Reader, she married him

Jeremy Taylor on Raise the Lanterns High, by Lakshmi Persaud


Issue No. 3 – February 2005

Raise the Lanterns High by Lakshmi Persaud (BlackAmber Books, ISBN 1-901969-20-7, 354 pp)

Lakshmi Persaud’s first three novels — Butterfly in the Wind (1990), Sastra (1993), and For the Love of My Name (1999) — showed a steady growth in range and confidence. But her fourth is problematic. It continues the exploration of her central themes, especially the conflict between custom and change in Indian Trinidad. It is a gentle, thoughtful, compassionate book. Its heart is in the right place. Its material is innovative, linking 1960s Trinidad and an unnamed kingdom of north India about a century and a half earlier. The moral dilemmas it presents are urgent and gripping. And yet somehow it ducks the central challenge that it lays out.

That challenge is presented at two levels. In the late 1960s, against the distant backdrop of hippiedom and flower power, Pasea village in Trinidad is still terrified of change. The arranged marriage, the submission of self to the requirements and expectations of family, community and custom — all this is still the norm. Persaud — whose family came to the same area of Trinidad from Uttar Pradesh in the 1890s — herself pays tribute to her mother’s “understanding of duty and responsibility, loyalty, and devotion to her husband, children, relatives and neighbours”, and the insights she drew from them.
In the book, schoolteacher Vasti, at 27 well past the expected age for marriage, has a problem with the wedding being arranged for her. She is spirited and independent-minded and far from happy at having her life externally defined. She also stumbles on the knowledge that her fiancée Karan is the same man she saw, many years earlier, raping a girl in a canefield. Vasti thus embodies the possibility of revolt against the entrenched custom of negotiated wedlock, at the cost of bringing down humiliation on her mother and her family by breaking off the marriage and revealing what she knows.

The pressure of this dilemma brings her to a breakdown and a prolonged vision which occupies the central part of the book. She is transported back as an invisible watcher to a north Indian state whose king has just died; his three queens are expected to burn themselves on his funeral pyre in the act known as “suttee”. Thus the queens also embody the possibility of refusing to comply with custom and expectation: they can live on in neglect and contempt for refusing to do their duty, escape to a new life, or find some entirely new role for themselves and other royal widows to come.

The parallel between Vasti and the Indian queens is obvious enough. It is their resolution that brings problems. Lakshmi Persaud develops the queens’ dilemma well, and vividly imagines the ambience of a royal household of two centuries ago (the dating is frustratingly imprecise, and depends on which textual clue you follow). She captures the intrigue and self-seeking that attend any court, even the most devout.

Through contemporary eyes, the ancient practice of “suttee” may look merely barbaric: it certainly suited kings to get their predecessors’ queens out of the way. It was banned in British India in 1829, and had disappeared from the other Indian states by about 1860. But it had its rationale. It was thought that the dead king needed his consorts in death as much as in life, since he expected to spend 35 million years in heaven with the gods; queenly self-immolation honoured a king’s life, guaranteed a heavenly future for the widow (not to mention rebirth as a male), and also secured ritual purification for the king. After the flames, the widow was supposedly restored to her “former wholeness . . . [and her] former beauty, youth, memory, and mind” so that “conjugal bliss in heaven” would in no way be diminished by scorchmarks or ash.

For many pages, Persaud’s queens debate the question of sacrificial duty versus more useful activity, such as founding a school for girls. In the Rig Veda, “suttee” is seen as symbolic, not literal; besides — as we see here — not every pundit even believes in an afterlife, for suttees or anyone else. The queens eventually opt for escape, and head for the port city where ships take people away to a new life in another land, where (they imagine) “we would establish our own rules and live by them, not follow those of other men which lead to our destruction”.

Fired with this spirit of revolt, the reader rather expects Vasti to follow suit when she returns from her Indian coma and awakens to the reality of her imminent wedding to the rapist. But not a bit of it. Vasti arises determined to “overcome other feelings and let the wedding be as her mother and sister would wish”. She contents herself with rewriting the Hindu wedding vows so as to “direct the path ahead
. . . This in itself will place markers that Karan will have to note”.

The reader is entitled to some scepticism here. Karan is the rapist described in the book’s opening paragraph. He has been described as smug, he has been seen drooling after other women, and we have seen his family’s plans for Vasti and the programme of subjugation that his sisters have prepared for her. Karan has his own ideas about Vasti’s supposed independence of mind: “To bridle such a spirit, to lead it into submission to his own wishes, was an exciting and alluring prospect.” Vasti herself has declared: “I cannot marry Karan Walli . . . He is arrogant, cruel, and empty . . . Let me choose the direction my life should go . . . My very life, they are saying, is not mine . . . I will not hand it over to Karan Walli. I will not lose it.”

But that is exactly what she does. Unlike the Indian queens, she rejects escape, telling herself she can “assist the next generation . . . Change is best absorbed when it evolves”. She puts self-immolation above self-realisation; the avoidance of scandal justifies the deferment of change. She willingly climbs upon the crackling pyre.

The denial of self, and especially the subjugation of women to men, is one of the unmistakable themes of the book, and Persaud has spoken cogently about it. An earlier dream of Vasti’s had revealed to her the horrors of Chinese infant foot-binding and African female circumcision; her Indian dream showed her some of the evils of caste and the treatment of untouchables. Yet here Persaud seems to want it both ways. Against overwhelming pressure of custom and duty, the queens decide to escape and start a new life; but against the same pressure at village level, Vasti caves in, with the feeble excuse that she is making it easier for the next generation to change. (Karan, one feels, will see about that.) This regression leaves a strong feeling of anti-climax: after 300 pages of groundwork, Pasea village is not ready for change after all. It’s business as usual.

The failure to make Vasti’s submission convincing is the problem with the book. It may be that Persaud wants to say that respect for mother and family justified (at least, 40 years ago) even the self-erasure that a bad and probably violent marriage would involve. But redefining respect to include deeper honesty and communication is precisely the task for which Vasti was apparently created, and it is hard to see why Persaud has her deny it.

It must have been tempting to make more of the India-Trinidad link: Trinidad seems to be where the fleeing queens and pundits are heading, Vasti has a wardrobe once owned by a disgraced Indian queen who refused “suttee”, and one of her own ancestors supposedly did the same (“Had there been others, mutineers all?”). But it was probably wise to resist these distractions from the main story, whose concerns are primarily moral. The image of the lantern, raised literally or symbolically against moral darkness, works well.

Persaud’s change of publisher (she was previously published by Peepal Tree Press) has not served her well. More attentive text editing would have cut some of the overlong scenes of debate, fixed some bizarre punctuation, and addressed the often wooden dialogue. And while the Indian queens’ discussions are exhaustively described, some of the crucial narrative shifts (Queen Dayita’s attitude to her junior, Pundit Krishna’s machinations) could have done with more elucidation.