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Freedom from Sugarcane Hell: An Interview with Vinod Busjeet


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Photo: Sushant Sehgal.

I met Vinod Busjeet a few summers ago in Denver, where several of us writers of Indian origin found ourselves together in a workshop at the Lighthouse Lit Fest. I remember thinking his elegance and erudition were impressive. But what lingered in my mind was a detail from the work he had submitted to the class, the closing chapter of a bildungsroman, now published as Silent Winds, Dry Seas. The protagonist, Vishnu Bhushan, takes enormous pride in his delicate hands. A scholarship student from the island of Mauritius, off the coast of East Africa, he refuses a work-study job washing dishes in a Yale dining hall. Manual labor is abhorrent to him. At first, I found his fastidiousness comical. Then I realized that Vishnu dreads working with his hands because he fears it will bind him metaphorically to the servitude of his Indian ancestors on Mauritian sugar estates. “Sugarcane hell” is how one of Vishnu’s cousins, still tied to the land, describes the backbreaking labor of cutting woody stalks of cane.

Busjeet’s literary debut at the age of seventy-one is surprising. After leaving Mauritius to study in the U.S., he settled in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., and worked for the private-sector arm of the World Bank, where he focused on developing economies. Far from the corridors of power, his fictional alter ego, Vishnu, grows up in the conflicted world of midcentury Mauritius, part of a rambunctious, feuding clan rising out of poverty into small jobs. Descended from indentured laborers, they live in scruffy neighborhoods among the Creole descendants of enslaved people, escape into drink and the comfort of Hindu rituals, pinning their hopes on their children winning scholarships to study abroad.

Unfortunately, little fiction has been produced in English about Indian communities rooted in indenture, though V. S. Naipaul’s brilliant early novels of Trinidad stand out. The British devised this shadow form of slavery immediately after abolishing the African slave trade in 1833, in order to continue reaping profits from their plantations all over the world. More than a million dispossessed Indian villagers were shipped out to far-flung sugar colonies. Overwork and physical abuse crippled the lives of these men and women. Nearly half a million indentured workers landed in Mauritius, laboring for French Mauritian and British planters whose greed transformed the island into the world’s biggest sugar factory for a time. Busjeet’s novel offers a rare view of the society that evolved from this brutish system.

In May and June, Busjeet and I spoke by phone and exchanged emails about what it takes to reconstruct a faraway childhood, laugh off old pain, and reckon with the dark legacy of colonialism.

INTERVIEWER

You turned to writing after a long career in development banking. Did you ever think about becoming a writer early on?

BUSJEET

In Mauritius, writing was the last thing you’d think of doing. I went to what is considered the best high school there, Royal College, but I don’t recall anyone talking about embracing writing as a career. My father was literate—he knew Shakespeare—but my mother was basically illiterate. She had only two years of primary school. Then, in her old age, she started learning to read and write Hindi. The orientation was making a living, you know? If you were Franco-Mauritian, the world of business was yours. The Hindus, Muslims, and Creoles went into the liberal professions—doctor, engineer, lawyer. Writing was a kind of luxury. Most people I knew didn’t read for pleasure. They read for exams, and once exams were over, they didn’t read. The top writer in Mauritius at the time was a guy called Malcolm de Chazal. He was regarded as a madman.

INTERVIEWER

So once you began writing, you decided on an autobiographical novel?

BUSJEET

Silent Winds, Dry Seas started as a memoir. Then I realized fiction would allow for compression. I could cover a lot of events in one chapter. I could turn four cousins into one. And I could use my imagination to develop my characters. The story begins in 1949, the year of my birth, and ends with Mauritius’s independence, in 1968—and then there’s a last chapter in America. It’s a novel about family conflict—honor, khandan—and political conflict.

INTERVIEWER

What lay behind the impulse to write a memoir? What did you hope to memorialize about your life?

BUSJEET

I started looking at myself and trying to make sense of my life. That led me to think about Mauritian society and the relationships among the various groups in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. I go to Mauritius every eighteen months, and I realized there were parts of Mauritian history, namely the events leading to independence, that the younger generation is not familiar with. I would even say there is a desire to avoid confronting the ethnic riots that took place in 1965 and 1968. I can understand that because Mauritius is a multiracial country. There’s a fear of reopening old wounds. Sometimes you don’t want to confront the past, because what if it leads to people pointing fingers?

INTERVIEWER

Does that have to do with the historical relationship between indentured laborers and formerly enslaved people? After emancipation, the Franco-Mauritians and others who owned the plantations replaced enslaved people with indentured laborers from India. Was indenture slavery by another name?

BUSJEET

Indenture was a form of slavery, but there was a major difference. Enslaved people were deprived of their identity. They were not free to practice their religion, which was called superstition or sorcery by slave owners and the Catholic Church. They could not keep their languages or names. Their owners sometimes gave them horrible names to humiliate them. Mauritian slave owners appear to have been vicious in this regard. The enslaved people lost knowledge of their origins, their cultural memories. Indian indentured laborers were allowed to keep their names and traditions. They had the option of returning to India at the end of their five-year contract. Most stayed on in Mauritius, which suggests conditions there were probably better than back in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.

In the fifties, when I was growing up, most of the Creoles identified with French culture rather than African culture. They shared a common Catholic identity with Franco-Mauritians. During the independence movement, the Creoles did not support independence, while the descendants of Indian indentured laborers did. The anti-independence party, financed by Franco-Mauritian sugar barons, raised the fear of Hindu hegemony among the Creole and Muslim minorities. They would say, “If Mauritius gets independence, you Creole guys will be forced to wear the dhoti.” The dhoti became the symbol of Hindu domination. That was the propaganda of the opposition.

There’s a chapter in the book called “Tamasha” that explores the conflict between Creoles and Hindus. They both feel their ethnic and religious identity threatened. Then the orator Harold Walter says to them, “You should unite, you Creoles and Hindus, because you are brothers in suffering.”

INTERVIEWER

When you were growing up, what did you know about your ancestors who were brought over from India to work in the cane fields?

BUSJEET

My parents would talk about them in very general terms. They could never describe specific things except about their own parents. But the British kept good archives. You can google them now. On my father’s side, I have my great-great-grandfather’s immigration number. I know that he had a mark on the back of his right shoulder. I know the name of his father. I know he came in March 1853 at the age of seventeen. I know the name of his village, the zillah, the pargana, the port of origin, the ship he was on, the ship number, the date of arrival. I can give all that to you now. I can do the same on my mother’s side.

INTERVIEWER

They probably didn’t know what they were getting into.

BUSJEET

They were people who were escaping something—punishment or oppression. But probably this guy at seventeen wanted some adventure. That’s possible, too. People were told various stories. Some say the ancestors were told, If you go to Mauritius and clear the stones from the field, you’ll find gold underneath.

Most Mauritians don’t know what led their ancestors to leave India, but they believe some kind of deception was involved. I know the dates when mine came, but no one knows what their motivations were. I know this guy arrived in Mauritius on March 29, 1853. He was sent to work in a sugar factory three days later.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t know which sugar factory? Or what happened to him after that?

BUSJEET

No.

INTERVIEWER

In the novel, Vishnu occasionally interacts with his Creole neighbors, but we see almost nothing of white Franco-Mauritians. Why is that?

BUSJEET

They live in the mansions. I refer to the white community as “hermetically closed.” There are two groups, the “ti blanc” and the “grand blanc.” “Ti” is a diminutive for “petit.” The “ti blanc” is the less well-to-do white guy. He works overseeing a sugarcane factory. He is not considered blue-blooded enough to enter the Dodo Club. The others—we don’t know anything about their lives. Well, we know they have yachts. They can go overseas every year. They have a lavish lifestyle—let’s put it that way. The fact that they control the economy creates some resentment and problems. But they are the community that has been there the longest. There were no indigenous people in Mauritius.

INTERVIEWER

Although England ruled Mauritius for more than a hundred fifty years, a strong French influence seems to prevail. It’s not like Naipaul’s Trinidad, which bears the imprint of British colonial culture.

BUSJEET

The British fought the French over Mauritius, because whoever controlled the island controlled the strategic trade route to India. When Britain took over, in 1810, they agreed to respect the Code Napoléon and the French language. The education system is bilingual, English and French. Our language at home is Kreol, which is French mixed with Indian and Arabic words. The culture is French and Indian, rather than British and Indian. I still listen to French radio, read Le Monde and Le Figaro.

There are world-class Mauritian writers in the French-speaking world, like Marie-Thérèse Humbert, Nathacha Appanah, and Ananda Devi, a novelist whose books are taught in French universities. And then there’s Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, a Mauritian of French origin, who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature.

INTERVIEWER

You apprenticed for a number of years with Edward P. Jones in his undergraduate writing classes. What was that like?

BUSJEET

I live in D.C. and he teaches creative writing at George Washington University. If you’re a neighbor of GW and over sixty, you can audit courses for sixty-five dollars a semester. Initially, he was not keen on me attending the class. “I’ve had very bad experiences with auditors,” he told me. But then he saw that I was writing about people descended from indentured laborers who were not so different from the characters he’s written about. He could see I’m not the son of a maharaja. He had some empathy for me.

Over time, I workshopped the whole novel in his classes. It was an opportunity to work with a master. And being with undergraduates gave me a feel for what young people read and how they think.

INTERVIEWER

How did you find your way back imaginatively to your childhood? What was involved in resurrecting that past? You were writing from a distance of ten thousand miles and half a century.

BUSJEET

Over the years, whenever I had some free time, I would write down incidents I remembered. My memory isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty good. Also, whenever I went back to Mauritius, I would talk to my classmates and members of my family, and memories would come back. My classmates tend to reminisce about the same things over and over again—the experiences we shared. Maybe that’s part of getting older.

I brought back all my high school copybooks and reread all my literature essays. I was trying to see what life was like in those days. In fact, I’m in my office now, and I’m looking at those copybooks in a corner. That’s a kind of record.

INTERVIEWER

What did writing from this vantage point reveal to you about your beginnings?

BUSJEET

We tend to romanticize our childhoods. In fact, mine wasn’t that romantic. It was tough living in Mauritius in those days. When I was growing up, I didn’t think about how socially repressive Mauritian society is. You are subject to a lot of pressure in terms of how you behave, who you talk to, who you associate with. In the Hindu community there’s a strict moral code, and if you break that code, there are consequences. There are families where, if the woman commits adultery, she will become an outcast, even to her own parents. A bit like Puritan society in the U.S. The Creole community is different. But Hindus tend to associate with Hindus, and Creoles with Creoles. Although where I lived was primarily a Creole town, because my father was a schoolteacher there. In the past, the towns and cities were more Creole and the countryside Hindu and Muslim.

INTERVIEWER

I was wondering about the titles you’ve given the chapters in your novel. They’re mostly fun and lighthearted, like “A Haircut on the Beach” or “The Incident at Madame Lolo,” and yet painful, brutal conflicts occur in these pages. Was it your intention to soften the harshness of your characters’ experiences with a sense of whimsy?

BUSJEET

Maybe it enables you to deal with such darkness. You need to have the ability to laugh at it and laugh at yourself as well. Otherwise it’s too hard to cope. You could say it’s a kind of defense mechanism.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve also done something playful and inventive by inserting a poem between each of the chapters, which I haven’t seen before in a novel. Why did you decide to do that?

BUSJEET

A poem’s a very compressed way of saying a lot of things. If you take my poem “The Man with the Glass Eye,” you could write it out as a story. But a poem allows you to cover as much ground in a single page. I inserted the poems partly to provide continuity. I wrote them parallel to the story, but I didn’t have an outline of which poem I’d put where. Later, I thought about how they would fit in.

There’s a poem, “Reincarnation,” where Vishnu’s father and mother pass by a coffin shop and his mother asks his father if he wants to be buried in a dhoti. He says, “No, in my suit and tie.” And she says, “But you got married in a dhoti.” And he says, “Okay, bury me in a dhoti but lay my suit next to me. If I wake up, I’ll put it on.”

This comes right after an incident where a Creole guy puts on a dhoti on Independence Day. This actually happened, by the way, in front of my house. He wore a dhoti in a Creole neighborhood, which was essentially anti-independence, and he came to our place and said, “Namaste.” He was a strong guy and people respected him. The poem gave me a way to contrast the two men and say what a great attitude they both had. The Creole man, whom you would not expect to wear a dhoti, wears a dhoti. And the Hindu man likes to wear a suit. I wanted to reaffirm that Hindus in Mauritius are quite Westernized—while keeping their religion, they have not clung to all traditions.

INTERVIEWER

A lot of the drama in the novel is generated by family disputes Vishnu witnesses as a child and, later, as an adolescent, takes sides in. What did you intend to express about the family through these various conflicts?

BUSJEET

I wanted to explore gender roles, for one thing. Mauritius is a patriarchal society, and it’s very clear that in most Mauritian Hindu families, women do not have power. Women suffer. They’re expected to be like Sita, the shadow of their husbands.

INTERVIEWER

One of the more disturbing family conflicts involves Vishnu’s cousin Shankar, whose relationship with his father is that of a servant to a master. The father coerces Shankar into cultivating sugarcane on his plot of land despite Shankar’s hatred of the work and his ambition to go to England to study nursing. But Shankar remains trapped working in his father’s fields, which he calls “sugarcane hell.” The dream of escape is shared by many characters in this story.

BUSJEET

Because of the conditions on sugarcane plantations, the goal of a lot of Mauritians was to get a white-collar job in an office. You wanted to become an accountant, a civil servant. If you were on the lower rungs of the ladder, you wanted economic opportunity. In the sixties, opportunities in Mauritius were very limited. Shankar’s father says, “All those people who’ve gone to do nursing, have they come back?” Nobody has come back. My wife, for instance, went to England to study nursing because that was an opportunity to go abroad. It was an opportunity to make a life for yourself. Emigration. What are the forces that push a person to emigrate? The story of Vishnu is a story of emigration.

 

Parul Kapur Hinzen is a fiction writer and journalist whose critical writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal Europe, Slate, Guernica, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She lives in Atlanta and is working on a novel about love and corruption in the aftermath of India’s devastating 1947 Partition.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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