Puddicombe explores trauma, homelessness

Puddicombe, Ken, Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories, MiddleRoad Publishers, 2017 Puddicombe, Ken, Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories, MiddleRoad Publishers, 2017 By Romeo Kaseram Indo Caribbean World—May 17, 2017

In a work of reportorial consistency, Ken Puddicombe’s Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories explores the lives of a people scattered near and far into homelessness following a near-apocalyptic and dehiscent eruption in a place the reader recognises as British Guiana. With Puddicombe’s language unrelenting as it is visceral and bare, the 16 stories here are presented with a narrative focused on archival intent, the collection fitting into the inventory of the Caribbean’s near-dystopic, post-colonial oeuvre. Puddicombe is also the author of Racing With The Rain and Junta.

In this latest collection are stories tracing the struggles of those who remained in post-independence Guyana as they pick up the pieces following violent political and divisive, civil turmoil. Alongside these stories at ground zero are the lives of those who were scattered abroad, where they now drift, negotiate daily lives, and struggle as an emergent diaspora.

It is evident in the first story of the collection, ‘Black Friday,’ the country’s capital has imploded with civil insurrection when Joseph speaks darkly, while scanning the burning cit:

“Things will never be the same again” he said, as he continued to gaze at the conflagration, where sparks and a tremulous layer of pyrotechnic display continued unabated. “Here we are, nineteen sixty-two, and we’re going backwards instead of forwards. It’s never onward with this country.” He shook his head. “There is no future here. I have to get out.”

His next words are filled with the foreboding undertones of a Pandora’s Box violently blown open. Waving his hands in the direction of the conflagration, Joseph says: “The first time I’m seeing something like this in all my born days. This breakdown in law and order will start a trend. Once the genie’s out of the bottle, you can’t get it back in.”

The colonial centrality does not hold that is British hegemony in the face of internal and violent, racist rivalry for political control in an emerging, independence Guyana. Joseph says with dark portent: “When the dogs of war were set free and insurrection and looting started, the rabble-rousers didn’t distinguish friend from foe.”

As the patriarchal head of the family and its business, Augusto laments: “They looted everything on the floor, then they moved to the warehouse and stripped it bare. They even carted away the fixtures before they set fire to the store. Why did they have to set fire to it? I can’t understand them. Why set fire and destroy everything that I’ve built up? I’ve always been good to them—why did they do it?

British Guiana falls apart. The established business run by Augosto, started and built by his father Salvador from humble beginnings as a street peddler, has been looted and razed. In the flux of uncertainty, terror, and racial violence, what was predictable is now unknown; stability is overturned; and what was once resumed to be an unassailable centre by the many representative characters making up the people similarly experiencing Augusto’s betrayal all comes crashing down before unbelieving eyes.

It is not only business built with sweat and dedication across generations that toppled. In one of the many evocations of homelessness affecting all the races throughout this collection, as a motif it is easily discernible in the story’s name itself, A House Is Not A home. Here a family is similarly conflicted torn apart, and set adrift from what characters similar to the traumatised and stunned Augusto once considered to be rootedness and stability. As Cassandra waits for her ride to arrive to take her and the children to airport, husband Muniram has chosen to stay and weather the firestorms of terror in racial confrontations and escalating violence and arson. Even as the home is divided and torn apart, Cassandra poignantly contemplates the house she is leaving behind:

“Of course she would regret leaving. Her father had contributed his time and laour…His carpenter’s skill was evident in every floorboard, every zinc sheet on the roof, and every slab of rise on the stairs. Building it had absorbed all their savings and her parents had contributed some of theirs…That was before the trouble started between the races…

“Cassie, this is our house. It’s our home. It’s where we belong, all our money piled into it.”

You don’t have to remind of that, Muni…a house is not a home if you have to look over your shoulders all the time, not if your life is in danger.”

Even as Puddicombe explores the upheavals splitting the centre of the households making up the different races and ethnicities in an emergent Guyana, at the same time he remains inexorable in detailing how the ballistic dehiscence scattered many Guyanese nationals far from away from their homeland to see them landing abroad in similarly unstable, foreign landscapes.

In one of the stories later in the collection,Ram Singh Gone and He Nevvah Coming Back, the trauma of the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York sees its protagonist emerging out of ground zero as one of the many heroes. However, the backstory of Singh’s heroism reveals him to be deliberately flying low under the official, immigration radar. Having fled Guyana, Singh has exchanged one homelessness and its concomitant instabilities for another. In the light of his heroic effort, having sustained and survived serious injuries during the terrorist attack on the North Tower, a healing Singh must choose between the bright lights and being richly rewarded by the US authorities he has so far successfully avoided, with continuing his covert life of being faceless as an illegal immigrant and impoverished in America.

To fit Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories into the Caribbean’s oeuvre is to place it among other works exploring similar motifs of upheaval, violence, and homelessness. These motifs are positioned as a sequel to the corollary of emerging civil unrest and resistance at the conclusion of George Lamming’s seminal, post-colonial text, In The Castle of My Skin, Puddicombe’s narrative positions similarly alongside motifs of betrayal and diasporic misalignment notable in Neil Bissoondath’s Digging Up The Mountains.

In the bigger picture, Puddicombe’s work — instinctive, crisp, and consistently reportorial n its writing style, is a wholesome addition to what the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci describes as the task of compiling an inventory. Down Independence Boulevard and Other Storiesfits seamlessly into what Gramsci says is the dispositioning within us of the history of family, a nation, and a tradition, in what he notes is an infinity of traces. For its specific reportage and ineluctable details of a conquered people, who having been torn apart and has bitterly turned on themselves as part of the fallout from the trauma and divisiveness of colonialism, Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories is the latest addition of the inventory helping us to understand our universal and troubling condition.

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