COMPASSION IN A WORLD SANS HUMANITE
Harold Sonny Ladoo's unique perspectives.
by Christopher Laird
When they found his battered body beside the road near McBean in 1973 his first book was just about to appear.
Since his death under such mysterious circumstances, two novels, some short stories and an extract of a third novel have been published. On their evi-dence we can see that Trinidad lost its most dramatic and innovative prose writer in a generation.
Harold Sonny Ladoo had returned to his home in McBean to look after his mother whom he had heard was reduced by family quarrels over property to begging in the streets after the death of his father.
Harold had emigrated to Canada with his wife Rachel and had begun to succeed as a writer in his adopted country. The suspicion of foul play surrounding his return and violent death would not surprise a reader of his work. Ladoo's work showed the innocence of a Michael Anthony, the folksy gentleness of a Selvon, the satire of a Naipaul and the cosmic vision of a Mittleholzer, but above all it was steeped in a dreadness and violence all its own.
Pa hated Ma and he hated Balraj, so he picked up Ma as if he was picking up a little child and he held her in the air. Ma bawled like a cow hard hard hard. She tried to hold the hog plum tree, but she couldn't meet it. Ma didn't want to go inside the tub; she was turning and twisting as a worm; just turning and twisting and bawling; just bawling and trying to get away. The water in the tub was full of soap suds. Pa held her high and he held her tight as a tree holds another tree. Ma was bawling and getting on, getting on and calling God, but the sky was black and God was watching with his big eyes from heaven; he was not even trying to help Ma a little. Pa turned her over and pushed her face inside the tub; try-ing hard to drown her. Her feet were high in the air, and her whole body was shaking as a banana leaf shakes when the wind blows.
(No Pain Like This Body: Ananci Press 1972)
No Pain Like This Body was his first published book and featured what the late Dr. Victor Questel called "the most violent character in Caribbean Fiction". It is a novel of rain, thunder, lightening, scorpions, snakes, floods, violence, death, hypocrisy and oppression. But running like a fine thread through it is the guttering compassion of Nanny and Nanna.
Nanny with her drum:
Nanny beated her drum again. This time she beated for the tadpoles, the scorpions and the night birds; she beated not only for the living things of Tola; she beated a tune for all that lives and moves upon the face of the earth, She beated and she knew that the great sky God was watching with. his big big eyes.
Nanna with his. folk medicine and prayers.
"Nanna looked on with worried eyes. He believed that some evil spirit was causing Rama to cough like a dog; the evil spirit was making the poison work too. Nanna started to recite some mantras from the Hindu scriptures; he was trying his best to drive away the evil spirit. But the spirit was upon Rama alone, because Balraj was not coughing like a dog; only Rama was coughing like a dog and getting on. Nanna stopped, then he told Nanny and Ma to go and get some scorpion bush."
Nanny and Nanna provide the only positive counterbalance for the violence that is destroying the family of Ma, Pa and their four children who cultivate rice next to their tapia house in Central Trinidad early this century.
Just as, on the one hand, Ladoo suggests that a way of coming to terms with the new hostile environment East Indians had found themselves in was through some recognition of the old ways, so on the other hand in his next novel Yesterdays, he shows how it isn't religion per se that is redeeming force so much as compassion.
Unlike most novelists, each piece of Ladoo's writing looks at the world in a different way. If No Pain is the nightmare horror of a child then Yesterdays is the adolescent day dream. It is the most scandalously comic novel in our literature.
In Yesterdays, the son, Poonwa, wants to start a Hindu mission to Canada to do to the Canadians what their missionaries did to Hindus in Trinidad.
Instead of having one punishment room like the Canadian Mission school had in Tolaville, I am going to build five room like that by flogging and teaching I will pound Hinduism into them. I will teach them to deny their own culture, I will make them wear Hindu clothes. Then I will get merchants from Carib Island to tie up their trade and drain their natural resources into the West Indies. Now and then I will give them a little money as aid but I not going to give them justso, they go have to crawl and beg for it. I will teach them that white is evil and only black and brown are good ….
Poonwa's father Choonilal is being pressured to mortgage his house to pay for Poonwa' 5 mission. Choon has worked hard in the cane to build his house, he doesn't want to lose this hard won piece of security by mortgaging it to the crooked village pundit. The comedy of the book revolves around the efforts to get Choon to give in. In the end the greed of the pundit, the pride of Poonwa's mother who has vowed to give Choon "pressure in he ass") win and Choonilal's fatherly compassion feeds Poonwa's absurd ambition:
"Well Poon, I de ride you modder to make you. Up to now I ride you modder now and den, but I gettin old now son. Remember wen you reach Canada dat you fadder mortgage dis property to send you dere son. Try and send a little money to help me pay back Baba. Never forget dat you pee and shit fust touch dis earth in Karan Settlement. Didn't care where you livin in dis world, never forget home
Choonilal bursts into tears extends his arms to embrace his son but as his father approaches him Poonwa runs out of the house. Choonilal cries louder
(Yesterdays - Ananci Press 1974)
As can probably be seen from the extracts quoted above, Ladoo's portrayal of his characters is quite different from how East Indians have been portrayed in our literature previously (or since). Naipaul uses his upper class Brahmin sense of superiority to poke fun at his characters. His satire depends on authorial comment and his compassion is measured out carefully. Selvon on the other hand is full of compassion but his East Indians find answers in merging with. creole Trinidad. Until Ladoo, there has been no writer who wrote of the world of the East Indian peasant of central Trinidad. This he does with no outright comment. His characters speak for themselves. Ladoo is probably the most dramatic of Caribbean novelists, with a feel for dialogue that few can rival.
'Man Rag, wot I go tell you, man, Me son so educated dat wen he talk I. does feel to shit man. De boy talk some Latin just now man Rag. Man, wen I hear de Latin, a shit take me one time."
"'Befo you hit de boy a good slap in he ass Choon. De modderass, you mind de chile from small and bring him big, now he talkin Latin. Man Choon you happy yeh... If Poon was me chile, I woulda done kick him in he ass
(Yesterdays - Anansi Press 1974)
Ladoo can out-Selvon Selvon in such stories as Lying Monroe - about a Guyanese con-man in Canada. He can be moving and gentle in touch as in his story of The Quiet Peasant. The Quiet Peasant is about Gobinah who is digging a well in his tomato field in deepest drought and whose son brings him lunch of alloo and roti.
"You go eat some food, beta?"
"No bap, I done eat."
With. his toes hidden in the earth, with. his back resting against the cold earth, the man ate his: food. Raju stood at the top looking down at his father. He noticed that the man's feet trembled now and then, and his hands shook as he brought the food to his mouth. His face, neck and chest were red and his veins stood out as thick as corbeau lianas.. Dropping the banana leaves inside the well, drinking the water from the bolee, throwing the container up for his son, Gobinah. said, "So de garden lookin bad, beta?"
Gobinah. shook his head. "Soon as I get worta in dis well beta, everything goin to be oright. Wen I reap dis tomatoes I goin to pay de whiteman his rent. If I don't pay de rent, he goin to take away de land. Den I goin to give tilak for Sita to get married.'1
(The Quiet Peasant).
What Caribbean novelist has dealt with the U.S. occupation dunnq World War II? Ladoo in his Chamar Tola 1941 recounts the horrifying story of Sampath, whose daughters fail to return home at night. He sets out in search of them and finds:
As he walked along Chamar Trace, he saw a parked jeep, and the Americans were drinking and laughing. When he saw that they were soldiers, he said, "Good night sahib (Whiteman).." One of the soldiers gave him a pint of whiskey, and prodded him to the front of the jeep with his gun. Six feet from the parked vehicle, the light beams focussing on them, he saw two soldiers raping his children. Overcome with rage, he charged forward with his stick, but one of the soldiers struck him with a heavy object and sent him flying into the cane field where he lost consciousness. When he recovered, he hurried home to tell his wife what had happened to their daughters. Villagers came with flambeaux to search for the girls, but all they saw was the blood on the ground. During the night they heard the tractors working, and Panday said that the Americans were digging a trench. to bury' the bodies, as they had done so many times before.
(Chamar Tola 1940).
The reality of U.S. occupation has remained hidden in the memories of the people who suffered and they have been glossed over by the colonial powers and their neo-colonial heirs. Ladoo is the first to have given us a glimpse of that memory.
Ladoo is not over generous with his characters. The people he portrays are often ridiculous, corrupt and violent, but they are all human and their weak-nesses are also human. He does not glorify the East Indian, far from it, it would not be too absurd to suggest Ladoo was killed for what he wrote. If Naipaul can earn the anger of the local community for his snide irony, Ladoo would earn their rage for his own. But Ladoo's own rage stems from his sense of the injustice of indentureship, the poverty and exploitation of his people. His writing comes from a sense of wonder at their resilience, their sense of life, their reverence of God and above all the compassion that seams his world.
"Lemme help you, bap."
"No beta, de so sun too hot. Go and siddown inside dem ratoon cane. Wen I get worta, I goin to call you."
"Oright, bap." Exhausted by the heat of the sun, Raju took the basket and bolee and walked to the ratoon cane. Then he thrashed some dry leaves and sat on them. From his hiding place he saw the little balls of dirt darting out of the well. As he waited for his father to call, he dozed off. Suddenly he woke with a start; during his sleep he had heard his father calling, just his eyes couldn't open at the time. Wiping his eyes with the back of his hands, he noticed that it was almost evening; he noticed too that no small balls of earth came flying out of the hole. Quickly taking up the bolee and the basket, he hurried to the well, calling his father. When he heard no answer, climbing the mound of dirt, he looked down inside the hole. Now the hole was much deeper, but there still wasn't any water in it. His father sat at the bottom of the hole; with his hands holding the fork, his head bent slightly to the right, Gobinah stared unblinkingly at the sky.
"Ay, bap!" the bdy screamed.
But only a deep silence came out of the well.
(The Quiet Peasant)
For Ladoo, life was the prospect of death. But it was his knowledge of this that fuelled his compassion. It was his compassion for his mother that, according to all reports, was the cause of his making his last fateful journey back to the place that he has made us see in so many new ways.