Review of 'Raise the Lanterns High'
by Professor Frank Birbalsingh,
York University, Toronto. Canada.
Trinidad and tobago Review, Vol 26 No11, November 1st, 2004.
Raise the Lanterns High is the author's fourth novel; it follows Butterfly in the Wind (1990), Sastra (1993), and For the Love of my Name (1999), and suggests that Trinidadian Lakshmi Persaud is the most productive novelist among a group of contemporary, Indo-Caribbean women writers that includes Ramabai Espinet and Shani Mootoo from Trinidad and Tobago, and Oonya Kempadoo and Narmala Shewcharan from Guyana. Her earlier novels reveal Ms. Persaud's skill in evoking idyllic, Indo-Caribbean rusticity, her penchant for gothic romance, and mastery of political and economic analysis; but while her fourth novel relies on some of these skills, it introduces a more ambitious narrative that blends an account of Hindu marriage rituals with a dream-like invocation of other Hindu conventions in nineteenth century India, and a more contemporary polemic that advocates liberation for women from sexist customs and traditions.
Lanterns opens in 1955 with a dramatic, if shocking scene of voyeurism in which the narrator, a twelve year old school girl, Vasti Nadir, uses binoculars to observe the rape of another school girl in a sugar cane field. Although Vasti cannot make out the identity either of the rapist or his victim, she detects the rapist's ring which has an eagle with a scroll engraved on its back. Since the cover of the novel reveals crucial elements of the plot, it gives nothing away to say that this clue helps the narrator, years later, after she has returned with her degree from university studies in Britain, to identify the rapist as the very man chosen by her family, according to traditional, Hindu rites, to be her husband.
Vasti's ensuing dilemma forms the first part of the twofold plot of the novel: whether she should marry her chosen fiancÚ, Karan Walli, a medical doctor, despite what she knows about him, or whether she should cancel the elaborate wedding plans, and give offence both to her own family and the family of her intended husband. The second part of the plot dramatises theoretical issues that underlie Vasti's dilemma through the evocation of scenes from the nineteenth century Indian kingdom of Jyotika, and discussion of the Hindu custom of suttee which required wives to immolate themselves on the funeral pyre of their husbands, during their cremation. The two parts of the plot are united, for example, by their discussion of Hindu conventions, and by scenes from India in which Indian characters are shown, ready to take the plunge, and venture overseas as indentured labourers, after they suffer disappointment or misfortune at home.
The novel's chief theme - sexism - is broached by Vasti, early on, when she suggests to her older sister Pushpa that, in conventional Hindu marriage, the wife becomes: "a decorated house servant. A household slave. Nothing more." (p.41) This idea of women's victimisation or oppression grows upon Vasti as she reflects on examples of sexism in other cultures, for example, in ancient Peru where it was the custom to sacrifice young Inca women to the gods; and she wonders about the source of the belief that renders: "females less worthy than males".(p.51) As narrator, Vasti admits that what she calls "biology" (p.51) may be one source, but another is: "the denial to women of the martial tradition of power, choice and control". (p.51) Queen Meena, one of the wives of Paresh, King of Jyotika, also observes that a wife's existence is engineered to serve her husband's, and asks: "Is this ordained by God or by men?" (p.131) This, surely, is the fundamental question: whether unequal sexual roles, between male and female, are "biological", in the sense that they are dictated by natural, physiological differences between men and women, or whether they are imposed by man- made rules of social convention. The trouble is that the question becomes difficult when we consider the intimate, historical encoding of perceived inequalities between men and women, not only in secular conventions but also in religious texts, the world over.
Toward the end of the novel, however, again in discussion with Pushpa, Vasti declares it is not the ancient Hindu texts that are to blame for women's victimisation: "Considering how old these [marriage] vows are, we must blame the interpreters of our sacred texts for the low position that women have been forced into". (p.321) The result is that after much introspection, discussion and self-questioning, Vasti agrees to marry Dr. Karan Walli, but only after she makes some changes to the prescribed, time-honoured vows of Hindu marriage. Vasti deletes rules such as: "the bridegroom's need to assist her parents if hard times befall them" (p.322) in an obvious attempt to update the rules without altering their basic aim of offering practical guidelines for a successful marriage.
In the end, though, rather than condemn old traditions, the novel seems to act as a diplomatic arbiter between old and new. Some contemporary feminists might wish Vasti to take a stronger stand against her future husband, but Lanterns is pervaded by a tone of sweet reasonableness that discourages any hint of stridency. Not that Vasti's stand, or the author's, for that matter, is unrealistic or fantastical. The author acknowledges, for instance, the existence of a corrupt court, politicians, middle-ranking officers and clerics in the Kingdom of Jyotika. But the title of the novel advertises ideals which Vashti describes as: "our lanterns in the dark", and suggests that: "we need to raise them high on the roads engineered by men". (p.42) Thus, while the novel makes an open-and-shut case for women's liberation, what remains in the reader's mind is the author's formidable powers of research, her concrete record of the preparations, negotiations and rituals in a Hindu marriage, her brilliant re-creation of the suspense, adventure and intrigue of an Indian princely state, nearly two hundred years ago, and her solid documentation of Indo-Caribbean women's experience in the middle of the twentieth century.