Valmiki’s Daughter (Trinidad)

book coverby Shani Mootoo

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Fiction

The first pages of this book are swamped by gorgeous yet endless description along the lines of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides. I mean like 9 pages straight. Or maybe 114. I became impatient when I couldn’t see where the author was going with this. I wanted to read a novel, after all, not a guidebook. (I often skip descriptions in books in order to get to the dialogue. This is my bad.) But I know some people enjoy this sort of writing, and it does give a tremendous sense of place. Here, the author devotes three or four pages to imagining you are standing on a traffic island, blindfolded. What do you smell?

“…The aroma of roasting peanuts, of corn boiling in garlic-infused water, of over-used vegetable oils in which split-pea fritters with cumin seeds have been fried, of the cheery, spicy foreignness of the apples and grapes being sold in the open-air counter on the corner, would activate your taste buds, and in spite of the surrounding unpleasantness, even if you had eaten not long ago, your stomach would argue that it was ready and able again.

“A person might pass near enough for you to be assailed by his or her too-long unwashed body. And you might well be assaulted by the equally offensive fragrance of another passerby’s underarm deodorant, which, having been called upon to do its duty, swelled uncontrollably in the heat.

“The stink of urine would of course be there, and surprisingly, that of human excrement, rising high on crests of wind and then thankfully subsiding. And sailing in, all the way up to this high point, on a breeze from the Gulf not too far away, would be the odors of oil-coated seaweed, dried-out barnacles that cover fishing vessels beached at the wharf below, and scents from foreign ports. If this olfactory mélange were audible, it would indeed be cacophonous, made more so by the terrible nostril-piercing stench of incinerated medical wastes and bed linens, intermittent effluxes from two tall chimney stacks set at the rear of the hospital. Your stomach, opened up moments before in greedy receptivity, might feel as if it had been tricked and dealt a dirty blow.

Samaan tree

Samaan tree at Fort King George on Tobago

“Then again, it might be the season when the long, dangling pods of the samaan tree (the unofficial tree of the city, planted and self-sprouted everywhere) which resemble a caricature-witch’s misshapen fingers split–and the entire town is drenched in an odor akin to that of a thousand pairs of off-shore oil workers’ unwashed socks, an odor as bad as, but more widely distributed than, the effluvia from the medical waste incinerator.

“The air temperature would be high, as benefits an equatorial midday. If you remained standing on that exposed traffic island too long, your skin would redden and become prickly in no time, as if it had been rubbed in bird-pepper paste.”

The place is the island of Trinidad, just off the coast of Venezuela. The city of San Fernando. The city’s general hospital.

housesSan Fernando is the place where Valmiki lives and works. He is a doctor. He is also a serial philanderer, and a closeted gay man. And possibly the most selfish protagonist I’ve ever met. Well no, not really. But he is selfish. This made it hard for me to like him. Look, I get it. It isn’t easy to be gay in the Caribbean. But this character is so desperate to get his needs met that he tramples all over the feelings and needs of others without so much as a fare-thee-well. We are told, for example, that the one true love of his life, a man named Tony with whom he had an affair in medical school, tried to kill himself when Valmiki left him to return to Trinidad and marry a woman. But Valmiki didn’t contact him after his suicide attempt. Now, however, he calls Tony in Goa and is hurt when Tony is distant.

San Fernando hospital

The hospital in San Fernando (where Valmiki works). A leftover from Colonial times.

When Valmiki feels the worst about himself, he goes out into the forest to shoot animals. He almost kills a mother dog, just because he thinks nobody is around to protect her. Then he sees the glow of a cigarette and realizes a man is with her. He lowers his rifle and creeps away in shame, horrified at himself. Surely, you and I wouldn’t react in the same way…would we?

Like Father, Like Daughter?

Valmiki’s daughter Viveka can’t understand why her mother puts up with her father’s numerous and semi-public affairs. (The reader can. It proves his manhood.) I felt for the mother. I remember all too well the pain of dating a closeted gay man. When you are used as a beard without your knowledge or consent. The baffled feeling of rejection, of not being desired. You feel like there’s something wrong with you. That you’re not attractive. When in reality, you’re just not attractive to him. It is nobody’s fault, but the lying causes suffering for all.

map of TrinidadI get that when you can’t be who you are, it makes you lash out in all directions. When you’re always afraid. Valmiki seems to be suffering from a kind of lateral oppression. He loves to go hunting with his buddies, including a day laborer named Saul. Saul’s wife knows about their affair. She cooks fried plantain for Valmiki. I enjoyed the hunting camp scenes, with the descriptions of lush jungle and delicious pineapple alcohol. (Pineapple wine mixed with molasses and sugarcane = babash. Yum.) The simple, easy friendship between the men, and the love and respect they have for “Doc”. One above their class, who loves to hang out with them.

Class Conscious, Much?

beachAnyway, back to the daughter. Unlike her sister Vashti, poor Viveka gets scolded all the time for her “mannishness”. She can’t help how she looks–square, boxy, solid. She cuts her hair short and refuses to grow it long. She wants to join a volleyball club with her friend Helen, but her mother has 10,000 fits about that. Devika is afraid that her daughter will become a full-on lesbian if she gets into volleyball, though she doesn’t come right out and say so. She also doesn’t like partially-white Indians like Helen’s family. She thinks they are beneath her, but that they are pretentious at the same time, “exclaiming over curry like they’ve never seen it before” and giving their children names like Helen. And of course Trinidadans of African descent are beyond the pale. They’re the men who hang out around the park. Heaven forfend that Viveka should date one of them!

Maracus beachViveka’s confused. She doesn’t want to end up like either of her parents, but she doesn’t know how to defy custom and society. She has a sobering example before her–her friend Merle Bedi came out and was kicked out by her family. Now she’s homeless, dirty, drugged and begs on the street.

Of all the characters, I sympathized with Viveka and Vashti the most. As the younger generation, they seemed to have fewer class hang-ups than their parents. It was interesting to me that a gay man would produce a gay daughter.

flagAfter reading this novel, I would love to visit Trinidad. (and Tobago.) I love Indian people, and people of Indian descent, and I think I would enjoy meeting African people and people of African descent. In many ways, the people of Trinidad seem easy-going and likable, even as they struggle to become one people and overcome the Colonial legacy of inequality, racism and death.

WARNING: This novel was shortlisted for a literary prize.

Rating: Three bowls of pineapple babash!

PS–The author is Irish-Trinidadan. Such an interesting heritage.