Author Vashti Bowlah and the enchantment of East Indian folklore
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
As a child growing up in the backyard of the Brechin Castle Sugar Factory Vashti Bowlah was fascinated by the stories of East Indian folklore. That fascination would lead her to chronicle these tales in a writing career that has spanned 15 years.
"In small communities, you have so many stories in you that they are just waiting to burst out."
In her younger years, she would spend time in the close-knit community of Esparanza Village where her granny lived.
Bowlah said 80 per cent of the information she shares were from her experiences growing up and things she heard from her parents, grandparents, elders, and pundits. From these stories, she learned of the churile, a woman who died in childbirth.
"If anyone is pregnant they don't go near the bushes after dark."
She recalled as a little girl going to sleep and saying, "Ma tell me a story."
"And she would not read a book. She would make up a story, even if she was half-asleep."
Growing up she didn't understand the background of the stories but only later when she started writing and asked for more information did she learn about jinn and spirits.
One day she saw a newspaper ad for a Hindu Women's Organisation story competition on women, East Indian culture and indentureship. Bowlah decided to write a story that both children and adults could relate to and also be informed. She placed third overall.
"This gave me the nudge I needed to continue."
She released her first book, Under The Peepal Tree, of which 14 of the 16 stories had been published in regional and international magazines and won her a couple of awards. It was then she began her relationship with NALIS and was invited to schools and libraries to talk with children and promote literacy. Bowlah was encouraged by the excitement and interest shown.
She noted there were books about traditional folklore creatures like soucouyants and Papa Bois but not a lot about East Indian folklore; one of the few books was Indian Caribbean Folklore Spirits by Dr Kumar Mahabir for which she assisted with the research. In 2019 she released her second book, Sugarcane Valley, which featured only stories about East Indian folklore and superstition.
Bowlah will be sharing her stories at the Film and Folklore Festival and promised attendees it will be more than just her reading.
"I will make them sit up and take notice of these characters. And keep them excited and wanting to hear more."
Bowlah said she feels strongly about keeping these traditions alive.
"It is important for connecting one generation to the next by storytelling. It is one of the most important traditions that we have. It teaches what the ancestors went through. And it can teach about cultural traditions, religious traditions, and values, create stronger family ties, and contribute to a diverse nation. And it will remind us we are a part of history and give us a sense of belonging, identity, and national pride."