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A Perfect Pledge

by Rabindranath Maharaj

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s sometimes possible to glean quite a bit from its opening sentence. “On the evening the baby was delivered by Mullai, the village midwife, a chain-smoking dwarf who smelled of roasted almonds, cumin, and cucumber stems, Narpat, who was fifty-five years old and had given up the idea of fathering a son, was sitting cross-legged in the kitchen methodically compiling one of his lists: ginger, saffron, sapodilla, pineapple, avocado, coconut jelly and sikya fig, a small banana found in all the birdcages in the village.”

There are a few ways in which Rabindranath Maharaj’s new novel resembles its first line. It is peopled by eccentric rustics of Caribbean origin. It has lots of references to exotic foodstuffs. It is somewhat awkward and meandering. And it is very long. If you enjoy books that feature the first two characteristics, and are comfortable with the second two, then there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy A Perfect Pledge, a deeply flawed but at times engaging example of its genre.

Beginning in 1961 with the birth of the above-mentioned son, subsequently named Jeevan or Jeeves, the novel tracks the lives of the Indo-Trinidadian Narpat, his family, and fellow villagers over the next couple of decades. Much of the book is taken up by stories and anecdotes about village life, mostly centring on Narpat and/or Jeeves. Narpat, a manic, disease-phobic dreamer, is forever coming up with crazy schemes – building a solar-powered water-heating contraption on the roof or converting a rusty tractor into a hearse. Jeeves, meanwhile, is constantly making an ass of himself or getting into trouble – asking Santa for a goat for Christmas, stealing turtles from the aquarium at school.

With Trinidad and Tobago declaring independence in 1962, Jeeves’s coming of age and Narpat’s gradual decline mirror the nation’s transition from the colonial to the post-colonial era. But this historical background feels like an afterthought, something tacked on to add weight to the anecdotal material that’s front and centre.

There is something almost sitcom-like in much of Maharaj’s storytelling. There’s the novel’s focus on the situations and scrapes that Narpat and Jeeves are constantly getting themselves into. There’s Maharaj’s frequent use of facile banter between the sexes. As in an old rerun of The Honeymooners, Narpat’s wife dutifully complains about his various antics, to which Narpat dutifully replies, “Somebody check the gramophone. It look like the record stick.” Finally, there are the broadly sketched character types, including the manager of Jeeves’s school, a clownish figure who periodically pops up with his sidekick, an incorrigible goat, in tow. (“You keep up this behavior Mr. Goat, and I will throw you ass in the pot one day. Curry you backside good and proper.”)

Still, in a novel that’s as long and laden with exotic spice references as A Perfect Pledge, a little humour is a welcome thing, and there are times when Maharaj’s wit is most engaging. The biggest problems in the novel are technical. For every scene that works well, there’s another that loses its way. There’s very little in the way of an underlying structure to carry us forward when the jokes fail. Finally, Maharaj hasn’t quite found a way to modulate between the book’s lighter tone and the more serious themes about the passage of time.

A Perfect Pledge isn’t a bad book, but it demands a lot of patience from a reader. You may, indeed, feel that you yourself have passed into a new epoch by the time you’ve finished.