Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Remembering Balgobin Singh 1913-2008

Balgobin Singh Sept 1913-Dec 2008

He was the person who taught me to have the deepest love and respect for the land. When I visited him in August 2008, after almost a quarter of a century, he recognized me instantly. He needed no aid in his daily life. His grip was as strong as I remembered--that of one who worked on and with the land. He was more than farmer. He saw his 95th birthday. We thought he would live to be 100.
Balgobin Bidatha Singh, Sept 1913-Dec 2008

Your axe as clean as a new razor
cleaved logs to firewood like knife
on thawed cheese, down-stroke the arc
of a butterfly. You taught us how to walk
lightly on the earth---leave no footprints
behind; how to peel an orange,
the honed twenty-two a penknife in your hand,
producing an unbroken string of rind dangling
in the wind while negotiating a footpath “aback.”

Resizing a fallen tree trunk, chips flew
like starbursts. Rock gently in the bottomhouse
hammock and hum Tulsidas’ poem for the ages:
Shri Guru Charan Saroj Raj,Nij Man Mukur Sudhari
Barran Raghuvar Bimal Jasu,Jo Dayaka Phal Chari…
With the dust of guru’s lotus feet, I first clean
The mirror of my heart, then tell the story
Of Shri Rama, giver of the four fruits of life…

At ninety-four you are sipping tea
and laughing at sugar—I consume two pounds
every two weeks!—needing no cane to walk
or no aid to memory: the grip of a teenager,
how to compare palms and trace strength,
the thorns of a tangerine tree, unshouldering
a bunch of fresh-cut plantains, how to tie
a cotton band around your stomach –a brace
for back—before sinking the fork in the soil…

Who scattered those ashes in the ocean,
and sprinkled a handful “aback” on this mother
earth you taught us to love, humming
the Hanuman Chalisa in the wind of your wake
the vacated hammock swaying like a kite-tail

©Sasenarine Persaud

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Toronto launch: In a Boston Night

It is always good to be back in a great city on the edge of a great lake; it is always good to be back in Toronto. This picture was one of several taken by Tekil Persaud at the fall launch of In a Boston Night at the Gladstone Hotel. In a November night, wet snow falling like poems—or is that poems falling and dissolving like wet snow—is not unusual.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Visiting Swami Aksharananda and Saraswati Vidya Niketan

You do not make a trip back to the country of your birth, the first in more than twenty years, lightly. You cannot see everything you would like to see, meet everyone you would like to meet, or visit all the old haunts--the places that hold a slice of your consciousness. At least, not in a stay of less than two weeks...Twenty years ago, you had not published a book; you are returning as the author of ten books. In twenty years you have formulated the term and concept, Yogic Realism for your literary aesthetics—a continuation, in large part, of an ancient Sanskrit/Indian/Hindu artistic tradition. You have had an Indian scholar write a successful doctoral dissertation on Yogic Realism and your work. You know that in giving a handle, Yogic Realism, to this aesthetic, and offering it to any who would have it, that you are blessed, fortunate. If any one person is more responsible than any other for the darshan of Yogic Realism, it is Swami Aksharananda. If you cannot see everyone, if you cannot see every place you would like to in such a short visit and after such a long time, you must prioritize. Visiting Swami Aksharananda is near the top of your list.

Before I left Florida, I had sent an email to Swami Aksharananda inquiring if he would be in Guyana during my visit. His response was prompt; he would be in India and New York for the first part of my stay in the country. He should be back just before I returned to Florida, yet I could still visit the Saraswati Vidya Niketan complex whether he was there or not. When I first knew Swami, he was Odaipaul Singh, a teacher at the Central High School in Georgetown. He had studied and lived in India for many years. He was fluent in Hindi and Sanskrit, but his native language, like mine, was English; his command of it nothing short of expert. When he left the staff of the Central High School to complete his doctorate, he knew what he wanted to do after that: to come back and serve his community and country through an educational institution, not unlike that of the great Indian poet, novelist, dramatist, thinker and visionary, Rabindranauth Tagore. Tagore’s school would blossom into the Vishva Bharti University. The vision of Odaipaul Singh, before he left Guyana more than twenty years ago to complete his PhD, had today materialized as the Saraswati Vidya Niketan. In those intervening decades we met, occasionally, in Toronto, in New York after he had earned his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, before his initiation as a Hindu monk in India, and before his return to Guyana to begin part of his life’s work. I say “part of his life’s work” with some reservations as few can imagine how many lives he has influenced, how many people he has given a sense of direction, and galvanized into action and into the service of their communities and countries in India, Canada, the UK, the USA, Guyana, and the West Indies...

The sun was already up, sharp, stinging, not unlike in Florida—perhaps, with a little bit more of a hairline razor edge, or was it just imagination, or knowing that this part of South America is almost on the equator—when my transportation came as arranged the previous night. My lodging at the hotel was located within walking distance of the bridge across the Demerara River, less than a mile to the south. More than twenty years ago when I crossed the Demerara Harbour Bridge, approximately a mile and a quarter long, across the Demerara River, it was relatively new. It was touted as “the longest floating bridge in the world,” a feature of Socialist hyperbole and the Socialist propaganda that the Burnham regime exulted in, a stretching of the truth common in socialist countries before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, and the disintegration of Soviet Union. That line was soon altered to a description of the bridge as one of the longest floating bridges in the world. Someone had located a longer floating bridge in another part of the world…

You are transported into another time on the river and off the river. As soon as you touch the west bank you are in another time, another world. Honey green stalks in fields; a cow up to its udders in water, grazing; houses you remember; kokers; the West Demerara Secondary School where once there was a high school cricket match between old rival schools...There are turns in the highway you remember, houses, schools, a community center ground, more rice-fields lined by tall, star-branched coconut trees, and then the elementary school. From pictures, you recognize the older, raised wooded mandir and the newer open-sided mandir, a concrete structure with a high main-floor and a tall pointed “shikara”, a Sanskritic design we saw in older Hindi movies. Years ago, more than twenty years ago, I seem to have seen a similar one, one of the oldest Hindu temples in the country, somewhere on the west coast of Berbice, before the Rosignol stelling. A journey to that part of the country is one you will not be able to make on this visit. Your time is almost over. The driver parks in the shade cast by the tall concrete building, in a side street, just off the highway. There is a construction crew in that building and there is construction and work in front: men are fetching in cement and material; there is a “load” of white, crystalline sand on the parapet and wooden pall-offs and steel rod-ties in and around the front drain; everything is ready for the cement to be poured—a “modern” concrete drain, or if you prefer, a concrete sewer.

The complex is something to marvel at. The completed two-story structure which houses Swami’s office and the school library and which is just four years old is now being considered the "old building". Many schools in the US would be delighted to have such an “old building”. Few new schools in New Tampa—if any—one of the most affluent areas in Florida, are as well built or as well designed. The building is a creamy white that lifts the spirit. The open corridors and walls on the second floor are studded with clean stone arches and topped by ornate spindles. The classrooms are closed as it is Saturday; school is still closed for the August Holidays, but re-opens on Monday. You can feel the difference that this institution, this high school is: an idea brought to life, a vision being concretized, exuding lightness conducive to learning and designed to touch an inner self, and, yet, aesthetically pleasing. The corridor opens unto the south and a green square which is bordered on the west by the new building under construction, to the south by a raised octagonal wooden mandir and the Public Road just beyond, to the east by the fence of the government primary school.

The newer structure, under construction, a four-story concrete building is the work of a true visionary; the entire complex is the work of man of extraordinary vision and genius. You must remember to ask, who designed the complex. I climb into the stairwell of the building under construction, going up to the top. The fourth story is a large, uncovered court or terrace—an ideal place for open-air lectures, services, or activities—from which there is a sweeping view of the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean. The tall palms sway in the wind coming off the ocean like Bharatam Natyam or ballet dancers. The side road, a dam lined by a wide north-south canal flows into the Atlantic guarded by an imposing sluice, a koker—the Dutch word we all know. On the other side of the canal, there are two lorries; the one with a sky-blue cab is parked closer to the edge of the canal, on the sloped parapet. These look like Bedfords, British workhorses. There is a queer juxtaposition of the rubbish—odds and ends, rusting metal—on the parapet and the white flowers in the yards of the nearby white, wooden houses with red and green rooftops. The British critic, Jeremy Poynting points out that these rows of white houses elevated on eight or ten feet posts are a legacy of the Dutch and a very striking feature of this part of the world. You look down on the rows of houses, most neatly painted, behind the complex, closer to the seawall. It is a bird’s eye view. From up on the roof terrace, from anywhere here you can look down into yourself, you can compose the world—if there were time enough and place, if there were time enough and place, not “thou by the Indian Ganges side”, but on this South American coast looking unto the Atlantic Ocean, on the seashore of CI, on the seashore of CI... CI is the common abbreviation for Cornelia Ida. Another name left by the Dutch. Centuries gone, they are still here in their names left behind and the ghosts of their imperialism and visions.

Back in the office, when I mentioned to Swami Aksharananda that the spacious, open-air rooftop would make a fine place for talks, services, gatherings, he points out that others have made a similar observation, but the plan is for the fourth-story rooftop courtyard to house an array of solar panels and related equipment so that the entire complex would be self sufficient for its energy needs. This seems in keeping with the ancient Hindu instinct to harness technology to enhance the present and the future. Parts of the new building will be air-conditioned. As we talk, Swami retrieves on his computer—the monitor is a late model flat-screened LED—the school’s recent results at the CXC, the Caribbean-wide administered examination taken by students in their final years at High Schools. Before I can look at the screen, he delivers a print-out of the results. The printer is quiet and fast. There are several students who have obtained a grade one, the highest grade and a distinction, in nine subjects. While Queen’s College and the Ana Regina Multi Lateral fielded the best students, it is unlikely that the overall results of these schools will match that of the Sawaswati Vidya Niketan. Swami will have to wait until the Ministry of Education posts the results of all schools in the country for a comparison. But a comparison is not needed; the results are the results of an “elite” education institution…

Before we head outside, I walk around the compound; the grass is clipped—well kept lawns accentuate the white buildings—even the unpainted building in progress. Accompanying me to the car, we stop and examine the work being done on the ground floor of the new building. This floor will house the visitors’ lobby, and the site of the new office. The floor is marble with large pink eight-petalled lotuses spanning the rooms. From up close, we see that the edges of some of the petals are not well set. There are clear spaces and gaps where the tips of petals should be closed. Swami tells the supervisor he will need to fix those points. Expertise in marble inlay design is not common, this kind of work is not common in this part of the world—but the job still needs to be done right, flaws still need to be corrected. Swami takes the time to walk with me out to the Public Road, to the waiting car. No sun can be too hot for such courtesy. It is noon. You do not know how you have grown, where you have grown until you look backwards through time…but there is no such thing as time, is there? As Tagore once wrote, “Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.”

Waving and glancing back you wonder: What was this space before, what was this land before—more and less than and greater than a place where Indians built a wooden, octagonal temple by the sea at a bend in the road where rice and cane-fields gave way to a settlement, coconut palms, hibiscus, and madar flowers and a view to the ocean from beyond which their ancestors dreamed. And the tall, white shikara reaching into the sky as the car accelerates might well be singing: you are what you create; you are your past and your present and your future. You are your vision, your ability to be your dream…


  • Derek Walcott: In the opening symposium which was attended by the President of Guyana, Derek Walcott was at his aggressive best, according to the press, taking the Guyana President to task. It seems as though it is Mr. Jagdeo’s sole fault for the state of the arts in the entire region. Walcott refers to the President as “Prime Minister”. The audience corrects him once, “It is President!” He refers to the President again as “Prime Minister.” The audience corrects him twice, “President!” Sitting up on high, looking down, what do you make of this? Would Mr. Walcott have done this to Mr. Burnham, or to Mr.Hoyte? Has this anything to do with the fact that Mr. Jagdeo is of Indian ancestry? Does the Nobel Prize excuse such discourtesy and contempt, such ungraciousness to your host? Surely, a poet whose business is words, nuances, knows the difference between Prime Minister and President. If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t be writing poetry.
  • Credit must be given where it is due for organizing such a massive event in such short time. Little courtesies, the grace of Guyanese of all races: from Immigration to Customs to hotel staff to security personnel to strangers on a little plane flying to the interior. There were a plethora of fine events, especially literary events; readings at the Umana Yana, the discussions at the National Convention Centre, and a book fair featuring book launches. Who sited the book fair in the National Park under a boiling canvas tent in a boiling August sun when there were a dozen properly shaded and ventilated buildings in which this event could have been hosted, the National Library included? Presumably, we will know by the time the next Carifesta rolls around.
  • The Missing: There was, of course, more than one lament for the absence of George Lamming, among others. Some of the missing huffed and puffed in the press, on the Internet, and elsewhere. I can’t remember one person asking, why the most brilliant prose writer from the region, Sir You-Know-Who, Nobel-too-Laureate was missing. Perhaps, as an Indian writer who dared question—a lifetime ago—the “creation” of anything in the region, it seemed natural that he should not be present. But there was no lament for the absence for V.S. Naipaul, who has the last words (for now): the world is what it is.