By Raffique Shah
December 25, 2018
In the spirit of the season, I write today about one of the more memorable Christmas experiences I had—when I returned home days before Christmas in 1966, having spent 27 months in Britain training in the military.
My story has to be viewed in the context of the period, a mere 16 years after the MV Windrush had transported 500-odd West Indian immigrants to work and rebuild post-war Britain. The 70th anniversary of that epic voyage, and the plight today of what is called the Windrush Generation was, coincidentally, the focus of much discussion in 2018.
I cannot claim any direct connection with the Windrush, which docked in Tilbury, Essex, in 1948, when I was a child, age two. Besides, I was not a paying student or migrant who endured the two-week rough ride across the Atlantic Ocean. I was among the more fortunate independence-era scholarship awardees (more accurately “cadetship” to military college), who made the journey by aircraft.
Still, besides our Caribbean heritage, that generation and mine had many common challenges. For example, communications between students or migrants abroad and their loved ones were via surface (sea) mail or air mail. With ships still being the commonest means of passenger and cargo transport across the Atlantic, most people could afford surface mail (six pence, I believe) which meant delivery in two-to-three weeks.
Air mail took maybe one week, but was costlier (a shilling). International telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and complicated. One had to go through an operator, and one’s family had to be privileged to have a phone in order to make or receive calls. Few could afford that luxury. So you never heard each other’s voices, far less saw your images, except in photos, which were predominantly black-and-white.
This scenario I’m painting for today’s cyber-generation for whom video-conversations and instant communications to just about everywhere in the world is one micro-second away, must seem like pre-historic times. They know nothing about air-letter forms, the cheapest means of staying in touch, hardly more frequently than once a month. Or, one could use the more expensive air-mail letters, in which one might include photographs (look mih, Ma…that is what ah look like in this cold country), or risk slipping in a ten-pound note which was a Christmas hamper plus extras in those days.
Even before I went off to the UK in 1964, a Christmas Day (or was it Boxing Day?) staple was a BBC radio broadcast, pre-recorded, in which a limited number of students and migrants would be given the opportunity to voice Yuletide greetings to their friends and families in the Caribbean. Since we did not know if our connections were among those invited and recorded, we’d stay glued to the broadcast, hoping to hear that familiar voice, and more importantly, to check if he or she had acquired an English accent.
With seasonal music in the background, we’d hear, “Hello Ma and Pa, this is Keith Jones from Cantaro…Merry Christmas everyone. I am doing well but missing you all…Boyo, fire one for me, eh!” We’d listen on, until we heard, “Hello Ma, this is Toy from Couva…” “Is she! Quiet!” Pa would say. “Merry Christmas Ma, Dolly and Bhaiya and family…” Toy, like many other lonely Londoners, breaks down and cries at this point, and another student gets his ten seconds on air.
During my 27 months in the UK, I communicated with family and friends only by mail. I missed them more at Christmas even though new friends at Sandhurst and in London helped cheer me up, or more accurately, we lifted each other’s spirits during those bleak wintry days. I had successfully completed training at Sandhurst by the end of July, 1966, and had two additional six-week courses that I’d complete by mid-December, which meant I’d be home for Christmas.
I knew that, and my family knew I’d return soon, but not the date. I kept that secret. From Piarco, I took a taxi to Teteron Barracks where I spent the night of the 21st in order to report to the Commanding Officer the following day, when I expected to be granted privilege leave. The CO ordered me to report for duty on the first working day of 1967, and after lunch I loaded my luggage and boarded a Land Rover that took me to the family home in Bokaro Village.
I felt on top of the world breathing fresh, tropical oxygen and seeing new sights from Carenage to Caroni. At Chaguanas, I was stomped by the disappearance of the roundabout and driving on all two miles of the new four-lane Hochoy Highway, up to Chase Village. Soon, I was in Bokaro. As Corporal Dell helped me off-load my luggage, my younger brother who was playing downstairs, and seemed shocked when he recognised me, ran upstairs shouting: Ma! Raffique come!
Within minutes, we were hugging and kissing (Pa was not at home) and talking and asking and answering questions, all simultaneously. Soon, word of my arrival spread and neighbours and friends joined in the joy of reunion that lasted for several hours that would extend into days.
Everybody was already in the Christmas mood and mode, but there was additional cause for celebration: it was also the month of Ramadan, and some members of the family were fasting. Eid ul Fitr would follow Christmas, and since our home, like most others in this multi-religious, multi-cultural country, observed both occasions, my homecoming was all the more celebratory.
My parents never kept or served alcohol at home, so we did not need liquor to fuel the joy of seeing each other after two years. Sorrel, home-grown, no less, was a seasonal staple at the Shahs’, and Ma baked a mean sponge cake and cassava pone in the barrel-oven.
Those ten-or-so days of eating foods I had longed for, enjoying late-night chats with my immediate family, visiting relatives and “liming” with boyhood friends are but a blur in my memory.
But they constituted the most joyful Christmas in my life.