with little time to be acclimatized to a country miles away both literally and culturally from Vancouver, finds herself a new student at St. Rose’s, an all-girls Catholic school staffed by nuns. The contrast is stark: a blonde in a sea of brown faces in a tightly regimented school – a long way from her school in Vancouver, libertine by comparison.

Plunkett is a gifted raconteur with an eye for the social and political relations of a country just into its fifth year of independence. Her observations on life at school, the social relations among Guyanese, and the expatriate community are drawn sharply with a maturity that belies her age.

She is just as telling describing the verdant Guyana landscape made lush by Amazonian rainfall, carved out by miles and miles of rivers, and home to some of the most varied and interesting wildlife on the planet.

The writer gets to see places in Guyana, due to her father’s lofty position, that few Guyanese would see in a lifetime. And she does it with the touch of a seasoned novelist.

The Water Here Is Never Blue, read together with Lachmansingh’s A Dip at the Sangam, gives seldom seen glimpses of Guyana, and presented through the eyes of two fine storytellers. I couldn’t think of a better way to pass the cool autumn nights.

A Dip at the Sangam is available at A Different Booklist, 746 Bathurst St., Toronto, 416-538-0889. The Water Here is Never Blue is available through Penguin Canada. To read excerpts, visit Shelagh’s blog.