Sacred Waters

To touch the river is to understand her divinity. You must walk the path of the river to pay your respect. You must experience the shocking coolness of the water in the early dawn, the sharp jab of stones, the yielding softness of mud. The sun barely peeps through the thick forest cover in those early dawn hours when the only noises are forest ones: raucous birds and a whispering river.


Excerpt from a short piece I wrote on the Hindu River festival Ganga Dhaaraa in the current issue of Caribbean Beat. 

Saturdays, Thankfulness and a Story for Rhea

Saturday night found me, despite my considerable lack of grace and coordination, I found myself sweaty and dancing at the Hindu Prachar Kendra post Ramdilla festivites. There is a way that dancing with children makes you feel alive and I was thankful for that moment of freedom.

On the way out, I confessed to Ravi Ji in the way that you can only confess to people to whom your mother may have complained in the not so distant past about your waywardness that I feel like I’m just not doing enough.  The children of this generation for whom so much was sacrificed, so much danger dodged, so many battles fought, we’re just not doing enough.

So in wise uncle mode, Ravi ji tells this story as told to him by his aja.   There was a man from a village who was very well known.  One day the man is riding through the village on his donkey and then for some reason the donkey takes off at a pace down the road.  The village pundit sees the well known, well loved, well respected man pelting down the road holding on for dear life and shouts after him something like ‘Jagdeo Maharaj whey yuh goin!’ and mr jagdeo responds ‘doh aks me, aks de donkey!’

I started writing this before I knew that Rhea Mungal had done the inconceivable and decided that she was ready to leave us.

But the moral of Ravi Ji’s aja’s story is, sometimes all we can do is hold on, even when life gets a little crazy and unpredictable.

Every story has a point.  Every tragedy has a lesson.  Every community has a Rhea Mungal.  But each of these you have to find and nurture and understand and pass on.

Mrs. Ashby used to say back in the days on the frontline in Chatham, a stupid man is bad enough, but a stupid woman mus dead.  Well right now I real vex because Rhea Mungal was by no means a stupid woman.  Yet we have to contend with a lot of stupid blasted men in this country everyday.  That is why Rhea fought. That is why Rhea did what she did.

I am thankful for Rhea holding on to this jackass called activism.  She held on and fought hard not just in her own community but for all kinds of movements, here and beyond. I am thankful because she found ways to laugh and keep fighting and keep hoping and holding on despite and in spite of.  I am thankful because she was one of those relentlessly amazing Trinidad women who hold on despite the sexism, despite the belittling, despite her commitments to family, despite her own personal struggles.  I am thankful  for all the women like Rhea who will never get to sit on a state board. Who will never get a national award. Who will never have a street in their name.  Who do the work the men will never do and then some.  Who are afraid of nothing but their own dissatisfaction.

I was writing this originally for Rhonda.  And then I checked my email and saw a message that Rhea Mungal had just died.

Now I am writing this for me.  And for everyone else who is worried about holding on for the wild jackass ride.

Hold on a little longer. Please.  If not for yourself, for Rhea.  For the women who hold on to nothing but ideas.

Hold on for all the Rheas who hold this country together.  Without them we would have nothing but jackasses running about.

Splitting of Her Breasts.

One of my favourite people in the world, Uncle Ravi-ji, told me this story one day. It was raining that day two months ago. I was sitting with him after the Ganga Dhaaraa celebrations up at Marianne River in Blanchisseuse. It was one of those perfect Trinidad days, with a perfect dawn, and beautiful children and music and rain and mangoes and a river.

When Hindus came to celebrate the connection between ecology and spirituality. Because if you see the river as sacred, you wouldn’t put the goddess out of your thoughts and pollute it, right? I was telling Uncle Ravi-ji about all the potential environmental disasters this country is going to have to confront in a few years time. And how important it is for people like him and other well loved and respected spiritual leaders to come out and condemn some of the things that are going on in Trinidad. And in that way that I love about people who have a lot more sense than the politicians, he started to tell me a story. The story is about him and his grandfather.

He paints a picture and I see it clearly; him as a young boy, among the first children in his village to go to secondary school. And one day a man from Neal and Massy turns up. He comes to talk to these children of indentured labourers about purchasing tractors. The salesman’s pitch is slick. The salesman paints a picture of an easier life, of children like Ravi-ji who will be able to study in peace without having to engage in the backbreaking labour that brought their ancestors here. Of no more hungry children in their village. Of profits from sales of all their agricultural produce.
Ravi-ji’s aja (grandfather) listened at the meeting. His father was excited and so was he.

When they got home his grandfather spoke up. And here Ravi-ji quotes his grandfather in Bhojpuri and for moment the old man is there with us. Ravi-ji’s aja was against the purchase of a tractor. He said, the tractor would split open Mother Earth’s breasts. How can a wounded breast continue to sustain life? And Uncle Ravi-ji admits to me that he was angry at his aja, because all he wanted to do was go to school and have a different kind of life. The tractor represented to him all that was modern, different and progressive.

His aja was keeping him back. The villagers got their tractor in the end. And Uncle Ravi-ji went to school. His aja went the way of all flesh. But the tractor did split Mother Earth’s breasts. And now there are more tractors, but as Uncle Ravi-ji concludes his story, he observes that even today there are still starving children in that village. How did his aja know and understand the effects that industrialisation would have on the environment? Without all the book learning and the slick facts he was able to articulate a concern for nature that none of them could understand? The simplicity of that story reverberates now with me as I look around at a society that is eagerly chasing after more tractors. And those who share a concern for Mother Earth’s split breasts are sidelined and silenced. They are unwilling to pay the price of progress.

We live in a society where decorum and decency and adherence to laws are upheld as benchmarks of the good citizen, but the reverence we feel for the things that sustain us, well you could get laughed at for expressing concern. It’s not that the tractor is the only alternative now. We’ve come a long way from those days. It grieves me that it is the tractor that still represents modernity when it is our ajas and our grandmothers and our tanties whose ideas are timeless and more sustainable. I wish some people had even one millionth of Uncle Ravi-ji’s aja’s wisdom. Then they wouldn’t write bizarrely stupid headlines like “Are environmentalists anti-people?” Because they would understand that it’s not how many tractors you have or how much oil you drill or how many smelters you build. But the humanity and the humility of what you do with your knowledge and your resources.

That progress and destruction don’t have to always go together and the destruction excused as some kind of by-product. Like all those ads for drugs on cable TV whose lists of side-effects seem to far outweigh whatever benefits the drug was intended to have. That it’s not about financial profiles and projections but how the people of your country are coping under the crushing weight of your greed. How your gluttony looks to those under you who have less than nothing. How your excess feeds their resentment and how ultimately they will be made to pay for your gross and sloppy mishandling of Mother Earth’s breasts.

Cheerleaders in Cricket

Cheerleaders. With pompoms. It is too scandalous to believe. There I was on the Cycle Track—now a grassy knoll—asking the gods not to send the rain. Feeling happy to be in the Oval yet another time, calling down damnation on the heads of the England cricket team. I was waving my T&T flag in the gentle Oval breeze, trying to channel Tantie Merle in my movements. I was scanning the grounds, looking at the masses of my people, cricket people on their feet cheering on the West Indies team as they came out to take up their positions across the field. And there, like a big meggie in the middle of the cricket, were the cheerleaders. I thought for a second I was hallucinating. Like I think I’m hallucinating when I hear some wild rumour that Papa Patos wants to invoke the Terrorism Act during the Summit of the Americas to stop people from protesting. I mean it can’t be, can it? Cheerleaders in cricket? Why, that’s like making Trinidad mas in sweat shops in China. I guess in the whole scheme of things, pompom-toting cheerleaders are not that terrible. I mean, it could be worse. We could be kidnapping homeless people and hiding them away where the all the foreign press can’t see them. Oh no, we’re already doing that. I guess we still have culture. We still have a film industry. It’s not as if the Government has cut the funding to the T&T Film Company by 50 per cent. Oh no, they’ve done that too. I have to admit that the cheerleaders with pompoms upset me a lot. Not to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the royal cut backside England got from the West Indies. But I have to admit that half of the hoarseness and the pain in my throat came from my scandalised exclamations of rage at the sight of the pompom-toting cheerleaders. I don’t know whose idea it was. And I don’t particularly care to know either. But I suppose if you pay $600 for a sporting experience then you expect to have something completely devoid of any connection to the sport at all. Like premium-ish liquor and girls with pom poms. At least they were red, black and silvery. From what I could see on the other side of the Oval they were doing their job cheering the team on. At least somebody could learn a thing or too from their commitment and professionalism. Still, I wondered if they were being prompted when to jump up and dance and shake their pompoms for our boys. I mean I though Caribbean women didn’t need pompoms because we had bam bams? I must have it all wrong. I must be just jealous because I am not a pompom-shaking cheerleader in the $600 stand with all the beautiful people. I must be the outsider looking in. Wanting to be shiny and beautiful too. My flag sags in the dipping Oval breeze. But I refuse to be defeated by shiny cheerleaders with their Visa tot tots and designer batty riders. The woman to my right who, like a prime ministerial prophetess, declared that England would make no more than 120 runs, feeds me plantain and callaloo and buss-up shut and watercress to cool my righteous pompom indignation. I mean, seeing those cheerleaders with pompoms in cricket makes as much sense to me as the day before when I was at Phagwa celebrations at the Divali Nagar and Geeta Ramsingh of the Hindu Prachar Kendra announced that they had received a cheque of $5,000 from the Ministry of Culture for this year’s Phagwa celebrations, which includes the staging of the Pichakaree competition, among other things. Tantie Merle wherever you are, I’m so sorry. Uncle Ravi Ji, for all your work and effort to make this place a more livable place, I am so sorry. I try not to let the cheerleaders get me down. But this is hard, because they are right in my line of sight. The image of them is permanently etched in my consciousness. This is progress, yes. This is priorities and productivity. This is us being more than we could ever be. We have reached the summit of our national potential for the small fee of $600 million. And I wonder if cheerleaders with pompoms at cricket matches also feel like the country—stuck at silly point.

Perfect submission, perfect delight,
visions of rapture now burst on my sight;
angels descending bring from above
echoes of mercy, whispers of love

Blessed Assurance, Fanny Crosby

It took me a few bars to identify the song. It took the other Phase II fans a while to catch on too. I guess it’s not the kind of song that you identify immediately, unless you are poto l’eglise or remember some older relative singing this sad sweet dirge of a hymn.

The young people had drifted away to Renegades or one of the loud bars lining that sacredly profane stretch of St James being celebrated by We Beat.

And even though I am an avowed pagan hippy type, I couldn’t help myself getting caught up in the nostalgia. I raised my own voice and hands in song even though I wanted to laugh at this sure sign that I am officially neither young nor cool. Our voices rose above the humidity, while I tried to reach through my brain’s cobwebs for the words to the song, substituting liberally with lavwey scats.

On Saturday night, or maybe it was already Sunday morning, I revelled in that moment of sweetness when nothing matters but keeping your feet dragging rhythmically on the asphalt, stepping out of beat, only to skip over a pothole or a piper scouring between our feet for beer bottles.

In that moment you can’t imagine how you ever wanted to leave this magically bizarre wonderful place where on a random Saturday night, or maybe Sunday morning, the streets can turn into a big party and rum-drinking retired matador women could pull off with startling dignity and piety singing in the same warbly old-lady voice of my grandmother.

I looked around at the faces around me—older faces, rich and poor faces, Indian, African, European faces. All sweating in the St James at midnight humidity. A man with his hands in the air turned to me and said Trinidad needs more of this. And I’m not sure if he meant the sweetness of the music that Phase II was giving us or the prayer we were singing into the night air.

Back at home, I couldn’t sleep and for once it wasn’t the now increasingly frequent and much louder crash of suicidal mangoes hitting the galvanise roof. The words of the hymn and the image of all those people and the echo of their voices stayed with me.

At dawn I was heading over the north coast to Blanchisseuse and then into the mountains to a bend in the Marianne River where Uncle Raviji’s Kendra were hosting this year’s edition of the Ganga Dhaaraa festival.

I sat on a rock high on incense and sleep deprivation. And endless old ladies like tiny Indian versions of my own grandmother, passed me by whispering pleasantly surprised Sita Rams, pressing various bits of fruits from their offerings to their Ganga Mai, who bears an astounding metaphysical resemblance to the Oshun of my own ancestors.

I walked through the river thankful for a different kind of sacred space, without the profanities of electric lights and pipers but perhaps with less of a chance of redemption. Because only the converted, the saved and the sanctified venture into the river and offer the fruits and flowers of their labours.

Blessed Assurance keeps playing in my head. I imagine if the man from the night before were here, he would say the same thing. Trinidad needs more of this. More silent days by the river. More cool water poured over our hot tempers. More offerings to the gods of our ancestors. If the technocrats at the EMA were to leave their air-conditioned offices in St Clair and seek out their reflections in the Marianne River, then maybe my grandchildren will be able to come to Marianne River and ponder their place in the world.

I imagine that while the peace of Marianne River with the sun making just the right pattern of light and leaves on your shoulders is where we find our peace, the heat of St James is where we find our humanity. St James is where we have a glimpse of another world being possible. Where Phase II can take us higher than a Bournes Road crack ball and help us transcend the emptiness and ugliness of city-ness.

Truthfully, I haven’t the attention span to be religious. Nor do I have the musical inclination to be a pannist.

And the blessed assurance of living in Trinidad is that you have a chance to experience and participate if you so choose. No boundaries except in your own head. And you can find yourself and your Trinidad in the most diverse of places. To sing your own story and write your own song. And praise your gods of music and rivers and sky wherever you please.