A Poet for Her People: Mahadai Das 1954-2003

O.A. Fraser

 

Mahadai Das a Guyanese poet and activist died at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Bridgetown, Barbados shortly before midnight on Thursday, April 3, 2003.  She had gone into cardiac arrest ten days earlier and, despite a battle to the end, eventually lost her struggle.

"I want to be a poetess," a beautiful, exalted instrument, "for my people," Das once wrote.

She was delivered by midwife on October 22nd, 1954 in Eccles Village on the East Bank of the Demerara River. The oldest of ten children from the union of Beatrice Das (nee Matadin) and Tilokee Das, she wrote from the agony and treachery of experience.


A former Ms. Dewali (1971) beauty queen, Ms. Das studied at the University of Guyana and the University of the West Indies.  She received a B.A. in Philosophy from Columbia University in New York. Ms. Das earned also an M.A. in Philosophy from the University of Chicago, and was progressing towards a Ph.D. at that school when emergency open-heart surgery truncated her academic career in 1987.

"Iím struck by the irony of it all, as someone who had a very big heart, that it is her heart that would fail her in the end," said William Balan-Gaubert, a friend and colleague from Ms. Dasí tenure at the University of Chicago. "We spent a lot of time talking about poetry and Caribbean literature," he added, "Iím very sad to hear of her passing."

Peepal Press of Leeds published Bones, her last book of poetry, in 1988.  It is available from Marginal Distribution, 277 George Street, North, Unit 102, Peterborough, ON, K9J 3G9 - Canada: marginal@marginalbook.com; phone (705) 745-2326.  While studying at Columbia, Ms. Das contributed poetry to two student publications Common Ground and Black Heights.  Her work continues to be anthologized, and has gained in significance as interest in women writers of the South East Asian Diaspora grows.

"I came to India," one of Dasí poems, was selected by internationally renowned scholar George Lamming of Barbados, as one of three pieces exploring ethnicity and identity in the Caribbean, from which he built the fourth annual Cheddi Jagan lecture in York, Canada. The other two were an untitled poem by Trinidadian writer, Lawrence Scott, and "Far Cry from Africa," by Nobel laureate Derrick Walcott.

Ms. Das became active as a teenager in trying to find a nonracial solution to Guyana's social and political problems.  She was an early member of the Working People's Alliance, a third party alternative to the race-based politics of the Peoples National Congress (Blacks) and Peoples Progressive Party (East Indians) that have dominated the post-colonial Guyanese political terrain.  Walter Rodney, the WPA's founder, a scholar and author best known for his treatise, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, profoundly influenced Ms. Das and her thinking about post-colonial society.

Her politics and poetry of liberation transcended national autonomy, and addressed as well issues of caste and subjugation of women in traditional Indian society.

"The equality of women, especially the type of life that East Indian women in the West Indies were subject to," remarked Esther Whitaker, a younger sister, "she (Mahadai) spent her life enlightening women to this. She has raised my awareness. "

Her poetry gave early voice to these voiceless women of the South East Asian Diaspora, three decades before that movement's current vogue.  Rajkumari Singh founded the "Messenger Group," in 1972 "as a way of helping young artists and writers develop," said Janet Naidu, one of the beneficiaries of the collective. "The goal was to get writers together and artists together to talk about what they were doing," added Ms. Naidu.

Ms. Singh, a pioneer in the quest for equality of East Indian women, worked to elevate the status and conservation of Indo-Caribbean heritage at home and abroad.  Ms. Das gravitated to her as a mother figure, and became a disciple of this movement.

"Mahadai had a knack for writing long poems and long titles," recalled Ms. Naidu, through laughter.

Her early writings appeared in Kyk-over-Al, Guyana's official literary journal, edited for years by AJ Seymour and Ian McDonald.  Briefly in the mid-1980s she wrote for the Indo-Caribbean News (later the Inter-Caribbean News), a monthly published in Toronto, Canada, by Mark Maharaj.

"Your bleeding hands grasp roots of rice," Das once wrote, an apparent reference to Tilokee, her father, who died on October 3, 1997 at the age of 65.


Known as "Millie" or "Sister Millie" to family, from her Guyanese "home name," Millicent, Ms. Das at 17 undertook the care and rearing of her nine younger siblings following her mother's death.

Beatrice Das had children like hard rain: Mahadai, Patrick, Deodat, Chandradai, Sandra, Susan, Esther, Pamela, Charles and Tina. The last birth was more difficult than immediately recognized. The child lived, but the mother passed away at the tender age of 32, in 1971. That event ushered in enormous sorrow in Mahadaiís life, informing her aesthetic sensibilities and commitment to the social and political enfranchisement of East Indian women in particular, but all women in general.

Her despair intensified when Patrick, her brother, was lost in the jungles two years later, never to be heard from again.

The work of Mahadai Das continues to grow in popularity wherever post-colonial literature, Caribbean literature, English Indian Diasporic literature and women writers of the Caribbean is taught. Her work has been on the syllabi of Caribbean, North American and European universities. Yet she died in relative obscurity, most shockingly unknown to young Guyanese, a fact upsetting to Janet Naidu.

"We have this kind of returning gaze," said Naidu of Caribbean expatriates, "that I donít think the locals understand."


"Mahadai is the only mother I've ever known," said Whitaker, herself an aspiring poet and writer. "Her work did not go in vain," she added; "Itís like raising a child in your own eyes and knowing at the end, she has not deserted you. I dedicated a poem to her called ĎMaharani.í It means "queen," and thatís the name she liked to call herself, ĎMaharani,í" said Whittaker.

Ms. Das had a passion for people, ideas and books.  Services are planned for Thursday, April 10, 2003, in St. Michael, Barbados. Hers was a poetís heart, defiant and longing for love, frail and stubborn to the end.