By FRANK BIRBALSINGH
Toronto, House of Anansi Press Inc.,2008
pp.398. ISBN 978- 0-88784-220-7.
Shani Mootoo’s third novel Valmiki’s Daughter confirms both her growing confidence as a novelist and her projection of a distinct voice that we recognise in writing by other Indo-Trinidadian women such as Lakshmi Persaud, Ramabai Espinet, Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming, Rajandaye Ramkissoon-Chen and Madeline Coopsammy. The writing of these women incorporates fresh attitudes and actions, new preferences and preoccupations, never before so candidly or forcefully expressed in West Indian literature. Preoccupation with sexual ambiguity, for example, especially among women, runs through much of Mootoo’s work, mainly in the form of suggestive or sinister hints which appear with greater frequency, although still suppressed, in several characters in Valmiki’s Daughter.
The principal character in the novel Valmiki Krishnu is an Indo-Trinidadian medical doctor who lives in San Fernando, South Trinidad, with his wife Devika, daughter Vashti and Vashti’s older sister Viveka who is a student at the local university. Valmiki who is bisexual had a torrid affair with a man in his own university student days, but submitted to the prevailing convention of heterosexual marriage and started a family.
Now, many years later, he neglects sexual relations with his wife in favour of an affair with an Afro-Trinidadian man Saul Joseph who also serves as his partner on hunting expeditions. As if all this is not scandalous enough, Valmiki seems to revel in his added reputation of sleeping with (white) female patients in his surgery. Not surprisingly, though, much of this hectic hedonism is concealed behind a false and fragile front either of ignorance from Valmiki’s daughters, cooperative silence from his wife and partners, or blatant connivance by his receptionist.
In contrast to her father’s flagrant indulgence, Viveka’s equally transgressive sexuality emerges more naturally as the surprising self-discovery of an adolescent girl. Hers is an altogether more sensitive and subtle portrait made all the more plausible by Viveka’s anxious awareness of signs of physical manliness in herself, for instance, her “well known affinity for sports and things mannish”(p.95), growing hesitation and doubt over her relationships with young men, her special feeling of being somehow inhabited by the spirit of her dead brother Anand, and her strange attraction to women, in particular to Anick the French wife of Nayan Prakash, a family friend who has just returned from studies in Canada. Viveka’s ensuing affair with Anick is the centre piece of the action which, after explicit sexual encounters between them, comes to a somewhat gloomy end when Anick’s pregnancy by her husband drives Viveka, like her father before her, to succumb to convention and get married – to Trevor, a male Trinidadian acquaintance.
If they appear excessive or indulgent the effect of these sexual high jinks, of both father and daughter, is neutralised by their tragic outcome: not only does Valmiki resolve to end his affair with Saul, but Viveka and Trevor are scarcely married before they admit that their union stands little chance of lasting for long. Also, almost from start to finish, the novel’s action is haunted by the baleful, brooding presence of Merle Bedi, Viveka’s erstwhile school friend, who drops out of high school for a life of vagrancy, begging and social ostracisation partly because of “the same craziness that had her loving within her own sex.” (p.94) But the sexual shenanigans in Valmiki’s Daughter should not be read simply as a sensational display of spoilt sophistication, liberation or modernity in contemporary Indo-Trinidadian society: they reveal troubling insight into the historic role of race and class in contemporary Trinidad and Tobago.
In one of the most moving scenes in the novel, Devika meets Saul Joseph’s wife by chance in Mucurapo Street market, and is mortified by the sheer effrontery of Mrs. Joseph’s speaking to someone of her wealthy, high class Hindu background. Guilelessly adding insult to injury, Mrs. Joseph even dares to mention Valmiki’s affair with Saul: “Just look at our crosses, na. You and me, we in this thing together. You know what I’m talking about, eh?” (p.124) Mrs. Joseph’s disarmingly innocent question exposes an historic confrontation on grounds both of race and class.
No wonder: “Devika’s skin burned with embarrassment. How dare she [Mrs. Joseph] ask how I am managing? Devika had thought. She was livid.” (p.125) Thus, for all their illusory sexual delights, the well heeled Indo-Trinidadian professionals and business entrepreneurs of Valmiki’s Daughter are still as trapped by their history as the poverty-stricken Indo-Trinidadian peasants who eked out a bare existence fifty years earlier in Samuel Selvon’s ground- breaking novel A Brighter Sun (1952).
For it seems that sexual high jinks are a symptom of social or spiritual unease. In a discussion with Viveka, Nayan dismisses not only Indo-Trinidadians, but all overseas Indians: “ the sugar-cane and cacao Indians, those of us from Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji—we don’t exist…We are not properly Indian, and we don’t know how to be Trinidadian. We are nothing.” (P.307) This confirms that Nayan’s thoughts could have come from the 1950s when most West Indian authors were concerned about issues of identity. That Mootoo who was born in 1958 writes about similar issues in contemporary Trinidad should concentrate our minds.
Yet all is not gloom and doom in Valmiki’s Daughter which contains paragraph upon paragraph of gloriously lyrical evocation of Trinidad’s natural beauty, rich passages of salty local speech, and raw details of everyday life that cannot have been written by someone who does not “know how to be Trinidadian”. This means that Nayan’s view of Indo-Trinidadian nationality is not the author’s. When Mootoo writes, for instance, of “swollen carcasses of animals” (p.109) drowned in a flood, or of a “bent, bodi-thin woman sweeping the step of her one-room shack”(p. 188,) or again of ‘the roti-flat, silvery Gulf of Paria,” (p.108) we hear an unmistakable Trinidadian voice, one like Ramabai Espinet’s in her novel The Swinging Bridge, that encloses the issue of Indo-Trinidadian alienation firmly within unswerving commitment to a single, broadly-based, multicultural Trinbagonian nationality. Valmiki’s Daughter triumphantly reinforces that commitment.