God in the sky is not listening: No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo

There is such a desperate energy propelling the narrative of Harold Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body that one cannot possibly read it and emerge untouched. The prose is vibrant, vulgar and violent, seamlessly incorporating vernacular and explosive onomatopoeic passages into a stunning portrait of a dark world marked by poverty, grief and fear. The result is a classic of Caribbean-Canadian literature—a tragic epic stripped bare, economically reimagined in a little over one hundred pages.

The son of a peasant, Ladoo was born in Trinidad in 1945, or perhaps earlier it’s not certain. He worked a variety of manual labour jobs before immigrating to Canada in 1968 with his wife and children. There he entered Erindale College at the University of Toronto, studying by day, and supporting himself and his family by working in restaurants at night. His debut novel, No Pain Like This Body, was published in 1972, the year he graduated, and was met with enthusiastic critical response winning him a writing bursary from the Canada Council. The following year he returned to Trinidad to research further books, a trip that was tragically ended when he was attacked and killed. Harold Sonny Ladoo was only twenty-eight.

In her essential introduction to the 2003 edition, poet and writer Dionne Brand describes Ladoo as she remembers him from their years together at Erindale College. She never really engaged with him directly— as part of the African-Asian West Indian student Association her attentions were social and political, while he would be tucked away in a corner furiously pouring everything he had into the book he was writing. Focused as if his life depended on it. And perhaps it did.

Thinking back to her own childhood in Trinidad, Brand recalls seeing Hindu prayer flags fluttering above the fields as her family would travel down rural roadways. Signposts of the kind of world Ladoo and his ancestors knew well:

Secreted off this road there were traces and villages hacked out of the cane, places that African forced labour had despairingly abandoned and where Indian people had been brought two generations before as indentured labourers. An equally despairing endeavour. The feeling all along these traces, in these villages, was mournful, a patient brooding.

These were places suspended in time caught between a difficult past and hopes for some kind of a better future:

One could either make something of these places or be crushed by them. And for all the marvellous turns of imagination that allow people to survive history’s arbitrariness, one is not always able to rise to the task of reinvention, one is not always successful at it . One fails. Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body tells of just such a failure. The novel is a Veda to the beginnings of Indian life in Trinidad. Life in the not so imaginary Tola Trace. A life of the barest subsistence and what must have seemed abandonment by the gods. Ladoo by this act, by the writing of a hymn to these origins, thought that he could reinvent himself. And he did, momentarily. His early death cutting his work short.

Set in 1905, this novel pulls the reader into the life of a poor rice-farming family in a small Eastern Caribbean village called Tola. The weather, illness, violence, tragedy and superstition define their world. Of all of these factors, weather is perhaps one of the most persistent and brutal features:

It was August, the middle of the rainy season. The rain was falling and falling and falling as if the sky was leaking or something.

The perspective, for much of the story, is that of a child—not one child, but collectively in a sense—of all four of the family’s children, alone it seems in a world of unpredictable adults, and the  constant threat of danger, real and imagined. At twelve, Balraj is the oldest, his sister Sunaree is ten. Their younger brothers, the twins Rama and Panday, are eight. All four of the children are given tasks and responsibilities far beyond their relative ages. There is no option. Their father is an alcoholic, either drunk and violent or absent. Their weary, self-sacrificing mother is left to tend to most of the farming and all of the other household work. Her only saving grace is the fact that her parents, the children’s Nanna and Nanny live across the river and half a mile down the road.

As the novel opens, the children are out in the rice-field collecting tadpoles—crappo fish—while Ma is washing clothes. But Pa has come home, quiet like a snake. When the two older children begin to quarrel, everything starts to fall apart, threats quickly escalate and violence erupts. Balraj and his mother receive the worst of it, eventually taking refuge in a sugarcane field while the others run off in fear. Meanwhile the heavens open up:

The wind didn’t care about Tola. The wind was beating the rain and the rain was pounding the earth. There were no lights in the sky; all that Ma and Balraj saw were layers and layers of blackness and rage. The choking sound of the thunder came from the sky zip zip zip crash doom doomm doomed! Then the lightening moved as a gold cutlass and swiped an immortelle tree beyond the river.

When the three younger children come running down the road, frightened by the storm’s intensity, their mother is shocked to see them. She had assumed they were home and safe. Not certain what to do, she decides to send Balraj and Sunaree on to fetch their grandparents while she takes Panday and Rama, both of whom are naked, into the sugarcane so they can wait and stay warm for a while. By the time they get back to the house, Pa is gone, but Rama is coughing and running a fever.

There is no relief. The rain continues to beat down, Rama grows sicker, and after the older children return with their Nanna and Nanny, Balraj accidentally disturbs scorpions in an effort to patch the leaking roof with leaves. Both he and Rama are stung. This is a critical situation, one more crisis in an afternoon and evening of relentless misfortune.

Ever resilient, the first line of attack is to look to the past, to turn to traditional prayer and folk cures. Nanna recites mantras from Hindu scriptures over the ailing boys to drive away evil spirits, roasts a scorpion and forces them to eat it, and makes them pee in his hands and rubs the urine over their hands, faces and mouths. Nothing he tries makes any difference, their conditions only worsen and when Rama begins to vomit green fluid Ma panics:

“O God me chile deadin!” Ma screamed.

Ma ran and held on to Rama; he was still vomiting; his eyes were closed, but he was seeing, just as a jumbie bird sees in daylight.

Nanna opened his eyes and said, “He not deadin. Have patience. God goin drive dat spirit away.”

And Nanny: “Stop prayin oldman! Go and get a horse cart and take these chirens to Tolaville Hospital.”

In the end he has no choice but to concede and take Balraj and Rama to the hospital. Only one boy will survive.

Midway through the narrative, when Rama’s body is brought back for the wake and funeral, there is a subtle shift in tone—as the community gathers an adult perspective takes over, reflected in the coarseness and vulgarity of the language and interactions. A variety of colourful characters converge at the house, rum and coffee flow freely, as do insults, insinuations, and tall tales. But within the immediate family an undercurrent of brutality continues unchecked. Nonetheless, Ladoo’s inventive and original prose is not without passing intimations of beauty amid the despair and darkness:

There was life in Tola. There was life in the wind as it left the corners of the sky and swept the face of the earth; there was life in the dawn that was coming with gold in its mouth; there was love in the night birds that made strange noises beyond the river; there was love in the people as their hearts reached up to the sky and their souls mixed with the void.

This is a story that speaks to the ongoing cycle of life, and no matter how demanding life was these Indian immigrants had to keep going, one day at a time. Amid the blend of transported cultural practices with existing Caribbean folk tales and spirits, the Ramayana was something from home that they held fast to. As Brand suggests:

That epic myth arrived in the diaspora with indentured workers. It was perhaps a source of sustenance throughout their own exile. A return garlanded in the lights of welcome awaited them after the bleak drudgery of a life tied to plantations of cane and rice.

This epic lies somewhere in the text of No Pain Like This Body. But no garland of lights precedes or follows Ladoo’s Rama. A fever burns in him, he is stung by scorpions and eventually carried even farther away from mythic Ayodhya… Ladoo renders a Ramayana steeped in hatred and violence. Plagued by incessant rain (“the rain fell like a shower of poison over Tola”) and a god terrible and indifferent (“God does only eat and drink in that sky”), Ladoo’s onomatopoeic insistencies make more horrifying the action in the novel. His characters’ trusting innocence, their supplication to fate are made more disastrous by his feats of verbal play.

Powerful, intense and emotionally devastating, No Pain Like This Body is an important testament to the determination of the early Indian residents in the Caribbean to hold on to the idea that a better life might await their children in this new land. Ma alludes to that a few times. All they have is hope for the next generation. Several generations down, Harold Sonny Ladoo was destined to not only move away, but to honour this otherwise under recognized heritage. A second novel, Yesterdays, which is apparently more upbeat, was published posthumously, but the trilogy he had envisioned would sadly be unrealized.

No Pain Like This Body by Harold Sonny Ladoo, with an introduction by Dionne Brand, is published by House of Anansi.