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Posted on 24 Apr 2024 in Fiction |

KEVIN JARED HOSEIN Hungry Ghosts. Reviewed by Ann Skea

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Kevin Jared Hosein’s debut novel is both a mystery story and a window into the lives of Caribbean indentured labourers and their families.

The place is Trinidad, ‘sometime in the 1940s’.

 Four boys ventured to the river bank to perform a blood oath. Two brothers and two cousins. The brothers were twins, both fifteen; the cousins fourteen and thirteen. They passed around a boning knife, making clean cuts across their palms.

The boys mix and drink their blood, then christen their bond with the name ‘Corbeau’ (the vulture), because the vulture feeds on what has lived before and ‘stays alive’.

Krishna is the youngest, and he and his cousin Tarak live with their families in the barracks of an old sugarcane estate. The barracks are broken down, leaky, infested with rats, ‘neighbour to nothing’, and some way away from Bell Village, which reflects ‘the dogma of a new world’ – the one ‘being resurrected’ from a Trinidad killed by colonisation.

These barracks were scattered like half-buried bones across the plain, strewn from their colonial corpse. In their marrow, the ghosts of the indentured. And the offspring of those ghosts. This particular barracks sat by its lonesome, raw, jagged as a yanked tooth in the paragrass-spangled meadow.

The ghosts are ‘preta’ – the ‘hungry ghosts’ of Hindu mythology – the ghosts of those whose lives had ended before their dreams had been fulfilled. They are always hungry ‘for company’, with big mouths and huge bellies. Krishna’s infant sister, Hema, who died before he was born, is a hungry ghost. The elder Rookmin performed magical ceremonies and instructed Krishna’s mother, Shweta, to observe certain rituals, which she did, but Hema’s ghost still haunts her.

Tansi, Tarak’s mother who died of malaria, is also a ghost. She haunts her sister, Kalawatie, and Rookmin says Kalawatie will hear her outside at night ‘in the wind’, and see ‘her shadow behind the bihar tree’. Kalawatie must walk backwards into rooms and spread ‘circles of salt leading up to the door’ to keep Tansi’s spirit from following her inside.

There are many ghosts in this story, and many people whose dreams and hopes are never achieved. Krishna, after the bonding ritual, reminds himself, ‘Don’t let your dreams fool you,’ and ‘This is your place in the world,’ but he faces bullying and discrimination at school, and sees his father, Hans (Hansraj Saroop), placating a shopkeeper who will not allow a Hindu Indo-Trinidadian boy like Krishna into his shop but allows Christian Bell Village children to enter freely.

Five families live in the barracks, sharing a yard for ‘cooking’, ‘drinking’ and ‘fighting’ and existing in five tiny, half-separated rooms with leaky walls, ‘cold earthen ground’ and no privacy. In spite of the dramas that fill Hungry Ghosts, the slow narrative pace allows the reader to get to know these families and see the hardship of their individual lives, as well as the love, respect and sense of community that exists between them. It also brings the land around them to life:

Here, the snakes’ calls blurred with the primeval hiss of wind through the plants. Picture en plein air, all shades of green soaked with vermilion and red and purple and ochre. Picture what the good people call fever grass, wild caraille, shining bush, tamaries, tecomarias, bois gris … Picture curry leaves springing into helices, mangroves cross-legged in the decanted swamp …

The names may be unfamiliar but the richness of the land it clear. So, too, are the smells and tastes of the food that is cooked, and the cadences of the Creole language and dialect the people speak.

All this is background to the events that change the lives of Krishna and his parents. These begin when Dalton Changoor, the wealthy and mentally unsound owner of a mansion some way from the barracks, vanishes, leaving his much younger wife Marlee alone on the estate to be terrified by night-time disturbances, ransom notes, threats and the horrible deaths of Dalton’s beloved dogs.

Dalton Changoor’s disappearance is a mystery for most of the book, and gossip circulates widely. The source of his wealth is attributed to criminal activities, or darker forces – ‘Fiend Money’; Marlee’s background is the subject of lurid and salacious rumours, some of which are true. Marlee has always had to mask her true wants and desires. Only when Dalton is no longer around does she begin to enjoy the freedom to look and behave just as she wishes. She is a complex and vivid character who inspires mixed emotions in the reader.

Hans works on Dalton’s estate with two other men. Baig, a part-timer, is a rough, unreliable, ‘boisterous man with no filter’; Robinson is a neat, self-sufficient, taciturn Christian black man. Marlee, who sees Hans as a hard worker, ‘fit’ and ‘rugged in all the right places’, decides to ask him to stay on the estate at night to protect her. When Hans tells Robinson about this, he questions Hans:

‘You mean till the Mister come back?’

‘To scare off them boys’

‘She paying you good?’

‘Yeah’ ….

 ‘What your wife say?’

A pause. ‘I ain’t ask her yet.’ ….

‘I hear a night shift usually spell trouble for a family in the barrack. Stories about women and daughters having to fight for their dignity in a husband’s absence. The kinds of things that could happen in the night.’

Hans does not ask Shweta, and when he does take the job, his whole relationship with his family changes. At the Dalton estate, Marlee invites him into the house, cooks for him, teaches him to use a gun to defend her, gets drunk with him and, inevitably, sleeps with him. Hans begins to enjoy sharing something of the comfortable life she leads. He draws away from Shweta and she, feeling increasingly rejected, pins her hopes on their agreement that the money Hans is earning will buy a plot of land in Bell known to be for sale. When Hans eventually tells her that he has been outbid for it, but he is still going to the Dalton estate day and night, Shweta is furious. Krishna, who has found his father out in a lie, unintentionally makes matters worse:

In the midst of the cacophony, the boy blurted out, ‘Pa is lyin. He wasn’t at the village this evenin.’

Hans is shocked but tries to placate Shweta:

‘Marlee is goin to help we find another lot as soon as –’

Marlee?’ Shweta came closer to Hans. ‘I’s your wife and I tellin you – you have no more business at that house. It aint right for you to be there. Not in the night. Is like we aint even exist when you over there. You become a total stranger –’

Nothing good comes of this confrontation and Krishna is disillusioned with his father, but he has troubles of his own to deal with. His quarrel with bullying boys escalates into violence and he is arrested; the police officer in charge turns out to be the father of one of the bullies. Marlee, who has some power, helps to resolve this incident, but a later bullying confrontation is much more serious and has disastrous consequences.

The twins, too, have faced a deadly confrontation. They are ‘outcasts’ because of the murderous actions of their now-dead father and they live in a hut away from everyone else. Hans tells Krishna not to associate with them, but Krishna and Tarak ignore that and, because they are ‘Corbeau’, the four boys meet frequently. At one of these meetings, the twins tell Krishna and Tarak about a terrifying meeting with Dalton Changoor.

Lata, Krishna’s young friend in the barracks, also lives through a dangerous incident after attending a celebration of the Hindu festival of Ramlila in a nearby settlement, during which a model of the mythical demon Ravana is ritually burned.

Plays and costumes and colours and songs. It was where friends converged, husbands met wives and enemies were forced into eye contact. A transaction of recipes and gardening tips and gossip. Where you learned that nani’s curry gave everyone diarrhea. Or that beti’s Muslim son secretly ate swine or tantie’s daughter was frigid.

Lata dreams of leaving the barracks and bettering her life, so she accepts the invitation of a Bell Village boy who is attracted to her and invites her to join him and his friends at the festival. The boys and Lata get drunk and the boys disappear, leaving Lata alone. The consequences of this precipitate a deadly conflict in which Krishna, Tarak and the twins all become involved.

Poverty, class distinctions and religious differences are all part of Hungry Ghosts, as are traditions and customs, ancient superstitions, plant-lore, sex and pregnancy, but so too is the sheer joy of simple activities:

The two boys and the dog set off in the direction of the paddies. The rice plants were still young and looked more like weeds. The water opaque. Each step they took raised a plume of muck to the surface. When they stood still, tiny outlines of fishes swam in spirals. They ran the bag through the water and scooped up a catch of mostly tadpoles and guppies. They spent about half an hour doing this, hoping to get something juicy there.

In an interview, Hosein said that many of the domestic details of life in Trinidad in the 1940s came from conversations with his grandfather and other elders. These were the ordinary things of life, but it was a time of war, the colonial powers were leaving and the Americans had begun to take over small villages to set up naval bases. It was a time of change, and of independence, and of dreams a better life.

Hungry Ghosts is an absorbing and exciting family drama and the uncertainty of Dalton’s disappearance and the possibility that at any moment he might return adds tension to the story. This is traditional storytelling, well done, and the harshness of life is lightened by the warmth of Trinidad and the strong character of its people.

Kevin Jared Hosein Hungry Ghosts Bloomsbury Publishing 2023 PB 352pp $32.99

Dr Ann Skea is a freelance reviewer, writer and an independent scholar of the work of Ted Hughes. She is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE 1994, and currently available for free download here). Her work is internationally published and her Ted Hughes webpages (ann.skea.com) are archived by the British Library.

You can buy Hungry Ghosts from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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