Dulari: Review and Quotes

Quotes from the press about Dulari – The Story of My Name

‘…a very beautiful and touching book, that deserves a large reading audience.’
Wierish Ramsoekh in his review in OHM-Vani, quarterly magazine October, 2007

“Every woman in Suriname should read this book.”
Mrs. Liesbeth Venetiaan-Vanenburg, First Lady of Suriname

‘For Surinamese people who know the country Usha Marhé’s fiction debut gives a great feeling of familiarity and identification. This debut is certainly to be noticed.’
Delano Weltevreden in the Noordhollands Dagblad

‘Again bravo to author Marhé who (again) dares to break the silence.’
Suriname’s Magazine Parbode, July, 2007

“I read Dulari in one breath.”
Roué Hupsel, award winning author and radio personality, quoted in the daily paper De Ware Tijd (Suriname)

‘As a whole the book is a splendid debut, of which the matured narrative style commands respect.’
Michiel van Kempen for Biblion (Library Service)

Dulari - The Story of My Name

Book review

Dulari, an ode to female shakti

By Wierish Ramsoekh

Last year, while in Suriname after a long absence, my highest priority was to buy books written by Surinamese-Hindustani authors. After all, I had reviewed a number of books by Indian writers (from India and the Diaspora) in this magazine. But why had I strayed so far from my own cultural roots? My journey took me to a number of surprisingly modern bookstores in Paramaribo but with scant result. A few children’s books by Ismène Krishnadath, a lone book by Shrinivasi. The invariable reply was that “Hindustani’s hardly write!” This gave cause for delight at the publication of the book of short stories Dulari – The Story of my name by Usha Marhé. Marhé (43) is well-known in the Hindustani community. Her first book Tapu Sjén/Conceal your shame (1996, non-fiction) caused great commotion because of the incest theme. Dulari (fiction) has a different intention.

There are six stories, each presenting a Hindustani woman. The reader is taken on a journey starting from the time the Indian contract labourers were brought to Suriname in the late 1800’s to the present time Holland. The central theme is the power the women carry within. There is a common reality that often goes unnoticed, such as when an angry grandmother gives her granddaughter the name ‘Manthorni’ (= she who broke my heart) just because she is a girl and not a boy (‘How do you come to think of yourself when your name is Manthorni?’). By looking behind the façade it becomes painfully clear how important the role of the Surinamese Hindustani women has been and still is in social history: ‘The women keep the country going, he recounts, they feed the children with food that they do not have, they travel to work on ill-functioning public transportation, they send their children to school while racking their brains on how to pay the book fee with worthless, monopoly-like money’.

Marhé extols the virtues of the female shakti. For those with knowledge of Hinduism, the playful comparison between shakti and ‘girl power’ in one of the stories might be seen as too frivolous. It is no surprise that the male-female relationship in this book is rather important. Men do not fare well: alcoholism, narrow-mindedness, wife beating and dodging familial responsibility. The over all conclusion seems gloomy and reaches beyond Hindustani men: ‘In that relationship I had come to the realisation that it does not matter what culture men are from: they are pretty much all old-fashioned when it comes to the place of woman in society in relation to man’. But there is hope. Men from more recent times have modernised to a degree. Especially the last story, ‘Shakuntela’, is surprising. After all the male-female tragedy from the previous stories this one reads like a glimmer of hope worth holding on; the classical dream that Surinamese-Hindustani girls from Usha Marhé’s generation cherish: being part of a Hindustani couple who are loyal to each other and have a mutual understanding, in Suriname.

The role of the children throughout the stories is compelling. Mostly they are the grass that is trampled by fighting elephants. They are victims of their parents’ unhappiness and at times even the scapegoats: ‘We missed Mama and were happy to hear that she would be coming home. We were eating when she came. Do you know what she did? She took a machete and tried to kill us’. Mothers who long for perfect children to compensate for their own misfortune: ‘Of course my mother wanted me to succeed in life too, but she thought it could only happen her way. She wanted to drill me and my brother into model children to wash away the shame of her divorce’. Mothers who, unhappy with their husbands, project their hope for some joy in life on their sons, thereby burdening them with a heavy load. Absent fathers: ‘ … he had gone when I was three and until the day of the encounter he had moved to the background of my childhood… My father divorced his wife as well as his daughter’. One almost wonders how and why Hindustani family ties and the emotional loyalties that come with them are often so unshakable. Can it be that hard times emphasize solidarity and through this process lasting alliances are created.

The attention towards the mother-daughter relationship is not peculiar in a book about women. My favourite story in Dulari is ‘Chowrie’. The daughter in the story wants to lead her own life (‘I cannot arrange my life according to your dated world view’.) The mother’s character is more complex. On the one hand she wants to be a girlfriend and wants her daughter to do all kinds of things she never had a chance to do herself because of the social limitations of the period she grew up in. It is actually because of her daughter that she learns new things. On the other hand, there is the inbred motherly fear of her daughter ending up with an unwanted pregnancy, and the invariable shame towards the community. In addition, her wisdom of the ages that is too difficult to communicate: ‘How was she to explain all these things to her daughter? That they, no matter how long they would continue living here, would never be accepted as real Dutch citizens. It did not matter how hard they would try to adapt their accent from Surinamese Dutch to Holland Dutch, or how timely they would arrive at appointments; people would continue to refer to their foreign background, even though that foreign land had been part of the Dutch monarchy for centuries. This is why it is extremely important to cherish your roots, to have a thorough knowledge of your cultural background and to not scare away the few people who do accept you for who you are, because you need each other to survive, she wanted to tell her.’ This discord often results in thinking one way, but acting differently and saying things another way. Consequently, her children accuse her of being old-fashioned despite her good intentions: ‘Maya as well as her brother thought that the mothers and the other women continued to pass on the message to girls that they were less than boys’. And so it can happen that a woman who suffered from ‘admi ka boli’ – what will people say? – herself can become an anti-hero.

It is inevitable that in the candid stories in Dulari the ‘other woman’ has a place of her own. A woman’s hope for more turns sour after a playful start, leaving the daughter with the outcome: ‘I did not want to end up like my mother who threw away the best years of her life to be with a dishonourable man, who wasn’t worth to be with her. He had made her believe that she needed him while it was just the other way around. If my mother had played her cards slightly better, if she had dared to ask more from life she could have gotten who she wanted. I did not want to live within the boundaries of her limitations. So I invented my own life’.

And, finally, the ever haunting homesickness hovers in the background. It is a phenomenon that is so characteristic for many Surinamese Hindustani people who live with their hearts in Suriname and with their bodies in Holland. The passion leaps off the pages when Marhé writes about the arrival of one of her characters at the international airport Zanderij in Suriname: ‘Suddenly, the minute she exited the airplane and her feet hit the ground, it felt like they started growing roots. It felt as if they went straight through the tarmac, straining to reach the earth underneath, yearning for groundwater, and keep on growing until they found the water and nourished themselves while happily peeking at the other roots under the ground’.

Whereas books by Salman Rushdie are vigorous hikes through the jungle, those by V.S. Naipaul a ramble through the woods, Dulari reads like a stroll through a city park. The book is relatively thin; the stories are not too complex and have straight forward story lines. Still, Dulari is a beautiful and compelling book which deserves many readers. Not only do most people prefer strolling through a city park, also there turns out to be more to the stories than one might expect at first hand. So long as you take the time to allow the stories behind the Hindustani faces to seep into your being and to realise that behind every façade there is a gripping life story waiting to be told. Stories that explicitly coincide with the stories in your life and in mine, stories that open doors to a “sentimental journey” to our personal history and gets us thinking of the here and the now. And that is what makes reading a Dutch-Surinamese-Hindustani author like Usha Marhé so special.

Back and Front of 'Dulari - The Story of My Name'