On a muggy August day, my husband and I peer through our airplane window to see Guyana below. The country, which sits on the northern lip of South America, is flat as the eye can see, stretching like a green woolly carpet to the brownish coastal plain. I am reminded of how staring at its map is like gazing at the handprint of European colonial history. First came the Dutch, who carved from the flat, muddy coastline of South America an ingenious grid of canals and locks. Then came the British, who imposed a different sort of order: law and Christianity; sugar and rice plantations. The villages are really neat rectangular packages of land strung along the coast, with names like Rose Hall or Bush Lot.
I am here for many reasons: as a journalist, to write a political story, since the new government has changed; as a novelist, finishing up a book that draws on Guyana. And finally, as a daughter, in search of her father, the young man who left Guyana in the late forties.
My great-grandparents came to Guyana—then British Guiana—as indentured workers in the 19th century, when thousands and thousands of men and women were recruited across India to work on the rice and sugar plantations of the West Indies. They were given five-year contracts and a passage back, though few returned—either they were no richer than they were when they began, or they began to till a few acres themselves, or they’d heard stories of those who’d returned to India and were shunned by their neighbours and families.
My tall, fair-skinned grandmother, with a long aquiline nose, came from a socially prominent family, but she married someone “from the bush,” as they used to say—a heavy-set, dark-skinned man, whose ancestors were said to be fishermen in Bihar. Nothing is ever quite known for sure in Guyana: there are stories, and bits of information, stirred together in an imaginative stew. The family settled in Lettur Kenny, a small village in the far eastern corner of Guyana, not far from the border with Suriname, where my grandfather was for a time an overseer on a plantation. They had some land, and my father used to talk about the donkey that was his pet, the shrimp they would bring up with nets from the water trenches, the beautiful nights of black, black sky. My grandfather had decided to convert to Christianity—each of the eight children was given a Christian and Hindu name—and it was this choice that separated them out in the village. They were a family that was moving up, it was believed, especially three of the four boys, who were bright and promising students.
My father, the youngest boy, landed a scholarship overseas, in the US, where he met my American mother. My parents went back down in the mid-fifties, to see if they could live there, but it didn’t work out. My six aunts and uncles, all unmarried, remained in Guyana, most of them living and dying in our family house. All around them, as their own circumstances deteriorated, so too, did the country. By the sixties, the country was in the grip of a dictator, Forbes Burnham, and mired in racial politics, a struggle for power between its Indian and black inhabitants. We heard from my relatives—thin blue aerogramme letters—telling how they couldn’t even buy margarine or marmalade, begging for money and help. My father flew down there a few times, and he would tell of the local men who would line up outside their door, hoping for help in getting a visa out of the country.
Despite these distressing missives, throughout my childhood, I grew up with wonderful stories of Guyana: it was a magical, mystical land of verandahs and white wooden houses sitting up on stilts; of the boys playing cricket under the skinny, loping palms; the obeah woman; the racetrack where my uncles gambled away all their money; the bottomhouse where my aunts slapped the wash in iron tubs and raised their chickens; the mysterious children my maiden aunts were always taking in. In my mind it was grainy and black and white; it was a colonial past that flickered in the back of my mind, so different from the Technicolor world of sixties America, where I grew up. If I was travelling back, I was travelling into grey; into the nebulous area of memory and myth.
My husband and I are staying in the centre of Georgetown, the capital, right on Main Street, the broad, beautiful avenue flanked by half-dilapidated, once elegant buildings. The Tower Hotel is inelegant concrete, but utterly functional, with humming fax machines and a swimming pool, and a bar where people gather to drink and eat.
Georgetown is not a big city, and like many colonial centres it is laid out with a sense of order and regularity: the wide avenues that stretch past the red and white spires of the Parliament building; the Cathedral, which is a stunning bit of engineering, made completely of wood, its girded beams like the hull of a huge 19th century sloop. Staebrook Market is a fanciful creation of wrought iron and wood, and sits partly out on the water, so the boats, bringing wares from the rivers, can load in the back. But you can’t walk the length of Georgetown; you never know when you’ll stumble upon a scary pocket. So we learn to circumvent, and take certain routes. We can definitely walk along the road to Staebrook, for instance, in the middle of the day, past the women hawking wares on the street, the guys offering black money. But we can’t go the eighth of a mile down Main Street in the evening to the President’s House, when it is time to attend a party. Throughout Georgetown we keep seeing this same strange syncopation of contrasts: buildings dissolved to splintered shacks, next to some of the most gorgeous edifices and examples of British imperial architecture.
It is not easy excavating the past. Because so many Indians migrated from Guyana in the past few decades, there’s not a lot of family connections left. And the political story is also opaque—people don’t want to return calls, or they simply rant about the other side. At a party I meet an old family friend—my mother used to talk of staying at their pleasant house—and he raises my hopes, telling me that he believes our family house is still standing.
Most nights, we find ourselves walking across the green meridian of Main Street, to Palm Court, the raucous bar and restaurant where everyone who is anyone congregates, while the waiters zip back and forth with plates of steaming curry: loud Australians with cell phones beeping at their hips; Guyanese business men and farmers getting soused. Palm Court has a pretty racy reputation; people wink when they talk about the “rooms to let” upstairs.
One day I learn that one of its owners had been a child my aunts reared; the first time my mother heard the little girl’s name—Marina—she decided her own daughter would have the same name. But like many Guyanese, that Marina doesn’t live in Guyana anymore. I keep finding traces of my family here: a conversation with an old family friend; another who vaguely remembers my father. But it is like the city of Georgetown itself: the dwellings remain, while the old, urgent life has ebbed away, gone elsewhere, immigrated north, where new lives have begun.
Everything is politics. There’s politics at the Rice Growers Association celebration we attend, where people sit like quiet, attentive children on the hard wooden benches, and delegates get up and speechify. There’s politics blaring on the TV and in the local newspaper, in the large house that’s been converted into an art gallery, where the old dictator used to fill it up with strange fetishised objects and conduct voodoo ceremonies; there’s politics at the little presentation of Indian tabla playing and African drumming; there’s politics in every conversation I have, over drinks, dinner, flying with one of the major rice growers over his different properties in different parts of the country.
Once airborne, the shimmering green rice paddies down below, the river’s brown worms that inch toward the coast, the political squabbles, seem no more real than the structures the Dutch and British tried to impose. Guyana is a strangely resistant country: resistant to finally coalescing into a mixed nation of blacks and Indians; resistant to development, its thick jungle and savannah unspoiled.
One day we go into the interior; we join a group that takes a small plane to Kaieteur Falls. I would have liked to have done the real trek, jeeps that lumber into the interior, but it could be weeks before that might be organised. So we go for the quickie version, zipping over in a propeller plane. Kaieteur Falls are the longest natural drop of water in the world, a skinny tongue of water that licks a narrow crevice of slashing rock. As our plane hums low over the rolling country, the pilot does a little trick, showing off to the pretty young woman in the seat next to him. He flies us straight toward the falls. Then, at the last minute, the nose of the plane tips upwards, over the roaring water.
The land here is spectacular, extraordinarily untouched, untranslated for the outside world. Our guide knows nothing of the vegetation; he can’t tell us the names of the trees. Guyanese are essentially coastal people; very few native Guyanese have even gone to the interior. And when we come to the falls themselves, there’s no sign or fence, no barrier to protect us from the sheer drop. One moment you’re standing next to the slick brown water that slips over a ragged stone edge; the next, you’re dragging yourself on your belly to peek over the side, since the vertigo is so strong here.
Later, we fly to a Savannah area, where there are some native settlements, and walk up the stepped rocks. Sitting on the mossy ledges, cold water sluicing over my shoulders, I can’t help but feel it’s nice to get away from all the talk and the squabbling headlines, back into the simple natural beauty of this country.
A few days later we take another trip—the important trip, the one I’ve been putting off. We drive along the new road that runs like a concrete ribbon along the coast, toward my father’s village in the Berbice. In his day, this was an arduous journey—at least a full day over rutted road, crossing the river. And when we reach the ferry that will bring us over the Berbice River (TK) to New Amsterdam, I suddenly feel as if time slows to a standstill. The wait is long, the roofs of the cars gleam under the sun, the ferry lumbering. Whereas Georgetown has the feel of a city half in the present, half in the wreckage of the past, New Amsterdam is simply old and quiet, with a slightly abandoned quality. We walk the empty streets, marvelling again at the beautiful architecture fallen into disrepair; we eat a rustic curry that night on the screened-in porch of our hotel, along with the only other customer. If New Amsterdam was once a bustling port, as it was when my father was growing up, it now feels like an eerie frontier town, waiting for life to begin on the other side.
When my father was a young man, he came to live in New Amsterdam, where he boarded with cousins and worked in a hospital and saved his money. It was not a happy time; his cousins, who were politically connected and rich, treated him as the poor country relative, giving him little more than a closet to sleep in. And my father, who was a studious, clumsy-footed boy, was already feeling the stirrings of leave-taking. He wanted something more, though he did not know what it was. My grandmother had married beneath her—that grand old house was her dowry, so the story goes—and my grandfather, who started out well, as an overseer on a rice plantation, could not seem to hold down a job for very long.
Our house became the symbol of my family’s dwindling fortunes. It was long, like a rectangular box, with a series of windows, each shaded by a lattice window shutters, pulled shut by a crank. Inside was furniture imported from Poland, and gleaming wooden floors; stowed in the drawers were my aunts beautiful gold and ruby and diamond jewellery, their hand-sewn dresses, more intricate than the ordinary fare that the other women wore. But it was this mixture of pride and stagnation that drove my father away; he thought he might be a doctor, and so worked in the hospital, though the sight of blood made him dizzy and weak. He thought he might be something, anything—a barrister, a diplomat. It is this young man I try to imagine on these rutted, old streets, a tall, wavy-haired man peering through spectacles, getting used to the feel of real leather shoes, and the possibility of change, of a new self, somewhere else.
We take off with a driver the next day, passing village after village, each one lined up along the coastal road. By the time we nearly whiz right past my father’s village, rain is driving hard upon us. And it takes some navigation to figure out where the family house once was: we plunge across a huge field, the mud thick and slopping against our ankles, to talk to a woman whose Creole is so thick I can’t quite make out what she’s saying. We tread around an abandoned, one-room schoolhouse—the very one my father attended—where goats feed off the ragged weeds. We pick our way around the cow dung, searching the headstones in the cemetery across the way. We loop around to a gas station, talk to the owner, who, as it turns out is distantly related to me, and finally gives us the right instructions. We find the house. Or rather no house, but the plot of land where my family’s house once stood. It’s now an auto repair shop, and the guys working there watch curiously as we traipse past the remains of a water pump, to the back where a palm tree stands.
I’ve heard that the indentured workers who came from India used to carry mango seeds in their pockets; upon reaching land, they would plant their mango tree; that bit of India they needed to keep with them in this strange new home. I did something slightly different. In the Jewish tradition, one places stones on the tombstone of a departed relative. I had carried stones from my father’s grave in Queens, New York, and now placed them at the foot of a palm tree that once shaded his old house. A burial, a memory. That’s what Guyana had become for me, this strange lush and muddy country, most vivid in my mind; and as the heavy rain slashes down and covers my stones, sliding ever more firmly into the past.