In the early 1930s Evelyn Waugh traveled into the interior of British Guiana, on the old Spanish Main. There were three Guianas then, British, French, and Dutch, wedged between Venezuela and Brazil. British Guiana was the largest of the Guianas. It was 80,000 square miles, about the size of Great Britain, but with a population of only half a million. Much of this population—mainly East Indian and African—lived on the Atlantic coast, where the big plantations were. Inland, just a few miles from the colonial coast, was South American wilderness, going back to Brazil: hardwood forests, Amerindian villages, boulder-strewn rivers, falls: and, after that, the laterite savannahs, with giant red anthills, and palm trees marking the course of occasional shallow rivers.
It was on that savannah that the betrayed Waugh hero of A Handful of Dust (1934), looking for forgetfulness after his English travails, found a horrible form of social extinction: kept a prisoner on the almost empty savannah by the head of a dominant Anglo-Amerindian tribe, and made to read aloud the works of Dickens again and again.
Guiana has always been a land of fantasy. It was the land of El Dorado; it was the site of the Jonestown commune. But what is remarkable about the Waugh fantasy is that two years after the book was published a young man from the plantation coast of Guiana started on a journey that was to echo the destiny of Waugh’s hero.
In 1936, when he was eighteen, Cheddi Jagan, the grandson of indentured immigrants brought from India to work on the coastal plantations, left British Guiana with five hundred dollars to go to study in the United States. He stayed in the United States—in Washington, New York, and Chicago—for seven solid years, until 1943. He did various jobs while he studied: he finally became a dentist. Toward the end of his time in the United States he married a beautiful American woman. He also had a Marxist illumination.
When Cheddi Jagan returned to Guiana in 1943 (his American bride following soon after, to astound the Jagan family), it was as a man with a fixed political cause. Whatever he may have thought about his Hindu or Indian or Guianese background, whatever historical or social bewilderment he may have grown to feel, was submerged in his Marxist ideas of surplus value and the universal class struggle. That was vision enough. And for fifty years, like a version of the Waugh figure—through the ending of the war, the reemergence of Germany and Japan, the winding down of the European empires, the disintegration of black Africa, the coming and going of the cold war, the end of European communism, through the independence of Guyana itself (spelt after independence in this new way, for no good historical or etymological reason)—Cheddi Jagan has sat waiting for his moment.
Almost from the start he had “the oppressed sugar workers as his base”—to use words from the back cover of the 1966 East German edition of his autobiography, The West on Trial. After nearly fifty years, those workers (or their descendants) are still there, more or less. And it may be that the very purity of Cheddi Jagan’s Marxist view has helped to freeze people in their old roles.
Success came early to him. In 1947 he became the youngest member of the colonial Legislative Council of British Guiana. In 1950 he and others launched the People’s Progressive Party. This was an extraordinary alliance of the two main racial groups of Guyana—the Africans (as they were called), descended from the slaves, and the East Indians, who had replaced the Africans on the plantations. In 1953 this party came overwhelmingly to power. It seemed then that Jagan was about to become the first leader of the first communist state in the New World. (Fidel Castro was to emerge five to six years later.) Jagan and his wife, Janet, became very famous. For a time they were demon figures in the British popular press, filling this journalistic hot spot somewhere in the interim between Mossadeq of Iran, who nationalized his country’s oil, and Nasser of Egypt, who nationalized the Suez Canal.
But British Guiana was not Iran or Egypt. British Guiana in 1953 was only a colony. After three months in office, the Jagan administration was dismissed by the London government, the colony’s constitution was suspended, and British troops were sent. Under this pressure the PPP split easily into its African and Indian components. The African and Indian populations of Guyana were almost evenly balanced. Below the Marxist words on both sides Guyana went back to its more instinctive racial ways.
The Indian vote returned Jagan to power in 1957 and again in 1961. But it was the African party that—with American help, and after serious racial disturbances—won the preindependence elections of 1964. Ever since then, through a series of rigged elections, Cheddi Jagan and his Indian followers have been kept out of power, while—until 1984—Guyana followed a kind of Marxist-African way and became a “cooperative republic.” For the last six years there has been a turning away from “cooperative” principles; but Guyana is now as wretched as any place in Eastern Europe.
Every important industry—bauxite, rice—was taken over by the African-controlled government; and the government gave jobs, or created jobs, for its supporters. So the Communist-style tyranny of the state was also a racial tyranny; and the corruptions, petty and big, had a further racial twist. Everything became rotten in this state; everything began to lose money. More and more money was printed; in the racist state, the Guyana currency, once on a par with the currency of a place like Trinidad, became almost worthless. Imports were regulated, many items banned. Guyanese of all races began to pine for certain simple and cheap foods they had grown up on—New Brunswick sardines, Canadian flour, Canadian smoked herrings and salted fish. At a time of plenty in neighboring Trinidad (because of the oil boom of the 1970s), Guyana was experiencing want. Guyanese began to leave, legally and illegally, Indians at first, and then others; they went to Trinidad and Canada and the United States. More than a third of the Guyanese population now lives abroad.
Georgetown, the capital, once one of the most beautiful wood-built cities of the world (with the great hardwood forests just a few miles inland), weathered and decayed. Over the run-down city there now rises, at the end of one of the principal avenues, an extraordinary, mocking monument of the Cooperative Republic: a giant African-like figure, long-armed and apparently dancing, with what looks like cabalistic emblems on its limbs. This figure of African reawakening is said to honor Cuffy, the leader of a slave revolt in Guyana in 1763; but there are black people who believe that—whatever the sculptor intended—the figure was also connected with some kind of obeah working on behalf of Forbes Burnham, the Guyanese African leader. Mr. Burnham is believed to have, in the end, mixed his Marxism with obeah, and to have had an obeah consultant.
In the Georgetown Botanical Gardens—one of the many such gardens, of experiment and scholarship, established by the British in various parts of the empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—there is another, complementary monument of Mr. Burnham’s rule. It is the mausoleum that was put up for Mr. Burnham after his death in 1984. It is a spiderlike structure, with a low central pavilion with an outer colonnade of concrete brackets that look like spider’s legs. The intention was that the founder of the Cooperative Republic should be embalmed and displayed for ever, like Lenin; but something went wrong and the body decomposed before it could be treated.
Through all of this—Marxism and racial tyranny, and economic death, and obeah—Cheddi Jagan has sat at his post, the leader of his party, always there, the possessor of a purer Marxist way, waiting to be called. His support has always come from the Indians, but he has never accepted that he is just a racial leader. In the hardest times of African oppression he has supported whatever legislation came up that could be seen as socialist or Marxist. So, to some, out of the very purity of his Marxist vision, he has conspired against both the interests of his supporters and his own political success.
He is seventy-two now. With the disappearance of communism in Europe, and now that it no longer matters to the United States or Russia what happens in Guyana, the elections coming up may be free: and Cheddi Jagan may at last win. But times are now very hard indeed, with interest rates of 34 percent, with the Guyana dollar worth an American cent, and with worthwhile foreign money staying away. All that a rational government could do is to reverse the nationalizations of the last twenty-five years. So that power, if it does come to Jagan, seems likely to end in failure, or the undoing of his legend.
Cheddi Jagan’s party headquarters, Freedom House, is an old white wooden building in a bazaar-like street. I went to meet him there. He was gray, with glasses, but brisk. He was in a short-sleeved slate-blue safari suit. It revealed a certain fleshiness about his waist, but for a man of seventy-two he was in remarkable shape; and I felt that this was important to him as a politician.
He said he had no illness: every year since 1966 he had had a check-up in one of the “socialist countries.” He spoke the now old-fashioned words without hesitation, so that in the little upstairs room of Freedom House, with the easy chairs and the coffee cups and all the papers, and with a view, through the open door, of the inner office with a framed black-and-white print of a drawing of Marx and Engels and Lenin, it was as though, whatever had happened outside, nothing had changed here.
I wanted to know how he had endured since 1964, what internal resources he had drawn on, why he hadn’t given up, like many of his followers. He appeared not to understand the question. He spoke instead of the past, of the beginnings of his movement, and the great years from 1948 to 1964. He spoke with his old vigor, and in his academic, public-meeting way, ticking off points on his long fingers, and managing complete sentences that were full of facts and names and references.
He telescoped the twenty-six years since 1964. Then, answering a question of his own, rather than one I had asked, he said that people had often asked him why he hadn’t gone in for “armed struggle.” He called to someone in the outer office to bring him some papers. When they were brought, he took one which dealt with the Guyanese deficit. This sheet, smudged and printed on both sides, had been rolled off an antiquated “duplicator,” and it had the acrid, oily smell of the duplicator ink. The graphs, not easy to read, showed that the Guyanese deficit had grown from 4.2 million Guyana dollars in 1965 to 1,309 million in 1988. The point he was making—and it was almost as though it was part of an old political strategy—was that it was better for the government to be undermined by its own stupendous deficit rather than by armed struggle, “which you were bound to lose.”
Here his wife put her head through the door. Thirty years had passed since I had last seen her. I had remembered a woman of a great attractiveness. Thirty years, applied, as it were, all at once, had made her scarcely recognizable. At first I saw only the pale color of her abundant hair, and the colors of her clothes, tan and black, foreign colors in the setting, not Guyanese or Caribbean colors. She was thinner in face, plumper and looser lower down, and she wore slacks; and her skin was looser. But then her eyes, her light voice (still American after nearly fifty years in Guyana), and her nervous laugh began to fit the younger person I had remembered.
Her talk was of her two children and her five grandchildren. Her son, now forty, lived in Chicago, where his father had studied. Her daughter lived in Canada.
In 1961 Janet Jagan’s reputation in Guyana was that of the foreign white woman revolutionary, an American Jewish radical. Now it was said that she had withdrawn. An old political enemy said, “She’s matronly, but don’t tell her I said so.”
Guyana was the first place I traveled to as a writer. It was part of a project on European colonies in the Caribbean and South America. I was twenty-eight. I was an artless traveler, and was soon to discover that, whatever the excitements of new landscapes and of being on the move, a journey didn’t necessarily result in a narrative on the page.
As a political observer I was uncertain and diffident. I thought that in this kind of writing I had to take people on trust. I cast aside—as belonging to another form—my novelist’s doubts. So in my book I wrote more romantically than I actually felt about the African or black racial movement of the late 1950s. I allowed myself to see it as it was presented to me, as a kind of redemption. I suppressed my fears about its glibness and sentimentality, and its element of viciousness.
And although I spent some time with the Jagans, formally and informally, in Georgetown and in various places in the country, when Cheddi Jagan was premier of the colony and Janet Jagan the minister of health, I never allowed myself to believe that their Marxism was more than a British Labour party kind of socialism.
Forbes Burnham in 1961 was leader of the opposition. He was witty and mischievous, very black and smooth-skinned, already heavy, though still with the manner of the bright scholarship boy. He carried his character on his face and in his physique: but I never allowed myself to make anything of my feeling that Burnham was a sensualist and dangerous, someone at once wounded and spoilt, full of vengefulness.
And I never thought—since I shared to some extent the background of both Burnham and Jagan—that these two Marxists between them would actually overturn the society. I saw what I thought I should see, what I was more comfortable seeing. In this I was like the people of Guyana.
Martin Carter was one of the poets of the Guyana awakening of the early 1950s. To him much of the confusion in Guyana came from a misuse or misunderstanding of language. A word like “socialism” came to Guyana without its history, without the varied meanings given it by people like Robert Owen and Bernard Shaw and William Morris. Everyone in Guyana had his own idea of socialism, according to the books he had read; in this matter people did not always understand one another. Not everyone would think of socialism as an economic system. “A socialist would become simply a good man, a nice man. And that remained the idea about socialism for a long time among the general population here. Today that is different, because everything that has gone wrong is associated with socialism.”
And Martin Carter told this story: “Pandit Misir, a brahmin from the west bank of the Demerara River, was a member of Cheddi’s party. This was at a place called Vreed-en-Hoop—which, incidentally, had been owned by John Gladstone, father of William Ewart Gladstone, the British prime minister. Cheddi had been distributing booklets sent out by the British Communist party to its friends not only in Georgetown but in the third world. Among the booklets was one called Capitalist Society. This would be before the elections in ’53.
“There was a public meeting called by Cheddi on the west bank at which Pandit Misir functioned as the chairman. It was a huge crowd. And the pandit—he would have been between thirty-five and forty-five, but he looked much older—was in his top form because of the crowd and the presence of Cheddi Jagan.
“He told the crowd that before he introduced Cheddi he would like to tell them something himself. Upon which he declared: ‘Dey got a t’ing called capitalist society. Um [it, in the local pidgin] like bird-vine. When um put hand ‘pon you, um don’t let go.’ Bird-vine is a result of birds cleaning their beaks on trees after having eaten a certain type of fruit, the fruit of course of the bird-vine—it’s a well-known plant to people who live on the coast.
“And that’s all that Pandit Misir said, and the crowd roared, because they understood that the pandit intended to convey to them that capitalist society was something oppressive. Which means that all the plantation experience had been summed up in the two words, ‘capitalist society.’ Pandit Misir himself didn’t know better. He was a slim, tall man. A passionate man, and what he said about bird-vine would convey much more than Cheddi’s disquisition on the theory of surplus value of Karl Marx.”
So that—in this analysis—somewhere between the pidgin of Pandit Misir and the vague set phrases of Marxist lore, the realities of Guyana would have been distorted or lost. And one side of the terrible farce of the Cooperative Republic would have begun to be prepared.
An associate of Cheddi Jagan’s in the late 1940s was Sydney King, an African village schoolteacher. He broke away from the Jagan party in the mid-1950s. At some later stage he had an African transformation. “With the Indians glorying in their civilization, Africans here had a sense of selfpity.” And, as part of an “African naming movement” that he tried to get started, Sydney King gave himself the name of Eusi Kwayana.
He said of Cheddi Jagan, “I think he had a cultural problem. If he had been a devout Hindu, even in his youth, he would have had a more workable, a more human, frame of reference. But, having rejected imperialism and all its works along with its culture, he got attached to another metropolis, which was the Soviet Union. He understood it as it presented itself. So everything he did had to be explained, in his own mind, in the culture of that other metropolis. Once he could do that he felt vindicated.
“When Burnham began to introduce socialism from 1971 onwards, people in both races began to express dismay and said they wanted to hear nothing of it. This didn’t matter to Jagan. He made a statement at this time that the whole of Guyana had voted for socialism—part for him, part for Burnham. Though politics here were always racial.”
At the time of the racial disturbances in 1964 Eusi Kwayana allied himself with Burnham. But then he broke away from Burnham as well.
“Burnham actually introduced slave labor. He introduced compulsory labor at Plantation Hope, a coconut plantation on the east coast. And all you got was the right to buy scarce commodities. It wasn’t even given in lieu of labor as in the days of slavery; you had to buy the goods. You slaved for nothing on your day of leisure. At Plantation Hope he lorded it over the people. Riding on horseback, drinking, and entertaining his personal friends. He sent typists, office workers, professionals into the cane field in 1977, to break a sugar strike. They did not succeed. They messed up the cultivation. They knew nothing about it.”
I said, “And yet the black people loved him.”
“Loved him? That ended in the middle Seventies. He was well-admired by the Guyanese when he got back from England in 1950, on account of his supposed scholarship, and oratory—which I found empty. I even knew Indo-Guyanese who liked to hear him talk. He was mostly the hero of the middle-class Africans. It was a long time before he was accepted by the rural Africans—they didn’t like lawyers.
“His government became known to be corrupt in 1971. Everybody knew that the socialism of the government was a fraud. Some people feel that Burnham has proved that socialism meant leaders dominating people and filling their own pockets. And this has been coming out of Eastern Europe.
“When Burnham died his estate was declared to be a million Guyana dollars. The Guyana dollar was then 4.30 to the US dollar. This left the population in stitches. People said that that million dollars was the money Burnham had in his pocket when he died. His death was a matter of relief, comedy in the streets. In Brooklyn they held parties. And there were two days’ holiday here, during which drinking places were not allowed to be open because the festivity would be too clear.
“The day after the funeral I was walking in Georgetown, and everybody knew that the body had been removed by soldiers the night before. They had brought in embalmers and were working on his body in a funeral parlor in the city. I believe the embalmers had come from Moscow—the press said so. The population spat on this whole idea of embalming Burnham’s body. An African lady told me: ‘He dead. He must go dong.’ And they published in the press that they wanted to embalm him to preserve him indefinitely, and in the mausoleum he would be on permanent display. The body then stayed away for a year—a year of rumors, rumors about the body. Some people swear it was never embalmed, that it was too far gone to be embalmed, and that it was a wax image that was returned. From England, a famous studio—what’s it called?”
“People are saying it was Madame Tussaud’s work. Not Burnham’s body. They refer to him as the man who was buried twice.”
Physically, Eusi Kwayana was not the kind of man I had imagined from his African name and restless political history. He had been a vegetarian for more than forty years, and he was thin, ascetic-looking, delicate. His long fingers made elegant gestures. In appearance he was like a religious figure from Byzantine art: long-faced, a high, arching forehead between two high side tufts of grayish-brown hair, sharpnosed, with deep lines running from nose to chin and defining the chin. His neck was long and wrinkled, with thin fold upon thin fold.
I asked him whether he now took his African transformation for granted, or whether he still thought about it. He laughed, then giggled. “I still think about it.” And, shyly, he raised an arm to show that his short-sleeved “African” tunic, of the sort he now habitually wore, had its practical side: it had a neatly hemmed vent under the arms.
Cheddi Jagan’s father and mother both came from India to Guyana as very young children in 1901, on the same sailing ship, the Elbe. Both started work on the plantations at a very early age. Cheddi Jagan’s father started before he was ten; he was a full cane cutter at fourteen; when he was thirty he became a “driver” or gang foreman, earning ten shillings a week, about $2.50.
Cheddi was then eleven. Three years later his father sent him to the capital, Georgetown, to Queen’s College; and three years after that sent him to the United States to study, with five hundred dollars. The money had been won at gambling. As a gang foreman Cheddi’s father mixed with the plantation overseers. They were mainly Scottish; and they were drinking and gambling men.
Cheddi was the eldest of eleven children. One of the extrapolitical things he did when he came back to Guyana in 1943 was to take over responsibility for his brothers and sisters. He educated them all. Of the eleven Jagan children, three became professional people, two became nurses, and one became a hairdresser.
Martin Carter remembered Cheddi Jagan’s father as “a tall man with a black bristling mustache. I remember the mustache vividly. And his height—he was a very tall man, by any standards. His mother was gentle, almost wraith-like, very thin. The impression I had of her, when I met her in the very late Forties, was that she had spent a whole life keeping children alive—literally alive. Their house, on the Corentyne coast, was very simple, with a kitchen at the back with a mud cooking arrangement—we call it a ‘cow-mouth.’ It was detached from the main house.”
Of Cheddi Jagan’s beginnings, Martin Carter said, “Coming from the plantation coast, known in the old days as the Wild Coast, the sheer area of experience was too much for a young man from a plantation background to deal with comfortably, especially in those days. We were even more remote than we are today from so-called metropolitan centers. You could imagine”—Martin Carter looked for a word—“the lostness of a young man in those days coming out of a background without a literary culture. It froze him into attitudes which have lasted. This freezing affected him personally. At the same time it brought home to him in a very powerful way the kind of society and community he had came from.”
It was of his early days, and especially of his time in America, that I wanted to hear when I next met Cheddi Jagan. He came for me at the hotel one Sunday afternoon, and we drove to his house. It was the house he had built after he had left the premiership in 1964. It was a plain, new-style, two-story Georgetown house, well-fenced, with a watchdog.
We sat upstairs. The afternoon breeze blew through the open doors on both sides. Beyond the wrought-iron rails of the balcony the garden was all green, with mango trees and coconut trees and banana trees.
Nineteen hundred and thirty-six seemed very far away. What would have been the world picture of his parents then, with their plantation background and the half-erased India of their ways? What would have been the expectations of Cheddi himself, traveling to the United States and Washington, to study at a black university, Howard, at a time of depression and intolerance? The ship was going to dock at Boston. Did the name of the famous city excite him?
He couldn’t say. It was as Martin Carter had said: Cheddi had had no literary culture, nothing that would have helped him to see and understand, and put things in their place. He had simply taken things as they had come.
He had had to work while he studied at Howard; after two years he had won a scholarship to Northwestern near Chicago. He had many stories of his American time; and Janet—in black slacks and a flowered blouse on this holiday afternoon, her hair thick and quite golden—prompted him in those stories. In Washington he had worked in a pawn shop used by blacks. He worked there as a tailor (a half-skill he had picked up in Guyana), earning twenty-five cents an hour for mending unredeemed clothes, which were then put up for sale. In Chicago he had run an elevator at night.
He said, “West Indians always did better than American blacks because of their better background, and they were looked upon with some resentment. But within that all were treated as blacks. Indians had a higher kind of social recognition. In Washington there were cinemas where blacks couldn’t go but I could. But I never went, because I didn’t feel different from the blacks. I had that same feeling of being hemmed in, that same feeling of inferiority. I used to go to the poorer cinema where there was literally a partition between white and black. On one side black, the other side white. I used to go and sit with the blacks.”
Near the end of his time, during a checkup at Northwestern, a spot was found on his lung, and he was sent to a sanitarium. “There were no drugs for tuberculosis in those days. The cure was just to sit in the cold air. The sanitarium was made up of small cottages, and two thirds of the walls were of wire mesh. In the sanitarium you had to walk slowly, do everything in a measured way. I was nearly penniless at the time, and the sanitarium lady gave me a cut rate.” After six months the spot disappeared; and there was some question then whether there had been an infection at all. Perhaps, after the strain of six years of America, he had needed only to withdraw and rest and calm down.
Janet went and made the tea, and brought it out with biscuits, “cookies”—the word unusual in Guyana, and in this house like a remnant of a far-off culture.
In this tea interlude she talked of what I had written about her nearly thirty years before.
“People remembered two details mainly. You wouldn’t believe. The first was that I painted my toenails.”
I had forgotten that, forgotten the fact, forgotten that I had written it.
“I don’t know why that should have caused such interest,” she said. “Everybody wore painted toenails then.”
“Everybody,” Cheddi said.
She said, “I looked at the book just the other day. And the other thing you mentioned that people talked about—I checked that, too—was the book I was reading.”
I had forgotten that as well.
“It was Colette. The Vagabond.”
That would have made an impression: the boastfulness and shallow sensual vanities of Colette, in a setting so removed: muddy Guyanese rivers, old river steamers. And then, in a distant reach of my mind, the two details together did bring back an impression, rather than an idea, of a trip in the interior with Janet Jagan, when she was minister of health.
She said, “I looked for it among my books the other day. I don’t think I have it any more.”
The house, with its books and family pictures, felt calm. Thinking of that, thinking of the Jagan children settled abroad, and thinking of the journey that had begun in 1936, I wondered whether it couldn’t be said that Cheddi Jagan, in an essential personal way, had been a success.
Janet made a sound of disbelief.
But Cheddi said, “I do, in the sense of what we have been able to achieve, and in the sense of recognition. Even my enemies recognize our integrity in politics.”
Janet said, “A lot of his satisfaction is his writing. He likes to write. He likes to lecture. Cheddi’s an optimist.” She told a story of a boating moment in Trinidad. Their outboard motor had failed; the current was driving their boat toward rocks and a cliff. She had seen no hope, but Cheddi had remained lucid, working at the engine, and had got it going.
He said, “Maybe it’s a virus in the blood, a political virus. And Janet has kept me on the moral path—politically.”
She said, “It’s nice to get a pat on the back.”
He said, “She belonged to the first generation of American rebels.” She made a questioning sound, and he explained: “The second generation came during Vietnam.”
She said she remembered that when she was at Wayne State University in Detroit she made an effort to be friendly to black people and Chinese. “There was some urge within me to reach out to those groups.”
Her own relationship with Cheddi caused trouble in her family.
She said, with something like sadness, “Cheddi never met my father.”
I asked her, “Did you feel you were being brave or principled?”
“I was just young.”
Her mother came out to Guyana once. She got to know Cheddi and one day she told Janet that she liked him. “Of course,” Janet said, speaking of her mother’s later attitude to Cheddi, “it helped being premier.” She pronounced the word in the American way, stressing the second syllable. Things were always easier with her brother. “But I’ll tell you this. The picture of me my brother has up is one where I am with Princess Margaret.” And she gave her nervous half-laugh.
I had up to then felt that worldly position hadn’t really mattered to her. Now I thought that she was possibly less stoical than Cheddi, that there was a melancholy in her that the long dedication and struggle, the enduring of a calamity in the country, had not ended with success, as old-fashioned morality and narrative might have dictated; that it had ended badly, in a general dissolution of the cause. But I didn’t feel the matter could be pressed.
In his autobiography Cheddi Jagan gives two chapters, twenty-five pages, to the first twenty-five years of his life, up to his return to Guyana from the United States. The details are clear: everything is fairly laid out, without false stresses; the narrative is fast. But the narrative is also dense; the reader cannot keep it all in his head; he cannot (any more than the writer can) make all the connections. The early chapters are like the early chapters of Gandhi’s autobiography, especially those that deal with Gandhi’s time as a student in London; and the similarity has to do with the fact that both men, of Indian and Hindu background (and separated by only fifty years), are coming to terms, in their different ways, with an experience which, as it occurred, they were far from understanding. Both men write so transparently of their early days that their words can be studied again and again.
In Jagan’s book, for instance, there is a strange paragraph about his difficulties of “identification” when he went back to Guyana. “There was no political party…. For a while I played cricket, and soon after became addicted to bridge playing. I spent hours and hours at bridge and read every publication on the subject. But this was in no way a satisfaction…. I wanted to identify myself with the real hard world around me.”
I talked about this with Martin Carter. He knew the Jagan book, but the theme of bridge playing—strangely juxtaposed to a search for identification—was something he had missed. He said that bridge would have been useful to Cheddi Jagan at that time, filling up an evening and giving an illusion of a social life.
But when I next met Cheddi Jagan, at Freedom House, and put the point to him, he said that the identification he was looking for was political; and this was difficult for him in 1943, because he had become more complicated than the colony. To the plantation background he had added his knowledge of Gandhi and Nehru and the Indian freedom struggle; and there was also his American radicalization, his ideas about the War of Independence, and about Roosevelt (a supporter of Indian independence) and the New Deal. The games of bridge he had begun to play in Guyana were “recreation”; he played with dedication because that was his way. “Whatever I do, I do very intensely.” (And indeed, when I looked at the autobiography later, I saw that once in Chicago he had tried seriously—like his father in Guyana—to make money by betting, and had even read books like How to Win the Races.)
He said, “There has always been a division between Janet and me. At the end of the day she can drop everything and read a novel. I take my work home.”
Although he had been radicalized in the United States, it wasn’t until he got back to Guyana that he read Marxist literature. “It was Janet who, when she came here in 1943, brought me Little Lenin Library books—little tracts, pamphlets. It was the first time I read Marxist literature. And then—as with the bridge books—I began reading Marxist books like mad. I read Das Kapital after the Little Lenin series. And that helped me to have a total understanding of the development of society. Until then, all the various struggles—Indians, blacks, the American people—had been disjointed experiences. To put it in a way that was totally related to a socioeconomic system came from the reading of Marxist literature. For instance, the woman question was dealt with in Engels’s book, The Origin of the Family. The Marxist theory of surplus value brought a totally new understanding of the struggle of the working class—not only that they were exploited, but how they were exploited.
“It was exciting to me, an intellectual excitement, because a whole new world opened to me, a total understanding of the world, which then made coherent all my previous experiences in America. Discrimination—if you don’t see the system as a whole, you see discrimination only.”
This new way of seeing also dealt with his Indian past. “The Indian cultural practices which I was accustomed to as a boy—I was completely divorced from that in America. So I was then more like Nehru in terms of culture. As a student in America my life was patterned on Gandhi and Nehru. Gandhi was a fighter. Nehru too. These things molded me.”
Perhaps he was also molded, more than he knew or could acknowledge, by something in his Hindu caste background. It is there, in the autobiography. When he went to Georgetown as a fifteen-year-old schoolboy, he lodged with various Hindu families. He couldn’t pay much. The first family treated him as a servant: they wanted him to go to the market, wash the car, and even—Queen’s College student though he was—to cut grass for the goats. The family he changed to was worse. They were of the kshatriya or warrior caste, just below the brahmin. One of the daughters had married a brahmin, and the family was anxious to live up to the high connection. They didn’t want Cheddi to sleep on a bed in their house; they required him to sleep on the floor, because the Jagans were of the kurmi caste, a caste of cultivators.
Cheddi Jagan says in his book that he had heard about caste problems only from his mother. But, in fact, as a caste, the kurmis are interesting. The gazeteers, or handbooks, that the British compiled for various Indian districts in the last century and this, speak not only of the agricultural skill and diligence of the kurmis, but also of their caste combativeness. The kurmis of some districts insist that they are not a low caste. They say they are of Rajput origin, and kshatriyas. Now, everything said about Cheddi Jagan’s father stresses his physical presence; and the photograph I saw of him that morning in Freedom House showed a man with a proud Rajput mustache—the mustache that had made such an impression on Martin Carter.
To be an Indian and a kurmi in Guyana was to be “hemmed in” in a double way, even before the challenges of the United States. All of this hemming-in the Marxist illumination abolished, made universal and abstract. And it might be said that Cheddi Jagan, as the son of his father, was ready for such an illumination.
Cheddi Jagan said, “This discovery of the class struggle, and society divided into classes—all came from my Marxist reading. My background gave me a class bias. To me the class issue was fundamental.”
He met Janet in 1942 or early in 1943. “Just after I came out of the sanitarium. I met her at a party of a mutual friend. Her family had fallen into poverty during the Depression, and then they quickly came out of that to have a middle-class status. At Wayne University she identified with minorities. Not only was she strikingly beautiful, we had the same interests, interests in the underdog. We got on immediately. She gave up her undergrad work and began to study as a nurse because she wanted to serve in the war. And that was when we met—she was a student nurse.”
Janet took up the story a little while later, after Cheddi had left his office for a meeting. We sat in the small outer room of Cheddi’s office, with the low easy chairs. She spoke slowly, contemplatively.
“My best friend—a girl I grew up with in Chicago, Helen—had a farewell party, and Cheddi was there. He was dating one of Helen’s sisters. He was very handsome, of course. There wasn’t anything political. It was just a boy-girl story.”
I asked her about her first impressions of Guyana.
“It was a bit of a culture shock. It was during the war. I came on a seaplane. We landed on the Demerara River, and we went straight to Port Mourant. It was a shock. They didn’t know what the hell to do with me. I should have been with the women, but they put me in a chair in the living room with the men. The women sat on the floor in the kitchen. I thought they would be resentful. I thought they would have liked Cheddi to marry an Indian girl of high status. I thought they missed the fuss of the wedding and so on.
“I’ll tell you a funny thing. We wanted to give Indrani, Cheddi’s eldest sister, a good education. So I went to Bishop’s”—the leading girl’s school in Georgetown—“and spoke to the headmistress—she was English, white—and I told her I wanted to bring my sister-in-law from Berbice. And she said okay—if she had the qualifications. And when I took Indrani there, the headmistress was shocked. She was expecting my sister-in-law to be white, and she said no. So Indrani didn’t get in. She got into Central High School, and eventually she went to England and studied nursing. There are now about six dentists in the Jagan family, and three optometrists. That’s a good profession for women; that’s one they can handle.”
I asked her, thinking of the life that had begun for her in 1943, “Have you enjoyed it all?”
“Not all of it.” She gave her nervous, young-sounding laugh. “Some of it has been very painful. So many awful things happened that I find forgetfulness one of the ways of survival. In the nineteen sixties it was terrible. There was a period when I couldn’t go out, couldn’t go to a cinema, restaurant, couldn’t do anything in public. I was the scapegoat. I don’t have Cheddi’s temperament. I tend to be a bit gloomy.
“But I think it’s been an exciting life. It was interesting. Living in a different culture. They used to make up a lot of silly stories about me—aping Indians, wearing saris, a whole lot of stupidness. I haven’t tried to be what I am not. A lot of people tried to say that my political life depended on my being an Indian. I suppose a stranger in a land would be subject to all sorts of myths and caricatures.
“I get my best enjoyment working in newspapers. I don’t like the public-appearance part of politics. I evolved into a journalist. Being a woman in politics isn’t that easy.”
I wanted to know more about her background in the United States.
“Recently, my brother and I took a tour in Missouri. On my father’s side we’ve been in the US for most of the last century. We went and saw those graves in Moberly, Missouri. There was hardly any Jewish community there, and in the cemetery there was a teeny little section with stones that marked the Jewish graves there—mostly my family. On my mother’s side my grandparents migrated from Hungary and Romania in this century. So the world is made up of people who have migrated.”
And it was as though she was talking not only of the migrations of her ancestors to the United States, but also of the migration of the Indians to Guyana; of Cheddi’s grandmothers coming over as children from India on the sailing ship Elbe in 1901; of Cheddi’s journey to the United States in 1936; and of his journey back with her in 1943; the settling—half a resetling—of their children in the United States and Canada; and the migration, since the 1970s, of all those people of Guyana they had hoped to bring the revolution to, people who had now taken their destinies in their own hands.
April 11, 1991