Lodestar Quarterly

Lodestar Quarterly
Figure reaching for a star Issue 9 • Spring 2004 • Non-Fiction

This is the Story You Must Write

Shani Mootoo

Within the walls of my family there are no traces of an indentured heritage. Had some branch of my ancestors managed an erasure of our past swinging machetes in the blazing heat of scorpion-infested cane fields?

In the 1960s, my West Indian history teacher, who was of Indian origin, told the class that after the 1830s abolition of slavery, no Black person wanted to be caught dead near a sugar plantation. The British sugar estate owners went abroad, yet again, to find replacement workers. First, our teacher told us, they brought in the Irish, and when the Irish weren't able to do the work, the Germans. But the Germans weren't able either. "Weren't able?" we queried. Her response: "Too hot." But the smirk accompanying her smile was instructive. Apparently the Brits tried Chinese workers next. But the Chinese were enterprising. They took up more lucrative engagements, like fishing and shop keeping.

And so, the lesson continued; it was to India that Britain looked next and finally. Stories, stories, yes, but what lingered in our minds was that smirk. It seemed to say, "Look deeper." Those of us who were of Indian ancestry, shy to probe outside ourselves, looked inward. We, the official story went, were the ones whose families had stayed and still provided much of the cane-field labor in the Caribbean. We -- this confounding we again -- bore the stigma of being a weak people, the ones the British could have fallen back on, and of being the descendants of the lowest of workers, the cane cutters. But we -- going along with the we, because there is strength in numbers -- read that smirk and suddenly felt acknowledged -- one of the few times we did -- for, it followed, we had stamina and the West Indian sun was not "too hot" for our people.

But -- there is always a but to spice things up -- contrary to all official information in history books, our story, was not exactly like theirs. My family's ancestors, that is, had not worked as indentured laborers, as had the ancestors of other Indo-Trinidadians, and to this last I add supposedly, with a modicum of healthy doubt. Curious about origins, I would ask, "If not as indentured workers, what made our ancestors leave India in the nineteenth-century to come so far away?" Vague answers would follow. "Put it this way... one branch of the family did come to Trinidad on one of those ships of recruits. But, no, they never actually worked as indentures. Well, yes, they were recruits, but they weren't indentures. Well, maybe, they were, but only for a few weeks. Less than a month, really. Nothing to talk about."

In issues of identity buts are resident. My father's mother was a third generation... but, third generation what? Not immigrant, for the Indians who arrived on those ships in those particular days had never actually emigrated. Third generation indenture? But, her ancestors hadn't worked as indentured laborers. She was, simply, third generation. Of Bengali and Nepali parents. She tried in vain to teach us, her grandchildren, Hindi, which her father spoke exclusively even though he spent his entire life in Trinidad where English has been the lingua franca for almost three centuries. I remember her trying to instruct us, with little effect, in the principles of Hinduism, exhorting us to be good Brahmin girls. Once, when she visited our house, I tried to make an ally of her. "I don't want to take piano," I pleaded softly, "I want steel pan lessons. I don't understand why they won't let me learn the pan."

But she was not my ally. She was her generation's born-again Indian watchdog. In a pleading tone all her own, she inserted light years between us. "Of course, darling. If only this were a perfect world. But, you see, nice Indian girls don't do that sort of thing."

But, it was she who didn't see. This was the seventies, the decade of daring to do what had not been done before, an era that came out of the Black Power movement, an era of nationalism and the desire for an essential Trinidadian identity that was not Black, Indian, White, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, but encompassed all. The hope was that the line from our national anthem -- "Every creed and race has an equal place" -- would finally ring true.

A town-Indian girl, burning with the town's current fever, wanted to assert her Trinidadianness, take up space on a stage and gyrate her hips like the young Black girls in the new national dance troupes. She wanted to dress in a costume and jump in the streets to the rhythm of calypso music on carnival Tuesday. But in those days, and until Mick and Bianca Jagger and other celebrities flew in and paid thousands of dollars for costumes, carnival remained the street theater of Blacks and 'low-class' local Whites. Nice Indians families retreated to the coast where the event was low-key and could be avoided. But this town-Indian girl wanted to indulge herself in the various forms of culture employed in the making of a new nation. She wanted to play pan. How ripe Moonlight Sonata sounded, how windy Beethovan's Fifth, played by the pan orchestras. She wanted to recite, not Keats, Shelly or Blake, but Linton Kwesi Johnson, who wrote:

outta dis rock
shall come
a greena riddim
even more dread
dan what
de breeze of glory bread
vibratin violence
is how wi move
rockin wid green riddim
de drout
an dry root out

In my thirties, after I had just started writing, I spent a summer in Banff, light years away from the island. During that time my grandmother lay dying in a Trinidad hospital bed. In a telephone conversation, she assured me she was going nowhere -- least of all, to the riverbank pyres -- until she had related to me the remarkable story of a journey her mother, my great-grandmother Naan, had made.

"You want to be a writer?" she taunted, "Then this is the story you must write." Sniffing tales of origins, the possibility of long-awaited answers, the writer-who-knows-better-than-to-procrastinate asked her to tell a little right then on the telephone. But she was tired and promised that the next time we spoke she would relate it all. That night she passed away. Since then, I have asked countless relatives if they knew what she was referring to, but no one knew.

A decade later, on a trip to Trinidad, persistent again with questions, I was told, 'OK, OK. Try Auntie Jess. She knows everything.' So, I visited Auntie Jess, grandma's 93-year-old sister. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, Auntie Jess sat in a rocking chair on the front porch. My prejudices in tow, I wondered just how much a 93-year-old might reliably remember. Facing her I recalled that as a child I used to stare at her, fascinated by her features, which to me seemed more like those of people of Chinese origin. She would explain that she had taken her features from her Nepali mother.

I wanted to ask three things: first, if she knew what Grandma had intended telling me; second, if her ancestors had come to Trinidad as indentured laborers; and third, if they did indeed work as laborers. To the first question she answered, dismissively, "I don't know. There is no story. I don't know what Bas (my grandmother) was talking about." She combined answers to the other two. Within less than a month of her grandfather Misir Bulaki and his wife's arrival as indentures, word spread that he was a pandit. Being a holy Hindu man, Misir Bulaki, or Bulaki pandit, as he came to be known, was taken out of the workforce by the estate owners, and pressed into religious service.

My questions had all been answered in less than five minutes, with no great revelations, no cymbals clashing.

Auntie Jess was quiet for a moment. Then she added, "But he didn't like his wife. He divorced her and married a woman, my grandmother, whom he met over here."

Details. It is details that make stories. She had me in her palm.

"He just decided to divorce his wife?" I asked. "That's odd for a pandit, isn't it?"

"Yes, but he didn't like the first one," she retorted, as if that were logic enough.

Perhaps, it was.

Then, as if a spark ignited, she piped up, "But I can tell you stories. Do you want to hear? Did you bring a notebook? Because one day you will want to put these in a book. But if you do, if that book goes all over the place and you get famous, don't forget -- like some people from this island who go abroad and use us to write about but don't have anything nice to say -- don't forget where you got your stories from, you hear?"

Without taking her eyes from me, she called to her servant waiting in the shadows, told her to light a mosquito repellent coil, and bring her a brandy and me water from a coconut the yardman had picked that day. Sifting the sand from the chip-chip, so to speak, this is what she related:

My father Sookdeo Misir (in those days children took as their surname the first name of their father -- as in, Sookdeo, son of Misir) never attended formal school. He learned by watching his father, the pandit, minister to Indians all over the country, and he studied the Bhagavat Gita with him. But my father learned equally well from his mother. She took charge of the in-kind payments made to Misir Bulaki for performing poojas for everything, from banishing illness and misfortune and attracting wealth and health, to conducting marriages, birth ceremonies and funerals. On a roadside stand in front of their house, she arranged and sold bags of rice, sacks of flour, bundles of string beans, basins of peas, and mounds of mangoes. They eventually amassed enough funds to build next to their house a shed out of which a greater variety of goods could be sold. Not long after, Bulaki Pandit's wife and sons, the eldest of whom was Sookdeo, another of whom was Ramdeen, were able to purchase a cow. They hired a man, shortly after, to go from house to house to sell the cow's milk.

My clearest memory of Sookdeo Misir, Puhpa his great grandchildren called him, is of him at 80 years of age, doing a headstand, his body supported by the green wall in his bedroom. I have no picture in my mind of Puhpa standing upright, but he must have done so in my presence; I remember his bare feet -- on the ground -- as I bent to touch them with my hands in a gesture of respect, and him touching my head, the adult gesture of compassion, raising me up before my hands made contact.

My parents' house was always full of extended family. There were always children running through the house, playing in the yard. Amongst them was Ramdeen's daughter Laxmi. She used to massage my father's feet. And Ramdeen's son Sankar, he was there too, one minute falling out of the mango tree and the next, riding the cows. My parents had two children, me and Bas. They adopted a third, a baby girl, from a poor neighbor whose wife died shortly after giving birth.

He sent his three daughters, Bas, Sohnia and me, to public schools. We were the only Indians amongst many white students and a few Black ones. When Sohn, whom he adored almost -- well, I think it was almost -- more than Bas and me, when she wanted to go to university in the United States of America, he allowed her to go. She married a White American man with my father's blessings, but she returned to the island only one time, when he was seriously ill.

How much I missed of the story that followed I don't know, for I thought of Richard, the White boyfriend I had when I was 15. My parents, when they found out about him, were livid, and forbade me to see him ever again. Whether it was because he was White-skinned, or because I was 15 (he, 16) and should have had my mind on Shakespeare and algebra, not boys, I was not really sure. I appealed to Grandma once again. She said, "He is a very nice boy, indeed. But you must remember that you are a nice Indian girl. "

Auntie Jess was saying,

My father and his brothers bought a building just off the busy wharves in the capital of the island and opened a dry-goods store many times bigger than the one at the side of the house. They also bought cars to be used as taxis. The first one was a Black Ford with the license plate number H24. I remember it well. When it wasn't being used for work we used to go for rides in it. And they bought a fleet of buses that provided transport service from the capital to the northeastern corner of the country. Orange estates, too. They bought orange estates, and rental properties.

Auntie Jess had by this time finished high school in the capital, and was soon to marry a dentist. But Puhpa's other daughter, my grandmother, was his biggest problem.

Bas, your grandmother, had been skipping school at the same convent, returning home late in the evening, saying she had been detained at school for misspelling or some such misdemeanor. These detentions had been occurring for a while, and our father was worried, but, unable to comprehend this English language himself, he was of no help. Then, one day, a package addressed to Bas was delivered by a neighbor, not to her, but my father. The package had been given to the neighbor by an Indian taxi driver from the capital with the request that the neighbor discreetly pass it to Basdevi. This neighbor had no desire to see his friend's daughter destroy her life and her family's reputation. My father took the parcel and thanked the neighbor, concealing his shame. Leather strap behind his back, he called Bas and demanded that she open the parcel in front of him. It contained a heart-shaped box full of chocolates, and a card signed, 'Carl'. My father became uncontrollable. My mother and I fell to the ground and grabbed onto to my father's trousers, encouraging Bas to run, trying to prevent him from chasing after her with the strap. I had never seen him like that before. He was in a murderous rage. He and my mother took Bas out of school and she was given sewing lessons, in seclusion, at home. Time passed, and she excelled at sewing. I felt that she had the potential to study design, and once enough time had passed, managed to convince our father that she could be trusted to return to the capital to study. But one day, the 14th of February to be precise, she did not return home from school.

Auntie Jess was saying something about Puhpa's brother, a gun and a boat. I do not recall her words, but a picture formed in my head, as if I were watching a movie:

Puhpa's younger brother Ramdeen Misir, because he is fluent in English, heads into the capital in search of the card-signer Carl. Outside of the dry goods store that he and his brothers own, he chats with an African man whose taxi is parked there. He asks if the man knows an Indian taxi driver named Carl. The African retorts that everybody knows the Indian taxi driver. "Carl," he spouts, "he just get married, man -- not two days self -- he ketch a girl from a big-shot family that out to hang him high. Carl nowhere around these days. He teking she away on a honeymoon trip, down the islands."

Ramdeen does not reveal that he is a member of the girl's family, nor his horror at news of this elopement. He hurries to the wharf where, restraining himself from throttling the gossipmongers, he hears again that the Indian taxi driver named Carl 'tek up' with a girl from a rich-rich family that 'want his head on a platter whole.' The fella Carl hired a boat that same-same day, he is told. Carl and the new madam, a young thing, pretty for so, going the following day to a island to tek honeymoon.

Ramdeen, arriving in a drunken fury at the busy wharf next morning, loaded gun in shaking hand, is, however, too late. The pirogue is a speck in the distance. Puhpa's daughter, my grandmother Basdevi, is hunched in the boat's center, her head covered with a scarf. The rising sun glints off the lenses of her sunglasses. The man named Carl, the taxi-driving Indian who was not even Hindu, but a Catholic convert, the man at the helm, guiding this pirogue out into the gray choppy waters of the Gulf, would one day be my grandfather.

No gun shots were heard, no blood was shed, but my grandmother was, for the rest of her life, disowned by her family.

The mosquito coil had burnt almost to the end. Its smoke swirled up between us. The brandy and the coconut glasses were dry. I was speechless; my own grandmother had once been so in love that she skipped school to see her boyfriend; my grandmother had given up family and fortune for love. I thought of her attempts to draw out of me the 'nice Indian girl.' I was confused.

Auntie Jess broke the long silence that followed. "There are more stories to tell, but there are always more, aren't there?" After a pause she added, "And how much does one tell, anyway?"

Some time later, back in Edmonton, I received from my mother some clippings from recent Trinidad newspapers. On one of the pages was a color photograph of an old Black woman in a blue house dress. The headlines read, "'Tant' speaks of her first love -- Racial problems couldn't stop us,' says spunky 91-year-old." The caption under the photograph was, "Dora 'Tant' Ferguson... Health is wealth." The name Dora Ferguson meant nothing to me.

Skimming over the story, my eyes fell upon the lines:

She said she never lost her love for her first sweetheart, Sankar Ramdeen...

Uncle Sankar Ramdeen? Cow-riding, falling-out-of-mango-trees Sankar Ramdeen? Puhpa's brother Ramdeen Misir's son?

...whom she met when she was 16. "We were never married because his family never liked me. He was Indian and I am Creole, you know..." With a twinkle in her eye, Ferguson said, "Every chance he got, Sankar would take his father's car...

The same car Ramdeen Misir drove in a fury to the wharves in Port of Spain!

... and we would run away together. Once, we went to Manzanilla for a whole week and my parents reported it to the police." Ramdeen died 30 years ago.
-- February 16th, 2002. Trinidad Guardian

I flipped quickly through the clippings and found another celebrating Dora 'Tant' Ferguson's 91st birthday. In the photo in this clipping she was being hugged by one of her daughters. This daughter was, clearly, a mixed race woman, with skin fairer than her mother's, high cheekbones and bright, smiling almond-shaped eyes. This daughter, my Uncle Sankar's daughter, would have been in her sixties.

Dora 'Tant' Ferguson told the public a story of a love with a man from my family, a love she did not regret. But 'Tant' was not part of Auntie Jesse's repertoire.

I find it curious -- which stories are told, and which are not, and where the story lines are drawn, both in the privacy of our families and in the glare of the public. I also find it curious, too, that my mother, who knows that I write to bring order into my chaotic world, would send me this subversive story of Dora 'Tant' Ferguson. But it took two women, one ninety-three and the other ninety-one, to break the silences. Perhaps they felt at this point in their lives that they had nothing more to lose by holding back. Perhaps experience led them to realize the absurdity of discrimination and the secrets they force upon us.

Perhaps it took three women, the third being my grandmother who started all of this, and who, if she were alive today, would be in her late eighties. Grandma might well have known what she was doing when she offered a story and died before she could deliver it...

Shani Mootoo's first book, Out on Main Street, is a collection of short stories. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night, was nominated for The Giller Prize, the Chapter's First Novel Award, and the BC Book Prize; and she was awarded the New England Book Sellers award in 1998. Her book of poetry, Predicament of Or, was published by Polestar/Raincoast in 2001. She has just completed her second novel, A House By The Sea, which is soon to be published by Grove Atlantic. Born in Ireland and raised in Trinidad, Mootoo resides in Edmonton where she teaches Creative Writing in the English Department of the University of Alberta. Her visual art work and videos have been exhibited internationally.

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