Archive for July, 2014


I think I’ve mentioned this before, playing in the rain has got to be one of the most satisfying things to do whether you’re young or old. Growing up in Trinidad it was not uncommon to see children playing cricket or football in the rain. Nor was it strange to see people walking through blinding rain to get where they wanted to go. It was never cold. Water brings out that gay abandon in people. After all, before we began looking the way we do now, we crawled out of water millions of years ago. Our bodies consist of nearly 70% of water – depending on size and body mass of course. My point is we are drawn to it as a moth is drawn to a dancing flame. There is no better way to enjoy water in its natural form than straight from the heavens, aquaphobe or no.

I have cousins who live in Gasparillo. It’s a small town and for those of us who lived in cities around Port of Spain, Gasparillo would be considered ‘south’. In fact anywhere beyond the city of Chaguanas was considered as south by the rest of us. Gasparillo was very hilly and my cousins lived on a hill – quite a steep one too that one needed to lean forward on the way up and lean backwards on the way down to prevent from toppling over in the opposite direction.

When morning dawned and the dew was still wet and like diamonds on the grass, the sun rose over those dewy hills and poured gold over them, a signal to the living to come to life. In the rainy season everything would be lush and green. Flowers showed off their brilliance and vied with the trees and the grass for admiration. After a very hot day, usually around midday, the rain would come down like bullets from the heavens, pummelling everything with wet, warm drops of water. I would lie down on the slope and just let myself become one with it all; the warm rain, the earth and the heat emanating from it as if Mother Nature herself was breathing a sigh of relief. I marvelled at the simple wonder that is nature.

The ground would soon disintegrate into a mixture of mud and grass as we slipped and stumbled in our attempts to make enough runs to beat the other team in a game of cricket – in the pelting rain. Electrical wires that ran above our heads would be lined with pigeons or keskidees and they too would be enjoying the rain, their chests puffed out, their beaks busy with the business of grooming.

If we were lucky the sun would come out as well and in the distance a rainbow would appear. I liked it better when there was a double rainbow. In my entire life I’ve only ever seen two of these; a young vibrant rainbow being cradled by a lighter almost faded one.

Days like the one I just described came only for a time. Things change, people change and we must move on. But these are the days I remember mainly because they were at a time when being a child was all that mattered.

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Superstition and folklore are part and parcel of any culture. The Irish have their banshees, leprechauns and changelings and their share of superstitions that get them through the day; the Scottish have their kelpies, selkies and their beloved Nessie as well as superstitions that declare that it is unlucky to have a black cat in a room where a wake is taking place or to see a funeral procession on one’s way to a wedding; the English have their boggarts, elves, dwarves, wyverns, dragons, ogres, goblins, witches, wizards and the list goes ever on, however, most of these have been taken from Celtic and Germanic sources.

When I was growing up I heard stories of soucouyants, lagahou, la jablesse, Papa Bois and duennes and duppies. Superstitions and folklore were a part of daily life. There was this one time, I must have been about ten as I hadn’t written my common entrance exams yet and I was at the back of the house brushing my teeth since we didn’t have indoor bathrooms at that time. There were a lot of bushes at the back partially blocking the view of the houses there. It must have been about nine o’clock and I was just washing up before bed time. Normally people burned dried rubbish; leaves and branches that they had piled up after cleaning the yard so seeing fire and smelling smoke wasn’t a novelty – except for this one time.

I was mid brush when there was a large wall of fire amongst the bushes. I say wall, because that’s what it looked like to me. This fire did not burn steadily. It did not lick at the bushes, nor did it set them alight. There was no smoke. The wall turned into a column before it disappeared amongst the bushes again. I dropped my toothbrush in the sink and sped inside. I had never seen fire behave like that before. I waited around in the kitchen as my mother cleaned up and packed away lunches for school next day. Perhaps she didn’t notice remnants of toothpasty spittle still around my mouth. My eyes were fixed on those bushes. The wind rustled them a little and they swayed – nothing unusual. It was only when mum called me from outside, asking why did I leave my toothbrush in the sink – then I went out.

I continued brushing my teeth as I kept one eye on the bushes and one eye on my mother to make sure she didn’t leave me outside. I must have looked like a brown gecko. Now from what I heard tell, this could have been a soucouyant. In Trini folklore, a soucouyant is an old woman who sheds her skin at night and puts it in a mortar, she then turns into a fiery ball and travels around, slipping into houses through cracks and crevices in the house where she will suck the blood of her victims. She is never seen during the day and the only evidence of her presence is a flaming ball of fire.

Well I didn’t see a flaming ball of fire – I saw a wall of fire. It didn’t matter, better be safe than dead. I remembered what my classmates and I talked about at school – well, they talked, I listened with the hair on my skin standing as straight as needles. Apparently if you put enough salt in her path, she would be unable to cross it before counting every single grain. The container of salt was almost empty. There was probably only a handful left for cooking a few times over. Mum would not have liked it if I emptied the rest on the floor. One cannot use salt after it’s been on the floor soucouyant or no soucouyant. So I just used very small pinches and flung it all over the place in the hope that the blood sucker would seek out every last grain, wherever it fell, before she pulled out her champagne glass and her straw and came at me.

I went to bed that night with all my senses tingling like Spider Man. Every time I felt that I was falling asleep, I would jolt myself awake. However, I was only a ten year old human and sleep claimed me for better or for worse. When I woke up I checked myself for blue black marks over my body – supposedly the tell tale signs of her dinner service which you, the poor victim unwittingly provided. I was glad, there were none. Mum made no mention of marks on my sisters or herself and my dad, well, if he had any, he kept them to himself. He was already revving the car before leaving for work.

Just a little note about our car – it could not move without ten to fifteen minutes of revving. Whenever we had to go anywhere, while we were getting dressed, dad would be outside in the car, in the hot sun revving the hell out of that vehicle and once it finally jerked out of place and rolled out of the yard, we knew it was time for us to lock up and meet him outside. This was done wherever we went. It would explain why we stopped driving to the drive in and ‘walked in’ instead. Oh the embarrassment. Still, that car took us from A to B and with a little coaxing and a lot of petrol, it even got us to Z……sometimes.

Anyway, enough about the ghastly car, let’s focus again on the ghastly old bat who was supposed to come and visit us that night. I never heard anything about the fire in the bushes because there was no fire. The bushes were as they had always been, lush and green – a fence provided by nature. They rustled in the wind acting as if nothing had happened, as if everything was as it should be. I thought no more of it until recently.

I don’t know what brought it to mind, perhaps because I never really told anyone. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway. I was ten and I had an imagination that always left me feeling more disconnected from the world in which I lived. There was no reason for anyone to believe me. But, I know what I saw.

You believe me….don’t you?

 

 

Glossary

 

Lagahou – derived from the French le loup garou which means lycanthrope. A lycanthrope is what is commonly called – a werewolf. In Trini speak, a Lagahou (pronounced lagahoo or ligahoo – depending on who tells the story) can take the form of any animal – it is basically a shapeshifter. It roams the night with chains around its neck and has been said to leave a sickly sweet scent behind it which can be smelled for miles away.

La Jablesse – derived from the Spanish La Diablesse which is literally translated as she-devil. She is described as a beautiful woman who lures men to her and once they get near they discover that she has a cloven hoof, by then it’s too late for them.

Papa Bois – A wood spirit. He lures poachers to their deaths by changing up pathways, disorienting them. They either go mad or die first.

Duennes – These are children who died before they were baptised and are thus fated to roam the forests. It is said that one must never call out the names of one’s children who have not yet been baptised for the Duennes will learn their names and lure the children into the forests where they will keep them forever.

Duppies – These are spirits that stay on Earth and haunt those who have wronged them.

Soucouyant – (Pronounced soo-coo-ya) Read the story.


A Bend in The River

Review

Set in postcolonial Africa, A Bend in The River is considered by many as one of Naipaul’s best on the topic of post-colonialism, though not one of my favourites. What Naipaul has in common with other authors such as Salman Rushdie (Midnight’s Children) and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) is that acute sense of being trapped between two states of being; the past and the present – the future being nothing more than an idea. The themes of defragmentation and alienation run like veins throughout the entire narrative. Born of Indian blood on the soil of Trinidad and adopted by Britain, he is a man of no single world; his allegiances can easily be blown away by the wind of change and chance. We see Naipaul in Salim and vice versa.

Salim works his way into the heart of Africa. One might say he made the reverse journey that the slaves made. Salim is a different kind of slave. He is a slave of chance and opportunity. Within his voice, one can hear the voices of Nazruddin, Raymond and Yvette, Indar, Mahesh and Shoba, Ferdinand, Metty, even Zabeth. Through the mirrors of his eyes, Africa is displayed as stark, harsh and unapologetic and one can observe the unravelling of the very delicate fabric that makes up postcolonial Africa.

Salim, the narrator and main character of Indian Muslim origin, strives against the turmoil of the country but he eventually ends up being drawn into it. The possibility of retreating from the dead-end of his life that was the Indian Muslim community in which he lived was what made him accept Nazruddin’s offer of becoming a shopkeeper in a small town at the bend in the river. Whether he realises it or not, he has only traded one dead-end for another and it takes a visit from his childhood friend Indar for him to realise that all his ambitions were going unfulfilled.

The bend in that river is almost an omen of danger. The notion of not knowing what lies beyond the ‘bend’ is as frightening as not knowing what could happen in a community plagued with social and political unrest as is evidenced in the brutal killing of Father Huismans. His beheading is symbolic of the sundering of his beliefs and notions of what Africa was really about. He dedicated his life to sowing seeds of European culture and values into a society that wished very much to be rid of it. He misread the signs, believing that one day the mingling of cultures at the bend in the river could spread to other parts of Africa.

Father Huismans was the complete opposite of Raymond who based his writings on interviews and historical anecdotes he had read. Unlike Father Huismans, Raymond has never gone beyond the pages of the books from which he gets his information. The words he writes do not come from the lips of those who spoke of their experiences nor are they accumulated from his personal observations and this is why Father Huismans’ loss was a tragedy that Salim felt. Both Raymond and Father Huismans are somewhat keepers of European history. But the stronghold that they had on the past is being weakened in the present and most likely would be non-existent in the future.

In the Domain, which is the president’s pet project, one cannot help but notice that its stark European-ness is incongruous in the wild abandon of Africa. It is a status symbol and a mockery of the African bush and its primitive power. The Big Man as the president is called, symbolizes the distortion of ideologies and this distortion manifests itself in the Domain and the vandalism and ruination of anything reminiscent of European influence. It is then unsurprising that the Domain eventually goes the same way as the rest of the monuments of Europe – it is eventually abandoned and falls into ruin – the unmaking of the vision of the Big Man.

Perhaps Salim would have fared better had he had some sort of grounding. He talks about not knowing about history except for what he had read about in history books. He is homeless in every sense of the word. He is without a culture that he understands and without any direction that is his own. His decision to eventually marry Nazruddin’s daughter and settle in England cannot really be owned by him and this sense of restlessness is echoed by Indar, who after his education in England cannot find his way home. His rebuff and ridicule at India House was the last straw. He didn’t belong to Africa. Africa would not own him and from the way he was treated by representatives of India and by extension India herself, it looked like he didn’t belong there either.

Africa would always be the lodestone around their necks not because of the African-ness of the place or the bush or the magic or the darkness but because after having succumbed to powers of first world colonial rulers time and time again, Africa isn’t ready to be thrown into a post colonial world.  They are at a severe disadvantage since after centuries of rule by the Portuguese and Belgians have left them reeling in illiteracy and dependence on those same colonial powers that could do very little to undo the damage done.

As one reads the novel there is the faintest notion that all the characters are in a limbo of varying degrees. Upon examining the relationship between Salim and Yvette, Raymond’s wife, there is that sense that these are two people who are clinging to one familiarity – the need to fulfill their physical needs. Neither one has any emotional grounding. Salim is as much an outsider in this village as he would be in India or England or even in the community where he first lived. Yvette’s emotional anchor should have been Raymond as he is her only link to her homeland. However, even in his presence, he is absent and can offer her no succour.

Nazruddin, in a desperate effort to set down roots on stable land keeps transplanting himself and his family. One failure follows another and he eventually settles in England and accepts the hand that fate has dealt him.

When Salim is arrested, it is Ferdinand – the son of the sorceress Zabeth who saves him. Perhaps because he felt he owed a debt. Domain educated and now in the employ of the Big Man as the town’s commissioner, he has stumbled upon the ultimate truth of their predicament. “We’re all going to hell, and every man knows this in his bones. We’re being killed. Nothing has any meaning. . . . Everyone wants to make his money and run away. But where? That is what is driving people mad. They feel they’re losing the place they can run back to. I began to feel the same thing when I was a cadet in the capital. I felt I had given myself an education for nothing. . . I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books. … The bush runs itself. But there is no place to go.”

Ferdinand’s ominous speech precedes the final destruction of post-colonial Africa, the final descent into hell. Salim’s narrow escape aboard the steamer in the darkness of the river underlines the hopelessness of those who remained, who were trapped and destined to burn with the past.

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in The River. New York, Vintage International Edition, 1989.

Weiss, Timothy F. On The Margins. The Art of Exile in V.S. Naipaul. The University of Massachusetts Press, First Edition, 1992.

 

David Gaughran

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