By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
June 05, 2017
Jasmattie live in bruk-
Down hut big like Bata shoe-box,
Beat clothes, weed yard, chop wood, feed fowl
For this body and that body and every blasted body
Fetch water, all day like if the
Whole slow-flowing Canje river God create
Just for she one bucket.
David Dabydeen, “Coolie Mother”
All of us in Trinidad and Tobago were nurtured in Bruk-UP, Bruk-DOWN huts, big like a Bata shoe-box as David Dabydeen’s Guyanese example suggests. Even Eusebio Atanasio Valerio, an exemplary Amerindian ancestor, who documented his life in Sieges and Fortunes of a Trinidadian, lived in a hut in forested Arima. In Tacarigua, up until the 1960s, an Indian barracks stood at the back of the Orange Grove Sugar Estates (OG). Twelve of the first batch of Indians who came to Trinidad in 1845 were sent to OG where they joined the 265 African workers who were employed there at the time.
Growing up, I remember seeing Indian men with their wives walking several feet behind their husbands going to the estates at five in the morning to begin their daily labor. In many instances, they performed “task work” that enslaved Africans had initiated after slavery to relieve them from working from sunup to sundown. During crop time Indians and Africans worked around the clock to ensure the factory produced its sugar quota.
I attended Tacarigua A. C. School that was built by enslaved Africans in 1837. Kumar Dabooran, one of my classmates, sat between Roy Sobers and me. We shared our lunch with one another. Sometimes Kumar came to my house; sometimes Giles (Bernard Bailey) and I went to Kumar’s house to play. Roy and I protected Kumar from the taunts and physical abuse that were meted out to him by some of the African students.
During those days, we shared in the lives of one another. Racial distinctions were irrelevant. Indian families lived around us. My grandmother, Tan Darling, and Eren Stephens, David King’s grandmother, were wet nurses (or midwives) of the village. They delivered Indian as well as African babies. African women even sold their prospective children to Indian women when they were unsuccessful in becoming pregnant or had too many miscarriages.
When these women had successful deliveries because of these interventions, the children were given to these Indian women who acted as their parents and were given Hindu names. Although these children stayed at home with their African parents, they spent a lot of time with their Indian mothers, participated in Indian ceremonies and learned Hindi as well.
The late Violet King and her brother David, the keeper of our local history, were products of this sacrificial arrangement. Violet was sold for three cents and David for two cents. Ma Sookie, their Indian mother, named Violet and David Rookmin and Bater Lal (“Golden Son” in Hindi) respectively. Violet and David inherited two sisters, Bass and Palma, in the process.
David attended Tacarigua Canadian Mission School that was named after Miss Blackadder, a Canadian missionary, who started the school in 1884. My father, Lionel Reginald Cudjoe, was a pupil teacher at that school. David also attended Tacarigua EC School where Alphonso Nurse, George Padmore’s father, taught for a while.
A year ago Violet passed. She had one son, Elton Frank King, who was fathered by my uncle, Niles Cudjoe which makes Frank and I first cousins. Frank lives in Tobago. David is still going strong. On November 8, “if God spare life,” as he says, he will be 90 years old.
In April of this year Jessie Chase held a birthday party to celebrate her father’s (Donald Chase) 90th birthday which David, Giles, yours truly and a few other districkers attended. Chase worked at OG as a pan-boiler for about 40 years starting in the 1920s. A pan-boiler, a skilled worker, determined the quality of the sugar that was produced.
Trinidadians and Tobagonians have lived complicated lives. In most instances our lives are intertwined with one another. These deeply-rooted bonds hold our society together even if we are not always aware of or talk about them.
We celebrated Indian Arrival Day a week ago. While many commentators talked about the contributions Indians made to our society, few spoke about the ties that bind us together as a people.
In the Ramayana, after Ram defeated Ravan, Sita had to prove her chastity by undergoing a trial by flames after she had been faithful to Ram for fourteen years. She sang his praises as she walked through the flames. Ram, however, had secreted her in a protective fire. Gaiutra Bahadur, reflecting on his episode, tells us: “The flames incinerated the shadow and ‘stigma’ of her stay with another man. It satisfied public opinion, which would have pilloried Ram for reclaiming a wife kidnapped by an enemy in war. Burning up the shame and the shadow, the fire released the real Sita, unharmed” (Coolie Woman).
How I wish we could burn away the shame, the shadow, and the stigma of our past and thereby release ourselves into a new future to celebrate those acts that have kept us together as a society. Such an act would usher in a creative period in our history.