The year ’26 come and gone like madness in Varuna. Don’t ask me nothing about 1926.
Don’t ask me nothing about ’25 neither. Lee parlour across the road keeping Trinidad newspaper since he grandfather reach here from China, and Lee does be reading decades-old back issue on the regular. Them bay leaf smelling stacks spanning decades. They go have what you looking for. If not, Lee sure know the answer. He small little jampack parlour is the only rum shop in Varuna. What rum have to do with it? Where you from, pardna? Is rum what does spin story, wring it out of tongue sick with remembering. And Lee does hear it all.
So go and ask him about Chacachacare and the Dominican Sisters and the lepers and what happen by Bolo Rocks. Is he the man to tell you about the corbeau, how them vagrant bird does haunt the hills, watching the patients by Saunder’s Bay sun out, waiting for one to dare to close their eye or drop dead. But corbeau is one thing—ask him about them centipede big like man leg. Ask him about the manchineel tree, what the Spanish call the little apple of death. Ask him about that morning we went fishing porpoise off Trou Grande Caille and how the storm keep we and how Singh brother take shelter under a manchineel and the rain wash the milk sap on he neck and down he back and how he bawl and bawl heself bloody. Tell Lee I send you and he go tell you about how, to this day, Singh brother voice still carry that hell, how it hoarse like it was last night it happen, how the mark never go away, how it look like a map of that blasted Boca isle.
Lee will tell you we do what we have to do.
He will tell you about the whale house on Bulmer’s.
He have the newspapers somewhere in the back of the shop, but you have no need to go looking for that papers because all of we in Varuna remember. You could ask anybody about that day the year before ’26, when we thought all them waters had was porpoise and dolphin and how one day we see whale—one big humpback—and we went on the hunt. It was Saga, Sanjeev Ganguly, who throw that harpoon. If you could call it that. It was a cutlass whittle down to a point, and strap to a guava stick. Lee will talk all the good thing about Saga, all the thing people respect about the man. I don’t talk about him because I did know him better than anybody.
Make a year since Saga drown. Today is he one-year prayers, but you know that, ent? Strange for you to ask me question you know the answer to, same question Lee will smile and watch you and say nothing because is you who was first to know. You who follow we from Calcutta on the Ganga, who fill him when he go to breathe. We know you good.
Every morning I hear the waves and the fishermen and the boats pressing against the tide and I hear your question. Black waters of the Gulf of Paria, I know your womb still echoing with the song of the whale we kill, and I know you want me to tell you about the man sleeping on the bottom of the sea, but I have nothing left to say. The day done start without me.
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Marjan Kamali's Commentary
“Saga” is the kind of short story that breaks the reader by revealing in a subtle but unforgettable manner the buried truths about friends we love the most. The masterful unfolding of narrative plays with point of view, memory, sense of place, and the mythologies we build around our respected community members. In a brilliant execution of dialogue between Ali and Sham as they reminisce about the friend/brother they onceknew, the reader sees the fragile play of reality versus perception behind Saga’s tragic death. We learn how the meekest and most “dotish” amongst us may harbor fierce resentments, how prejudices encountered and shrugged off for years can finally break a soul, and why the kindest people might carry overpowering grief. One injustice too many crescendos into a regrettable reaction that answers for a lifetime of unspoken sorrow. The exquisite rendering of events and characters brings to light the toll of having to constantly strive for a better life and capture dreams. Written in Trinidadian English Creole, “Saga” is an atmospheric and immersive story that makes us wonder, as John Steinbeck wrote, “how many people we've looked at all our lives and never seen.”
in conversation with
SV: “Saga” follows the recollections of the narrator Ali as he reminisces about and grieves for his late friend Sanjeev “Saga” Ganguly. What was your process in rendering Ali’s grief and emotions regarding Saga? How did you consider the difference between myth and man in how Ali remembers his friend?
RH: Considering narrative perspective and voice was essential for writing Ali’s grief. I decided on the first person because I knew this story needed to be told by Ali and it had to be in his own voice. I also needed the reader to trust him and empathize with his loss. To this end, I think first-person point of view helps by lending intimacy and closeness to the narrative. Another advantage is we get to see Ali’s world through his own eyes. Grief is embedded in the landscape and in his way of seeing; the endless sargassum, the relentless heat, the rust and decay on Bulmer’s Bay—the story’s setting resonates with his pain.
As for the difference between myth and man, there’s a blur in the distinction. We’re always building ideas and ideals of people in our heads without knowing them. The village creates a myth of the man, but even Ali doesn’t know everything about Saga and at the end of the story there’s still some uncertainty as to what really happened. We don’t truly know him. We can’t. But we can try to understand.
His alcoholism, his frustration, his obsession with buying the land, and his reaction at the bar in Port of Spain—contextualising “Saga” is a great deal of history, memory, pain, and generational trauma. Classism, racism, exploitation, and legacies of colonialism and indentureship also rear their ugly faces. Understanding the historical background gives this story more meaning and I hope that readers unfamiliar with Trinidad’s history do a bit of research.
SV: Even though the story is told from Ali’s perspective, we also hear the recollections of Sham, who considers Saga his adoptive brother. How did you alternate between the shoes of both characters as they described and remembered the same person?
RH: Dialogue was key. There are some lengthy sections of Sham telling Ali about his experiences with Saga, but this is more than just a recollection of events. Sham has a lot of pain, guilt, and regret. Ali misses his closest friend and worries over Sham. Dialogue is how they mourn and heal. Still, although we have access to Ali’s thoughts through the narrative perspective, not all these thoughts are spoken. There’s a lot left unsaid on Sham’s part as well. But what’s important is that there’s this strong mutual trust between him and Ali. While they can’t fully explain or understand what happened to Saga at the end of the story, enough has been said. The two sit, Ali puts his arm around him and it’s enough.
SV: The story deals with sensitive matter in its exploration of the death of a loved one and how it leaves people both with good memories and the knowledge of things left undone. What compelled you to write about this subject?
RH: I stumbled onto the exploration of loss, intuitively, while writing. This story began with an obsession with Moby Dick. Then I discovered Trinidad’s history of whaling and I knew what I had to do. Part of the tragedy in “Saga” is the decimation of our whale population.
While I often write intuitively, a lot of research went into creating this narrative and getting the details right. At its core, “Saga” is a post-indentureship story as much as it is a story about loss and whaling. I did interviews with a few elderly Indo-Trinidadians as well. The thread that ran through all their stories was struggle, how hard their parents and grandparents worked. And for very little. It was all in pursuit of a better life, to provide for their children, leave a house, inheritance, a piece of land and so on. Saga dies, but his dream for a better life remains unbroken at the end.
SV: What went into the creative decision to write “Saga” in Trinidadian English Creole? How does the use of language inform the telling of the story and shape the setting?
RH: As a Trinidadian writing about our people and history, it’s important to me to write these stories in our language. I wrote Trinidadian English Creole as it’s spoken today rather than try to reproduce how it was spoken during the 1920’s. I took that creative liberty and decided to commit to it fully. The language serves to unify and establish continuity. It represents national identity both in the past and the post-colonial present—this is a story about Trinidad then and now.
SV: Do your write in other languages or Englishes? If so, how does your writing practice differ between languages?
RH: I write in Standard English as well, but I rarely use it for first-person point of view. When I use the standard, I tend to write in the third person. Many Caribbean writers use Creole in their fiction. Marlon James comes to mind—A Brief History of Seven Killings and The Book of Night Women were very important books for me.
Although I’m a native speaker of Trinidadian English Creole, writing it took practice. There’s no orthography for the language. I had to choose between ‘you’ and ‘yuh’, ‘me’ and ‘meh’, ‘want’ and ‘wuh’ and so on. Generally, rather than use phonetic spellings, I rely on word choice and other grammatical structures. Speakers of Trinidadian English Creole tend to naturally pronounce the Creole counterparts to words when clued in with other structures in the language.