Going Ramayn in Trinidad

Niala Maharaj on a traditional Trinidad therapy - the musical rendition of a sacred Hindu test, the Ramayana

Illustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramIllustration by Shalini SeereeramPundit Hardath Maharaj

“Survival is the triumph of stubbornness, and spiritual stubbornness, a sublime stupidity, is what makes the occupation of poetry endure, when there are so many things that should make it futile.”

Derek Walcott:
The Antilles: Fragments of Epic Memory
Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

 

Dusk in Trinidad. Ordinary dusk, at almost any time of year. Salmon streaks stretch across the pale blue sky. Flocks of Scarlet Ibis wend their way back to nests in the Caroni swamp. Cars choke the highways as commuters try to get home as well.

And at different points in towns and villages, something is awakening. Little girls with wet, newly-washed hair are walking towards a house, wearing unaccustomed chiffon veils over clean modern dresses and bearing handfuls of flowers. They are Going Ramayn.

At the side of the house is a new bamboo tent. There, widows are debating the right way to adorn a cow-dung altar. At the back, housewives are peering into huge cast-iron pots. The atmosphere is urgent. They know that commuters, released from highways, will soon be dashing into showers and scrambling back into cars. A couple of thousand people will soon turn up at the bamboo tent — all Going Ramayn.

Ramayn is a book, one of the sacred texts Hindus brought from India when they came to Trinidad to labour on the sugar plantations in the last century. Today, Trinidadian Hindus can no longer read Hindi. So, on any given evening, up to 15,000 people will be Going Ramayn, converging at various points to hear the text read and translated into English.

Rushing to a book? A sacred book at that? Fifteen thousand people bustling back into traffic jams when they can flake out like any respectable modern folk and switch on the cable?

Aha! But there’s the rub. Going Ramayn is actually going to a performance, a sort of theatre, complete with music and mystery, sound effects, audience participation, flourishes and drums. The Ramayana is a text that is sung. Over 6,000 verses of poetry are rendered in a haunting melody, with variations of rhythm and tone, dramatic entrances, and stylish flourishes. To this, the Trinidadian genius for festivity has added interludes of other music, religious in origin, but with the uptempo beat of Trinidad. Occasionally, you discern an Afro-Caribbean influence in the arrangement; the trills and frills of Bollywood musicals are always evident. Ramayn groups have evolved from handfuls of old cane-cutters with primitive musical instruments, into serious, practising ensembles of electronically-geared hobbyists, involving all kinds of professional people.

Going Ramayn is now a bit like going to the Globe theatre back in the days of Shakespeare. Live performance, put on by live folks with something for everyone, the Queen as well as the fellows without a GCE pass to their name. For, in outline, the text is something of a soap opera — centred around a king called Rama who is banished from his kingdom and spends 14 years wandering the forests encountering bad-guys, bad-gals, bandits and demons, defeating some, converting others, and listening to sob stories about how they turned out bad. Until the baddest of the bad-guys ups and steals Rama’s wife, forcing him to declare the mother of all wars. Much like the Odyssey, Ramayana has all the fixings for a fantastic computer game. In India, where it has been turned into a television series, the whole sub-continent shuts down at broadcast hour.

Here in Trinidad we are a little more purist. The public version of Ramayana the Ramayana is still under the direction of pundits, not Bollywood producers. These pundits concentrate on what lies under the soap action — the sublime poetry of the great 16th-century poet, Tulsidas, who popularised the ancient Sanskrit Ramayana of Valmiki by reworking it in Hindi, the major North Indian language of the millennium.

“The Ramayana is about love,” says Pundit Hardath Maharaj, one of Trinidad’s foremost exponents. “It’s about togetherness. It’s about determination. How to apply yourself; how to fight negation. It’s a great therapy for stress.”

It’s a therapy used since time began for Indians in this part of the world.

“The Ramayana was the main support of our forefathers when they came from India,” says the pundit. “They sang it morning and evening. It helped them survive the humiliation and frustration of life in the sugar-cane fields.”

You can see how a story of banishment, of wandering in the forest beset by supernatural demons, would appeal to a people flung from an ancient civilisation into a strange new world dominated by brutal white estate-drivers.

Right up to the middle of this century, Ramayana remained the centre of the “lime”. When men got together on an evening, they would sit cross-legged on the ground, without musical instruments, and sing a bit from the book. They would point out to each other particularly savoury bits of poetry, repeating stanzas, and maybe smoking some bhang. Somewhere along the line, someone would try to come to an interpretation of the poet’s meaning and discussion would start. The literary seminar was alive and kicking in those cane-fields.

“That was what we called bhuoir ke Ramayn, ground reading,” says Pundit Hardath. Groundings, as other Trinidadians say.

Up to recently, Hindi-speaking Indians continued using the text as a private source of solace. My own grandfather sang Ramayana morning and night, particularly when he was in a temper. When he came home in the evening, he would drown out the disappointments of the day with a few good choupais (stanzas), rendered at nuisance-volume, to the regret of the non-Indian neighbours.

And, even now, for intimate family trouble, it is Ramayn that is prescribed. When there is a death in the family, Hindus resort to bhuoir ke ramayn. They recruit the services of Ramayn groups to perform in their living room every evening for 14 days. It provides enormous solace. I should know. My father died recently.

“Listen to what Tulsi say here,” I remember Pundit Hardath pointing out one evening to the little gathering of family and close friends in my mother’s house. “Look at the genius of this man. Listen to this choupai coming up.” Suddenly he turned to an elder in the gathering. “You remember this choupai, Mamoo?”

Mamoo nodded.

“You want to start it?”

Mamoo’s face lit up. He cleared his throat, shook his head ecstatically as he mouthed the words on the page, then raised his voice and took up the choupai, stretching forward one hand in a gesture of delight. Pundit, meanwhile, was slapping his hand on his thigh to the rhythm of the dholak, his head swaying to the melody, his eyes closed to savour the words without distraction. Religious hierarchy faded into mutual enjoyment: the distinctions between cultural producer and consumer blurred.

“Ramayn brings out the true feeling inside of you,” Pundit Hardath told me later. “It’s about how we should live. Even the names of the main characters — Ramachandra and his wife, Sita — show you this. You know what Ramachandra means? Knowledge. And Sita means peace. Despite all the trials and tribulations that Knowledge leads to, this woman, Sita, remains calm and contented.”

Knowledge and peace. The eternal search, the eternal balance. Perhaps more relevant in this information age than ever before. But the Ramayana’s casting of roles is the flip-side of the Genesis myth. This text does not belong in the reforming religion which took the human race by storm in the past two millennia, but comes out of a timeless tradition of reflection and contemplation, in which poetry was not divorced from other forms of literature till the last two centuries. Ideal for this post-modernist era, it fits with the current breaking down of rigid genres, the moves to put books on tape and CD ROM, to recognise and explore a wider range of human communications channels.

“I just love this text,” says Pundit Hardath. “The more you read, the more you feel to read. You don’t feel tired. This scripture is life itself.”

And, indeed, on those 14 evenings after my father’s death, we had felt the same as he. That eternal-seeming melody, with its dramatic entrances and tranquil echoes, compelled you to acknowledge emotion while dealing with it. That immortal imagery took you back to a time when men were men, not adjuncts of machines; forests were forests, not ecology, and God made miracles, not Bill Gates.

“How you could say this in English?” Pundit Hardath would turn to his side-kick, Mamoo. “This word here?” He would hold up his hand, his fingers bunched at the tips, as if to try to hold together all the shades of meaning before they flew apart. “What word in English we could use to get these children here to see what Tulsi meant?”

And even us “children” who had long been banished from the fold of the Hindu family, to wander the wilderness of the globalised system and end up living in hard-disk space, were completely transported.

i have to read Ramayana every evening,” Pundit Hardath says. “But I have to read it to people. I like to see a crowd. The more people I see the happier I am. The more people I see, the more I could read, the more philosophy I could give you.”

Thus Going Ramayn has become a mass social activity — with attendant complications. It is there you parade your new shalwar kameez, purchased in Bombay, or Gerrard Street, Toronto. You Go Ramayn to show your face, your new BMW, your marriageable daughter. Going Ramayn is a haven for neglected wives, the divorced, those whom marriage has eluded, and those who almost wish it had eluded them because they no longer have anything to say to each other. Going Ramayn is a lonely heart’s club, a socially-sanctioned travelling circus, where widows — and parents whose children are abroad — can meet and complain about the younger generation. Going Ramayn is a singles hangout for the younger generation, where they can gawk at members of the opposite sex right under the noses of protective parents.

“Sometimes the plugs don’t fire,” admits Pundit Hardath. “Some places you go, you could tell that the people not prepared for listening to this text.” Indeed, Going Ramayn is now like logging into a kind of non-electronic Internet, where every conceivable type of information is waiting to be exchanged. There are the latest births and deaths in the Hindu community, complete with details of death agonies, inheritance consequences, and attendant scandal. There are the newest cures for diabetes, depression and dotage, as well as the current culinary innovation — coconut jelly curry. It is at Ramayn that you learn who is suing whom, who has gone bankrupt, who has gone mad, who has gone up for elections, who has gone vegetarian, or who has just gone, gone — leaving not a wrack behind, just a wreck of a wife and three school-age children.

“Let’s say you are playing a flute in a field,” says Pundit Hardath, “and there’s a bull chewing its cud nearby. You could be playing your heart out. You could play every note you know. And what will that bull do? Just stand up there, frothing at the mouth. You think that bull will really be hearing you? That bull will just studying to chew its cud.”

In a way, this is the challenge for the Ramayana reader. To make bulls stop frothing at the mouth and listen to the flute.

“It’s almost like being an actor,” Pundit Hardath says. “You have to make people cry, you have to make them laugh, you have to make them smile, you have to make them think.”

To look at his white-clad eminence, you would hardly imagine that he sees it in this way. People rush to touch his feet, to get his blessing. And no wonder: Hardath has the cleanest-looking feet I’ve ever seen, plump, lotus-like feet, as they say of the Hindu gods. His dhoti and kurta are of the finest lawn. With just the right hint of colour — a length of beads ending in a red flourish; a large smear of beige sandal-wood paste — Hardath’s sartorial elegance could make a fashion designer weep in envy. The costume is to good effect. After all, people could just as well go to the movies instead. They need star-boys to be centre of attention at this local spectacle.

And the set is opulent. The stage where the Ramayn group performs is lined with brocade sheets. The props are of marble — images of Rama and the other characters, shipped in from workshops in India. Camphor and sandalwood burn over sweet-smelling pitch-pine, producing a musky aromatherapy. The scarlet and gold of saffron and sindhoor intermingle with the flagrant yellows and reds of marigold and ixora and the greens of banana and mango leaves. A chorus of lesser pundits performs intricate rituals, chanting mantras in sonorous Sanskrit.

And, in the centre of it all, at the back, raised to tower over the proceedings, is the singhasan, a lavishly-dressed seat where the presiding genius of the moment is ensconced — The Pundit. Surrounded by giant tomes full of yellowing, Sanskrit-scrawled pages, it is up to him to make the whole thing come alive, to make the text catch fire and sweep through the mass of today’s mental detritus.

Pundit Hardath is a study in showmanship. “If you’re vibrant and impressive,” he says, “you’ll draw a crowd. If there are 600 people on the first night, I want to see 700 on the second night and a thousand on the third.”

His left brain and right brain take turns at the audience. He lulls them with fine words, anecdote, simile and metaphor. His tone is gentle and affectionate. Then, as an illustration to what he is saying, he suddenly opens his lungs and his powerful singing voice emerges. It’s a beautiful bhajan, a cajoling, caressing melody, or a thundering evocation of the grandeur of the eternal. He stretches out his hand, palm upward, in the gesture of transported offering common to classical Indian musicians.

“If you get total silence, quiet, then it’s good,” he says. “But once the crowd gets restless, you have to change the mood, change the topic. Then, you have to come back on them again.”

His ability to work a crowd is perhaps even more impressive than that of the Mighty Sparrow, the legendary calypsonian, since his field of performance is far more challenging. He has to shift gear often, from the sublime to the patently mundane.

“It’s all human psychology,” he says. “You have to study the people.”

He addresses individuals in the audience directly, calling the elders by respectful familial titles — Mousa (uncle) and Mamoo (another kind of uncle). He startles youngsters by remembering their names. He flatters mothers by making imagery of their ordinary domestic chores and panders to the men’s passion for cars. He concentrates on the children, the most potentially restless. He laments the West Indies cricket team’s losses and thereby covers all bases.

And, if all else fails, he resorts to the Trinidadian trick. Humour. “You can’t get a pot-hound (mongrel) to do a doberman’s work,” he comments, when I observe in our interview that not all Ramayana readers perform with his flair.

“Hardath is a diplomat,” many of his clients say, in the grudging praise that is typical of Trinidad. “He knows how to bring things across.”

Indeed. Today Hardath is bringing Ramayana across the Atlantic as well.

For Going Ramayn has become an export product. This peculiarly Trinidadian phenomenon is spreading like wildfire in Miami, New York and Canada. As cash-rich but stimulation-starved Hindu populations there grow and expand, they begin to want their home comforts as well as better employment prospects and Yankee accents. Several times a year they fly up Trinidadian pundits to conduct large scale Yagnas. And the addiction to Going Ramayn is even spreading beyond Trini emigrant communities. Pundits from Trinidad now have followers from Mauritius, Suriname, even from India itself.

So if you hear a gentleman in a white dhoti and kurta, with sandalwood paste on his forehead, asking for the vegetarian meal on your flight, he’s probably Going Ramayn.