Preserving our literary heritage
by Petamber Persaud
PETER Kempadoo is the first Guyanese of Indian ancestry to write a novel. That book, `GUIANA BOY’, was self-published in 1960 by a small press, New Literature (Publishing) Limited, founded by Kempadoo. One of the reasons for self-publishing was that major English publishing houses at the time wanted the language of book to be refashioned to suit English readership. But the author of GUIANA BOY was not inclined to follow suit as did most of the other Guyanese and Caribbean writers.
Peter Kempadoo the author of GUIANA BOY which was reissued in 2002 by Peepal Tree Press as `GUYANA BOY’ is back home in Guyana to publish a scaled down version of that novel specially prepared for children to appear under the title, `THE GROWING UP OF LILBOY’. All in keeping with his philosophy: caring for the welfare of all even unto the most deprived. It is Kempadoo’s desire to make that classic Caribbean novel readily and easily available to all and sundry.
This current visit to his birthplace in Port Mourant, Corentyne, Berbice, coincided with the death of one of his aunts – the last matriarch in the dwindling ranks of the Kempadoos in Berbice.
The linage of the Kempadoos of Guyana has its genesis in the system of indentured labour brought from India to Guyana to work in the sugar industry. This movement began in 1838 to fill the void left by African slave labour when the slaves were freed in that same year.
That indenture system brought the Tamil parents of Peter Kempadoo together. James Kempadoo aka Lauchmonen and Priscilla Alemeloo Tambran were matched in marriage by their parents who were ‘jahaji bai’ – a brotherhood of men travelling on the same ship across the ‘kala pani’ (dark waters) from India to British Guiana.
While many returned to India at the expiration of their contracts, others stayed. The maternal side of Kempadoo’s linage turned away from farming the land and concentrated on fishing as was its heritage in South India. The paternal side of his family stayed on the estate because of its acquired elevated position leading itself to numerous privileges.
Kempadoo’s father became a chauffeur to an estate manager. He was also a champion cyclist and cricket all-rounder, captaining the Port Mourant team for decades.
Peter Kempadoo was born into a Christian home still steeped in Tamil traditions; the two sets of customs enriching his cosmopolitan outlook.
Kempadoo, for most of his life, was a self-taught, self-made man. But he benefited from early formal education. Kempadoo started out at St. Joseph Anglican School under head master Charles La Rose. At 10, by a twist of fate, he was shifted to Port Mourant Roman Catholic School where he was sidelined into agriculture class coming under the influence of Mr. Willis. A precocious child, he was helped in and out of school by many of his elders including Mr. R. N. Persaud, a Hindu Priest who was also learned in the classics.
Passing both the Junior and Senior Cambridge examinations, Kempadoo started teaching as a pupil teacher at Port Mourant. At 17, he became a certified teacher.
In 1947, he moved to Georgetown where he trained as a male nurse at the Georgetown Public Hospital, dreaming of becoming a medical doctor. From this base, he reported on hospital matters for the Argosy newspaper until the editor of the periodical, Fred Seal Coon, invited him to join the staff. From this other base, he prepared news bulletins for the radio and was later invited by Rafeek Khan to read those items.
In 1952, he married the stunningly beautiful and brilliant Bishop’s High School student, Rosemary Read. Kempadoo was attracted to her for another reason: the way she marked up her text books at a time when it was unheard of to deface a book. This led him to read ‘serious’ literature.
As a reporter, he was quite visible covering the Venn Commission. That and the events of the politically charged 1953 influenced the migration of Kempadoo and family to England.
In England, Kempadoo worked for the BBC despite becoming a member of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. He came into contact with Frank Pilgrim who was also working for the BBC.
It was while living here, he wrote and published GUIANA BOY because all his colleagues (mainly writers) were writing and publishing. This first novel was well received. But his second novel, `OLD THOM’S HARVEST’, also set on the Corentyne Coast of Guyana was scoffed at because of his exploration of the Indian man and African woman relationship at a time when society was not ready to accept miscegenation from the other end of the spectrum.
This second novel Kempadoo wrote while living in Trinidad with the call of home becoming distinctly clearer.
His return to Guyana was not by a direct route. Bookers had established the Caribbean Printery to cater for the printing needs of the West Indian Federation. When the Federation flopped, Kempadoo was asked to look around the Caribbean for printing material to supply the press. While that was happening, a Canadian publishing house, W. J. Gage’s, financed Kempadoo to supply that press with things Caribbean.
In 1970, Kempadoo with family returned to Guyana, settling in Golden Grove. Kempadoo returned to radio, producing local programmes like ‘Rural Life Guyana’, ‘We the People’, ‘Our Kind of Folk’ and ‘Jarai’.
Kempadoo also produced with his wife a booklet titled `A-Z of GUYANESE WORDS’.
Peter Kempadoo fathered two women writers of whom one is Oonya Kempadoo of `BUXTON SPICE’ fame.