EN 4262 – Valmiki’s Daughter Seminar Notes

VD is a good novel with which to end the module, in a number of ways.  Set in Trinidad, by a Trinidadian writer, it speaks of an Indian diasporic society which is considered by many Indians to be one of the most culturally distant from its Indian roots.  The Indian Government’s High Level Commission on Diasporas singles out the Indian communities in the Caribbean for concern because of the relatively high incidence of Christianity (i.e. non-Hinduism), taking on non-Indian (Christian) names, speaking English instead of Hindi (almost all Trinidadian Indians are from the Hindi-speaking part of North India, specifically Uttar Pradesh, so no other Indian languages are relevant), losing sight of their Indian values and customs, etc.  So in a sense it is a kind of “end journey” of the Indian diaspora, and a useful vantage point from which to consider “Indian” identity in diasporic writing.  Secondly, as a small island (about 4-5 times the size of Singapore, but with only about 1/5 or 1/6 the population), with a post-colonial and immigrant society, and also struggling with issues of multi-culturalism and cultural change/loss (but not the level of global cosmopolitanism that Singapore experiences), VD is also a good site in which to reflect on globalization and identity in another small post-colonial island, Singapore.

 

Trinidad and Tobago, the Indo-Caribbean Population

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a pair of islands (commonly called “Trinidad,” after the larger and more settled island, Tobago being largely a nature preserve) in the Caribbean, is one of the main Indian diasporic settlements in the West Indies.  Like nearby Guyana in the northern part of South America, Trinidad (the name means “Trinity,” i.e. Holy Trinity, in Spanish) was the site of large numbers of Indians mostly from Uttar Pradesh, who came from around the middle of the 19th C onwards to work on cacao and sugar cane plantations.  (The abolition of slavery led to a high demand for plantation workers, hence the recruitment of Indians from British-held India).  The population of Trinidad is about 40-45% Indo-Caribbean, 40-45% Afro-Caribbean, and around 15% others (Chinese, Europeans, South Americans).  Social and political tensions between the 2 large communities (of Indian and African origin) run deep beneath the surface of Trinidad society, and social ties tend to be intra-communal, with little deep contact between the 2 communities (as reflected in VD – the circle of close friends is invariably Indo-Trinidadian).  Part of the problem is that much of the wealth is in the hands of the Indo-Trinidadians, creating a rich-poor divide on communal lines, as well as general problems of crime, violence, drugs. 

            As with other British colonies (including Singapore), the culture of Trinidad was shaped significantly by Anglophone education, mission schools, the activities of missionaries, and Western and Anglophone cultural and people flows.  For example, cultural ties with and migration flows to Canada are strong amongst Indo-Trinidadians, probably even stronger than with the U.S., not (just) for geographical reasons, but because of the historical ties forged by Canadian Presbyterian missionaries who had a huge impact on the educational and religious landscape of Trinidad.  England is another popular place for Trinidadians to study, work or migrate, as it is with other Caribbean peoples from former English colonies like Jamaica.  Adoption of “Western” ways can be seen in the high incidence of Christianity (although some of it is “cultural” or “legacy” Christianity), even amongst the Indo-Trinidadians; the problematic status of Hindi and Hindi and Indian customs, rituals and values; the use of English rather than Hindi as main language of communication; the adoption of English names (e.g. “Trevor,” or pseudo-Anglicised contractions like “Vik”), the post-colonial valorization of Whites and white culture, etc.

            For such a small community, the Indo-Trinidadian community has produced a number of Anglophone writers of note, most famously V. S. Naipaul, but also Sam Selvon, Neil Bissoondath,  Shiva Naipaul, Harold Sonny Ladoo, Lakshmi Persaud, Shani Mootoo, and many others.  Obviously a large part of this is the facility with English language, and a Western-inspired educational system that breeds familiarity with the English literary tradition.  This is the flip side of an Indian community at some odds with the customs and values familiar from India – with customs and social practices that have been transformed, hybridized, Westernised over the years, yet with a persistent sense of being distinctly “Indian” (however problematic that may be – and even if its definition may largely mean “not African,” or “not White”).

 

Narrative and Structure

            Indo-Trinidadian Anglophone obviously writers wrote to their specific location and experiences (the smallness of the Indo-Trinidadian community; the flux and transition of values between Indian origins and Western influences; their history of abject plantation origins; the uncertainty of life in the Caribbean; the symbolism and influence of the landscape/jungle/insularity); but many of them were also well versed in the English literary tradition, and showed elements of its influence.  VD is in many ways a very Indo-Trinidadian novel: there is a strong social realist element that emerges in things like the poor infrastructure of the island, the crime and lack of safety in public, the theme of marriage struggles used by writers from Jane Austen to Emily Bronte to George Elliott as a vehicle for depicting class and socio-economic issues (but with a Trinidadian twist – Indian-Trinidadian issues), etc.  There is the obvious influence of and homage to Trinidadian literature, alluded to by Viveka in the course of her literary studies (especially Naipaul: “He is like a painter, Elliott, but with words.  He uses landscape as a metaphor,” p. 149 – and certain Naipaulian elements can be seen in VD too, which also “uses landscape as a metaphor,” and in its depiction of the Krishnu household as a locus of familial tensions that are also representative of social tensions – used by Naipaul in A House for Mr Biswas).  She also mentions Jean Rhys, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kinkaid, etc (p. 99) – VD’s version of the marriage novel, involving a strong-willed, tempestuous and frustrated woman, has slight echoes of Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea.

            However, like with most if not all the novels on our module, in VD there are elements of influences from other literatures in English too.  Mootoo was born in Ireland, grew up in Trinidad and spent a large part of her adult life in Canada, and this may have contributed to her literary influences too.  There is a modernist, internal-psychological element in VD (especially in Part I: San Fernando, 24 Hours); the use of a single day to structure that part of the novel, the internalized landscape of Valmiki’s thoughts, the use of a protagonist who struggles existentially with his marriage and family, all suggest the influence not only of modernist prose in general, but of James Joyce’s Ulysses in particular.  (There is even a passage with Devika reminiscing of the last time she and Valmiki had great sex together, pp. 119-122 – the vividness of a woman’s sensual reflections, the realization at the end that this was only a dreamy recreation of a long-ago event, that suggests Molly Bloom’s similar sexual reverie at the end of Ulysses). 

            Other literary/generic elements: the MC marriage novel (usually involving a woman torn between 2 marriage options: in this case, Anick or Trevor, homosexuality or a version of conventionality); the Bildungsroman or novel of growth/development, in which case the central character would be Viveka and not Valmiki, and the story is a chronicle of her struggle against Indian family expectations and norms, before finally realizing and accepting who she is (i.e. her gay identity, confirmed with the coming of Anick and their relationship); the coming-out-of-closet novel/narrative (Winterson’s Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, or parts of Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia), which typically involves the young protagonist battling alone against the odds of family and society pressure, but ultimately triumphing in being able to define his/her own stand.

            As this list of influences suggests, VD is something of a narrative hodge-podge.  Even the division into parts, each one designated by a place-name (San Fernando; Luminada Heights), but also designated by a time frame (24 hours, 24 days, etc), seems rather arbitrary – the time frames are expanding, but what is the significance of that?  3 sections are titled after places, but Part IV is titled after a character (“Valmiki’s Daughter”) – why the exception?  Part I has a distinctly Joycean, generally stream-of-consciousness style that doesn’t consistently continue (although some of its tonality does) into the other sections.  Why not a single, unsegmented narrative, which is mainly Bildungsroman and coming-out-of-closet (Indo-Trinidadian style) novel, and focusing primarily on Viveka and her consciousness?  Why call the novel “Valmiki’s Daughter”?

              The constructive (and, you might feel, generous) reading is that this is precisely what makes it an Indo-Trinidadian novel: that the novel’s ebb-and-flow style, and heterogeneous structure and influences, is a kind of narrative structural corollary to the island’s insularity, its small size and heterogeneous influences, and the even smaller size and transitory nature of its Indian community.  In this kind of interpretation, the novel is called “Valmiki’s Daughter” because of a kind of notion of historical/psychological/genetic determinism, or original sin, or karma – that it is Valmiki’s life and mistakes that determine Viveka’s (even the parallelism of their names is significant – 3 syllables, beginning with V, with that final k-syllable).  This explains the structure of the first part, the stream-of-consciousness delving into Valmiki’s reprobate life and mistakes, the suggestion that his own sexual orientation was itself shaped by forces out of his control in his childhood (strict and authoritarian Indian parents, the sharp social divide between successful Indo-Trinidadians and all the rest, the corrupting/enticing influence of older boys at his school and overseas, etc).  All this is then echoed and replayed in Viveka’s similar psychological reverie: her sense of guilt over her brother’s death, her secret male alter-ego “Vince” (from Latin “vincit,” victory – the hoped-for victory over societal norms and expectations?  Possible reference to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the ironic Latin tag “Amor Vincit Omnia,” “love conquers all things,” which of course is Viveka’s desideratum with Anick) which suggests her sexual orientation, the other possible causal or influential factors like her guilt over spying her father with the Moretti woman and Viveka’s innocent child’s role in the growing rift between her parents (when she lets slip at the dinner table about her father and the other woman), etc.  Viveka’s problematic and unreliable memory – partly explicable due to the events happening in childhood with a child’s imperfect memory, partly explicable due to the traumatic nature of the events and the continuing trauma of familial dysfunction – could symbolize the troubling nature of history, both familial and national: the fact that we cannot ever escape our history/past (whether colonial influence, slavery, personal trauma, the parents we never get to choose), perhaps never even fully understand it and its influence over us, and yet that influence is undeniably powerful.  In all this, the stream-of-consciousness, slightly surreal style of part I helps extend the symbolic field of meanings, and is an appropriately polysemantic and evocative style for this theme.

            Subsequently (to continue this thread of interpretation) the novel stops the (heavier-duty) stream-of-consciousness because it has served its purpose (in trying to evoke the knotty problem of family and sexual dysfunction), and the novel becomes a more linear Bildungsroman, coming-out-of-closet novel, marriage problem, and family drama, with Viveka more or less at the centre of it all.  Social realism and the more Indo-Trinidadian (Naipaulian?) flavor comes out more clearly.  These strands/elements are rather more compatible with each other: as Viveka tries to work out her own identity, she runs against the grain of family values, which in turn reveal the social fault-lines of Trinidad society (the close-knit, insular and inbred nature of the Indo-Trinidadian community; the racial tensions evoked by Anick, Helen, the Morettis and Saul; the racial and insular insecurities of someone like Nayan).  Viveka’s Bildungsroman and coming-out-of-closet narrative (the 2 are closely intertwined), played out in a marriage problem represented by the choice of Anick or Trevor, is woven into the Krishnu family drama of marital tensions and parental anxieties which in turn (in Naipaulian style) symbolize and gesture at a wider (socio-realist) Trinidadian society and its crises.

            To say that VD is a heterogeneous and varied novel whose structure in some ways mimics the similarly heterogeneous and fluid Trinidadian reality may seem a bit over-ingenious, a bit of an over-reading.  Yet whether or not Mootoo intended this, whether or not we like the novel, such a reading answers the perennial problem of how a narrative can be expected to convey the pluralities inherent in many societies in the global era – including Singapore’s. 

 

Gender, Sexuality and the Indian Diaspora

Sex, yet again (cp. GST, Body, Immigrant, and even bits of Londonstani and TWT – but especially Body and Immigrant).  The common strands (with the other novels) are the sense of the problematisation of bodies in the global era: whether as a laboring “thing” (Balram’s father in TWT) or as the diseased (again, abject/laboring) body (syphilis in CC), or as the object of sexual desire that is prostituted (Leo in Body), or as the subject of nascent sexual explorations and desires (Nina in Immigrant), bodies become foregrounded, inconvenient, agitated, “rough” in various ways.  In other words, the focus on (problematic) bodies in Indian Anglophone diasporic literature is an interrogation of or challenge to the simplistic notions of seamless migration, “upgrading” oneself through labour or professional transnationalism, abstract and smooth cosmopolitan elitism, the Asian MC assumption of generational upgrading, etc. 

            The sexualized version of this problematic has at least 2 main components: the Indian component, and the Western (liberal, permissive, individualistic, capitalist) one.  It is as if both elements are at war within the diasporic Indian, for control over that body and identity.  Indian society (in India) is relatively conservative in sexual terms: notwithstanding the contrary evidence of adultery, divorce, the recent prominent rapes in major urban centres like Delhi, and the age-old phenomena of “caste rapes” and ritual eunuchs (“hijras”), as a whole Indian society is strongly heteronormative in terms of sexuality, and emphasizes the extended family and ties of parental authority and filial respect.  Homosexuality in India, as in many Asian countries, has been much slower to come out in the open and find societal acceptance, than in Western countries like the U.S., Canada and Australia.  There is of course a pronounced double-standard in sexual mores in India, with men able to get away with a lot more (adultery, visiting prostitutes, keeping mistresses) than women are.  Female sexuality is still believed to be subject to the husband’s control, and largely intended for procreation and starting families. 

            In contrast (as the careers of Nina in Immigrant and Viveka in VD show), Western (or non-Indian) notions of sexuality are much more egalitarian in recognizing female sexual desire and volition.  This extends not only to women having different sexual partners (before and even within marriage), but also the separation of sex and procreation, and more recently the choice of sexual orientation (not merely hetero, but also homosexuality and bisexuality).  If Nina shows the dilemma of an Indian woman liberated in Canada – free to choose, but also torn by the Indian impulse to stay within the marriage, be faithful, have children, locate that identity within an extended Indian family connected back to India as well – then Viveka shows the dilemma of the Indo-Trinidadian woman who is as much Western and Indian, who sees the sham nature of her Indian parents’ “traditional” marriage and family, and acknowledges the currents of other sexual/lifestyle choices that come from the West.  That it is a Western, i.e. non-Indian, influence, seems to be suggested by the cultural geography of the novel: Valmiki’s homosexual flirtations take place in Trinidad, but his most lasting experience is with Tony, while studying at Med School in England.  This affair abroad is seen as a kind of spatial hiatus:

When he was at medical college, he had known that his particular bond with Tony would have to end.  He had known that upon qualifying he would return home – to Trinidad, that is – and marry.  (p. 66).

Tony, too – an Indian from Goa, suggesting a Eurasian of probably mixed Indian-Portuguese blood – is seen in very Western terms:

Tony had grey eyes, unusual for an Indian, and he had short curly hair.  He reminded Valmiki of sculptures of Grecian young men he had seen in the museums. (p. 55)

And even Saul, Valmiki’s current male lover in Trinidad, is of mixed blood, his difference from pure-blood Indians made clear:

The pupils of Saul’s eyes were a yellowish brown and light always seemed to emit from them.  They reminded him of Tony’s grey eyes….It was precisely the fact that he was partly of African origin that heightened the unlikeliness of there being a bond between the two men, and that drew Valmiki to accept Saul’s invitation. (p. 56)

 

The figure of Anick: is Mootoo stacking the cards against the West, in some ways?  There seems to be no shortage of White women, in the small community of Trinidad, who are willing to sleep with Valmiki, making him commit adultery and hurting his family, and presumably (at least in the case of Pia Moretti) themselves committing adultery and hurting their own families too.  In contrast, Indian women in the novel (apart from Viveka, and the ominous Merle Bedi) are invariably seen as family-oriented, yearning for their wayward husbands, seeking to present an image of family stability and solidarity, and invariably heterosexual (Devika, young Vashti, the wives of Devika’s social circle, the “quiet” and docile wife of Nayan’s friend Baldwin, even Saul’s wife whatever her racial background, presumably Indo- or Afro-Trinidadian).  Yet Anick is the ultimate temptation for Viveka, beautiful, unhappily married, available, keen on a relationship with Viveka – a kind of two-dimensional depiction of sexual licence:

Anick was smiling mischievously now.  “You know us French girls,” she said, seemingly out of nowhere, her voice soft and trembling, “We like both.” (p. 295)

The novel thus seems to create a sexual-cultural geography in which a “proper” or pure Indian sphere (inherently conservative, heterosexual, family-oriented) is tempted or seduced by a non-Indian one (French, Goan, or resulting from the mix of races and cultures in Trinidad).  Trinidad thus becomes a microcosm of the Indian diaspora, in which the “outside,” non-Indian sphere is from the individual’s (Viveka, Valmiki) point of view a temptation, but from a wider socio-cultural point of view a source of cultural destabilization, familial unhappiness, marital and social stress.

            To this end, the novel’s use of the jungle imagery is significant.  The Trinidadian jungle or forest is aligned with sexual desire, particularly with the exploration of one’s innermost desires and sexual alterity.  The jungle is where Valmiki’s carnivalesque hunting parties with Saul and friends – a kind of temporary, licenced escape from normal conventions and expectations – take place.  On one occasion, when Saul and his other friends are not around and Valmiki is alone, he almost gives in to a primal fear and bloodlust and shoots a hiding dog, only to realize that he is being watched by another person:

He suffered an acute shame, like a schoolboy caught in the act of doing something wrong.  He had he real, albeit fleeting thought, of turning the gun on himself, if only to handle his self-inflicted humiliation. (p. 79)

The jungle is both actually and symbolically a place of baser instincts (Id?), those that the more rational and conventional self (Ego? Superego?) rejects and feels shame at.

            Anick, at Chayu, invokes a similar sense of the jungle, explicitly paralleling her feelings with those of Valmiki: “Your father, he like the forest, no?” (p. 293).  Viveka’s first response to the forest of Chayu is fear, but penetrates the forest with Anick out of a greater fear of appearing conventional and small-minded in Anick’s eyes: “She could not bear to show this timidity now, though, for fear that she would seem like Nayan” (p. 293).  For Anick, the forest is the space to forge her own identity, feeding her own peculiar sexual appetites, apart from the conventional expectations of Nayan and his family:

Anick pulled Viveka’s head toward her, and before Viveka had time to be really sure that Anick had actually kissed the back of her head, Anick released her hands from over Viveka’s eyes….

“Nayan would kill me if he know I feed the rabbits,” said Anick.  “But they so adorable.  The land is big enough for everybody, not so?” (p. 294)

It may well be that the jungle – and only the jungle – is the final refuge for non-conformist souls on the tiny island/society of Trinidad.  Yet it is debatable if the land is indeed “big enough for everybody,” which may be why Viveka decides to go through with marriage and emigration, at least temporarily.  Also, VD depicts the jungle also as a place of “fear” and “shame,” for both Valmiki and Viveka: alternative/deep sexual identity is liberated in space (a metaphor also for diasporas, transnationalisms), but that liberation may involve a confrontation with something inside oneself (now set free from conventional Indian society) that one may not necessarily want to accept.  The novel’s ending, and Viveka’s final decision, is thus an understandable deferral.

 

Irresolute Endings: Schizophrenia, Insularity, Globalization

GST: “Naaley,” chronological jumps/liberties, the little girl lost in global translation (Rahel)

TWT: the dislocating effect of the quasi-epistolary novel, and the morally disorienting nature of the “entrepreneur” (and his readers) – what will be the further adventures of Balram, and can the reader take much more?

CC: the cacophony of global voices, seeming to lack order, meaning, identity – who did Mangala become?  Who will Antar become?  Why is Murugan lost in virtual limbo (and not, say, Antar or one of the others)?

Londonstani: the plot twist of Jas’ “passing,” the flux of identity within a global order (epitomized in the teenager’s constant re-negotiation of labels such as “rudeboy,” “coconut,” “gimp,” “batty,” “Muslim,” “Hindi,” “Sikh,” “Christian,” white, etc.

Body: the crashing and persistent confluence of Mark/Adam/Leo, who continues running at the end of the novel, unable to return “home,” yet unsure of where to go next

Immigrant: freedom from “India” and familial ties, gaining Western credentials and freedom, is a kind of “terrible freedom,” a realization that from this point onwards, perhaps only transitory positions are possible, never the security of permanence, stability, community.

 

To all this we can add the confirmatory evidence of VD: Viveka doesn’t exactly clarify her sexual orientation, doesn’t get what she really wants (a life and relationship with Anick), and appeases her family somewhat by marrying Trevor.  Yet this is not exactly the triumph of Indian and conventional values either: Trevor knows and supports her sexual orientation, they are leaving Trinidad for Canada, and there is an implicit understanding that this is merely a temporary relationship, the marriage, presents and family understanding/expectations notwithstanding.  Sexual positions, like place of abode, become negotiable and transitory things in this global order.  Her position is in many ways similar to Nina’s in Immigrant (conditional or paradoxical freedom), or Leo’s in Body (the commodification of the body in globalization, which permits movement/freedom, but also makes it the object of control/power).

            At one level, this is very much an individual’s story (a Bildungsroman, a coming-out-of-closet story); at another level, however, Viveka represents Indo-Trinidadian society, which in many (though maybe not all) ways can in turn stand for other diasporas in the globalized world.  Globalisation brings a bewildering range of choices to individuals: not just material consumer choices, but ideological and sexual ones as well.  (In this sense, sexual liberation and sexual alternatives are not a “Western” influence, but a global/capitalist one).  Those choices are frightening, not only because they involve a rejection/loss of the conventional/traditional identities and values which had produced us, but also because they may resonate with primal fears and desires within us.  Globalisation aligns itself with individualism and choice, because those are discourses which suit its ideology; however, it is not interested in the moral, spiritual, psychological fears, anxieties and dilemmas which those choices may open up in us.

            Schizophrenic/deferred endings are common because individuals, when they finally stand at the crossroads introduced by diasporas and globalization, realize that they are also standing at the brink of an abyss that was introduced (but also disregarded) by globalization.  If schizophrenia is an inability to find one’s way back to one’s origins and roots, it is also a fear and paralysis in the face of the spiritual cost of moving forward incessantly within globalization, of becoming part of the “smooth surface” of the body without organs.