“The Sour of Tamarind”

Review from Guyana Chronicle – 5 February, 2017 by Subraj Singh

Professor Daizal Samad’s “ “The Sour of Tamarind” is a short story that I read in the current volume (Vol. 10) of The Arts Journal. Edited by Ameena Gafoor, The Arts Journal is a peer reviewed, critical journal with a heavy focus on the literature, arts and other cultural elements of the Caribbean.

Perhaps, the value of such journals can be proven in the way this truly wonderfully written story about a girl and her experiences in New Amsterdam was brought to my attention, and without The Arts Journal being able to publish such works of fiction this would have never happened. What a mighty shame that would have been since, as I have implied before, “The Sour of Tamarind” is a beautiful story that is well-written, and is a wondrous reminder of so many things, many cultural, societal and even, strangely, emotional aspects of our country that are worth remembering even as we transition to another, more modern period of Guyanese society. There are always some things worth remembering and some things that will always resonate with you, no matter who you are or where (or when) you come from.

The story presents us with a young girl named Nadira who initially has a strong dislike for New Amsterdam because of the presence of her grandmother, her grandmother’s Arabic lessons, and her grandmother’s two tamarind whips. The town is one of the best creations in the whole story. Prof. Samad’s New Amsterdam exists almost like a character in its own right, morphing and changing with our protagonist’s mood, shifting and creating a new self even as she does the same. Nadira projects her inner thoughts and feelings on to the town, forcing it to become what she feels. For example, observe how some of her resentment and fear is manifested in this picture of New Amsterdam:

“To the west, the wooden shoulders of this town raised upward into the forest, its brown sleeve of hut-like houses ripped to threads as the town jutted its arm into the green wall of trees and vines. To the east, its other shoulder drooped steeply into the murky violence of the Berbice River across which plied the ferry, Torani.”

The imagery in the story, as used in the passage above, is heavily visual and rich, almost sensuous sometimes, drawing the reader and wrapping them in the folds of the tale in the same way that Nadira is wrapped in the smoke of the insecticide sprayed often by the public works men in New Amsterdam. Perhaps that last reference will be lost on those who haven’t read the story, and perhaps that will be enough motivation to seek out and read the story.

If more is needed, then know that “The Sour of Tamarind” contains references to many things that remind the reader of a time gone by, or a time is slipping by before our eyes and will be lost before we know it. How many contemporary Guyanese children still go for Hindi or Arabic lessons at a relative’s house? How many youths write actual letters to the people they love? Do they even know what a latrine is? “The Sour of Tamarind”, is also a succinct and accurate representation of rural Guyana in the years gone and yet themes of the story remain strikingly current. Hopefully, now there is even more motivation to find this story.

At its core, “The Sour of Tamarind” is really a love story – while focusing on Nadira’s relationship with her grandmother and the town, it is mostly about how New Amsterdam itself becomes a part of the new relationship she strikes up with a young man at her school, and the relationship itself, where Nadira discovers the nature of love, both the sweet and sour sides of it.

This arc within the story is handled with sensitivity, with such delicate craftsmanship that not only does the reader begin to remember what it was like to be seventeen and in love, but even the layers of such a love – the heartrending ache for someone, desperation at holding the relationship when it begins to unravel, and even the hollow emptiness, the depression, that comes with the end of something that we put so much into, something we believed in and wanted very much – all of it becomes tenderly [and terrifyingly] real.

Nadira herself is an exemplary creation, containing the nuances of all Guyanese children – relaying her dread and hatred for New Amsterdam by rebelling in curious, childlike, ways and then resorting escape from the confines of her grandmother’s strict home through the use of her wide imagination, as when she dances in the smoke put out by the public works men. Even as she grows into a teenager, her development is written in smoothly into the story and both the awkwardness and the deep emotional core of teenagers are sympathetically expressed by Prof. Samad’s writing of the character.

Overall, “The Sour of Tamarind” will resonate will the Guyanese reader. The spellbinding imagery, the emotional crux of the tale and the heartbreaking ending are all elements that come together to make the story one of the best reads I have had for the year so far.