Ordinary people, extraordinary lives

By Raffique Shah
September 04, 2019

Raffique ShahThey will cremate Miss Eileen sometime today somewhere in Florida where most of her daughters and only surviving son live. I hope the passage of hurricane Dorian does not disrupt the final rites for one of the matriarchs of the village of Bokaro (now “Frenchified” to Beaucarro) where I grew up and spent my formative years. She was one of two surviving women who were bred-and-born in Bokaro, the other being Lucille Warrick who also migrated to the USA, and who is, give or take, of similar age to Mrs. Eileen Prince, 93, when the latter breathed her last two Thursdays ago.

For some time I have been meaning to pay tribute to these ordinary women who lived extraordinary lives. I waited patiently for Miss Melda (Mrs Imelda Prince) to attain her 100th year last April, but she died weeks before the landmark, thus denying us the privilege of claiming a centenarian in the village that helped shape the lives of so many of us who took pride in belonging to Bokaro.

Besides Miss Lucille (all these women, whatever their marital status, were for us younger ones, “Miss This” or “Miss That”, and the men, a respectful “Mr”), there remains Chan Segoolam (Miss Batohee), who must be in her mid-90s, and possibly a few others whose names I do not now recall. My mother, Khairun, who fell short of her 90th by four months back in March 2012, was preceded by 97 year-old Miss Baiju (Mrs Ramdoolarie Rambaran). More recently, Miss Whitehead died at 99.

All these women outlived their husbands, in almost every instance by decades. They therefore shouldered more than a fair share of the responsibility for seeing their children mature to adulthood, although in fairness to almost every family mentioned here, the men provided as best they could for their families during their lifetimes.

One reason I chose to put the main focus on Miss Eileen is she was born in Bokaro in 1926 and lived her entire life in the village until she migrated to the USA sometime in the 1970s-1980s. Almost all the others spent their early lives elsewhere and moved there later—in the case of the Shahs, 1954, which was when several families relocated there.

Bear in mind Bokaro Road was still without electricity (nearby Freeport and Bank Village had only recently been connected to the national grid) and potable water lines ran for less than one mile from the St Mary’s Junction. Interestingly, of the four public “standpipes” that serviced the community, the first was mere metres away from Miss Melda’s house, the second directly opposite Miss Eileen’s, the third next to our home and the fourth in front of William Rostant’s.

Miss Eileen was born into the Legere family, daughter of Ferdinand (Mr Fedna), one of the bigger clans in the district. They owned and farmed acres of mainly sugar cane lands, much like the Grants (Bajan stock), Raghoos, Bahals, Ramlogans, Ablacks, Bonapartes, Dookhies, Rostants, Rambarans, Warricks and a few others. Families like ours (my parents owned two lots of land) and the Garibs, whose fathers worked with the sugar companies, rented small plots from the bigger landowners to farm food- and root-crops and rear livestock to provide some of their own food and to supplement the meagre incomes from their jobs.

Bokaro was a racially mixed village, which is not to say it was fully integrated. There were differences that surfaced mostly when elections came around. But such tensions dissipated quickly, restoring the harmony that we yearn for nowadays. That did not happen by accident, The women I mentioned here, and scores of others who went before them or came afterwards, inculcated in the children of yesteryear basic good manners and respect for elders, once the latter earned it.

Adults could not be drunk and behave disorderly in the presence of children over the weekend and expect to be revered come Monday morning.

Most of the Afro residents were either Catholics or Anglicans, with a few Baptists. The bulk of the Indians were Hindus. There was a handful of Muslims, my family being among this minority. But there was mutual respect for each other’s religions that went far beyond tolerance. For example, I recall my mother sending me with the Legere families on a train-and-foot pilgrimage to Mt St Benedict. I would have been around ten, and I thoroughly enjoyed the day.

When Mr Bakando (master mechanic Ramdial) held the first nine-night Ramayan Yagna in the village, we boys of whatever creed or race attended, if only to savour the “parsad” that was shared each night. And without knowing it at the time, so young was I, I witnessed a Shango ritual that ran for several nights at the Warricks’ yard nearby. I distinctly recall the drum-beats and Miss Taylor (Miss Eileen’s aunt, I believe), something like a sword in her hand, dancing and chanting in a frenzied manner. “She catch power,” my friend “Bodo” (Edward Legere) whispered to me.

Miss Eileen and her fellow-matriarchs presided over the upbringing of several generations of Bokaro boys and girls. They weren’t fully successful: some among us, including their own families, went astray. But that was not for lack of effort on their part. They went beyond the call of duty, and on behalf of those who benefitted from their guidance I extend our gratitude.

I would be failing in my duties of other aspects of life if I did not recognise the selfless contributions of two outstanding activists in their respective fields—Jimmy Singh and Abdul Ahmed. Jimmy, whose social and political activism impacted some residents of Laventille (Erica Street) where he lived and died recently at age 69, was a tenacious fighter for the upliftment of the downtrodden.

And Abdul, 74, was the smiling face of encouragement and inspiration for two generations of marathoners. Thanks, brothers.

4 thoughts on “Ordinary people, extraordinary lives”

  1. Thanks for your story Raff. You have packed quite a bit of sociology into that story. Some might relate (most probably the older folks) and some might easily not think twice about it. But for those who do, Trinidad is a small country and we live in what is becoming crowded spaces. It used to be that our political stance was framed based on our social experience but tines have changed. We now form our social beliefs based on our political preferences. Needless to say, if no constraints are applied to our political we are doomed to become another ‘Guyana’ or ‘Fiji’ at the pace we are going.

    I too, I’m the product of such a community that you have described and what a time that was! I remember Mrs Nelson, a Chinee/Creole, rich, land and business owner, a catholic and if there is such a thing as a ‘saint’, she certainly was one. She cared for regardless of race, class or social standing, she helped everyone. There was Pitamsingh, rich, hindu, landowner and proprietor. He had no children of his own but adopted children, brought them up as his own until they were able to marry and move on. There was Mr. Castillo, humble, educated (in law), a true public servant who advised and gave his services to all who sought it. Those and many more like them formed a dynamic community that produced outstanding citizens, who later made national contributions to this country.

    Contrast that to what we are experiencing today and what i see is a nation falling apart along racial and ethnic lines. Social media paints a very dangerous view of what our future might become. The number one topic is RACE. Dr. ROWLEY is painted as that evil, incompetent, racist, rapist and immoral human being who hapoens to be black and undeserving of being the prime minister of a country which is heavilly populated by Indians.
    It is insulting and disrespectful when a prime minister, doing his best to reform our country is faced with daily racist diatribe that insults the other major racial group (Africans).

    When Kamla Persad Bissessar became prime minister, there was genuine hope for the future but she chose to use parliament to deny, promulgate and classify Dr. Rowley as a rapist, his parents as rapist and deny the people of Diego Martin representation.
    How, in the face of this history of race relations can politics be used aS a medium to reconcile us into nationhood?

    Showing disrespect, does not return respect. Calling people names does not make one better than the other. The proliferation of the words ‘nigger’ and ‘coolie’ lifts no one to a better understanding of what we can become. The land we share is not becoming larger, in fact its becom8ng smaller. The animosity genersted by political fixations WILL NOT MAKE TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO A BETTER PLACE TO LIVE. I have heard many Indians say that the country is worse when PNM is in power. While that might make those uttering those words feel better about themselves, the criminal DOES NOT CARE ‘who is in power’. Crime is a scourge in our society and sober minded citizens must come up with integrated and effective solutions to halt its escalation.

    If we fail then we are all doomed.

  2. It is so refreshing to read about people who knew how to comport themselves with dignity. Money does not and cannot provide same without a background of good manners and good upbringing.
    I I

  3. These are beautiful, nostalgic stories of past life in the towns and villages of T&T. Many positive and factual accounts of their people existing in cohesion and harmony paint a pastoral picture of civility, responsibility and humility.
    Where did we go wrong?
    Beneath this seemingly near perfect imagery being portrayed, there were many underlying hypocrisies which were insidious, secretive and destructive and unknown at the time.
    “Good manners and good upbringing” came to be interpreted by future generations as a slavish adherence to inferior, colonial status. Demonstration of these qualities represented superficiality.
    New generations interpreted expressions of “good manners” as subservient and submissive behavior. They became disillusioned with the revelations and uncovering of the secret mistresses, private abuse of alcohol, and hypocrisy within the churches. The so-called “British education” was becoming one dimensional and very often outdated and irrelevant.
    “Coolies” and “niggers” were still being berated in the confines of living rooms of these so-called integrated villages. Blacks voted for the Black party. Indians voted for the Indian party.
    Indian parents forcefully rejected interracial relationships and marriage, especially to Blacks.
    In short, simmering beneath this deceptive surface of civility and harmony were a multitude of problems which are now coming home to roost.

  4. The 60s was perhaps the best time to be born and to live. The war was over, the baby boomers were in full replenish the earth mode. There were many children to play, go to school with and get into mischief.

    What made it an exciting time?
    The world was innocent. There were little or no corrupting influence. There was no television, no cellphone, not many cars and a healthy planet.

    For entertainment we went to see Bollywood movies in the town. The stars were larger than life characters. People in the village adopted their fashion sense, hairstyle and mannerism. There was Andaz, Farz, Sholay, Prem Kahani, etc. The songs were sang across the countryside as radios blared Sundays at 1:00 clock in the afternoon. One hour of Indian music. Then there was the Beetles, Elvis and western movies.

    Life assumed it’s own pace, women went from home to home and shared the village gossip or what was happening in their lives. The men met at the local rum shop their favourite watering hole and drank, talk and de stressed.

    Manners were an important part of the moral code. I remember clearly we never passed an adult without saying “good morning” or “good afternoon”. Those days have wilted away but it is a blessing to recall.

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