During my initial years at the estate there were a variety of individuals I had come to identify with – all black – all from Grenada. There was Robert, a tall muscular man who would give me piggy-back rides around the property during my grandfather’s time. Old man Joe – as the name suggested an old fellow who had been employed as a teenager in 1918. Ms. Clara, an old woman, who was missing the first and second toes on her right foot but the bones were still there. And then there was the irrepressible Ms. Lizzie, a character that I would remember until the end of my days.
Robert no longer worked on the estate, however, in later holidays we would see him in passing and greet him. He was now still strapping and fit but bald. As a toddler watching the 1970 World Cup on TV, much to my family’s amusement, I would point to the Brazilian Pele, convinced that he was Robert.
Ms. Clara had already died by the time of our visit. Old Man Joe was in his late seventies, half blind and being cared for by his children and grandchildren.
Ms. Lizzie, also in her late 70s was basically retired. As a youngster I had mistakenly assumed that she was one of Pa’s servants, as the only black people there had been under the family’s employment. However, my father would later explain to me that ‘Ms. Lizzie was nobody’s servant.’ She had her own land, about 10 acres on which she grew cocoa and coffee. She was a family friend and unlike any other black woman I would ever meet.
A lean woman, she always had a head wrap on something that many of the black women of the older generation used to wear – a style that is still popular in Africa today. She had a piece of cloth wrapped around her waist and a smoking pipe tucked between the cloth and her dress. She would occasionally have a cutlass strapped to her side if she had to tend to her land that day. Her husband had died in a stick-fighting incident in 1945.
Stick fighting is exactly what it sounds like – a form of martial arts brought to TT by the African slaves in the 1700s, it became even more popular after the abolition of slavery in 1834. The freed Africans then took it to the streets during Carnival where it was referred to as Kalinda. It was a rhythmic sort of battle as their bodies swayed to the beating of the drums and the chanting of the crowd. They used a piece of wood also known by the French word bois. Thus, the fighters were known as stick-fighters or bois men. This was an extremely dangerous art form; eyes were lost and people were knocked unconscious or killed. It was eventually banned by the colonial masters in 1882. It was reintroduced in the late 1930s as a form of dance which was exhibited during the Carnival celebrations. Despite the ban, stick-fighting continued to thrive, especially in the small towns. It captured the public’s imagination for two reasons, the excitement and the betting. People would bet on the fighter of their choice, the competitors would also bet on themselves. The freed blacks had no intentions of letting the Colonist tell them whether or not they could practice their culture especially one that was as vibrant and as exciting as this.
Ms. Lizzie’s husband, Charles, was a fighter of some note. Handsome, broad shouldered and muscular due to years of labour in the cocoa/coffee plantations he was a legend in the Caigual area. He had once gone undefeated for two years in Grande. His favourite arena was in front of Mike’s Bar on Eastern Main Road. However, he tried to tackle a well-known fighter who had come from Manzanilla (about 15 minutes from Grande) and inebriated from about five shots of rum, he was struck in the head and died at the Sangre Grande hospital five days later.
Ms. Lizzie never remarried and eventually her two daughters settled down and had their own children. However, what set Ms. Lizzie apart from many of the blacks in Caigual was her command of Hindi and great affection for the Indian culture. It was not uncommon for Afro Trinis who had grown up in areas heavily populated by Indians to socialize with them and adopt many of their ways, e.g., love for Indian music, singing and Indian dancing. It was normal that they would pick up smatterings of Hindi and in some cases as with Ms. Lizzie, speak it fluently.
She would often be seen liming in the company of Indians at their homes or gatherings. When in a state of excitement, she would start babbling in Hindi, get up, dance as a traditional Indian for about five to 10 seconds and then resume speaking. This might happen two to five times a day, more if she were at a party, Indian gathering or wedding. I never questioned her behaviour, I grew up with her and it was normal to me.
It was the norm for Pa to take some of his racehorses to Guyana if ever there was a break in the schedule in TT. The horses had to go by boat and this was a two-day trip. Dad and Uncle Basdeo would usually miss about a week of school. They had no problem with this.
Returning from one of his Guyana sojourns, Dad was in class, chatting away with his best friend Sachin during Ms. Bissoondath’s English class.
This was her first class with my father. Aware that he had been away for a week, she pointed him out: “Obviously you are unaware of the reading Vijay.”
Unbeknownst to her, Vijay loved English and would avidly read his Literature books well ahead of class. The book at hand was Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. Without missing a beat, he stood up: “If you have a question about the reading, all you have to do is ask,” he said with a sly smile. Naturally, he knew the reading well.
As the weeks rolled by, he was shocked as she would stand behind him in class and as the other students did their work, she would rub her leg on the back of his calf.
On his fifteen birthday, Vijay was in school enjoying the usual extra attention from friends that comes on such a day. As the class jetted out into the yard for their lunch, Ms. Bissoondath called out to him: “Vijay, stay back please.”
Naturally, he was curious. She approached him with a soft smile. “I’m aware that today is your birthday. Here.” She extended her right hand and there was a green coloured envelope in her palm.”
Vijay – for once – was without words. “Thanks Miss,” he managed to reply. He accepted the envelope, with his head bowed, quite surprised by this attention.
As he exited, Sachin was waiting: “What happen to she? You in trouble?”
“Nah boy, I get a present.”
They both simultaneously dashed to the toilets. Pretending to go use a toilet, they entered a stall and locked the door. Vijay opened the envelope and pulled out a card.
Written on the inside was: Have a happy birthday dearest Vijay, best wishes and lots of love, Indra.
“Wait nah. Her name is Indra!” exclaimed Sachin.
Vijay checked in the envelope and saw a circular object. He tilted the envelope and a ring fell into his hand, silver with a diamond shaped head.
“I get ring too boy!” shouted Vijay.
My father was not quite sure how to process this event. Sure, he was popular with the girls his own age but this was a teacher. Seeing that he saw her only in the confines of the school, surrounded by teachers and students, he saw no proper avenue for him to proceed, so he dismissed the matter. But Indra Bissoondath, had no intentions of the matter being dropped.
She would continue to smile and give Vijay a seductive look in the corridors. As students would read out from the books, she would walk around the class and inevitably find herself at his desk; her hand brushing his shoulder and the customary caressing of his calf with her leg.
In our house there was an old black and white photo of her in an archaic album from my father’s youth. Indra was short, slim, dark with very average looking features and very black hair that went halfway down her back. I would always be confused as to the attraction my father had to her.
Two weeks later, on a Friday afternoon, Vijay was on his way out of the school gate. He and his schoolmates were extra hyper as they were every Friday afternoon with the prospect of the weekend ahead of them.
“Hold on Vijay,” Ms. Bissoondath called out.
“Steuuppss,” with a loud sucking of the teeth. “She serious?”
Vijay trudged his way towards her. “Yes Miss.”
“Vijay, I need some help with some boxes. Come please.”
They made their way towards one of the classes. There on the teacher’s desk was a box full of novels.
Vijay looked towards her expecting to be given instructions on what to do with the box. However, she calmly asked “So what are your plans for this weekend?”
“Well Ms. Bissoondath, I plan to study and maybe go to the cinema.”
“I think To have or have not, starring Humphrey Bogart.”
“Well, I was thinking of seeing that as well. Do you want to come with me Vijay?”
Vijay paused for a moment and swallowed. This was virgin territory for the sweet boy from Caigual. “OK Miss.”
“Very well, the movie starts at 4:30 pm on Saturday. Meet me at the front by the lamp post at 3:45 because there will be a crowd.”
“Yes Miss. OK.”
“Good. See you then,” she said with the sweetest of smiles and walked out of the class.
Apparently, the books were no longer an issue.
As Vijay exited the school gates still trying to comprehend what the hell had just happened, his ever-present sidekick, Sachin, stood waiting.
“What de hell she want? She had a next present for you?”
“No boy. I get invite to the cinema,” responded Vijay, with a proud smile.
“That woman off or what Vijay? I can’t get a 13-year-old schoolgirl. How the hell you managing a teacher!?”
Vijay confessed his confusion as well but concluded he must now be amongst the elite sweet men of Sangre Grande College, possibly of all Sangre Grande; a 15-year-old being courted by his teacher!!!!