Published in The Pioneer, India, March 9 2004
Latika Padgaonkar is editor of the world's foremost magazine for Asian films, Cinemaya, and UNESCO Information Officer in Delhi.
Is dil mein hai India
I really couldn't say how many readers in India would have heard of Sharon Maas. Sharon is a novelist from Guyana caught up in an ardent and abiding love affair with India; and, most unusually, India is, at least in part, the setting for all her novels. More than 30 years ago, this country beckoned her, charmed her, disarmed her, and certainly calmed her. She studied for some time in England, worked in Guyana, and then, in 1973, travelled overland to India, following what seemed like a path traced out. She headed for the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharshi in Tiruvannamalai, stayed there, and returned incessantly. "It's the one place on earth I call home." She is here right now, even as her third book, The Speech of Angels, was being released this week in the UK.
Sharon is a product of a mix of races - African, Amerindian, Dutch, British and an Indian drop somewhere. "All colours of the rainbow," as she describes herself - and of an eminent family. Her mother was one of Guyana's earliest feminists and human rights activists; her father, a Marxist, a freedom fighter, and later Press Secretary to the opposition leader Dr Cheddi Jagan who was Prime Minister twice over. She calls her parents "atheist, progressive, political and rationalist"; both received the country's highest honours for public service.
I met Sharon last month in Guadeloupe where, as guest at a festival, she spoke of her life in Guyana and of questions of identity in a small, multi-ethnic country. Guyana's history is very colourful, she says. Half of its population is Indian and wields considerable influence. "When I was growing up, the Indians were doctors and lawyers but also rice farmers and small shopkeepers."
Occasionally, in the past, tensions would flare up between Indians and Africans "but nowadays they seem to get along quite well." On the whole, however, the two groups live side by side rather than blend. "There is little intermarriage between Indians and the other races... the Africans mix far more. Indians are more protective of their culture."
Sharon was a precocious child, writing stories at the age of eight. "Stories have been coming to me all my life. As a little girl I could sit for hours and dream. I could set people in motion, put them in situations and hear them speak. I could put them in and out of trouble and spin out happy endings..."
Dreaming was an escape, a "nice soft cushion, a woolly cloud in the sky. It took some good, hardboiled suffering to wake me up and transform it from a pleasant pastime into an act of creation."
Her best friend, Pratima, was the daughter of Guyana's foremost historian, Dwarka Nath, a first generation Indian. In his traditional family, girls were not permitted to speak to boys and when Pratima's sister rebelled against her father - "I'm afraid I led her on," confesses Sharon. Later, Pratima reconciled with her father and her child became Dwarka Nath's favourite grandchild - the act found expression in her first novel, Of Marriageable Age. The book was written in an unheated farmhouse in Germany and she nearly froze to death despite the heavy coat, boots, cap etc she wore. But if her fingers stiffened on the machine, the writing warmed her heart.
The story spins around three characters - an orphan boy, Nataraj, living near Madras, a servant girl, Savitri, and Sarojini in Guyana. All three live their lives, as Sharon explains, "from the inside out rather than from the outside in". In a replication of reality, Sarojini fights her traditionalist father just as Pratima had done and receives the support of an African friend, just as Pratima had received Sharon's support.
Her second novel, Peacocks Dancing, is also set partly in India, in fact it steps into Mumbai's red light area since "that's where my cast of characters found themselves and that's where I, their creator, had to follow them."
And in The Speech of Angels, she has young Jyothi, a child of Bombay's streets and a dyslexic, being whisked away and brought up by a western couple and given a violin. That instrument metamorphoses Jyothi, first into a world-class musician, a superstar, then into an understanding of the self: "Music cannot be a servant... she must follow it back to her roots."
Sharon's 20-odd trips to Tiruvannamalai (Somerset Maugham, too, had been there) and her travels through India pass unnoticed here. Perhaps that is how she would want it. Few know that an acclaimed writer has been revisiting the ashram for over three decades to "replenish" herself. From the yoga she practised with a teacher in Guyana ("I was fat and unloved... certainly too fat to get married", "I went to a yoga class... and came out walking on air and never looked back.") to the book (In Days of Great Peace by Mouni Sadhu, a westerner who had stayed at the Ramana Maharshi ashram before the Maharshi's death) that remade her life, to her own tryst with India and to the Indian spirit that kindles her novels - the one she is now writing is set in the days of the Raj - Sharon Maas is a novelist that Indian readers should know.
There is something fragile yet serene about her face, her gently smiling face, like she's settled into peace inside herself. Her characters seek themselves, the way she sought herself in her own life. And, calming their turbulence, they find, as she has found, this is probably what India does, for all its heat and dust. Or else, why would she "love it with a passion?" In a few years she hopes she can come here to live. "I can't imagine a more wonderful autumn to my life. There's no other place in the world."
Welcome home, Sharon.