A Perfect Pledge is at once a beautifully detailed novel about family life, a lively and abundant portrait of Trinidadian society and an ambitious, universal story of striving and strife. Following four decades of tumult – both national and domestic – this third novel by acclaimed author Rabindranath Maharaj is both deeply perceptive and strikingly unsentimental; it is full of singular characters and memorable, often hilarious dialogue. A Perfect Pledge is a major addition both to Canadian literature and to the literature of the Caribbean.
The novel begins with the birth of a child to Narpat and Dulari in the village of Lengua in the late 1950s. Geevan, known universally as Jeeves, is the son that Narpat, an irascible cane farmer, has long wished for to add to his three daughters. But, growing up in his father’s shadow, Jeeves develops into a scrawny, quiet, somewhat sickly boy–not helped by Narpat’s unusual dietary pronouncements, including his insistence that Jeeves eat properly purgative foods.
On one level, A Perfect Pledge is a compelling story of the intricacies of family life – of the complex relationships between husband and wife, parents and children – set in a lopsided hut with, when the book begins, no electricity or indoor plumbing. Narpat, the patriarch, is an engrossing character, a self-proclaimed “futurist” with no patience for religious “simi-dimi.” His ideas to improve his family and his village’s lot are sometimes inspired, but sometimes seem crazy; occasionally they fall somewhere in between.
The novel follows the family’s progress, from the purchase of a cow named Gangadaye, through the children’s schooling, to Narpat’s almost solitary efforts to build a factory on his land, interspersed with accidents, weddings, conflict and much more besides. Through these events A Perfect Pledge becomes a subtle portrait not only of Narpat but of the forbearance and irritation of his wife Dulari and their daughters’ clashing personalities, often seen through the observant, hungry eyes of the young Jeeves.
But A Perfect Pledge takes up other subjects too. As well as the story of a family’s struggles, it is a vivid portrayal of Trinidad over the last four decades – a deprived and sometimes mad place lurching into modernization. Rural life on the island is particularly hard in the 1960s; the infrastructure is ramshackle and always on the cusp of being taken back by nature. But the village of Lengua is a cauldron boiling with village politics, Hollywood movies, neighbourly rivalries, ayurvedic healing and much else. And while it is both panoramic and empathic, A Perfect Pledge is also a deeply pleasurable read: its elegant narrative tone is enriched by the astonishing improvisations of a Trinidadian English infused with Indian, British, American and other influences. Not a page passes without some jaw-dropping turn of phrase, from icy hots to scrapegoats, dreamsanhope to couteyahs.
A Perfect Pledge follows its characters through years of growth, challenges, and in Narpat’s case, eventual decline. As he gets older, Narpat stiffens into himself, his plans becoming ever more Quixotic and even dangerous. Jeeves, meanwhile, is trying to step clear of his bad beginnings and become an independent, self-sufficient man, while honouring his family ties (something his sisters conspicuously fail to do). A Perfect Pledge is a funny and moving book that portrays the struggles of an entire society; but the difficult relationship between father and son is ultimately at its heart.
About the author
Rabindranath Maharaj, a Trinidadian teacher and journalist, wrote several of the stories in The Interloper during the year he spent in Fredericton. He now writes and teaches in Toronto.
- Nominated, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best Book (Canada & Caribbean)
- Nominated, Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Excerpt: A Perfect Pledge (by (author) Rabindranath Maharaj)
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. Narpat had pored over his list for more than an hour, adding new ingredients and crossing out others. Finally, satisfied that he had achieved a balance between restorative and purgative items, he untwisted a long piece of copper wire from a nail on the wall and stabbed the sheet so that it lay atop a jumble of yellow dietary clippings he had pinched out of newspapers and magazines. Over the years the nail had accumulated scores of lists, most detailing dietary stipulations, but others an odd blend of injunctions and affirmations, and in miniature scribbles, baffling classifications: Small men with cracked skin who eat quickly and suffer from sleeplessness, accumulate and waste money quickly. Fat men with oily skin and a bad body odour are slow in decisions but fast in temper. Men with a medium body and small, light eyes are enterprising but faultfinding.
The groceries and fruits were for Narpat, who had calculated, typically, that neither mother nor baby would have much appetite for the next few days. He strung the wire on the nail and returned to the wooden bench, the Pavilion, drawing up both his feet and tracing the veins that ran along his calves to his ankles. When he heard the midwife alternately berating his wife in Hindi and encouraging her in English, he got up, walked to the small wooden porch, and leaned over the railing.
He had single-handedly built the house when he moved from Piarco to Lengua in 1926, thirty years ago, and it had been constructed in the simple style of that time: a boxy, threadbare structure with a roof of corrugated aluminum and walls of unpainted cedar and toporite. “People who live in painted houses,” he would tell his daughters, “just playing with fire. The toxic fumes that outgassing bit by bit, will breed bloating and brain fog. Then they will blame these complaints on obeah or maljeau or jadoo. People in this country have a thousand different reasons for every simple thing. It make them smarter, they believe. Like little children trying to understand how a toy operate.”
There were other unmistakable traces of Narpat’s hand in the design. The front of the building was elevated about three feet from the ground with thick, stubby mora logs, but the posts at the back were shorter, or had sunk, so there was a slope all the way to the kitchen. Occasionally Narpat grumbled about the water from the kitchen sink – in reality, a ledge projecting from the back window – spilling over and softening the post’s foundation, but at other times he maintained that the decline would strengthen the calf muscles, enhance balance, and tone up circulation. He told his daughters stories of loggers in Canada balancing on massive trees in the rivers and of sailors from around the world sword-fighting on tilting vessels. Transforming the house’s defect into a romantic fancy, he sang, “Our own little ship sailing to the Azores, laden with pepper and spice.”
The inside of the house was as bare as a ship’s deck too. The small front porch, enclosed by shaky wooden bars knocked into a split railing, led to the dining room, its floor built with uneven mora planks so the children could peep through the gaps at the rusted tools and aluminum sheets their father had, over the years, lodged beneath the house. There were spaces on the walls too, which his wife Dulari had tried to cover with the calenders she got every Christmas from the Chinese grocer. Whenever she complained that the cedar, hollowed by termites, was paper thin in some spots, Narpat would grin at his three daughters hunched over the low table and weave the almanac pictures of hollies and watchful deities and kittens into implausible stories. When he was finished, he would call one of his three daughters, Chandra, Kala, or Sushilla, to his knees and say, “Crazy story, crazy story.”
It was only with his children that his playful side surfaced; for them he had named the bench in the living room the Pavilion; and to its side, the bookcase crammed with manuals on agriculture, diseases, and construction, Carnegie. On its top shelf, enclosed by two dusty glass windows pimpled with mud dauber nests, were old Hindi texts and mysterious yellow folders. One end of the bookcase was elevated with a wedge of poui to accommodate the floor’s slant. On the other side of the wall was the children’s bedroom, with two beds jammed together and taking up half the room’s space. Sometimes late at night the girls would be awakened by their father knocking back books in the bookcase, or by conversations, usually in Hindi, from their parents’ bedroom. In that room was the only piece of furniture of any significance: a dresser with three oval mirrors and brass-knuckled handles on the wooden drawers. The dresser was a wedding present from Dulari’s brother, Bhola, and over the years the wood had warped and the varnish had raised in concentric circles, which had grown so familiar to the children, they seemed to be decorations rather than blemishes. The kitchen, the last room in the house, was a little cubicle with a chulha, a clay fireplace set at the corner and surrounded by pots and pans hanging from nails on the wall. The ceiling and the walls were powdered with soot that sometimes dropped on the floor in soft gray clumps, like dead bats. In the nights the smouldering coals in the chulha cast a dull pall on the pots and pans and on the dusty almanacs. The entire house smelled of ashes and woodsmoke, which, Narpat maintained, cleared the lungs of congestion. Just before the chulha was the door leading to Dulari’s backyard garden, with small beds of tomatoes, pepper and melongene, and machans, bamboo trellises with carailli and cucumber vines. In the centre of the garden a narrow trail of tiny white melau pebbles that glinted like scattered shillings in the night led to the latrine.
The beds of marigolds, periwinkles, zinnias, and daisies, and the poinsettia tree and the thorny bougainvillea on both sides of the porch, were also Dulari’s. The front yard was paved with asphalt, which had sunk and fragmented into irregular slabs, exposing muddy boulders beneath. To the left of the house, the asphalt had completely succumbed to knot grass, which flourished around the short Julie mango tree and the copper, a huge water basin bought from the sugar factory in St. Madeline.
A Globe and Mail Best Book
Finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize
Finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book (Caribbean and Canada Region)
“The only truly serious and successful Canadian novel I have read so far this year is set entirely on the island of Trinidad and has not a single Canadian character…. For the record, [Maharaj] is a more accomplished writer than Vassanji and a livelier novelist than Mistry.”
–Phillip Marchand, Toronto Star
“A Perfect Pledge . . . will establish [Maharaj] as a major Canadian writer and literary figure of international stature. . . . A Perfect Pledge shares the comically neutral tone of Naipaul’s earlier novels, except that Maharaj’s humour is broader, the characters more hilarious in their physical and linguistic excesses. Also, unlike Naipaul, Maharaj’s mirth belies an implacable tenderness, an empathy and acceptance of human nature–a respectfulness that precludes scorn. . . . Maharaj manages to draw the reader very close to Narpat’s family. We come to see them–with all their strife and occasional violence–as oddly loving and loyal. . . . But this is just one of numerous sleights of hand Maharaj employs. In the end, we can’t remember the precise moment we stopped rolling our eyes and began wiping them.”
–The Globe and Mail
“A poignant, studiously unsentimental portrait of a man too big for his community, and of the enduring bonds between father and son. . . . What the book is, really, is pure Maharaj. When a major writer emerges, the time for comparisons ends, and the time to celebrate the arrival of a distinctive, fully formed voice and sensibility begins. So, begin.”
“[Maharaj has created a colourful universe of characters, and the writing is witty and sharp. Much like the Island of Trinidad, A Perfect Pledge is a polyglot of different styles. Part comedy, part tragedy, the book is Dickensian in scope, creates a detailed world of characters à la V.S. Naipaul and evokes the allegorical qualities of Chinua Achebe or even John Steinbeck. But it is those echoes of Don Quixote that linger the most. At the personal or political level, it would appear that vowing to fight the windmills of change can be a dangerous pledge to make.”
–The Gazette (Montreal)
“For a decade, Trinidadian-born author Rabindranath Maharaj has been treating readers to stories that remind us how colourful and cruel life can be. . . . A Perfect Pledge is a masterpiece of real-life misery, the kind that touches you and lingers for a long, long while.”
–The Vancouver Sun
“A Perfect Pledge delivers a beautifully written and beautifully sad tale.”
“Among the many things to admire about A Perfect Pledge is the author’s confidence. . . . Imagine Don Quixote staying home in Trinidad, and you’ve got something like the wandering, witty, ultimately devastating story that Rabindranath Maharaj tells in A Perfect Pledge. . . . I’d advise keeping an eye out for more from Maharaj.”
–The Washington Post Book World
“What a delicious feeling it is to read the first pages of a 400-page book and know you are in the hands of an accomplished storyteller. . . . It is impossible not to compare Rabindranath Maharaj with Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. . . . This eminently satisfying novel has the clarity of Naipaul and some of the bite, and a great deal that is Maharaj’s own.”
–The Seattle Times
“A sprawling, colorful epic. . . . This novel’s allure comes from its comic energy and its plucky, determined characters–especially the farmer’s son, who struggles between his sense of filial duty and his desire for independence. In the end, the book . . . is charming and you have to admire its elaborate craftsmanship.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“The novel's panoramic depiction of a crumbling traditional society is a richly satisfying dish, with the charm of the exotic for readers who come from anywhere else. . . . [M]asterfully told.”
–The Boston Globe