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In his foreword to Vashti Bowlah’s Under the Peepal Tree, Ken Ramchand precisely outlines the ambitions and scope of this self-published short-story collection. He writes that “the author’s subject is the experience of people of Indian origin, their making and their un-making, in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st.” The collection was published in 2014, and launched at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest. Several of the stories were previously published in regional literary journals, including the Caribbean Writer, Poui: the Cave Hill Journal of Creative Writing, and WomanSpeak Journal.
Bowlah engages directly with the mission statement detailed by Ramchand. There is little of her writing style that retains identifiable flourishes or conceits. In her personal introduction to the book, she describes cultural preservation of the Indo-Caribbean experience in T&T to be the work’s chief concern. Linear, methodical and shorn of ornamentation, each story in Under the Peepal Tree engages with the interior, often domestic life of an Indian living and working in T&T. The stories are principally about the personal crosses borne by Indo-Caribbean women, particularly as they confront the unhappy burdens of difficult husbands. These husbands are typically symptoms of an overarching, patriarchy-infused cultural system that burdens its female subjects with a litany of self-effacements.
The collection begins grimly in this vein, with the story A Daughter’s Cry. In it, the stalwart yet terrified Meena flees the oppressive structure of her abusive household, with her baby twins Rani and Ravi precariously in tow. Meera’s misfortune successfully conveys the ways in which women were (and continue to be) agents of male-ordered hegemony. Meera’s mother is arguably the guiltiest party in abetting the production of her daughter’s multiple sorrows. “What foolishness you saying? You don’t know nothing about work and just now you go make your child. Married women does have to stay home and take care of their family.” This is Meera’s mother’s irritated edict, delivered when Meera suggests the possibility of securing a job for herself on the cocoa estate.
Holding firm to her faith, and the yoke of tradition to which such belief is inextricably tied, Meera’s mother becomes an architect of the abuse her daughter receives, and an agent of the exile Meera must enact in order to flee the traumas meted out by her drunken husband, Suruj. Favourable depictions of Indian men in Trinidadian society are thin on the ground in Bowlah’s stories. When a good Indian man surfaces, he is held up as a near-mythical figure, much like the young and handsome doubles vendor Roshan in Catch of the Day. Bowlah situates the action of this story in a rural fishing village, where gossip is the community’s daily currency. In this setting, women’s sexuality is policed rigidly, with women themselves once more being the greatest dismantlers of each other’s agency. Roshan’s beautiful new wife, Nisha, is perceived to be a threat to the happiness of the other housewives’ marriages.
“She making we look bad, acting like the perfect wife, swinging she hips left-right-and centre, making we men drool every time they see she,” is just one of their bitter estimations of Nisha. The ways in which these housewives try to destroy Roshan and Nisha’s joy draws comic parallels to the inherent misery of the community’s other marriages. Bowlah says uncomfortable things about the subjects of her stories, using unfussy and almost clinical language that might find a happy home in journalistic reportage. Adherents to lush and visually ornate embellishments in fiction may find the writer’s style bare, or prosaic. On its face, there is little to distinguish one of Bowlah’s stories from the writing produced by an above-average primary school student. Perhaps this is the collection’s chief appeal, however: the ability to make plain that which is best served without literary artifice. These stories of arranged marriages, of rural and semi-rural village life, of the explosive discord existing between parents and their children: Bowlah commits these truths to the page without a shred of writer’s self-consciousness. These lives of quiet desperation, heavily coloured in by damaging superstitions and resolute faith, are confidently reported, in her voice.
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