Counting house tolls bell

Tree Press has reissued three novels by Guyanese author David Dabydeen. In the
first of athree-part series,
Keith Jardim reviews The Counting House.

Keith Jardim

There’s a kind of flickering, Harold Sonny Ladoo-type of vulgarity in
David Dabydeen’s The Counting House; and while this is somewhat present in The
Intended, neither novel by Dabydeen has what some might consider the scatological
delights of the murdered novelist’s Yesterdays.

Ladoo’s title is worth mentioning, for in The Counting House, Dabydeen’s
purpose – one of them – is to show us the making of the West Indian East
Indians, the descendants of those who arrived on the Empire’s ships after
emancipation to slave on the plantations. At times, though it’s faint, you can
hear the Indian accent merging into the West Indian Guyanese.

The novel shows, too, the West Indian talent for the most obscene and
vicious cursing, one that has glittered across the centuries and is now
treasured (by some) for its ability to put our history on pause. You can see
Ladoo’s Yesterdays coming at you through Dabydeen’s work with such culturally
and racially divisive insults as, ‘“Gwan, you black-rass bitch,’ one man
threatened her, ‘casreep bubbling from your scunt and congregating flies. Go
wash yourself of stinkiness.”’

Despite this, there’s a fairy-tale type of story for the most part
running through the first half of The Counting House, not one that discredits
the experience, by any means, of Indentureship, but one that highlights the
wickedness of it and the fairy-tale both: their constant obsession with money
and power, young love, and the well-intentioned yet ultimately destructive
animadverts who, by the grace of their sanctified ignorance, hold sway over the
innocents until all is lost.

Vidia and Rohini are in love as
children (as far as this idea of fairy-tale, in poverty-laden early 1800s India
goes), but in Guiana, as married adults, things fall apart; they reel under the
demands of work and baby-making attempts, and the Afro-Guianese presence plays
a significant cultural impact in wounding, and nurturing, their lives. Add to
this the plantation owner Gladstone’s machinations and you have the classic
colonial situation: Massa, the African and Indian servants, their estate work,
and the petty rivalries – in short, the classic, defining dynamic of West
Indian society.

The novel is short and pungent,
showing the curse of slave work under the colonial system: how it destroys love,
friendship, self-respect, humanity – and yet: Dabydeen shows how human beings
will survive in ways they never imagined. But what’s the cost? The belief
always seems to be that life might get better; and regardless those early
fairy-tale dreams becoming compromised, and the characters settling for less,
the dreams never die completely (well, not until the love dies; not until
people die), so our Romeo and Juliette continue to live in hope, no matter how
pathetic and warped it is. And the behaviour that comes to define friendship
and marriage in these conditions is one based on rivalries and jealousies, the
foundation still, alas, for the politics of the region, and the development of
greed and many other possible corruptions.

It’s interesting that Dabydeen
rarely presents Gladstone (who was an actual person); when we see him, we see
him through the minds of Rohini, Vidia, Miriam (his African mistress, among
other things), and Kampta. One of the wicked, Kampta is the most admirable
character in the novel; he aspires to kill, to change things, if only to get
his dignity back. Wisely, he does not carry out these actions: the history of
British response to revolts in Guiana is extremely severe and bloody, and he
knows it.

The stories the Afro-Caribbean
slaves tell the East Indians of British brutality to uprisings seem an
effective deterrent in the Kampta’s plans for rebellion. So what Kampta does,
mostly, is dream of another life, one with the Amerindians, for which he’s labelled
a coward. But the life on the plantation harbours the kind of soul/character
destroying grief that creates a masochistic-sadistic cycle that he can’t resist
after he has been immersed in it for a certain time. He wants to stay around
and see who will live and who will die. There are friendships he has, never
mind the hate that defines them, that are difficult to leave. These are the
things that have made him, and he knows it.

And here’s the British view,
Gladstone’s really, of Kampta before a district magistrate and about to be
punished: ‘“Through birth and rearing in the colony he has taken on nigger
values to add to his Madrasi instincts for troublesomeness; he is indolent,
thievish and cunning, and seeks the company of lewd and faithless Creole women
in preference to the sobriety of a settled relationship. He has no sense of the
rights of ownership and in stealing from his fellow coolies – a crime to which
he is habituated – he creates a web of accusation and counter-accusation among
them, which is detrimental to the welfare of the Plantation. The loss of his
property causes acute distress to a coolie. It will provoke the most docile of
them to the kinds of barbarism that breaks out in India randomly and for no
apparent reason other than the conditioning of centuries which no English effort
can reverse.’”

The Counting House tolls a bell for
the future of West Indian society; it says to me – especially when you consider
the recent events in Trinidad politics, if one can use such a word to define
what surely became under Manning’s PNM administration the official acceptance,
and encouragement, of a booming crime industry and the destruction of much of
the island’s ecosystem for financial gain – it says, politics is an impossible
situation through which to address Trinidad’s many problems: no one in right
mind who cares about the island will enter into the present “political”
situation as is: to do so is to reveal your real character – barbarian, pirate,
Gladstone wannabe, vengeful Kampta, one desiring simply power and financial
gain. Apart from the newly elected government of Kamla Persad-Bissesser and
independent senators who weren’t bought during the Manning Plantation Decade,
most West Indian politics remains nothing more than a corrupting plantation
exercise, as vile as any scene in Ladoo’s novel, Yesterdays. The solution
appears to call for something momentous, historic and, unfortunately, brutal.

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