Tag Archive: ancestors


Well it’s been a while. I’ve been, for the most part, uninspired. I took this time to do some reading and then it all started coming back. This one is being posted as part of the Superstition and Folklore Chronicles, however, it’s not exactly superstition, it’s more tradition and culture.

For Hindus, Pitr Paksh (the fortnight of ancestors) started last week. During this time, we pay homage to our ancestors. It is said that the souls of our ancestors, I believe it’s the three preceding generations reside in the realm between heaven and earth. This realm is called pitru-lok and is ruled by Yama, the God of death. During this fortnight, there is a connection with past loved ones as they are remembered and treated with honour. It’s much more complex than this and to explain it fully would require me to read and study the whole Garuda Purana. This is a book which breaks down, step by step, the journey of the soul from death to the unity with God.

I remember being at home back in Trinidad and hearing stories of past uncles, aunts, grandparents and even my father being present at the home. For Hindus, as far as I know and I’ve seen, when a body is brought back to the home, it is taken inside the house for the last time thus making the ancestral home the last earthly place the soul will ever be before it has to move on. I remember also the familiar scents of that person wafting before my nose, the footsteps, the creak on the floor boards, a sigh and the brush of a hand over my forehead as the curtains float above the floor with the wind.

Below is a poem that I’d written when I was seventeen, for want of something better to do. It must have been around this time too. It’s a more playful approach to the walking of spirits amongst the living.

 



Spirit Games

Night pushes the day away

And the stars wink and blink

The sleepiness out of their tiny eyes

The moon, she will not reveal her

Full beauty tonight

She’s a real tease

I daresay.

Fireflies glow bright

Like flying Christmas lights

While the mosquitoes

Buzz and bite away

I shall not stay outside

But go in and try to hide

From the spirits

That come out to play.

They blow out the candles

And turn the door handles

While making funny noises and sounds

And someone once said

They can wake up the dead

And imitate the cries of hounds

They rattle my windows

And tweak my dog’s nose

Making him bark like mad

But I still won’t go out

And quarrel or shout

At those spirits who are so very bad

I hear soft whispers and laughing

And whistling and tramping

All around the house

Knocks on the door

Creaks from the floor

I don’t think those were made

By a mouse!

And then it gets quiet

So very, very quiet

My heartbeat I’m sure I can hear

I uncover my head

And rise up from my bed

And take a deep breath to

Smother my fear

I pull the curtains aside

And open the windows wide

To see what they’re up to

But there was nothing I could see

But the half naked moon, stars winking at me

 And spirits that had nothing to do.

So bearing in mind

That the good Lord was kind

Enough to keep me from harm

I jumped back into bed

And slept like the dead

Until dawn wrapped me up

In its arm.

Under The Mango Tree

 

The sun was at his happiest that day, for he smiled down upon the earth and the intensity of his happiness gave off a warmth that was near scorching. I was on my two months vacation from school. No school for students meant there was no school for teachers either. It was the beginning of a new week, a Monday, and the day had already begun its slow drag and the heat made it seem even slower. Somehow Mondays always affected me that way. I called it the Monday blues. It was too hot to stay inside so I came outside and sought refuge beneath the shady protection of a huge Rose Mango tree in our yard. It grew neither at the back nor the front of the house, but along the side of it. Its green leafy canopy spread wide over the house and the yard making it cooler in that area, only in that sizeable portion of the yard.

 

I had in my hand a long yellow writing pad, and a pen which came free with a tube of Boro Plus antiseptic cream. Those were the only writing tools I required for me to squeeze out a writing career from a mundane existence. I had seated myself upon an old stump cut out from another mango tree that once grew in another part of the yard. That stump was cut and fitted carefully between the protruding roots of the mango tree under which I sat and it served the purpose of all the r’s I could think of; reading, writing or just relaxing in the cool shade while one reminisced of days and events gone by.

 

I was mulling around in my mind for something I could use as a potential story either fictional or autobiographical, and I found nothing. My mind was blank, nothing inspired me. I closed my eyes and leaned against the huge, gnarled trunk of the tree and just let the cool breeze blow around me. I could distinctly hear the tree in motion, as if it came alive. The branches, leaves and almost dried twigs above me bumped into each other making little snapping noises, the trunk creaked with the force of the movement coming from the top.

 

I always felt that trees were somehow magical, regardless which part of the world they grew. They lived longer than many of us and I was sure possessed many secrets that if we were to listen carefully they were sure to tell. My reverie was disturbed when there was a louder snapping sound and then ‘dock’, upon my head. I jerked upright in my seat and looked around rubbing the assaulted area near the crown of my head. I saw a small twig-like branch lying at my feet and attached to it was a young mango. It was very small yet but with lots of potential to become a nice golden rose colored, ripe, juicy mango, or pepper and seasoning soaked mango chow. But as small as it was, the height from which it fell gave it another potential use, a stinging, head thumping, bump making missile.

 

That bump on the head came to me as a sign from above, literally. An idea for a story or stories had actually fallen upon my head and I was no fool to ignore that. This is what I wrote:

 

I remember my early school days at the Spring Village Hindu School. It was debatable at the time and probably still is as to where the school is actually situated. Some argued that the school was rightfully named because it faced its namesake, Spring Village, which was located across the Churchill Roosevelt Highway. Others however had a different opinion and argued that the school was situated in Curepe proper, and should be renamed something more appropriate. A few who thought location was of no importance and was the reason why there were so many debates thought that the best thing would be for the school to be named after some founder or other important person in society who was a major stakeholder in the school; and so it went on for many years and the school kept its name.

 

Spring Village Hindu was one primary school that really impressed me. Sure it was dilapidated in some areas, but what I noticed and really remarked upon even as a young pupil there, was the presence of so many trees on the school compounds and the vast well kept playing grounds that was available for pupils’ recreational pursuits, namely; running, jumping, skating (on grass), tripping, falling or just sitting around and watching everyone else. For the least sportive there were some old but usable desks that were arranged outside under a galvanized shed in classroom formation if a pupil or pupils wished to read or just sit and chat with classmates.

 

Even though it looked small from the outside, it was spacious on the inside, with enough space for comfortable movement. Overhead fans dispelled the typical afternoon heat of a tropical climate and on cold rainy days they were turned off. The school’s environment was definitely conducive to study. Needless to say, even with such accommodations, teachers preferred to take their classes outside under the various trees on the compound where disciplines such as reading, spelling, timetables, quizzes, reading and comprehension and essay preparations required the serenity and silence of the outside. That way, when it came to quizzes, we could argue or cheer without disturbing neighbouring classes, or in the case of spelling, or reading of written compositions, the teacher and other students could hear without the disturbance from the whole school.

 

I remember all too well how my classmates and I hated to learn timetables as part of our weekly routine. Our teacher, Mr. Anand Balroop had taken it upon himself to make these colourful charts, the size of small placards; red, pink, green, blue, white and yellow, and upon them in bright contrasting marker pen ink, the timetables were written. He even managed to get some of us to help him make these charts, and not knowing that these would later become articles of torture for our own selves, readily and gladly offered our help, thinking ourselves scholarly and important. After all Mr. Balroop was the smartest man we knew and for him to request our help must have meant something.

 

So it began. Twice a week, Mondays and Wednesdays, after the school bell rang for students to return to classes, we would look with dread as the charts came out of the big wooden cupboard in the corner of the classroom and Mr. Balroop, already having sent a boy to reconnoitre the compounds to find a tree and claim it, would say with relish as he looked at our woebegone faces, “Under the mango tree”.   Another boy would pick up his chair, and like lambs to the slaughter we would follow him, charts in hand to the mango tree that was chosen.

 

There were two trees, one was located on the car park near the Standard five C classroom and the other was on the extreme end of the savannah.   Most often it would be the tree near the classroom and we all dreaded that one, because should Mr. Balroop happen to scold us for being lazy, the two school vendors would be there to hear, pupils and teachers passing by would hear and we would be too embarrassed to even think straight. So we tried our best to sound loud and energetic. We would be asked to hold our cards properly in front of us and when he said, “Begin”, we would start off,

One two is two, two into two one

Two twos are four, two into four two

Three twos are six, two into six three

And so on….

at first like a cheering chant, which deteriorated after about five minutes into something like a low drone.

 

After carrying on like that for what seemed like hours, he would pick us up, calling upon us randomly to recite the timetables, in both formats, multiplication and division. After which, still in that random selection he would call, “one two”, and wait for the answer. Then he would ask someone else at random, “two into ten?” and expect a prompt answer. Meantime while the chosen pupil would be on the spot, the rest of us would have our brains working like clockwork, speeding through the timetables in our minds, our lips moving silently, not a word coming out from them, all of us looking as if we were in a trance and mumbling some strange incantation in the hope that should that pupil fail to come up with the answer, whoever was called upon next would be ready.

 

At the end of that session, whoever had risen to the challenge and gotten all the questions correct were either admired by some or scorned by others for not falling below the teacher’s expectations. It was in this manner that we were taught how to learn our timetables. Even though at the time I thought it tedious, it no doubt helped me in overcoming the greater challenges of handling multiplication and division sums in Mathematics.

 

Even as a teacher myself in my own time, I know that the doctors in education would frown upon Mr. Balroop’s method of teaching the multiplication tables by rote and repetition, but honestly I don’t think they can come up with a better way.

 

Apart from the tedium of tables and reading lessons, there were some pleasurable activities too. On a cool relaxing afternoon, after we had the afternoon break, we would go out and read our compositions for the class to hear. I looked forward to this every week. Some of the compositions were funny, others were commonplace, and some didn’t make any sense at all, but were funny nevertheless.   I mostly liked it because this was my forte, my ‘territory’ as Mr. Balroop called it.

 

When it came my turn to read, the class became hushed, all were attentive, and as the cool breeze blew and the branches swayed and rustled in response, my childish voice would modulate according to my expressions in the composition. Very often, Mr. Danny Boy, (we never knew his real name) would come especially for this session and listen and at the end he would play fortune teller and go around the class foretelling who was going to be what. I was delighted to know that both Mr. Balroop and Mr. Danny Boy thought I had a number of prospects; teacher, professor, journalist, or writer. Everyone would be looking at me and I would force myself to look modest and unconcerned, but really, inside I was overwhelmed with pride and gratification, for I often thought no one saw how hard I tried to be my best.

 

Classes were not the only activities that took place under the mango trees; it was a favourite play area, especially on a hot afternoon during lunch break and recess. During the time of Pitra Paksh (a period during which Hindus pay respects to the ancestors), we believed that spirits lived in and under all trees. This belief did not deter us from playing under them, in fact, that was the thrill, the adventure. We took the risk, but not unprepared. We wrapped ourselves in a protective cloak made possible by the presence of garlic. Whether it was a whole bulb or just a clove, or even a small piece of it, we believed the pungent smell of garlic would keep the spirits away from us and we would still be able to play in peace without the fear of being ‘taken over’ by them.

 

During this time we would try to discourage Mr. Balroop from taking us under the tree, because even though we were heavily protected, he was not and we feared for him. So we would make up all sorts of excuses to avoid going outside under the trees. The other students and their teachers were ignorant of the danger they were in, because they continued to go under the trees. We would all look for signs that they had been ‘taken over’. Such signs would be ranting and raving, red eyes, staring blankly at nothing, rolling of the eyes, uncontrollable spitting, excessive eating, chasing people all over the place, anything that we considered not normal were symptoms of spirit possession.

 

We tried to find ways of protecting our teacher. Many of us devised ways of sneaking a piece of garlic onto his person by casually dropping it into his shirt pocket while we having our work corrected, sticking it in his hair or shirt collar as we passed behind him on our way back to our seats after having our work corrected, but no one was brave enough to actually do it. We had given up, and the period of Pitra Paksh and spirits were over and everything went back to normal. At least we went back to our normal daily duties of playing and studying. For the record, no one was ever ‘taken over’ by spirits.

 

There was also a rather embarrassing and painful situation I had found myself in under that same big mango tree in the playground. The teachers were having a staff meeting and school was dismissed at 1:30, but I chose to stay in school till the normal three o’clock because I didn’t see the point in going home so early. As usual, those of us who chose to stay back went under the mango tree to play catch and rescue. After about an hour’s play we grew tired and just sat around on pieces of brick, or made a small see-saw upon which two pupils played. I was just about to leave to go home when this older boy from the higher school came and proceeded to climb the mango tree. He had already been home and had changed into home clothes and was back to pick mangoes. We all crowded around the base of the tree to watch him climb.

 

We could tell that he was accustomed to climbing trees by the skillful ease it was done. I was sure he was also skilled in stealing mangoes and that he was watching this mango tree for a while because he knew exactly where in the tree were the biggest ones. Now this tree bore really huge mangoes of the type that didn’t grow in my yard and I had never seen before. It took both hands of a child to hold it properly and an adult couldn’t hold it for long in one hand.

 

I had not been ready for what had happened to me on that day, but I thought it was punishment for not going home immediately when school was dismissed.   The boy was dropping the mangoes that he had picked for an older boy to catch. Somehow the catcher missed or the picker miscalculated his drop and my face ended up breaking the mango’s fall. All I knew was that I was looking up and the catcher was standing with his arm outstretched ready to catch when the mango came at me with incredible force.

 

The pain was murderous. I was convinced my teeth were shattered and my lips felt as if they were vibrating. To say that I cried out in pain and agony would be an understatement. I bawled, and that was no exaggeration. My fellow conspirators surrounded to get me to be quiet for there would be hell to pay if we were found still on the school compound with no excuse other than ‘we just didn’t want to go home yet and we were watching some students pick mangoes.’ The picker and the catcher were also concerned for themselves and offered to give me as many mangoes I wanted just so that I would stop bawling fit to wake the dead. But nothing could make me stop. I wanted to go home at that moment, but they would not let me, not while I was still bawling in that manner.

 

Eventually the pain dulled. Only then did the bawls stop and became sobs, and the sobs became sniffles. I checked to see if my teeth were okay. They were surprisingly still intact and very strong, not one was shaking. My upper lip however, had begun to swell and there was a nasty looking blue black bruise on the inside where the mango had made the most impact. I knew that my parents would notice and the first thing they would think was that someone hit me and then they would want to investigate and they would come into the school demanding to know who was responsible for my misfortune and then the embarrassing truth would have to come out.

 

As I walked home with a few of my classmates who decided to keep me company, I decided the best thing to do was to tell them what happened but make it sound casual and unimportant and so let the matter rest. It was a good thing that nothing worse came out of that incident except a swollen, bruised lip, an equally bruised ego and an important lesson.

 

I could have remained sitting under that Rose mango tree for many more hours recounting the numerous incidents that happened under those trees, but to do so would require much more paper and time and I was getting tired of writing. Besides I had written about the more poignant memories of a place that many would not have considered an important factor in the early stages of a child’s life.

 

Even now as an adult, I still find solace and serenity in the company of trees, any tree. But to be absolutely honest, I prefer sitting under the mango tree.

David Gaughran

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