By Ameena Gafoor
EDGAR MITTELHOLZER was born in a house owned by the Lutheran Church, on Main Street, New Amsterdam, on the sixteenth of December,1909.
Aldous Huxley, in his introduction to the 1934 edition of Alfred Mendes’s Pitch Lake offers a useful description of the composition of the Trinidad society at early twentieth century.
The panorama of the British Guianese society was not dissimilar when Edgar Mittelholzer composed Corentyne Thunder (first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode in 1941):
The population of the island is an extravagantly improbably hotch-potch of Negro, Hindu, Chinese and European. There are constant opportunities for the clash of conflicting traditions and ways of life, for endless permutations and combinations of race hatreds and contempts, of envies and sycophancies, of bullyings and inferiority complexes and pathetically swaggering over-compensations.
Even in an unmixed, European population, snobbery ranks among the strongest of the passions and the most powerful of motives. Imagine then, its power in a black, white, yellow and tan town like Port-of-Spain.
In his autobiography, A Swarthy Boy, Mittelholzer writes: “For my father, it was an occasion of momentous disappointment, I turned out to be a swarthy baby!” His grandfather, John Robert, a Lutheran pastor, was “definitely a man of colour. He had an olive complexion, and features that revealed his admixture; also, his hair, while not frizzy like a negro’s, was far too curly and dark to be entirely European”.
Most of the other relatives were “ghostly white”. Mittelholzer’s entire life and writings would be dominated by the angst he felt at his less than pure European blood.
Mittelholzer explains the prevailing prejudice: Relations with our immediate neighbours were cordial but, somehow, perpetually precarious.
The East Indian family to the west of us had been accepted into middle-class circles, for Mr. Edward Luckhoo was a solicitor – a legal man who, professionally, was on the same footing as that of Mr. Tyrer Egg on our east. But those were the days when only a very few East Indians had “emerged” from the plantation swarm of coolies – a people looked down upon socially by the whites and middle-class admixtures.
So even though we were friendly with the Luckhoos – and this continued until I was about fifteen or sixteen – there persisted among my aunts and my mother a continual whispering snobbism . . . My sister and I were made to feel that we could go over and play with the children, but that it must not be overdone. . . “After all, they’re not really our sort,” my mother might murmur. Or my aunt: “Those are people you can’t trust. They’re so secretive and cunning. Coolies! H’m!” With the Eggs relations were freer and more relaxed . . . . (A Swarthy Boy, 33)
Indeed, sad to relate, it was my own class – people of coloured admixture, of fair and olive complexions – who dispensed any colour snobbery that it was possible to dispense. It was my class that looked down upon the East Indian sugar plantation labourers (“coolies” we called them).
It was my class that considered the Portuguese social inferiors . . . We treated the Chinese sweet-sellers and shopkeepers with condescension . . . We even looked with a certain distinct aloofness upon the young Englishmen who came out to serve as sugar-plantation overseers. We deemed them “white riff-raff”. And as for the negroes, it goes without saying that they were serving people.
(155) Consciousness of race, class and colour were prime considerations in human relationships in colonial Guiana and it is not entirely surprising that Mittelholzer’s first novelistic effort was directed upon the “enigmatic” (East) Indians. In recounting the life of Ramgolall, the cow-minder in Corentyne Thunder, Mittelholzer offers a picture of peasant life in the colony – perhaps the earliest glimpse.
Ramgolall is portrayed as the stereotypical Indian who has served out his period of indentureship and now, at sixty-three years of age, is a cow-minder who lives with his two daughters, Beena and Kattree, in a tiny mud-house on the savannah of the Corentyne coast while hoarding his silver coins in a tin canister under his bed.
His thin, brown body, naked save for a loincloth, is set against the haunting savannah where “while they slept the wind trailed over the savannah like cool threads of silk, and the stars winked and wheeled in a pageant of slow fireworks”.
Ramgolall is depicted as a man who dilutes his milk with trench water “hardly ever having heard of disease germs and not being naturally clean in his habits” before knotting the coins away in his loincloth.
In this article, we shall concern ourselves with Mittelholzer’s portrayal of the Indian woman. The work offers a progression of images of the Indian woman, ranging from the stereotype of passive exploited victim to the prototype of a fully realized young woman.
Mittelholzer’s harshest portrait of the Indian woman is perhaps that of the illiterate and submissive Sosee, Ramgolall’s eldest daughter, mistress to the mulatto estate overseer, Big Man Weldon and mother of his seven children. Sosee is the stereotype of the Indian prostitute who has no civil rights within the family and whom Weldon treats notoriously.
Sosee displays many gold teeth and many gold rings, an image that intends to show the Indian woman as garish and uncultured while her home reveals the remnants of a European style of living: bright pictures cut from almanacs in gold and brown frames hanging on the walls, a cluttered sitting room with many brass jardinières where even the furniture smells of coconut oil.
Sosee, a vulnerable and frightened creature, is reduced to the status of a chattel with no mind of her own, rather like an estate mule and this is revealed through Weldon’s consciousness:
In the back of his mind he saw her only as a kind of slave – a healthy female slave whom he had brought into his house to satisfy his sexual needs and to reproduce his kind. Somehow, he never thought of the children as belonging partly to her.
He had always thought of them as being wholly his, as though he had taken them from his body as complete seeds and planted them in her in a fertile soil and then watched them sprout one after the other into virtual creatures that they now were. (94)
The figure of the sexually exploited Indian woman is familiar in the work and, again, the reflections of Big Man Weldon confirm this as he recognizes Beena in the light of his car’s headlamps:
Pretty little thing, he thought. If it had been long ago he would have stopped his car and asked her where she was going and tried to get her to meet him at some lonely spot in the evening . . . Many were the wild sprees they had had in this building . . . Many were the pretty East Indian girls they had brought here to be made love to and disputed over. It was thus that he had come to meet Sosee and eventually claimed her for his own. (93-5)
Let us now turn to the romantic relationship between Ramgolall’s youngest daughter, Kattree, and a mulatto youth, Geoffry Weldon, product of the mixed society. It is Kattree’s brief love affair with Geoffry Weldon during the August holidays and her growth to maturity that form the emotional centre of the work.
Kattree, of a “lighter brown [complexion], her eyes like the dark lowing of the cows in the after-glow of sunset, is not very pretty, but a dim mystery dwelt about her when she sat before the small mud furnace [fireside] to watch the pots boil. This was her beauty” to which Geoffry, a city youth, son of Sosee and Big Man Weldon, is attracted.
Kattree, with “a simple faith in the world”, offers Geoffry a less restrained way of life than the one he had been conditioned to. Indeed, the unschooled peasant girl never even tries to understand her lover’s idealistic outpourings; she is simply content to love and to be loved.
On the other hand, Kattree’s simplicity emphasizes Geoffry’s sense of psychic division: “Your sort of life is the sort of life I want deep in me, but, of course, my ambitions and artistic longings upset everything . . . I’d begin to dream of the cultured world beyond all this savannah and water, of London and symphony concerts . . . “(187). Then, he confides in her, “One of these days I’m going to commit suicide and people will wonder why” (189).
An unbridgeable gulf exists between rich and poor, between fair-skinned and brown-skinned people at this point of the evolution of the society and this picture is further complicated by the fact of cross relationships,
The relationship between Kattree and Geoffry is destined to end in rejection and solitariness for Kattree who is now with child, but it is in solitariness that she finds her sense of individuality and this saves her from dejection and bitterness when she and Geoffry part, as part they must.
These two characters belong to two very different worlds and it would have been an artistic flaw to have them expect marriage to each other.
One part of Geoffry longs for the serene life of the peasants and the open, almost mystic savannah while, at the same time, he longs for the western world to which his European sensibility has led him to aspire.
Similarly, Kattree is attracted to Geoffry for the freedom and enlightenment that his way of life offers which she hopes to find fulfilled in her expected son: “. . . to send him to school everyday so that when he was grown up he would be able to read and write and talk well like his father” (212).
This is the synthesis between passion and intellect, between the peasant world and the European world, towards which the work moves, however much Mittelholzer appears to have missed or ignored the cultural complexity of the Indian peasant in his rather superficial casting, given the limitations of his class and of the time.
Corentyne Thunder opens with a sense of belonging, a sense of rootedness in the land, a portrait of psyche and landscape melding into oneness.
The old cow-minder, for all his miserliness, is in harmony with the sights and sounds of nature: “he opened his eyes and looked around him, and though everything still lay cloaked in dark, he knew it was dawn . . . Ramgolall felt the blood of life afresh within his veins. This was a new day” (16).
For all its stereotypical characterizations of Indians, the work leaves us with a positive image, the first possibility of an independent Indian Caribbean woman in regional fiction, that of Kattree, almost like a pagan goddess of fertility, serene among the savannahs, transcending the prejudices of the polyglot society:
And still Kattree would not break the mystery of her calm silence. Her thoughts seem rigid like dream-incidents in time past. Her soul seemed poised at the middle point between the past and the future and troubled by the dark thunder of neither.
Walking with grace in her dirty clothes, she looked like a figure created by the magic of the savannah and the sunlight. She looked aloof from the good and evil of the earth, and yet a chattel to both. She looked serene like the far-reaching plain of stunted grass and earth (28).
It seems that Mittelholzer, at this early stage of writing, is already wrestling with his fractured sensibility and inherited contradictions in society while struggling for a moral perspective.
While it is hardly a surprise that the Guyana novel sprung up from among the middle-class, it is something of a coincidence that Mittelholzer (1909 – 1965), Jan Carew (b. 1920) and Wilson Harris (b. 1921) are all coloured middle-class men with roots in New Amsterdam, all trying to envisage an alternative society that is free of the ravages of colonialism.
(All references in this article are to the 1977 edition of the text, Caribbean Writer Series. This article may not be reproduced or stored in any form or fashion except for research purposes and may only be cited with reference to its author, Ameena Gafoor).
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