Lakshmi Seeteram-Persaud: Raisin her lantern high

via Trinidad ExpressBy Gerard Best

Wednesday, December 8th 2004

"I DISCOVERED that as a man and as an Indian I had no rights. More correctly I discovered that I had no rights as a man because I was an Indian."

Spoken by Mahatma Gandhi in The Great Trial of 1922, these words came to mind as Dr Bhoendradatt Tewarie, University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus Principal reviewed Raise The Lanterns High (Peepal Tree, 2004), the latest offering from Dr Lakshmi Seeteram-Persaud.

The author was on hand at the University's Learning Resource Centre to hear Tewarie deliver the feature address at the launch of her new book. Also present in the audience were several high-profile public figures, including the guest of honour, Dr Linda Baboolal, President of the Senate and Zalayhar Hassanali, wife of the former president Noor Hassanali.

"I think the message of the novel is that there is no such thing as a perfect world, nor will there ever be," said Tewarie. "The challenge is not how to make the world perfect but how to find happiness and purposefulness in an imperfect world. The challenge is how to make a better world for others even if one has to sacrifice oneself."

It was a statement with which both Persaud and Gandhi could perhaps agree.

Raise The Lanterns High tells the story of Vasti, a recent university graduate for whom arrangements are being made to marry a young doctor from a well-known, respected family. All is well until Vasti realises to her horror that the man she is to marry is the same man whom she witnessed raping one of her schoolmates in a cane field years before. Faced with the dilemma of marrying or exposing this man, Vasti becomes extremely ill. In a state of high fever, she drifts far away to another time and place, namely Dyortika of the previous century, where three queens must prepare for suttee on the king's pyre.

Suttee, which literally means "faithful wife," is the former Indian funeral practice in which the widow immolated herself on her husband's funeral pyre. The author, whose grandparents moved to the Caribbean from India in the 1890's, is intent on challenging this and other aspects of the Hindu tradition. The core issues of the novel are what Tewarie called "the fundamental challenges for any traditional culture in the modern age."

As Tewarie explained, "At the centre of the story is an examination of Hindu tradition, culture and practice in the modern world and a plea for rationality while acknowledging the beauty and sophistication of aspects of Hindu culture that are of such value to those that are within the fold."

The main body of the story is set in Trinidad of the 1960's. The question of an arranged marriage is therefore raised in the context of a world in which decolonisation, political independence and public education were already combining to open up realms of opportunity to formerly oppressed women (and men) across the world. The story's flipside, in Dyortika, is set in the nineteenth century, at a time when the Age of Reason swept across Europe, promoting religious tolerance, celebrating the powers of human reason and safeguarding individual liberties, especially freedom of thought.

It is this "juxtaposition of rational free choice and conformity to tradition (which) make the dilemma sharper and more poignant," said the UWI Pro Vice Chancellor, pointing that it was the Hindu tradition which connected India and Trinidad and which was the target of the Tunapuna-born author's exploration in the novel.

"The author is able to create characters who speak from within the tradition This makes Raise The Lanterns High at once an intellectually stimulating novel as well as a moving story of individual choice This is a book which celebrates, explores and questions Indian civilization. This is a book which speaks to the uneasiness of the young Hindu growing up in the midst of Western civilization. This is a book about the Indian women wrestling to come to terms with tradition and modernity."

Author of three previous novels, Sastra (2003), For The Love Of My Name (2000) and Butterfly In The Wind (1990), Persaud smiled when Tewarie, the former Head of the University's English Department, described her latest work as, "a woman's book, presenting the woman's perspective in a world in which all the rules are made by men."

"But this is not a book about victims and victimisers," Tewarie added, "It is about strong women who add to the family and the community, who are educated and enlightened, who are thought leaders in their respective domains and who would be leaders in any environment but who lack the power to live their lives as they would prefer."

A former teacher of Geography, Latin and Math at SAGHS and then at Bishop Anstey High School, Persaud left Trinidad to do her BA (Hons) and her PhD at Queen's University, Belfast and her post-graduate diploma in Education at Reading University, UK. Earlier this year, the University of Warwick's Centre for Caribbean Studies and Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies established a fellowship in Indo Caribbean Literature in her honour.