By FRANK BIRBALSINGH
In 2000 when curry flavour first appeared there was no other volume of poems like it flaunting female Indo-Caribbean identity with such panache. Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s title itself proclaims curry as an emblem both of Indian cookery and Indo-Caribbean culture, and in sixty-five short poems, spread over one hundred and sixteen pages, she includes invocations to both male and female Hindu deities, through nine prayers, one of which is placed at the beginning, another close to the end of her volume, and others at strategic positions in between. These prayers plead for peace, happiness or divine blessing and guidance in the midst of turmoil and travail in everyday matters of ordinary human existence. But this suggests neither narrowness of religious outlook nor inertia of spirit. Unlike the Guyanese Sasenarine Persaud, for example, who writes about Hinduism as almost unchangeable, Ms. Manoo-Rahming’s Hindu faith appears supremely flexible, capable of mixing freely not only with other faiths such as Christianity or Islam, but also with so-called pagan beliefs, and non-puritanical codes of conduct that are broadly based, defiant and ground-breaking.
The first dozen or so poems in curry flavour quickly establish the persona of an Indo-Caribbean woman plagued by deep longing for lost [indentured Indian] roots and a nagging need “to belong somewhere.” (p.13) (Ms. Manoo-Rahming was born in Trinidad of Indian indenture stock, but is married to a Bahamian and now lives in the Bahamas.) In another poem “Footsteps in this Land,” the persona’s tone becomes almost plangent: “I am alone/ without a story …/ in this land/ where I have/ no umbilical cord.” (p.23) Again, in “Footsteps,” the persona prays to: “Atabeyra/ Great Mother of the Caribbean Sea/ Goddess of Childbirth”) (p.23) for children to bring her: “a voice/ from my ancestral spirits/ in that faraway land [India]/ in the east.” (p.24)
Tellingly, despite her ethnic Indian (Hindu) origins, Ms. Manoo-Rahming’s persona invokes an indigenous Caribbean deity implying hopes for a new sense of belonging that will emerge out of her experience in the Caribbean itself. No wonder the poems in curry flavour celebrate the pristine natural beauty of the poet’s native landscape, and the rampant exuberance of its flora, fauna and culture as a whole. Although she has observed similar beauties of nature in other lands, she argues that such beauties “are not mine.” (p.108) Instead in “Waterfalls and Winter Streams” she extols the Caribbean: “Where the only falls are waterfalls/ and summer is perpetual,” (p.108) and in “Dreaming of Places I Have Seen,” she boasts: “till my death I shall marvel at the beauty of the symmetry / of the curly tailed lizard and watch it close its eyelid.” (p.109)
But nature is not all. We have only to look at “Down Home for Christmas” to relish “Fruitcake steeping/ Benny cake drying/ Ham still baking/…Poinsettia scarlet and green/Brazilian pepper berries/ Red like English holly,” and all the boisterous clanging and clamour that ensure we will “Have a rake n’scrape/Slammin’, jammin’/ Down Home Christmas.” (pp.86-87) Such boisterousness is part and parcel, as we learn in “Carifesta Five – Rebirth,” of a history in which the “lifeblood of Caribs and Arawaks/ Africans and Indians [is] /buried forever in the/Caribbean Sea.” (p.112) To clinch matters, in the same poem, while acknowledging that “genocide/indentureship and slavery/ [are] hidden behind carnival masks,” (p.112) the poet invokes the Indian goddess of wealth – Maha Lakshmi – side by side with iconic figures from Caribbean history, for example, Dessalines (Haiti), Jose Marti (Cuba), Garifuna and Kuna (black Caribs from St. Vincent), together with the calypsonians Invader and Destroyer. Tellingly again, she also dreams that: “Hanuman [the Hindu monkey god] has been reborn/ in this Carifesta Five/ of my Caribbean Sea.” (p.113) What could be more cosmopolitan or creole!
A major feature of curry flavour, meanwhile, and certainly one of its most innovative aspects, is its witty and altogether iconoclastic presentation of issues of gender. The back cover of the volume announces Ms. Manoo-Rahming’s attack on: “stereotypes of gender, the sexual and spiritual, and the personal and political.” Flexible gender borders are exposed, for instance, in “Trini Tabanca – Carnival ’92” where, amidst the frenzy of Carnival, the persona defiantly if not scandalously advises: “If yuh cyar get ah woman/ Take ah man.” (p.106) Many other poems including “The Earring,” “Woman Love” and “Come into my Garden” just as defiantly celebrate Sapphism or the love of women by women, while the title poem, which compares various parts of a woman’s body with spices that go into the making of a curry, is both a minor masterpiece of erotic writing and a rare celebration of the sensuousness of Indo-Caribbean cooking, which may also be seen only in the novel Sastra by another female Indo-Trinidadian author Lakshmi Persaud.
Yet the poems in curry flavour can hardly be said to blaze with celebration, optimism or promise. For all their spirited quality, as mentioned earlier, theirs is a universe clouded by turmoil and travail. In “Eve of Creation,” for example, although the persona adopts a womanist portrayal of Eve as creative and liberating, she still speaks of death as “no longer the end/ but the bridge with which we cross/the blackness/ of our unfolding universe.” (p.73) Pleasure and pain appear intermixed as basic elements of experience: “Is nothing like good and bad/ is only life, death and life again.” (p.15) And if such a mixed or complex vision calls for special technical skills, Ms. Manoo-Rahming is not found wanting.
Her poems abound with vigorous wordplay, wry, comic inventiveness, and daring wit, not to mention arresting images, original expressions and fresh ways of looking at commonplace events. In “Passing Places” we see: “hens prancing around you/ like puppies on two legs,” (p.67) and in “Between Two Worlds” a trailer is “parked like a shipwreck,” while in “Waterfalls and Winter Streams,” we literally taste the alliteration of “s” sounds in “where sweet spring water satisfies the thirst.” (p.108).