Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Two George Lamming novels and a wonderful surprise … second time lucky with used books … Part 1 – Close encounters with George Lamming’s first novel In the Castle of My Skin

I read George Lamming for the first time in 1991.  His first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, written in 1953, was part of the Commonwealth Literature syllabus when I was doing my MA at Fergusson College.  When I started reading In the Castle of My Skin written by this writer from Barbados, I entered into a world which I hadn’t known before.  I had read some of Naipaul’s Trinidad novels and they dealt with the lived experiences of immigrant Indian/Hindu population of Trinidad society.  And here in this novel, we were in an Afro-Caribbean space.  Unlike Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname, which have an almost 50% Indian-origin population, Barbados, Jamaica, and other Caribbean countries are predominantly Afro-Caribbean.  In the Castle of My Skin is at one level a bildungsroman, charting the growth of a young boy, name ‘G,’ from his childhood till he leaves Barbados, when he gets a job in Trinidad.  A number of contemporary themes, luminous childhood vignettes, spirited people, poignant scenes, ideas, struggles, and concerns, are woven and interwoven around the ‘growing up of G’ with the help of a skillful and brilliant narrative structure to form the fascinating tapestry of this novel.  Of course, at that time, in 1991, I hadn’t realized all this about this novel.  What stood out for me was how this novel was narrated.  It was as if Lamming had created a unique ‘West Indian’ narrative composition through this novel. 

The memories of In the Castle of My Skin stayed with me long after I completed my MA and when in 1993, I was admitted into the MPhil programme at CIEFL, I grabbed the opportunity to work on the distinctive narrative structure of this novel which had so enchanted me.  But I didn’t have a copy of the novel with me.  While I was doing my MA, there used to be this one copy of In the Castle of My Skin in the Fergusson College library and there were around twenty students fighting for that one copy.  There was no other way then and I got the whole novel photocopied for my regular and personal use.  The CIEFL library too had a copy of In the Castle of My Skin, and fortunately, nobody else wanted this novel, so I could have complete custody of this novel.  I borrowed that copy for form’s sake, but I decided to use my jeroks copy of the novel I had brought with me from Pune.  I tried to buy a copy of the novel for myself, but couldn’t find a copy anywhere.  Booksellers said they’d have to ‘import’ it and at that time it would have been a very expensive proposition.  By the time I submitted my MPhil dissertation that jeroks copy looked as if it had survived a hurricane.  There were markings, underlines, highlightings, margin comments, pages had become dog-eared … all sorts of things.  But there was this regret that I was not able to get my own copy of the novel.  

I had to wait till January 2010 for this regret to turn to joy.  It was at a used books’ sale by Best Books at YMCA, Secunderabad, that I found a copy of In the Castle of My Skin.  When things like this happen, I go speechless.  I kept looking at the book, looked at the back cover, skimmed the pages, it was in very good condition.  The cover is plain black with the title and author in shiny red letters, and in white letters we have a quote (blurb??) at the top and the series label at the bottom.  The back cover has a smoking Lamming in a passport size black & white photograph and acclaim from some of the top British (?) periodicals like New Statesman, Tribune, The Spectator, etc. 

There are other editions of In the Castle of My Skin, which have more imaginative and more figurative covers, but at that point of time this edition was the most precious book that I had ever held in my hands.  If I am lucky, I might lay my hands on the other editions with colourful covers too … who knows …  

This enchantment with In the Castle of My Skin’s distinctive narrative composition led me deeper into the novel and I became closer to the characters, their concerns, their activities … I enjoyed eavesdropping on the young boys’ conversations on the beach … I saw the British colonial apparatus working in remote Barbados … I saw Barbados gaining independence and struggling with the initial days of freedom … and all these were narrated so masterfully …

In the Castle of My Skin continued to occupy space in my mind long time after my MPhil and around 2007 or so I decided to put together a paper for publication based on my dissertation.  This paper would solely be on the narrative structure of In the Castle of My Skin.  It was mostly a distillation process from the main chapter in my dissertation.  This paper “Redemption Song: Narrative, Time, and Narrator/s in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skinwas published by The Literary Criterion in 2008.  I had spent a memorable week at Dhvanyaloka in Mysore for a week in 1993 reading and collecting research material for my MPhil and had also discussed my work with Prof C. D. Narasimhaiah.  I was glad that The Literary Criterion (brought out by Dhvanyaloka Centre for Indian Studies, Mysore, and one of the oldest literature research journals in India) decided to publish this paper.  In case anyone is interested, the paper is here.

Actually, this was not what I intended to write, I wanted to write about the two other Lamming novels that I found and bought recently from a used books’ portal on amazon.  But this post of sort of wrote itself.  It is quite possible that I wanted to write in detail about In the Castle of My Skin and my relationship with it when I found the novel in 2010, but never did.  When I started to write this post, things started adding up and took on a different shape and ended up like this.  And so, I had to go back to the title and make this post a sort of Part 1.  Though finding In the Castle of My Skin in 2010 was itself a surprise, but the ‘surprise’ in the title refers to a recent surprise with another Lamming novel.  Now, I am not so sure whether the surprise would unravel itself in Part 2 or if there are going to be more parts … I’ll have to wait and watch …  I am no longer sure …   

No comments: