Nothing short of a page-turner, Willi Chen’s Chutney Power goes on a tear, assembling the good and not-so-good of Trini life in bygone years. Written with creative frenzy, Chutney is a collection of short stories—witty, colourful, and provocative. Chen scores on so many levels. The opening salvo: Mas is more than a Creole thing, is a knock on cultural stereotypes and stubborn prejudices—best tackled at times through candid dialogue and meaningful interaction. Here, the protagonist and cane cutter, Bhim Pandarath is determined to buck the trend and play King of the Band in a steel orchestra—a role traditionally played by the physically robust and more-culturally-attuned Afro-Trinidadian. But Pandarath wants it “real bad,” transferring his gyrating skills from Ramleela—adding new moves to his repertoire. Initially derided, he emerges triumphant. Chen’s purview of life is hopeful and redemptive—trumpeting every vagary and travail. This is the signature “good feel” timbre that defines much of Chutney.
Interestingly, the majority of the scenes are steeped in East Indian traditions, and Chen, a Trinidad Chinese displays uncanny mastery of even the most-seemingly inconsequential cultural nuance. In Look, Ma Coming, he writes: “The market place stretched along the road. Vendors were on both-sides....Bisnath led Taramatie to the foodstalls. He bought paper bags of kurma, channa and saheena. Their fingers and mouth were yellow from the food. At the standpipe she raised her face to the sky and gargled like a true Indian on mornings.” And moments later, Chen details with surgical flair, the inexorable flair of Indian dancing. “The tassa drums erupted in a crescendo. Bisnath looked toward the gayelle and led Tara to the bamboo enclosure. He took off his blue crepesoles, rolled up his pants, jumped into the ring and danced. He turned like a snake, twisted and contorted his body like a pea tree in the wind, lifting his feet into the air, balancing his body as he piroutted on one foot. He shook his waist, wiggled...as he whirled with astonishing speed…” This whimsical spirit etches itself to other notable offerings. Free Pork for Christmas, Kipsy Loce Pork and The Almost Ramgoat Wedding are all imbued with the writer’s penchant for the jocular.
But Chutney is not all levity. In Hostage, Chen, in a veiled rendition of the failed 1991 coup d’etat, explores class divisions, perceived ineptitude at the governmental level, and the fatalistic desperation of victimhood. In Turning Point he explores the challenges of marital life and the calamitous repercussions of unbridled sensibilities. In The Madeira Crystals, Chen effortless changes scenery—relating the wretchedness of a maid’s life under the thumb of an urban doyenne. It is a painful expose of class, privilege and servitude. And in Welcome Home, the undaunted spirit of an abandoned and impecunious protagonist proves supremely inspiring. As the last page is reluctantly turned—there is a sense of nostalgia for life with all its raw simplicity and honesty. Memories abound as words buried, and hitherto irretrievable—resurface—igniting the senses. Watchekongs,” “chupidness,” “goatmouth,” “soft candle,” “cokey-eye,” “nennen,” “shoo-shoo,” and so on and so on.
I can only smile.
Chutney Power by Willi Chen
Macmillan Publishers Limited 2006