So you see, I did born and raise four boy-children. Four! When they were small, everybody used to say to me, Leela, how you manage to get FOUR boy-children so? They asked me if I take any special supplement to make me more fertile for boys. I tell them, is only cod liver oil I take, but I take it every day. Every day of my life, long as I could remember, I taking the cod liver oil. So maybe is that.
Three of my boys still here in Trinidad, but the youngest living in Boston now. He was always the one with the most brains. Even from when he was small small small, everybody could see that boy had brains. He was always reading reading, and he could real add. You give him any two numbers and he could add them for you! But he was nice too. Sometimes when people too bright, they could be kinda weird, like they get fixated on things and they don’t notice people. But Ronnie, he was bright AND nice: he always had plenty friends. So even from small everybody could see he was destined for things. He went Harvard—they gave him a full scholarship and he did actuarial science, and now he working in consulting.
I proudest of Ronnie, but I careful not to forget my other children, so they don’t feel like Ronnie outshining them. They all doing good, and is like everybody taking cod liver oil because is only boys they having too. Six boy-grandchildren I have from them! I happy I raised my boys nice: none of them does beat their wives or anything like that. I think men is only do that when they see they OWN father doing it. And my husband, Ramesh—now, he would have been accustom to try and beat me, not because he was cruel, exactly, but because that is how he grow up, and that is what he think is normal, you understand. But I already learn from my mother: if a man raise his fist to you? You must fight back. If you let him hit you, he will just keep hitting you. You must fight back, and you must show him you not taking that just so. First time Ramesh tried to raise his fist to me, I pull out the big knife from the kitchen drawer. Come! I tell him. Is fight you want to fight? Come! And he put the fists down. So, I ent ever have any trouble with him in forty-two years of being married.
My youngest son, Ronnie, the bright one—he was the last one to get married, to a white American lady named Sinead. (She call herself Irish, I don’t understand why, because she born and raise in Boston.) She only so-so, but she give me two grand-daughters, real sweetiepies, so I grateful to her for that. They came down to Trinidad this past Christmas—oh laws, those two little girls CUTE for so! The older one, Jessica, she’s eight now—she look like her mummy, more fair-skinned and with red hair. But the younger one, Stacey, she look more like us, darker skin and you could see she have the Deyalsingh eyebrows, thick thick. But eeef you hear the American accents! It’s only one setta American accents, and they wearing shoes all day long instead of going barefoot, and they all put on they sunscreen and mosquito spray before they go outside and all this kinda thing. I laugh at Ronnie, I say, boy, since when you need to put on sunscreen? Is sun you need, you know! I find he looking pale like a ghost, so many years he living in a cold country. He tell me about skin cancer or some kinda nonsense. I ent say nothing.
Is Ronnie’s wife, Sinead, she’s the one who asked me, she say, Leela, why don’t you tell the girls about their ancestors? I say, ancestors? She say, yes, we came to Trinidad so the girls could learn about their heritage. I laugh a little bit. Americans does love all that kind of thing. But I say ok, what you want to know? And she say, tell them the stories that you used to tell the boys when they were small, and the stories your mother used to tell you. And then she start to talk about oral history and how slaves used to be illiterate, or something like that. I start to get vex. I not illiterate, I tell her. I look illiterate to you? No, no, she says. Of course not. She talk about heritage again. I say, in any case, nobody in OUR family was a slave. The Africans were the slaves. The Indians were indentured labourers. I turn to the children and I tell them that again, so they know. They weren’t slaves, I tell them. They were indentured labourers. Is different. Sinead start to open her mouth but I give her one cut-eye and she close the mouth again.
However, after I simmer down, I say to Sinead, ok, sure. I say, I will tell the girls the one about how we got the big crack in the floor there in the living room. It used to be Ramesh who used to tell this story, but he kinda wheezy nowadays and he don’t have enough breath to tell it properly. That’s ok: we all hear that story enough times. Any of us could tell that story now as if in fact it was our story.
Is afternoon-time and we all sitting down together on the patio to feel the breeze. I ask the girls, you know the crack I talking about? They say yes, the one in the living room. It divide the room almost in half, and you have to be careful not to scrape your foot on the sharp edge. Right, I say. I go tell you the story.
Is your GREAT-grandfather, I tell them, who built this house. Him is your father (I pointing at Ronnie), and him is your GRAND-father (now Ramesh I pointing at, and he wave his hand to say, yes, that is me), and Ramesh father, who we used to call Pope Chacha, nobody know why, is your GREAT-grandfather. He used to be a small skinny Indian fella, but he was strong for so! And it was him, Pope Chacha, who did build this house with his own two hands.
Now, before, in this spot, it used to be a wooden house. It was on stilts, because in the rainy season around here would flood, so it was on stilts so inside the house wouldn’t flood. But it had a galvanise roof nailed onto the top, and every time a hurricane came, the roof used to blow off and everything inside the house get wet! So Pope Chacha say, he say, I want a house made of BRICKS with a roof that wouldn’t blow off in the wind! And he break down the wooden house, and built up this here selfsame house you sitting in now, and he used bricks and cement as you could see. And it was good, because it was still on stilts so it didn’t flood, and also the roof was fixed on with cement so it wouldn’t blow off.
And then, one time when Ramesh was around ten, eleven years old, what happened? I’ll tell you. Ramesh, he was lying down on his bed one day, and suddenly the whole house started to shake (I move my body so they could see how the house was shaking) and then he hear a big noise like the house falling apart, and next thing he see the concrete floor in the living room get a big crack down the middle. Pope Chacha was so mad! He say, what with flood, hurricane and earthquake? All we missing is the plague of locusts.
Ramesh nod his head and smile, as if to say, yes that is exactly how it happened. Ronnie smile too, and take a little drink of his rum and coke. Even though he past thirty years old now and he must have hear that story a thousand times, I could see he still like to hear it again. Then everybody start looking at the girls, to hear what they going to say.
The girls smile, kinda shy because everybody staring at them. “Like the three little piggies,” Jessica says.
“Three little piggies. First they had a house made of straw, and then sticks…”
“No, it wasn’t made of straw, doo-doo. You weren’t listening or what? It was made of wood, and then he knock it down and built it back in bricks.”
The girls not listening, they too busy giggling. “Did she just say ‘Doo-doo’? Doo-doo!” They rolling around on the sofa, cracking up laughing. Sinead looking embarrassed and she tell them to stop laughing. She say sorry, she say that by them, doo-doo is another word for “poop”. I say, I know, is the same here. I could see she fraid I offended but I not offended. All the children does laugh here too, but everybody does still say it. It mean like darling, I tell her. But only when you talking to children.
“Can we watch TV?” Jessica asks.
Sinead tell the children no, they must stay and listen. But I tell her, let them go. Is no problem. Let them watch the TV. But later, when I in the kitchen getting the food ready, I wonder if I just choose the wrong story to tell the girls, or if is that children these days don’t like to listen to old-people anymore.
I could tell Sinead was embarrassed about how the girls weren’t interested in the story I told them, but I wasn’t offended. I know how children does be. You can’t force them to be interested in things. If you force children, they only push back at you. I say to myself, I say, Leela, don’t force anything on them. If the children want to know something? They will come and ask you.
And in fact, that is what happened. Ronnie and Sinead had gone up to Port of Spain for the day to meet up with one of Ronnie’s friends from school, and they left the girls home with me. I was by the kitchen sink peeling potatoes, and Stacey came in from the backyard with a mango she pick from the tree and ask me to cut it up for her. I peel the skin off and give it to her in a bowl and tell her to eat it outside on the back-step because the juice going to drip. But she don’t go outside, she just stay there watching me doing my work, and then dry so, she say, Granny, how come we’re the only girls in the family? I don’t show anything on my face, but I just smile and say, how you mean, dahlin? (I stop saying doo-doo, I not sure why.) She say, well, all our cousins are boys and Daddy only has brothers. How come there are no girls, she says.
I don’t know exactly what make her ask that question. She too young to know how babies made, and to be wondering about how to make a woman’s body fertile for boys. But I suppose that is how children’s minds does work—they always noticing things. I putting the potatoes into a pot of water. I say, dahlin, I don’t know why is only you two girls, and all the rest are boys! I tell her, I glad I have you two to keep me company. I say, when you’re older, and you start getting interested in boys? Come and talk to me, and I will tell you what’s what. She don’t really respond to that—she too young still. But she say, Granny, do you kill girl babies in Trinidad? Lord, I nearly drop the pot, I so shock! I look at her. I say, what you said? She say, Mummy says Indian cultures prefer boys to girls, and sometimes they kill the girl babies because they don’t want them. I say, no dahlin. I say, your Mummy, she full of her book-learning, she THINK she does know things, but she doesn’t know. We not in the habit of killing babies, boy or girl. A baby is a gift from God. Yes, people tend to prefer boys, but girls useful too! Who going to do all the cooking and cleaning and raising up the children? Who going to look after you in your old age? Girls have plenty uses. Stacey listening to that, and she trying to get out some of the stringy mango pieces from between her teeth. But do you kill them before they’re born, she asks? Some people kill them before they’re born. I look at her and I say, No, we don’t kill anybody here. Killing people is a sin. She asks, is it a sin for you, even though you’re Hindu? And I say yes. And then I go in my bedroom and close the door so she wouldn’t follow me. I sit down on the bed. I forget to turn on the fan and after a while, I realise my hair sticking to my face with sweat.
They were only here two weeks—they gone now. The house is feel real empty without them. And maybe because I missing them and feeling lonely not to have my grand-daughters here, or maybe is because of what Stacey say, but it get me to thinking thinking about that other baby from longtime ago. She would have just turned fifty, if she still on earth, of course. I don’t remember the exact date she was born, but it was around Christmas time. A lot of babies does born around that time: Carnival babies.
I never tell anybody that story. The only people who knew about it all pass away now. My mother and father pass away, and my auntie who came with me, she pass last year. I begin to get a bit fretful, thinking, when I die, nobody will know what happened! And that feel wrong to me. Because, even though it feel shameful to talk about, is a true thing that did happen, and it feel wrong to pretend it didn’t happen.
I say to myself, I say, Leela, wait until Stacey is older, and if she still interested then—then you could tell her. But another year pass that Ronnie and Sinead don’t come down, and then another, and then another. When we talk on the phone, Ronnie say Trinidad getting too dangerous, they fraid to bring the girls now. And that’s when I decide I best take a piece of paper and write this thing down. I don’t know who I writing for exactly, but it seem like the right thing to do.
So, I was sixteen, you understand. You might hear this story and think, Lord, that girl stupid for so! But I asking you to remind yourself how old I was at the time. Sixteen. And I did know a lot of things, is not like I was stupid. At that time, I was working for my own money on the cash register in an electronics shop on Nelson Street there in Port of Spain, and it was paying me ten dollars a day and I felt real rich. I used to do a good job too, I wasn’t one of those lazy girls who would just have her chin in her hand and be staring out the door whenever the shop was empty. When it didn’t have customers, I would find something to do, tidying up, or sweeping or filing or typing up orders, things like that.
Anyway, because I was earning my own money, I felt like a real big-woman. I felt real grown-up! I gave some of the money to my mother for her to use to buy food, but I kept back some for myself, and I used to buy myself hair-clips, or a nice tube top, mascara, things like that. And anyway, what happen was that Carnival come, and me and some friends decide to go up to Port of Spain to jump up. We didn’t play in a band or anything, but we dress up in our little skimpy clothes anyway, and put on some glitter and feathers and we gone down the road like that.
Now the thing about Carnival, for who don’t know, is that basically is plenty drinking, and music, and wining. You know wining? Wining is when you dance-up with somebody, and you gyrate your hips around in a sexual kinda way. You could wine fast or slow, you could wine with a man or a woman or with a whole line-up of people. If ever you see a picture of Trinidad Carnival, for sure you will see people wining.
Now normally, wining is no big thing. Especially at Carnival-time, everybody does wine-up on everybody else: man, woman, child, married, not married, whatever. Sometimes you might get a fella who’s get a bit excited, and who might try to encourage you to, say, go behind the bush with him and continue, if you know what I mean. But usually that’s easy to deal with, you could push him off and he would just move on and find someone else to grind up on. Even if he being a bit insistent, you could handle it: if you make a bit of noise, people will help you push him away. I knew all that: I could well fend for myself. So I don’t know how this thing happen.
I still shame to say it, but like I say, I was sixteen. I had a foreigner grinding up on me and I could feel how he was getting all excited. To be honest, I think I felt kinda proud, like it was a kind of a compliment that this white fella liked me. I can’t remember much about him—he wasn’t one of the real old ugly ones, he was youngish, good looking.
For some reason, I let him take me off the road. I can’t understand why: I would never have let a Trinidadian man take me off the road. The friends I was with, they said, Leela, you sure you ok? You don’t want us to come with you? And I said, nah, nah, I good, man! They watched me go: is not like he was dragging me off by the hair or anything. I felt excited, like I was a big-woman and it was all a kind of adventure. I remember exactly where we went: around the back of the National Museum, opposite Memorial Square. He was like, do this, and do that… and for the life of me I can’t understand why, but I did it. It only took a couple of minutes. It was only afterwards, when he said, “Thank you,” that I began to realise, oh god, I really should not have done that.
So that was in March, and by June I could tell I had a problem. I tried all kinds of things to make the baby not stick in my belly—I not going to write them down. But by October I had to tell my parents what was going on and of course all hell break loose. I going to skip some of the details because maybe some things is better to forget.
They sent me to Venezuela for the last two months, so nobody would see me with a big belly. My auntie was with me, and I knew she was thinking that maybe she would try to persuade my parents to keep the baby. But when the baby came out, we both get a shock. The baby had brown skin like me, and plenty black hair. Everything else was ok with it, all the fingers and toes etc. Except it had blue eyes. BLUE eyes. My auntie asked me, she said, the father had blue eyes? I said I think so. But even so, she said, both the mother and father must have blue eyes in order for the baby to have blue eyes. How could WE (she’s talking about us as a family), Indian people, all of us with eyes BLACK like midnight—how could we produce this baby with blue eyes? And she felt it must be an evil spirit inhabiting the child. God is punishing your for your wickedness, she say.
Every day my auntie went out with the baby wrapped up, looking for somebody to take it, and every day she come back still carrying the baby. Nobody want it. Even the Catholic nuns, usually they would take all children, but even they didn’t want this baby. At last, after about two weeks of trying, my auntie come back home one day empty-handed. She look different: old and kinda crumple-up. She say, don’t ask any questions.
We get someone to take us on a pirogue back to Trinidad. I cry on the boat because I feeling sad about the baby, but the fella tell me to stop. He say is bad luck, it will make the boat sink. So I stop crying.
And that is the story of the girl-child I had when I was sixteen.
Ramesh pass away just after Carnival this year. Ronnie came down by himself for the funeral, because it was term-time and they didn’t want the girls to miss any school. In truth, I didn’t mind—it was a chance for me to talk to Ronnie a little bit by himself, without Sinead there. And he was very good. My other sons, they good too, but is Ronnie who does really take charge of things. He went to the bank for me and fixed up everything, and he put in a burglar alarm for me because he says it’s not safe for me alone in the house like this, and he organise for me to see a doctor in Port of Spain about the problems I having with my foot. And he say, why don’t you come up to Boston to live with us? He say they could do up the basement for me, and I could have my own place, I could be independent but they would be just upstairs. I say I’ll think about it. But really, I not planning to go anywhere. At my age, nearly seventy years old, for me to ups and move to a cold country? Nah man. I prefer to live out my years in Trinidad.
And maybe because he realise that, all of a sudden, they start coming down to Trinidad again, after all these years that they stopped coming because they fraid the crime. One year they come for the summer holidays, another time they come for Carnival. Jessica and Stacey, they’re not little girls anymore. They turned sexy, all tight-clothes and flicking their hair around whenever a boy start eyeing them up. They both all clam-up now, like they have plenty secrets, and they prefer to sit in the yard getting a sun-tan, rather than keeping me company in the kitchen. I understand—that is teenagers.
Another time, they come in November, when it’s Divali-time here, and Thanksgiving by them. Jessica is 17 now, applying to university already. Stacey about to turn 15. We drive around in the evening to look at everywhere all lit up by deyas, and Ronnie explain about Lakshmi lighting up a path for Krishna coming home. I surprise to hear him say that. When he first went away to the US, he said he didn’t like to tell people we were Hindu because it seemed like a backward kind of religion; was easier just to act Catholic, he said. Now, all of a sudden, he talking almost like he proud and everywhere we go, Sinead snapping photos left and right like she in the jungle.
It was on that trip, when they came for Divali, that Ronnie said to me how he had been doing some research. Oho, I say. Yea, he say. It’s fascinating. He say, you know how old ladies call children doo-doo? And all the children laugh and make fun of them! He say, actually it’s French. Doux-doux. Isn’t that fascinating? He say he’s found all kind of records at the Harvard library. You could get copies of passenger lists. All the people who came over on the boats from India. We could find out about our ancestry at last, he say.
He ask me if I mind him looking things up; I say go ahead. But I don’t really understand what difference it will make to him to know. And I don’t understand why he didn’t care before, and now all of a sudden he care. Maybe is a fashion. Maybe he will find out everything he want to know, and then in a few years, he will change his mind back again, and think it was a waste of time, or wish he never found out.
Before they go back to Boston, I find a quiet moment to speak to Stacey. I fold up the paper I wrote on before, about what happened with me, and put it in an envelope and give it to her.
“What’s this?” she asks me.
I say is something for her.
“Should I open it?”
I say not now. In truth, I feeling kind of embarrassed because writing not my strong point, and I worried she would laugh at me.
“Well, when should I open it?”
I tell her I don’t know. I say is something I wrote down and I giving it to her, kind of for safekeeping. I say, when the time comes, open it and read it. But how will I know when the time comes, she asks me. I say, girl, I don’t have all the answers. You have to answer that one yourself. All I doing is giving it to you. Is yours now. And she look like she going to cry. That’s teenage girls for you—she don’t even know what she crying about, but she crying. I hug her up, and she hug me back like all this time, she’s been sad and lonely and miserable, and all she wanted was for her granny to hug her.
In truth, I don’t know if it will interest her or not, or if it will interest anybody else in this world. But you never know. Times change.
© Claire Adam
[This piece was selected by Jacky Taylor]