Heavenly reading

Trinidadian writer Niala Maharaj’s debut novel Like Heaven aims for the stratosphere

Niala Maharaj. Photograph courtesy Niala Maharaj

Many a journalist has dreamed of escaping the rigours of the newsroom and becoming a novelist or poet. Trinidad-born Niala Maharaj has actually made the leap. Her first novel Like Heaven is published this month: it found a major publisher (Random House) at first try, and is getting special mass distribution this summer on the shelves of the UK supermarket chain Tesco.

Like Heaven is a great read. It’s set in Trinidad in the recent past, in a country frantically modernising and beset with all the hazards of rapid change. The hero is a young Indian businessman embedded in a nightmarish Hindu family, and struggling to deal with the stresses building up all around him. It’s a big, life-enhancing book, fast-paced, both funny and sad.

Niala Maharaj became a journalist in her teens. By the time she left Trinidad in the 1980s, she had established herself as an outstanding writer and editor, and as someone who asked stubborn and awkward questions and expected truthful answers. Some of her best work was for television. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Trinidad and Tobago had only one moribund TV station. Audiences accustomed to Perry Mason and I Love Lucy were suddenly assaulted by a group of young programme-makers who were irreverent, funny, satirical, and, above all, thought that TV should be about real people and problems and situations.

Maharaj quickly became part of this Television Workshop, as a producer and presenter. She can still be seen on occasional re-runs, interviewing farmers or taxi drivers with a characteristic mixture of youthful curiosity and journalistic scepticism.

Then she disappeared from the local scene. There were occasional sightings: she was editing a magazine in Rome, she was working for some international organisation in Hong Kong . . . In 1990 she settled in Amsterdam. Her book The Game of the Rose exposed the folly of using developing countries for commercial flower-growing, and led to some hasty corrective action in the business. She freelanced for papers and magazines (her contributions to Caribbean Beat included outstanding articles on the Hindu Ramayana and “the best roti shop in Trinidad”). She went through Boston University’s creative writing programme (where she was praised to the skies by the director), taught writing programmes of her own, produced a collection of short stories. And eventually embarked on the novel that must have been gestating quietly all those years.

Like Heaven is completely Caribbean in its characters and language, its setting and humour. What the Tesco shoppers will make of it as they trek from the cabbages to the cornflakes, heaven only knows. But if they have any sense, they’ll drop a copy in the trolley.