During his lifetime, John “Boysie” Singh was a womaniser, gambling king, arsonist, preacher, pirate, thief, human trafficker, gangster, smuggler and mass murderer.
In a feature titled The Vagabond Rajah, which is exclusive to the Alexander app, award-winning Trinidadian author Ingrid Persaud has chosen to tell some of Singh’s story.
“I have been doing research for a fictional work on Boysie Singh on and off for quite a long time. He’s just somebody I’m intrigued by. So, I thought this was an opportunity to consolidate some of that. Also, because I’m hoping to get this book (the fictional work) together by the end of the year.”
As Persaud spoke about the project, she grew more animated. She said, as with any successful criminal, there was very little evidence against Singh. And when he took on a role, he did so completely and even dressed the part – in all black as a pirate, in all white as a preacher, in colourful suits as a gambling king.
“When he went out he wore a jacket, a shirt, tie, pants, socks, shoes, a hat and an umbrella stick. All matched perfectly. He was a dandy as well as all these other things. And he was good-looking and charismatic. He wasn’t just a criminal. He was able to carry people with him.”
She said there were many layers to his story. Born in Woodbrook, he was a “town Indian” and so was not connected to religion and the social aspects of growing up in the countryside. Yet, he had bases in Cedros and Arouca, in addition to Cocorite.
He was very wealthy but his race and class kept him as an outsider in 1940s and 1950s society and he could not mingle with the French Creoles and Syrians.
He married a “high brown” woman named Dorris who could “almost pass for white.” She was a pious Catholic and a social climber. He saw her as his entry into society and she wanted to help him move up in it, but they also loved each other.
Singh was hanged in 1956, at age 47, for the murder of dancer Thelma Haynes.
According to Persaud, there are very few records left of Singh. Therefore, her research is based on interviews with his remaining family, his neighbours, her family from Cedros, birth and death records, newspaper records of his trials as some of the court records have “disappeared,” and oral history sources like calypsoes about Singh.
“It feels right that one should go to the social commentators of the day who were our calypsonians. They were the backbone of critique and social commentary.”
She said the minute TT’s borders reopen, she intends to return to complete her research.
“I think he is a very unique character in Caribbean history. He casts a long shadow over our history. People who weren’t even born still talk about him. The younger generation still use his name, he’s still a boogieman presence that pervades our mythology. This is somebody who has passed into our present consciousness, a figure we almost measure other criminals by.
“In his time he absolutely enthralled the country. He was a larger than life, evil character. Even when I talk to people now, almost seven decades after his death, they are still reticent to speak about him. I think it’s because it’s almost as if you’re inviting evil into your life when you think and talk about people like Boysie Singh.”
The Vagabond Rajah is an overview of Singh’s life from birth to death. And while it is as historically accurate as possible, it is not a dry piece of biography.
“I think you would have to be an extremely talented writer to take a life as flamboyant as Boysie’s and make it dull. That would be a special skill you would need to have.”
His story is told through Persaud’s eyes, as impartially as possible, in the context of her own research and elements of her own experience of Singh in her life.
The piece begins with her recalling her mother telling her Bosyie Singh would come get her if she behaved badly. It ends with her experience of having breakfast at a café and a young girl who could not have born during Singh’s reign casually making reference to him.
The 10,000-word nonfiction feature was commissioned from her for Alexander. The app is currently available for Apple users only but will soon be available for Android.
According to Lindsey Okubo, account executive for publicity and consulting firm Gia Kuan, Alexander is a global library featuring a handful of narrative nonfiction features exclusively commissioned by the Alexander team.
"Everything is nonfiction and the writers are exclusively commissioned by the app to produce content. They are selected by the Alexander team based on skill, voice, and existing acclaim. Writers hail from all over the globe including the likes of Chigozie Obioma from Nigeria, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld from the Netherlands, and Cheryl Tan from Singapore."
Each feature is available in multiple formats as the app champions a multisensory approach – read, listen, and watch. So, people have the option of reading the text, listening to a narrator or both, and watching a video trailer to set the scene.
Each written feature is narrated by Hollywood actors such as Helena Bonham Carter, Richard E Grant, Bill Nighy, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Emma Corrin, Tan Kheng Hua and Vanessa Kirby. And the short-film teasers were directed filmmakers like Frank Lebon, Jordan Hemingway and Derek Zheng.
The Vagabond Rajah was narrated by actress Lorraine Toussaint, who was born in TT, and produced by filmmaker Tim Martin.
Persaud said, “This is about different artistes re-imagining storytelling. I’ve written a text which somebody else narrates and brings alive in their own way and brings the synergy of their Trini roots to the work.
“Then some really innovative filmmakers get a chance to do something completely different in very specific parameters and yet they come up with something I could never have imagined about Boysie Singh.”
The production comes following Persaud’s win at the UK’s 2020 Costa Book Awards. She won the First Novel Award with her debut novel, Love After Love.
“When I was told I’d won, it took me a good 20 minutes to speak. All the anxiety, hard work and sacrifice were vindicated. Faber’s (Faber and Faber publishing house) trust had paid off. I exhaled.”
Since winning the Costa award in January, Persaud said her life has shifted. She has been getting invitations to book events, commissions to write articles, short stories and essays, sales of Love After Love have increased, and foreign rights to the book are being sold.
“But the real shifts have been internal. My long bouts of self-doubt have shortened. I sit a little straighter at my desk, and I am relishing this third act of my life. Not only am I doing what I love, but I’m making a modest living. Sure, I have unproductive, uninspired days but I know now that I can get past these.”
In 2018, Persaud won the BBC National Short Story Award and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017. She read law at the London School of Economics and was an academic before studying fine art at Goldsmiths and Central Saint Martins. Her writing has appeared in several newspapers and magazines including Granta, Prospect, Five Dials, The Guardian and National Geographic.