Mothers, Mental Health and Pre-Independence Drama – A review of The Shadow Bride by Roy Heath

May is a month brimming with themes for Guyana. Labour Day, Indian Arrival Day, Mother’s Day and our upcoming 55th Independence all hold heavy historical and cultural significance for us. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month internationally, and Guyana has been making strides to raise awareness of and do more to promote good mental practices across the country.

This month, I chose to review a novel that meshes all these themes into one: The Shadow Bride by Roy Heath.

Photograph of the author, Roy Heath

The Shadow Bride is a historical fiction novel set mostly in pre-independence Guyana and paints a detailed portrait of the East Indian community in Georgetown and the West Coast of Demerara from the 1920s to the 1950s. Its main characters are Betta Singh – a young doctor who recently completed his medical studies in Ireland- and his mother, Mrs Singh – a rich, lonely widow who is traumatised by her isolation and by the multiple miscarriages she had early in her marriage, which she attributes to bouts of malaria. Because of her experiences, she invests in a private education for Betta so that he may one day become a doctor who can help the East Indian community to battle the deadly disease.

When Betta returns from his medical studies, however, his mother has changed. She has filled her house with ‘hangers-on’ who keep her company and help her maintain her house and yard. Her attitude has also changed, and she no longer wants Betta working for the poor nor leaving her side. This frays their relationship and while Betta leaves his mother and his private practice to become an estate Government Medical Officer on the West Coast of Demerara, Mrs Singh aligns herself with The Pujaree, a greedy and manipulative Hindu Priest determined to use her and her money for his own devices.

Throughout the novel, we see how almost two decades of family drama frays Mrs Singh’s mental health and Betta’s relationship with her, and how the ripples of negativity affect both Betta’s nuclear family and the hangers-on Mrs Singh keeps around her.  

“The Lamaha canal, which once ran along the other side of the street, had now been filled in. When the work was finally completed, he would not allow his wife or son to take him to his seat because he could not tolerate the site of the ‘mall’, the improbable name given to the filled-in canal.”

– p. 3

One of the aspects I loved about The Shadow Bride was that Heath rendered Guyana, particularly the 1920s to 1980s Georgetown and West Coast, in meticulous detail. It is so detailed, in fact, that one could sit down with the book in one hand and Google Maps open on their phone in the other and map out character’s walking routes and places where important landmarks may have once stood. These details also make it easy to juxtapose modern Georgetown with Heath’s historical rendering, helping the reader to transport themselves to a time and place that is simultaneously foreign and familiar.  

For example, the book opens with Betta lamenting how the government filled in the Lamaha Canal. Originally, I thought Heath was referring to the trench that ran alongside Lamaha Street and intersected with Vlissingen Road. I had no idea that the waterway next to the GWI Cooperate Complex is a piece of the canal original canal which used to run along the strip of land between Church Street and North Road.

Heath’s rendering was not only about the physical changes in Georgetown and the surrounding areas. He also showed that some of the maintenance issues we have today have never been fully resolved. This quote sounds almost modern:

“When Old Mr Merriman got his change he soon dominated the conversation again, this time harping on the old subject of the inefficiency of the village councils. In days gone by the gutters were well weeded while now they were clogged up with lotus and weeds, so that in the rainy season the yards were lo longer properly drained and the flooding that resulted was not what they paid their rates and taxes for.”

– p.172

Lastly, the book also shows how people can respond to trauma in different ways. Mrs Singh was originally from Kerala, India, but did not come to Guyana as an indentured labourer. Her husband, Mr Singh, had travelled to India, married her and brought her to Guyana. They were constantly moving house, starting from Berbice and ending up in Georgetown because Mr Singh moved every time she became close to a woman in the villages he tried to settle in. This forced isolation, coupled with the multiple miscarriages and stillbirths, transformed her into a bitter, overbearing and overprotective mother. After Mr Singh’s death, she tries to compensate for her loneliness by surrounding herself with yes-men and women, meddling in their lives to try to keep them dependant on her so that she wouldn’t be left alone.

There are times when Mrs Singh tries to talk about her loneliness and the psychological abuse Mr Singh put her through, but she is either blamed for her troubles, dismissed or ignored by the people around her. Only the Pujaree listened to her and tried to guide her, but his guidance was intended to manipulate her and isolate her so that he could use her money to build the temple of his dreams.

Problematic elements in The Shadow Bride

While I appreciate the way Heath was able to create a time capsule through The Shadow Bride, there is much about this book that I did not like and after 33 years, I do not believe that this book has aged well.

Firstly, I deeply disliked Heath’s writing style. Most of The Shadow Bride was written in passive voice and used a third-person omniscient perspective. This combined with the often-excessive amounts of detail – much of which seemed to contribute little to the forward momentum of the story – made the prose pool and stagnate. As I was reading, I felt like Heath was padding the narrative because every time the story meanders from the “Dr Betta Singh” parts of the plot and focuses more on Mrs Singh or the supporting characters around her, the quality of the storytelling dips.

Furthermore, Heath often ratchets up the tension in the story with incidents I believed would be used to take the story to greater hights, but these often turned out to be unsatisfying red herrings. For example, Betta’s main character arc revolves around his determination to give free medical treatment to the impoverished East Indian estate workers who were suffering primarily from malaria and malnutrition. There is point in the narrative where there is a “once in a decade” flood on the West Coast that coincided with the high tide, meaning that the kokers couldn’t open to let out the excess water on the land. The water got so high, that cattle started drowning and their corpses were floating in the stagnant water. Heath seems to be setting us up for a disease outbreak with Betta at the centre of the action. Except, this event seemed to have no effect on the community. It was so mild that Betta and his wife were able to go out and lime with their friends amid the flood. While Betta’s wife does seem to think that the dead cattle is a bad omen for Betta – a suspicion that does ultimately upend his character arc – I’m still disappointed that Heath used such a huge set up and then didn’t follow up with consequences of a similar scale.  

I must say that I love that Heath does much to portray the East Indian communities in the book in great detail. He clearly did a good amount of research to show how the Indian people in both Muslim and Hindu communities preserved and maintained their cultures, languages and religions. However, while Heath shows various aspects of East Indian culture in a positive light, there was a quote from Betta’s teacher, the Mulvi Sahib, that disturbed me because it reeked of orientalism:

“Sometimes,” said the Mulvi Sahib, “I think that Africa and Europe are the masculine elements while Asia is the feminine.”

– p. 305

Before this quote, Betta’s teacher, the Mulvi Sahib, was claiming that women were like native people: primitive characters with primitive minds because they hated war unlike men who, after the invention of agriculture – decided to make war because they wanted to rediscover death, which they had abandoned on their former foraging grounds.  There are so many levels of offensiveness in this part of the book, but I found it absurd that Heath would use an Indian Muslim to rehash talking points used by Europeans to mistreat and colonise parts of Asia – India especially – because they believed that Indian people were passive and feminine and thus conquerable.

I am also disappointed by how Heath uses scenes featuring mostly Creole/Black characters in the novel. Whenever there is a gathering of Black people, for example, during the court sessions that Betta’s friend, Mrs Merriman, held to settle village disputes, the scenes were often used for comic relief as all of the characters in the scene were flat, arrogant caricatures, whose only purpose seemed to be to give Betta a good laugh so he could forget his problems.  If you removed these court scenes, the plot would roll on without any changes to its trajectory, which makes me wonder why Heath included them in the first place.

Lastly, the most upsetting part of the book for me comes at the conclusion, where Heath uses rape as a sort of poetic justice. One of Mrs Singh’s hangers-on is a callous and aggressive young man named Sukram, who views relationships as a form of ownership and control. He frequently abuses his roommate, Bai, and his lover, Lahti. Even though multiple people confront Mrs Singh about Sukram’s behaviour and beg her to get rid of him so that everyone in her house can live in peace, she refuses, claiming that she doesn’t want to interfere with Lahti’s love and freedom, since her relationship with Sukram allows her to escape the grips of arranged marriages (pp 147-149). This decision haunts the entire household, leading to more loss than Mrs Singh anticipated.

The entire arc seemed to have been packaged as Mrs Singh finally getting what was coming for her. Similarly, Heath’s language around Lahti’s abuse was unsympathetic as the exposition noted that “Lahti allowed herself to be fondled”, and that her abuse was a “necessary sacrifice” for peace in Mrs Singh’s household. I did not like the seeming implication that adding the additional trauma of rape in the mix was both the character’s fault and was somehow deserved.

Conclusion

There are some elements of The Shadow Bride that I loved. It is a historical fiction novel with a keen attention to geographic, atmospheric, and cultural details, which act as a snapshot for what Georgetown and the West Coast of Demerara were like during our pre-independence era. It can be used as a tool for juxtaposition between our modern age and the time between the 1920s and 1980s. It also shows some of the helplessness Indian people faced during this era due to poverty, disease and racist, incompetent estate managers who preferred their workers to die than to get government funding to get them the medical attention they needed.

However, the book is a challenging read because of its bloated, passive prose and, of course, the problematic elements, with sexism and some unchallenged internalised racism and colonial sentiments.

While I think this book is an important part of Guyana’s literary history, I also think that many of its elements are dated, which can make it a challenging or deeply frustrating read.


I would like to give special thanks to Kevin Garbaran, who helped to make this review possible by assisting me to interpret some of the cultural and historical contexts of this novel.

Want to read more Guyanese literature? Here are some recommendations:

Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh

Creole Chips by Edgar Mittleholzer

Blackout Daze by Gabrielle Mohammed

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