[Caribbean Literature]

The Cinema in Persaud's "Butterfly in the Wind"

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

In Persaud's Butterfly in the Wind, her narrator's childhood experiences of cinema in Trinidad serve multiple functions: they add to her picture of the largely Indian town in which she grew up, they show how even such a small Caribbean town fell under the influence of both Hollywood and Indian filmaking, and they contribute to her political awakening. First of all, Kamla experiences the films she sees at her uncle's cinema in Tunapuna as wonderfully escapist and magical:

The cinema was the only form of entertainment Hindu girls enjoyed outside the festivities of their home and those of their wider family and community. I looked forward to the Sunday matinee show. There I saw African jungles, with elephants and crocodiles; Robin Hood and his merry men and the lovable fat Friar Tuck; knights in armour, like Ivanhoe; maidens in towers; kings and trumpets and the drawing up of bridges across castle moats. It was all exciting and magically different from the life around me. The idea of a moat appealed to me greatly. . . .

The fact that before and after the show, the screen was white, plain, motionless and empty, emphasised the cinema's unreality, like a magic carpet. But while irrelevant to life in the village, it fed my imagination. I was Tarzan whenever I was alone on a tree branch and Robin Hood too; the numbers of arrows I shot from my sheaf, strapped tightly behind my back, must have risen and fallen in their thousands. [69, 70]

Part of the magic of cinema obviously derived from the fantasy worlds of the "Sunday matinee" (it was Saturday in my childhood) -- the worlds of Robin Hood and Ivanhoe -- and the stimulus they gave to her imagination and her play. Another part of the magic of these films seen in her childhood derived from the magical technology itself, the color cinematography that taught one to see in more-than-real ways:

Everything in the cinema was new, remote and unreal. It was like a magic box. Technicolour was sheer delight; it made the colours of the earth look as if they were fading and some gigantic smiling artist had given everything a fresh coat of paint: the grass and the moss on the stones in the river were greener; the straw in birds' nests was a more golden yellow; the aquamarine blue of the island seas was deeper; the scales of fish, like armour plate, were more glistening. Thatch and dusty ordinary roads, even the popular roses and the common hibiscus: all looked far more beautiful than I had imagined. [70]

In addition to immersing herself in Hollywood's version of the English middle ages, Kamla encounters other fims made in the United States and in India, both of which create visions far different from her everyday life in the Caribbean.

And there was the lazy, glamorous American way of life: large cars, big-shot talk, smiling blondes and all that kissing, so public and so alien to my village life; and the grand panoramic spectacles of The Robe and Quo Vadis and Samson and Delilah. [69] . . .

But there were also the Indian religious films. What struck me in these were the snakes, so frequently used by gods and devils to test the faith of saints. It was their dappled spotted skin and inquiring, cautious glances which excited and paralysed me. The way they lifted their heads, as if each time they would decide afresh how much of their elongated self was neck, and their whiplike forked tongues have remained with me. There were other transformations -- gods taking the form ofstray dogs and beggars to test the faith of men -- which made me look at these unfortunates differently. [70]

Fifteen pages before she introduces the way she revelled in films from India and the United states, the narrator tells how she learned to distrust the message of some movies -- the "Red Indian and Cowboy films" of her youth:

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s hundreds of Red Indian and Cowboy films were shown on Trinidadian film screens. At play, at school and at home, everyone wanted to be Cowboys, for we all knew how the games must end. It was not easy to get anyone to play Red Indians. I wanted the Red Indians to win because, with the help of a history book called People from Far-off Lands, I had learnt to see them as simple nomadic peoples. In these films I could see that Red Indians were losing their land to invaders who thought nothing of lying and cheating and killing for their own ends and who wished to grab the Continent and all that was in it.

And there was another ugly thing. These 'Westerns' portrayed Red Indians as savages and not what they really were: simple nomadic peoples fighting for their very survival; for their land, their way of life; for their sons and daughters against hordes of brutish robbers. [54]

Trying "to make sense of these atrocities," she turned to the god Shiva: 'Why? Why millions? Please explain" (55). Interestingly, reading a "history book" convinced her that the films presented a false view of painful political realities. Are books necessarily more truthful than films, or is it that it is history that is opposed to fiction and fantasy? Why does the author have her protagonist separate this discussion of her precocious disillusionment with cinema from her later long discussion of her love of it?


Persaud, Lakshmi. Butterfly in the Wind. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1990.

Main Web Page Caribbean Trinidad and Tobago Lakshmi Persaud

Last modified 17 January 2003