Mahadai Das: The lost biographical notes of Ian McDonald
Kaieteur News – In a column, “Ian McDonald should be careful what he writes because of his ethnicity,” on Monday, February 8, 2021, I noticed that he was ignoring the forgotten side of the scientist, James Watson. Mr. McDonald does a series of articles on great people he has met.
His latest addition (Stabroek News last Sunday) is the well-known literary personality, Mahadai Das. Mr McDonald should be careful how he writes any memoir. It must be underpinned by an extensive knowledge of the personality involved.
A biographer may lament the character they are describing, but he / she runs the risk of being criticized for omitting essential details. This may attract criticism of faulty writing. From Mahadai Das, Mr McDonald notes, “She had gone abroad to study and there she encountered a tragedy.”
This is in fact a misleading statement, which would damage a factual assessment of the life of this beautiful young woman who succumbed to schizoax paranoia, which eventually led to a deterioration of physical health that eventually led to her death. Certainly, we can debate Mr McDonald’s statement about mental retardation happening overseas. Mahadai Das began showing signs of psychosis soon after her volunteer service in the Guyana National Service (GNS).
There were two Indian cultural artists and an African film actress in Guyana whose life tragically ended – Das, Latchmie Kallicharran and Gloria David. Of the first two, I knew Kallicharran far more than I knew Das. I never met David who was older than me. It is outside the scope of a newspaper column to write concise notes on Das only, much less the three women.
From Kallicharran, I believe she was murdered by a fire set in her rented home. Her life was just as tragic as Das’s life. Das and Kallicharran were the cruel victims of the race, class, color and politics of this troubled nation. Untergang David had more to do with the class. If they had a working knowledge of Guyanese society they would probably have been alive today and become iconic figures.
Here are now brief analytical notes on Das. She was a protégé of a famous pro-Burnham Indian Guyanese woman, Rajkumari Singh, who helped preserve Indian cultural forms in Guyana. I think Singh was driven to the world of Burnham because her famous father, Dr. Jung Bahadur Singh, a person that Cheddi Jagan had no flat words to say.
As Jagan and Burnham were rivals and Burnham was Guyana’s permanent oligarch, Singh found it strategic to offer Indian support to Burnham, though I believed she didn’t care about politics. Under Burnham, her Indian cultural platform flourished. Knowing Burnham, Rajkumari Singh had to retrain. This is where Das used and Burnham used Das as well. Then Das simply lived in victory and died victorious.
Since Das emerged as a Caribbean cultural artist, Burnham appealed whether Singh needed prominent Indian faces, for Das to openly embrace his routine. So Das voluntarily joined the GNS at a time when it was compulsory and was fiercely denied by opposition PPP, especially the internal hardship that AS students had to go through.
But Das like his idol, Rajkumari, was not intellectually equipped to understand the mind of a demonic autocrat like Burnham. Das thought she would have been treated like a queen by the Burnham regime. Beautiful by any standard, and gifted in literary forms, Das entered GNS thinking it would stand out as a value to the Burnham regime. She did but in ways, she never anticipated.
Long after she left GNS, Das told me outside an Austin bookstore that she had been raped in GNS (for details of Das’s sexual abuse in GNS, see my column, “Mahadai Das told me she was raped,” June 18, 2006). This is the beginning of her mental troubles. She expected there would have been serious repercussions but the PNC regime took no action including two senior state officials who liked Das.
From the time Das became disappointed with Burnham’s routine, her mental health was never the same. It would be factually incorrect to say that she was not in control. She did. He continued to work. He went abroad to study. I do not think it is right to say, as McDonald noted, that the tragedy began abroad. He returned to Guyana and was quite normal.
As Das settled, she maintained her relationship with the PNC government but it was a confusing affair. Her poetry reflected ambiguity with the PNC government in which she had placed her faith. His idol, Rajkumari, had died in 1979, so he lost a huge gateway to the power establishment.
(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of this newspaper.)