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Restless in Guyana

Restless in Guyana
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 31 PM IST

The Sly Company of People Who Care: Picador, 292 pages, Rs 495.
The Sly Company of People Who Care: Picador, 292 pages, Rs 495.
Updated: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 31 PM IST
Baby was a black man, black going to red—not red enough for red, but red enough for his childhood call name Cookup: a bit of this and a bit of that. He had shed the name quick. As he grew older his skin, his whole face, turned more like a blackman, no longer showing a strain of ‘every blasted thing that ever step into Guyana’. This was the power of black, he said in a way that was half pride, half boast. In America pardners with much lighter skin than his, and even clear skin like mine, they could get called blackman. ‘Drop a lil single drop of black in any colour, see how much the colour turn black. Anytime you got a little black in you, you is a blackman. Eh he. That is the power of black.’
He had short hair, browning and greying in parts, in which he made a clean two-inch slit for a parting. On his face he kept an impeccably slim French beard—he could use any kind of knife to maintain it, did not even need a mirror. It was a chubby, buttoneyed
face: a baby face, though not by any means a young face. I took it to be the genesis of Baby. It seemed so obvious that I never asked. And anyhow they called him by so many names, I thought anything goes.
The Sly Company of People Who Care: Picador, 292 pages, Rs 495.
Of his childhood it was a different story each time. Once he told me he ‘never had an ole bai, neither an ole lady’. He was left at the hospital gate a few weeks old. A nurse took him in, left him to her sister who worked at Parika stelling. He grew up hustling with her on the stelling, selling any little thing that might be sold, a training for life. ‘I learn fuh unstand people, y’unstan?’ One day he got a gig going up the Essequibo with a dredge party. Another time he told COMme that he grew up in Albouystown in something like a range yard, with eight siblings, and he was the smartest of them all, and they all dead out because they were not so smart. One of them had taken him into the interior and trained him as a porknocker.
Ask him which of these was true and he’d reply, ‘How you mean, Gooroo, all two is true.’
I knew this much about Baby. Also that he was a ‘Nonpractising Fundamentalist Eighth Day Adventurist’.
Of me he knew less.
Our entire knockabout adventure was born of a kind of bravado. Perhaps we saw something in each other that we recognised; but it was bravado that propelled us. After being twice scamped I went looking for him in that same street by the big market. I found him sitting by a barrow of cherries, pretending to sell. ‘Come nuh, sweetheart, lemme be the godfather,’ he called out to a pregnant girl as she walked by. ‘I only givin out stepfather,’ she winked back. He dragged you involuntarily into that sort of play. I told him that I’d caught up with Magistrate Van Cooten after all. He remembered the case: he thought the crime vicious but had good words for the conduct of the criminal. Baby kept responding with ‘eh he’, looking interested and downpressed, staring into the cherries. Finally, he asked, ‘So the magistrate tell yuh this at Le Repentir cemetery or Bourda cemetery?’
Home-bound: A rundown wooden house in Georgetown, Guyana. Luke Arkapaw
We talked old reggae again. Reggae was the key for reggae is a brotherhood. Once you’ve imbibed the upstroke of ska, the zen of bass, the roots of reggae, repetitions like body pulse, words like fire, like ice, it becomes a kind of possession—music like a gravity, as Burning Spear said. For a while you turn tone-deaf to everything else. The symmetries and the concerns of other music, they feel unenlightened to the genius of this simplicity. So our understanding was at this crucial level.
I asked him about porknocking and the interior, and he told me stories. I said he should let me know when he’s going in next. Sure, he said. Let’s go soon, I said. Alright pardner, why not catch me back here two days, he said by way of putting it off. My paperwork was finished, I had itchy feet. I proposed we buy supplies the next morning and leave. This was bravado. He didn’t expect it would happen. It did.
When I played him back in my mind, which was often and in a variety of moods, the reel finished at the finish, with him waving diagonally on the tepui, distorted and shameless.
*
I HAD RETURNED to Kitty exhausted. I could not shake off the pall of lingering inspection, introspection that had enveloped me. My motion had ceased. To stop is to sink. Yet I did not feel sunk so much as afloat, which with its attendant lack of drama was the more frustrating.
Physically I felt drained. Cooking and washing and all the things of everyday living felt like too much to do. Rather than recovering vigour I felt more depleted with the passing days. Effort made me vomit. It took me a week to find out that I had a low-grade dengue fever. Its chief effect was listlessness. The temperature subsided in some days, but the passivity remained. I felt bloodless. There was nothing to do, I was told, but rest, hydrate, pop pills and wait for my mosquito-ravaged platelets to regenerate.
Countryside chronicles: Sugar-cane farming in Skeldon, Berbice, Guyana. Kennard Pillay
The illness brought on a period of emptiness I hadn’t felt since ma and papa died. They were good, decent people, rooted in their efforts, never taking the car when a bus could do, never a bus when they could walk. Ma had died from infirmity, and papa afterwards from sadness really. My childhood memories of sickness were glorious—skipped school, whiled-away pampered days. Ever since ma I associated sickness with the weight of a sad house, a strange, unregistering kind of grief lost in the suffocation of relatives.
It is not nice to be sick alone. I wished I could sleep through the period. I didn’t call home. I dropped a short jaunty email to my three older siblings telling them of the wonderful trip into the rainforest and a plan to approach National Geographic with a feature. ‘Hopefully they will say yes and you can show it to the relatives when they come home! Love.’ I didn’t want to worry them with the illness. And to speak it would have been admission of a misjudgement. I didn’t want to give them that.
For a fortnight I lived on Gatorade, coconut water, pineapple, French cashew, sapodilla—chikoo—and tinned Van Camp’s Pork and Beans, bought from the appropriately named Survival supermarket. The beans I ate with sweet tennis rolls, which with butter could be a little like Bombay’s bun maska. There was one especially trying aspect to this period. Little crappos would find their way into the house. I was tormented by them. When in panic I feared they, like fluttering pigeons, were liable to do anything. I had seen Guyanese swoop them up like a fallen peanut and fling them out the window. I couldn’t bring myself to it. If they were on the floor, I had a technique worked out for them. I covered them with a bucket and dragged them across to the door. But more often they were wont to get into the sink. I spent hours in distress, staring at them, cursing them. Tapping around them with a stick would worsen the situation: they would hop about among the washed utensils.
One day I willed myself to grab the thing. It took a great deal of psyching myself, and then with my hand encased in a polythene bag. He’s small, I told myself, he’s small. After pulling out a dozen times, I snatched it. I felt it pulse in my hand as I ran towards the back door and let go of it. It caught the grille on the way out, fizzed across the air, rotating like a wild Ferris, and crashed into the water tank below the whitey tree. It stayed still a few seconds, and then I saw it hop away. I knew I had damaged it. I felt a dishonour I cannot explain.
Excerpted from The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya. The author, whose first book is Pundits from Pakistan, writes a monthly cricket column for Lounge.
Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Jan 28 2011. 07 31 PM IST