NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY
Harold Sonny Ladoo
House of Anancy Press
WHEN GODS HAVE FALLEN
A review by Victor Questel
Last year Ladoo died under very violent and mysterious circumstances in Trinidad. Born in Couva, Trinidad, in 1945, he had been living from 1968 in Toronto with his wife and son. He returned to settle some pressing family business, and consequently met his death. His first published novel, NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY, spear-heads a series of novels spanning life in the Caribbean and Canada. His sudden death has obviously put an end to what promised to be a new and important contribution to the West Indian novel.
Unfortunately, NO PAIN LIKE THIS BODY, (referred to from now on as NO PAIN), is not available in the bookshops here, and I thus beg that book dealers order copies as soon as possible from the House of Anancy Press Ltd., Toronto. NO PAIN is set in Tola Trace on the imaginary Carib Island, in August of 1905. Carib island is really Trinidad and Tola Trace could easily be Caroni.
The story is the recording of a battle between an East Indian family and nature, and a battle between Pa and that family. The details are recorded by a child, with a child's simplicity, but without the inhibitions peculiar to a child. The novel strikes one with the same force as Orlando Patterson's CHILDREN OF SISYPHUS. What the reader has to decide is whether the novelist is wilfully obscene or if the violence of the language is an integral part of the experience explored by Ladoo.
Here is the novel in brief. It is the height of the wet season in 1905 and rain is beating down on Tola Trace. Pa is drunk and beats up Ma. The children run through the rain in fear. The grandparents Nanny and Nanna do their best, but Rama contracts pneumonia, is later stung by a scorpion and dies in the district hospital. As a result of young Rama's death, Ma finally breaks down and goes mad. The novel ends with Nanny armed with her drum going off with the children into the forest in order to find Ma.
Ladoo's first novel NO PAIN, adds a new dimension to the West Indian novel. It is the kind of dimension that complements Michael Anthony's exploration of the world of the child and the adolescent as seen in THE YEAR IN SAN FERNANDO and GREEN DAYS BY THE RIVER. NO PAIN is also very instructive for any reader coming from a sitting with a novel like Shiva Naipaul's THE CHIP-CHIP GATHERERS. NO PAIN explores a fragment of the world of the Trinidadian East Indian which has not been previously done. Selvon has skirted around the area but never really got into it. I am referring to life for the first and second generation Trinidadian East Indian practising subsistence farming here, while their gods fall around them and the middle-aged and the young move around without meaningful points of reference and standards. Ladoo shows us that such a world is really a world of anarchy in which one has three choices; patient suffering or madness or an early death.
The grandparents Nanny and Nanna have an unshaken faith in the sky god, and in the integrity of the drum. In fact despite the hostility of the rain and wind Nanny and Nanna do not ever find the situation insurmountable. Ladoo seems to imply that they have faith in their gods from India. Ma, the daughter of Nanny wants to believe in those gods or even the God of the Western world; but does not see any reason why she should. Pa, her husband does not want to believe, in fact he does not believe in anything. Thus, without any frame of reference he finds himself a violent anarchist bent on brutalising his family. The children are bewildered and their sudden realisation is that they are both children and imitation adults trying to work the land while their father is constantly drunk and waiting to beat both their mother and themselves. The children are four in number; Balraj, who is twelve and is the eldest, Sunaree, Rama and Panday. They all work in the rice paddy, though they are constantly on the run from Pa, the most violent father in West Indian fiction. The novel opens:-
Pa came home. He didn't talk to Ma. He came home just like a snake. Quiet. (p. 13)
Pa is a snake. He is the one who beats up each member of his family. He is the one indirectly responsible for Rama's death and Ma's madness. In fact Pa can be seen as the reverse side to the indifferent invisible God in the sky. Pa is a snake, the agent of evil, a devil figure; a directionless individual on a violent rampage of violence. Thus, if God is presented as the indifferent agent of destruction, then Pa is presented as his opposite number on earth.
As things get progressively worse Panday asks
"Wot God doin now?"... "He watchin from de sky". "God still watchin"
"Well God playing de ass now"! (p. 56)
This feeling that the persons in authority do not care, but are simply "playing de ass" runs throughout the novel. Each member of the family looks upon the other with suspicion and with the feeling that he or she is both exaggerating his or her pain or irritability. Thus, when Ma is drunk during the wake for Rama, her child Panday says,
"Ma you drink rum and playing in you ass!" Ma was getting on bawling and swearing and getting on. Pa came inside the kitchen. "Keep dat bitch quiet!"
"But she chile dead", Soomintra the wife of Sankar said.
"Yeh. De chile dead, but she eh have to get on like a ass". (p. 98)
Most of the action in the novel is played out in rain. Ladoo's characters are seen as trapped in the wires of rain, and therefore fixed in time, in the wet season, which is presented as the more aggressive of the two seasons. It is significant that Ladoo traps his characters in the rain and then closely examines their lives, since it allows him to make his point by exaggeration for once trapped he places them under a micros-cope. One can see that this writer has imposed all his memories of grim wet seasons onto that one wet season of his fictitious Carib Island. The result is a rain of terror that reigns supreme.
So far, in West Indian literature our writers have used the sun as the symbol of suf-fering and hot indifference. The cold of the rain in Ladoo's novel is even more biting. Hence we can get the following
The sky rolled as an endless spider and the rain fell like a shower of poison over Tola. The darkness was thicker than black mud, and the wind howled as evil spirits. (p.58)
The counterpoint of irony is what knits the novel together. The central irony being that nature for the trapped in Tola Trace is hostile, yet nature is all they know, and their ability to tame nature determines their degree of survival. The result is that we get descriptions of the hostility of nature, even the evil in nature, while along-side these are passages which show the characters becoming part of nature. In an attempt to show both the hostility of nature and the evil it can contain, Ladoo floods his novel with such creeping and crawling things as snakes, rats, worms, ants, spiders and scorpions. The following passage on the other hand shows Ma a woman who fights against the odds of an apparently hostile yet indifferent natural world, as well as a violent husband, becoming part of nature.
A greenish juice leaked out from her palms and fell on the ground. The .juice smelt as some-thing to eat. Ma looked at her right palm; the leaves were ground enough: it looked as if moss was growing in her palms. (p.27. My emphasis)
Many passages also show Ladoo comparing how his characters behave to that of animals or insects.
The irony is that the children talk, work and behave as adults, then suddenly realise that they are only children. It shocks us as much as it shocks them. The following passage traces Panday's refusal to plant rice.
"Look wot you doin Panday!" Sunaree said.
"I not doin notten. Dis rice could kiss me
ass! I is a chile".
"If Pa hear you he go beat you Panday!"
"But I is' a little chile!"
Pa stood on the riceland bank by the doodoose mango tree. He heard Panday. He jumped as a bull on the riceland bank.
"Panday shut you kiss me ass mout boy! Shut it boy! Me Jesus Christ! If you make me come in dat wadder I go kick you till you liver 'bust!" (p.65)
The central irony is really Ladoo's presentation of comedy as being part of tragedy, or at least related to it, while not arriving at say the tragi-comedy of V.S. Naipaul. The best example of this is the wake scene. Incidentally Ladoo has been quoted by Darryl Dean a Trinidadian journalist based in Toronto, as claiming that,
"In one chapter about a wake which included the folk lore of the people, many sections were deliberately chopped out because the publisher felt it would be better to leave it out".
Before singling out any of the action at the wake scene I should first record the reaction of Ma and Pa to the death of their son Rama, since their reactions are rela-ted to Ladoo's implied question - "who is to blame?"
"Me son dead widdout seem he modder face. Two days he live in dat hQspital just waiting to see he modder. He wait till he dead. Which part in dat sky you is God? Me chile not even leff a trace in de world. He just born and dead. Dat is all. And he own fadder kill him too besides!"
"I tell you God kill him!" Pa shouted. "Yet you saying I kill him. Well me eh doin one kiss me ass ting for dis wake and funeral!" (p. 71)
At the wake stories are told and jokes exchanged, and Pa sees that Ma gets drunk so that only his version of the death can be told. Further more Ladoo uses the wake scene to show how the gods have fallen. No one including the priest has any faith in the ritual performed. In addition to this the priest's authenticity is questioned by the group and by extension what he represents. The priest claims that he is a Brahmin.
... "He is a modderass chamar and he playing Brahmin. Bisnath Saddhu is not a priest. He fadder used to mind pigs in Jangli Tola. He modderass chamar come to Tola playing holy". And Pulbassia laughed and said, "Yeh one foot. Give him in he ass!"
Bisnath Saddhu the village priest said, "Shut you one foot tail I not from Jangli Tola. Me fadder and me come from de Punjab". "Punjab me ass Punjab! Pulbassia shouted. "You son of a bitch Baba all you used to mind hog in Jangli Tola."
"Who say dat?"
The priest sat up, wiped his eyes with the back of his hands, yawned and said, "I de born a Brahmin". (pp. 98-99)
Given the intensity of the traumatic experience that the children and Ma experience because of the stupid brutality of Pa, the children soon begin to create their own reality and Ma goes mad. For example Balraj insists that Rama is not dead and buried but is "still in the dead house in Tolaville".
"All you cant fool.me", Balraj said. "By dat haspital have big big rats. I see dem'rats wid me own eyes. I. tell all you dat Rama still in dat dead house in Tolaville. Rat eatin him. Nanna never bring Rama home. I never see Nanna bring dat boy on no horse cart. So Rama still in 'dat dead house. Rat still eating him." (p. 112)
"Rama was living in the water. He drowned in the riceland because he had a long cut in his belly. Rama was buried in the water. The water snakes were searching for him..." (p. 112)
Ma throughout the novel takes her licks from Pa and God, staying with Pa for the sake of the children. After Rama's death she goes mad. Only her mother Nanny with the aid of the drum is able to find her, when she wanders off in the forest. In fact Nanny and Nanna have a confidence in the sky god that nothing can shake. They follow the old values brought over from India, and are thus always in control of both themselves and their environment regardless of the hostility of things. Thus, we can have,
... This time she (Nanny) 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. (p. 142)
It is because the Gods have fallen or maybe ignored that the environment is haunted by spirits and jumbies, or rather, the characters are haunted by the fear of spirits and jumbies.
One of the starkest of passages in the novel is the description of Rama covered in a ricebox. Rama is sick with fever and is placed in a covered ricebox very much as if dead and placed in his coffin. He is later stung by a scorpion and dies in the district hospi-tal. It is as if his burial is rehearsed. The placing of Rama in the covered ricebox gives some more support to the tentative theory of re-burial mooted by some commentators on West-Indian literature.
The only works written in the English-speaking West Indies which come closest to this novel in so far as we are talking about man versus nature is Roger Mais's THE HILLS WERE JOYFUL TOGETHER and Derek Walcott's THE SEA AT DAUPHIN. To Afa, "the sea it have compas-sion in the end"; to those in NO PAIN, the rain does not care, nor does the wind or the land.
The rain didn't care about pounding 'the earth. Ma and drops; they looked like fat earth from above. God was earth and the sky with the whole of Tola was dark and Tola. Rain was Balraj saw the worms invading the trying to tie the rain drops (p. 27)
Furthermore, the wind is seen as blowing "with such force and temper; blowing with the intention of crippling even the trees, blowing just to cause trouble and hate". (p. 43)
One area of weakness in NO PAIN is that Ladoo overdoes his attempts to capture sound. The novel is top-heavy with sounds such as 'tuts', 'splunk', 'slap' and 'toots'. I understand his need to capture sound in that rain-drenched setting, but it ends in near parody. Moreover it too often interrupts the flow of the. descriptions. For example,
A large cockroach with long wings flew flut over the light. It settled taps on the earthen wall. It was wet; it came from the rain to shelter near the light. Nanny took the brown hand-drum and crushed it crachak! (p.42)
If Ladoo had omitted the 'flut' 'and the 'taps' that 'crachak' would have been more dramatic. As it is, it is just another noise.
Since Ladoo is now dead, it is difficult for anyone to make claims for him since he cannot now fulfil them. All that can be said is that Ladoo has pointed another dimension that is open to the young West Indian writer. If the novel reads as if it is unfinished, it is because it is the first in a projected series which Ladoo's untimely death has brought to a very premature end.
The novel really does not attempt to answer some of the questions raised; maybe the later novels would have cleared up some of the areas of vagueness. One of the questions not answered is what kind of belief must one have to survive in a hostile environment in which standards are non-existent, but in which one must create new standards so that the next generation can survive?
The strength of NO PAIN is its directness. It is a novel stripped to the bone of pain. Ladoo by looking back steadily at Tola Trace has made it the earth's centre, and that is a success that few first novels can boast.