By Raffique Shah
July 14, 2012
LAST week, memories of another day, another time, another Trinidad and Tobago swirled through my mind. It happened over several days as many of us who grew up in the villages that make up what I call “Greater Freeport” gathered to pay our final respects to an elder, Boyd “Baykay” Roberts. Baykay was a contemporary of my long-deceased father Haniff, and a close friend of my deceased uncles, all of them sugar workers, ordinary people, barely literate, but wise in the ways of the world.
These men and their wives (who usually kept low profiles, but played equally sterling roles) struggled to provide for their families. Besides their dusk-to-dawn labour on the sugar estates or in the factories, they cultivated agricultural produce or reared livestock, activities that involved even their children, in order to enhance their means. In most cases, they succeeded in bringing up families they would later be proud of.
They were no saints, I should add. I am not about to airbrush their images. As boys, when we saw my father or Uncle Amber or Baykay or Sulaiman Nanah or any of the other stern-faced male adults approach, we would pause at whatever we were doing (except chores), greet them respectfully, and hope they would not “call” us for infringements of the unwritten codes of conduct they had drafted to govern their communities.
Back then, villagers’ houses and bare-earth yards were common ground for play or work or listening to tall tales told by the elders as we children sat enraptured by the characters they would re-create. There was no television, and radio sets were few. The oral tradition was alive and robust—and did these men and women excel in their storytelling! In the course of our upbringing, they inculcated values that made us better human beings.
We too were no saints. Indeed, some of us were high-order sinners (guilty, sah!), and many of us were notorious pranksters, with the odd deviant going beyond the defined boundary. In extreme cases the police from the nearby station would be summoned to intervene. There were times I wondered what the police did except charge harmless men like Sakrullah Meah for riding a bicycle at dusk without lights. Idle cops.
As those elders worked hard to put food in our mouths, we boys and girls studied equally hard, whether we were the lucky or gifted few who did well in academics, or among those whose hands were adept at craft, or others who would later master skills that made them successful in life. All of us who benefitted from those communal initiatives are thankful to those who harnessed us, pushed us, drove us to be what we are today.
But these men were more than semi-literate motivators. They were also thinkers. In their simplistic minds, they would come up with ideas, thoughts and words of wisdom far beyond their stations in life. Baykay, for example, was a grassroots philosopher. He was also revolutionary in his own way, as his son Edmund (Hique) and I concluded during discussions after his passing. His pearls of wisdom were Confucius-like, expressed in street language and a tone that was, well, “Baykay-esque”. So uncanny was he, back in 1974 when I was surfing the ULF wave, idealism etched in my being, but he, sensing that while the struggle in sugar and oil seemed right, all was not well, said to me, “Raffique, I like what you all are doing, but I don’t trust this fella ‘Banday’ (Panday).” Prophetic words.
That much of Freeport, especially “old Freeport”, which meant people of all races, gathered to pay respects to this elder, also spoke of another old-school wisdom that we did not need politicians of any hue or party to preach to us. Harmony among the different ethnic groups that made up “Greater Freeport”—Indians, Africans, Douglas, Chinese…we even had a Scot, Norman McLeod—came instinctively. As children playing or attending school, we did not see race in any face. I’m sure there were persons who harboured racial prejudices. But they were so overwhelmed by the “Freeportian” culture, they had to suppress their attitudes, except perhaps when they were drunk.
I have written elsewhere that I was fortunate to have spent my formative years in Freeport, a district I described as a cosmopolitan cradle. There were three primary schools—Presbyterian, Hindu (from the 1950s) and Catholic. Up to independence in 1962, there were several Christian churches and places of worship for Hindus and Muslims, although there were no formal mosques or mandirs. One could hardly grow up in a village like that, with such a mix of races, religions and cultures, and not emerge appreciative of the universality of humankind.
Baykay’s passing gave living testimony to the harmony we enjoyed in an era that now seems to be a distant memory. Men and women of different ethnicities, now living far from Freeport, turned up at the wake, the funeral service, or at the family house days later to pay their respects. As I watch this passing parade—my mother, who grew up in Freeport like Baykay, passed on last March, and Miss Baiju (really Mrs Rambaran), went before her at age ninety-something—I wonder about the changed environs they were leaving behind.
A few months ago, some heartless, mindless bandit-cum-murderer attacked Mr Gangabissoon and his wife, both of them Freeport elders of that era. As we, the succeeding generation, gathered and talked at Baykay’s wake and funeral, the changing face of Freeport came up for discussion. The consensus was that the cradle of our civilisation had changed, and not for better. Still, we have a duty to persevere, to promote, against whatever odds, the values, the harmony, the love these elders hammered into us. It’s the best tribute we can pay to them.