The Swinging Bridge

by Ramabai Espinet
ISBN: 0002255200

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A Review of: The Swinging Bridge
by Clara Thomas

Mona Singh emigrated with her family from Trinidad to Canada in the 60s, won scholarships to take her through university in Montreal and now lives there, working as a researcher for Films Canadiana, a small company specializing in films about immigrant life in Canada. By her own choice she resists commitments; she's deeply in love with her journalist lover, Roddy, but always refuses to marry him or to live with him. Her need to be free was of paramount importance: "My whole life arches backwards and forwards according to the speed of the gust around me. In the centre, near the eye, in the place where I live, it is still. A small mercy." Nothing can protect her, though, from the old domestic creole words that bombard her, and likewise, nothing can protect her from her memories. Nor can the self-protective shell she has painstakingly built spare her from the family crisis that erupts when her mother calls from Toronto to tell her that her precious brother Kello is deathly ill.
Her mother and father, Muddie and Da-Da (Myrtle and Mackie) and her sister, Babsie, appeal to her to come. On the train to Toronto the memories begin to take over centering on "the Big Row" around Christmas, 1958. It changed everything, making it inevitable that Kello should leave, that she should leave, that the family should emigrate. It was then that Da-Da's hopeless rage over his insurmountable burdens, the family, the mortgaged land, the blood-sucking money-lenders, erupted into a drunken rampage, only just contained by the intervention of young Kello and then of Pappy, Da-Da's father, whose stick beat off his murderous son.
In Toronto among her grieving family she finds that Kello has been diagnosed with lymphoma. He has very little time left and a very great favour to ask of her, more than a favour, a dying man's command. Kello, always a clever businessman, has been negotiating to buy back the land that her grandfather and her father lost to the moneylenders: "Mona' he said, and his tone was sharp, I want you to go to Trinidad and act on my behalf. Go to Trinidad, inspect the land, and confirm that the transaction takes place.'"Mona is helpless in the face of his urgency and now she is doubly helpless as the memories crowd back, taking her from smallest childhood to her present, through all the adventures good and bad, of growing up a Trinidadian of Indian descent. She is partly a joyful member of a close-knit, extended family and partly a prisoner of its uneasy attempts at balance in an exile's foreign land.
It is Espinet's great gift that she can weave together, almost casually, the pasts that Mona must attempt to reconcile: life in Canada, life in Trinidad and above all the lives that went before, particularly of the woman in her family's past who crossed the Kala Pani (the dark waters) from India to an unknown life in the Caribbean. All these strands weave themselves into a colourful, kaleidoscopic tapestry which bursts into life as Mona reaches Trinidad and experiences first hand the remembered lushness of life there. The fears and triumphs of growing up come together in the memory of the swinging bridge, when little boys challenged her to run across and back and then swung her terrifyingly high up in the air. As she collapsed on safe ground once more she realized that indeed she had done it-"I had taken Kenny's dare and I had done it." She turned on Kenny and challenged him-"I flung the words in his face like a real badjohn.' Cross the bridge yuhself!'.... It wasn't just his swinging of the bridge that enraged me; it was his little mannish attitude, as if he was sure that he was better than I was and would always be."
Espinet's insertion of creole words and speech into her text is one of its great successes. The reader becomes entirely familiar and at home with its strangeness and its suitability to her story. Its rhythms enhance wonderfully her memory-journey through her childhood, dawning sexuality, first love and finally adulthood, rites of passage for any girl, but for Mona marked irrevocably by the complications and disappointments of her extended family. More and more they feel themselves aliens in Trinidad, the only homeland they know.
When Trinidad became independent and Dr. Hector James (de Doctah) became its leader in 1956, Da-Da, like all Trinidadians, had high hopes that the catchy phrases "Massa day done" and "all of we is one" were truly signs of hope for the future. Soon, though, discrimination against those of Indian descent pervaded every aspect of their lives and by the 60s emigration to Canada seemed to Da-Da and thousands of others to be their only chance. "The Presbyterian missionaries had brought sweetness and light to us on their terms, wrapping us in a tight cocoon while they enjoyed the privileges of whiteness in a colonial society." In Trinidad, looking Indian meant discrimination: in Canada "all it took now was skin colour. We had not moved one inch." Now Da-Da, bitterly disappointed in Canada, rails against the prejudice he encounters all around him: "Look at me, eh? Look what I come to. Living in a country where they so racist they could just take it for granted that is so people have to live. But what the arse these people know anyhow? No class, man, no class at all."
After Kello's death and her loss of Roddy, Mona is prodded by the practical necessity of inspecting the reclaimed land and its development. Even more imperative is her growing need to find the mysterious great-grandmother who crossed the black water and made Trinidad her home. Staying with her activist cousin Bess, who is busy from morning to night working for the women of Trinidad, she finally unearths the story of Gainder, the unwanted Indian widow who came as an indentured servant and who began her mother's family story in Trinidad. Gainder had nothing when she left India and even less when she arrived, for she had lost a sailor-lover and protector who was jailed and left in prison on St. Helena. But Gainder endured and so did her offspring, though Mona's mother had kept secret her lineage, in favour of the preferred myth amongst Trinidadian Indians, that of an entire and entirely respectable family migration. Furthermore, poring over old documents in Bess's house Mona finds Gainder's wonderful songs of love and loss, pain and hope. Grandma Lil had kept her mother's story and her songs, hiding them for safekeeping. "Lily recorded them for her daughters, for my cousin Bess, for my sister Babsie, for me, for all the women to come, for my film would tell Gainder's story." She returns to Montreal to make her film: "I am part of the city I live in, and right now I want no other place. Like any other migrant navigating new terrain I bring my beat to the land around me."
The Swinging Bridge is a remarkable achievement. Ramabai Espinet tells her story with respect, love, compassion and without a trace of the sentimental nostalgia that so easily could have overwhelmed it.

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