Tag Archive: Trinidad


A House For Mr. Biswas


The first time I read A House for Mr. Biswas was in preparation for a class study at school and no statement ever resonated more than, “How terrible it would have been. . . to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one has been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.” As humans we are programmed to want to leave a mark of our existence behind. A person’s legacy is proof of presence, of worth, of being. Mohun Biswas’ life was an unending quest to establish his identity and a sense of belonging. This unfortunately, was always met with failure and dejection as his dreams and aspirations proved to be too great for a reality burdened by the weight of religion, tradition and caste designation.

The life of Mohun Biswas is plagued by uncertainty and dread from the day of his birth. He is “six fingered and born in the wrong way” and as foretold by the pundit, not only would he be a liar, a spendthrift and a lecher, he would also have an unlucky sneeze. All of this was decided on the assumption that Biswas was born at midnight, the inauspicious hour.

It seems as if he is born to suffer the pain of being alive. In part one of the novel he is described as being ‘muddy’ and ‘dusty’. His body was stunted by malnutrition which caused “eczema and sores that swelled and burst and scabbed and burst again, until they stank.” Malnutrition also gives him “a shallow chest, thin limbs and a rising belly.” Mentally and physically, Biswas is completely at odds with this difficult world into which he was born.

Throughout the novel, Biswas is shunted from pillar to post and one cannot ignore his discomfort and resentment at having to be humbled by his destitution. But then again, one also cannot help but think that his predicaments are partly due to his notion that he is better than the everyday rustic Indian peasant. His brothers Pratap and Prasad, though simple and illiterate have made their mark in their small world. As young boys, they have already established themselves as labourers, just like their father and labourers they would continue to be. Mr. Biswas is not cut out to be a labourer, field work is not for him. As the only son who went to school, his mindset is altered. He is going to be a writer and not a labourer, no other alternative would be considered.

This theme of fantasy versus reality runs through the novel and it is very often tied in with alienation, marginalisation, the individual’s attitude to power and authority and family. Mr. Biswas is ambitious. He holds in his mind a clear picture of how his life is to unfold. But with no real plan and no solid purpose, his ambitions remain in his head and only surfaces when he needs to save face or mock those who patronise him. It is this ambition that leads to his alienation from a particular society to which he belongs and from which he is determined to escape.

Marrying into the Tulsi family is as close as he comes to having an identity. With his own family broken and scattered, the Tulsis become something of a surrogate. Yet, as much as Hanuman House becomes Biswas’ home for a while, it is also like a prison and he, merely another inmate. The sons-in-law are hostages by marriage and to survive in this matriarchal regime, the sons-in-law do as is expected of them. Since Biswas isn’t one to suffer pointless rules, he naturally becomes the clown, the buffoon and the rebel.

It all begins when his father Raghu drowns in the pond. As mentioned before, Biswas was gifted with an unlucky sneeze and when Raghu, assuming that his son is lying at the bottom of a murky pond, dives in to retrieve him, he drowns when a perfectly safe Biswas sneezes. He is naturally blamed for this tragedy and not the fact that his father was long past his prime and completely unfit to be diving for such a long period.

Immediately after Raghu’s funeral, Biswas and his family are driven out of their home by unscrupulous neighbours who believed that Raghu was a wealthy miser who hid all his money in bags beneath the earth in the yard. His sister Dehuti is sent to his well-to-do aunt Tara’s house to become a good servant, his brothers have also been assigned to another relation to continue their vocation as field labourers and estate workers. As for his mother Bipti, broken and defeated, she withdraws into herself leaving the young Biswas to process the break-up of his family on his own.

At the end of the first chapter, Naipaul writes, “And so Mr. Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place her could call his own, with no family except that which he was to attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis…..it seemed to him that he was really quite alone.”

This cruel deprivation of home and family, like a spectre, haunts Biswas throughout his life thus creating within him this feverish need to establish himself as a person of worth.

Mr. Biswas’ father was a Brahmin (which is considered the highest level in the caste system which is still so prevalent in Indian Hindu society and was brought to Trinidad during indenture), he was also a labourer. This lowers Biswas in the eyes of others except on occasions of religious ceremonies where, being the son of a Brahmin, he is fed and pampered and given gifts of money and clothes. But once the ceremonies are over, he becomes once more only a labourer’s child.

It is his aunt Tara’s decision to send him to Pundit Jairam to learn the trade of becoming a pundit, after all, what else could he do? He is unfit for fieldwork and does have a basic education after all. It would be easy for him to learn the important scriptures and ceremonies required to become a respectable pundit. The episode where Jairam forces Biswas to eat the bananas until he becomes sick is a damning statement of the double standard of the pious Brahmins. Jairam would have preferred to let the bananas rot instead of allowing anyone else to eat them. As the son of a labourer, whether he Brahmin or not, Biswas is not at the same level. He is a ‘nobody’ who survives upon the charity of others.

His return to the communal home which he and his mother share is made only worse as Bipti seems less than welcoming. He wants some kind of reassurance that he was not at fault but that is slow in coming. It is Tara and not his mother who shows sympathy and recognises the injury done to him.

Tara’s husband Ajodha owns a garage and a rum shop. The rum shop is run by Ajodha’s brother Bhandat and that is where Biswas is sent next. He would earn money working there but not enough to strike out on his own. He has to live with Bhandat and his wife and his two sons in two rooms and he has to share one of these rooms with Bhandat’s sons. His only possessions are some books and enough clothes to hang on a nail on one wall. One day Bhandat and his family must attend a funeral and Biswas has the two rooms to himself but as the day wears on the thrill is lost. Aimless and purposeless he longs for the day to end.

When Bhandat beats Biswas and accuses him of stealing a dollar, Biswas runs back to the back trace where his mother lives and berates her for sending him away to live with other people but she only rubs salt in his wounds agreeing with what the pundit had said about him on the night of his birth. Just like before, it is Tara and not his mother who sympathises and tries to comfort him. But that only makes things worse. By then, Biswas realises that without his father he is an easy target for cruelty.

It is this particular injustice which makes it easier for the reader to understand why it is so important for Biswas to claim his children when they are at the Tulsi house. It is easier to understand that whilst he shuffles aimlessly through life, he tries his best to help his children establish their identity after he is denied his. What he does not realise in this quest of his to have the perfect life is that he does have a purpose. It may not have been what he envisioned, but his children are living examples of what he had accomplished.

In chapter three, the Tulsis are introduced by way of a description of Hanuman House. It stands “like an alien white fortress.” The Tulsis have the reputation among Hindus as being a pious, landowning, conservative family. It is rumoured that they are still in contact with relatives in India. There is very little that is known about them. The only thing that people saw of them was what was shown. The imposing fortress of a house with the equally forbidding ‘new room’, religious celebrations and the Tulsi Store make up the façade the family uses to impress others. What outsiders do not see is the squalor beyond those walls; the musty hall and sooty kitchen, the furniture-choked landing and the dark cobwebbed loft.

The Tulsi family is like an army. They are everywhere. The marriage which is arranged between Biswas and one of the Tulsi daughters, Shama, takes him by surprise. The full extent of what happens to him doesn’t hit him until later and by then he is trapped. With no job, no money and property of his own, he is expected to become a Tulsi. No other identity would be acceptable especially since he had nothing to offer and it is this identity that he continues to rebel against. The image that the Tulsis have of him conflicts with the image Biswas has of himself. As far as they are concerned he is just the son of a labourer, his caste grants him no special allowances. The Tulsis become the enemy, the indomitable force that threatens his ideal life. The only way he can undermine that force is to mock the hierarchy of the Tulsi clan and insult the “young gods” as he calls his youngest brothers-in-law.

He aligns himself with Punkaj Rai and the Arwacas Aryan Association in challenging arranged marriages and the caste system. He agrees with Punkaj Rai’s idealism, that “birth was unimportant; a man’s caste should be determined only by his actions.” However, Biswas only sees and agrees with one side of this argument.” Biswas is against caste designation and yet he resents the Tulsis’ insensitivity to his Brahmin status. His ungrateful attitude to the people who house, feed and clothe him is anything but admirable. Biswas’ mocking and disrespectful comments about other members of the Tulsi family bring full circle, the whole truth of Pankaj’s statement.

Before marrying Shama he reflects on his loss and the “despair of finding romance in his own dull green land.” What else is there for him? There is nothing but the reality of his limitations; his inherited class identity, a backward colonial society and Hanuman House. Apart from himself, no one else has any great expectations of Biswas and therein lies his greatest conflict. He wants people to see him for what he is capable of but all they see is what he shows them.

Even with all of that, he is still assigned work on the Tulsi sugar estate in Green Vale. As much as he hates field work, in this profession as a driver he must do what is equally distasteful. He must oversee labourers who are not unlike his own grandfather, father and brothers. He must subject the labourers he oversees to the same treatment his father and brothers would have endured. At first he is sympathetic but it doesn’t take him long before he becomes hardened and uncaring, identifying himself with the overseers of old.

The longer he stays at Green Vale the more that dream of becoming more than a Brahmin son of a labourer recedes. Animosity increases between himself and the labourers and once the sun sets, he retreats like an exile to his crowded, shabby room of the barrack house.

Becoming a reporter-journalist is the closest Biswas ever came to fulfilling his dream of becoming a writer and yet there is something pathetic about the whole thing. His articles are ridiculous and sensationalised, his correspondence course with the London Ideal School of Journalism remains unfinished and the typewriter he buys in anticipation of a successful career remains idle, even his stories remain unfinished.

Even though his job as a reporter becomes tedious and pointless at times, he has made a name for himself and establishes himself as a professional and in so doing attains some freedom from the Tulsis. Eventually though reality takes precedence over fantasy. He realises that his job at the Sentinel is taking him nowhere closer to owning his home so he quits and gets a better paying one at the Welfare Department.

Once his son Anand begins to show promise at school, Biswas begins living through him, transferring all his energy and attention towards helping Anand prepare for his future. He bestows upon his son everything he believes he should have had, delighting in his easy success.

The house Biswas finally owns on Sikkim Street is again a partial fulfillment seeing as he buys the house without previously knowing of its faults. But it is still his. It is the one thing he ever wanted. Ownership of this house represents more than just shelter, it is freedom to do as he pleases, it is his mark upon the world never mind the debt that in his last days he is burdened with – a financial debt that he will pass on to his family. Even in his death, Biswas gets only a partial recognition and not the gallant, self-mocking one he had imagined.

At the end, Biswas’ fantasy just did not match the reality of his society and circumstances. Perhaps had he not been so deceived and burdened by his fantasy he might have recognised his true purpose and left a legacy that wasn’t so tainted by his fear of living in and leaving this world “unnecessary and unaccommodated.”

Works Cited:

Naipaul, V.S. A House for Mr. Biswas. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1961

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

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.

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.

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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