My Grandfather’s Story

V. Ramsamooj Gosine

- V. Ramsamooj Gosine


My older brothers and sisters never called my paternal grandfather by his name, Rattan Persad. Instead they called him by the familiar Hindi word, ‘aaja’. I, being the fifth of seven children, had no choice but addressed him by that same, loving respectable name.
         We lived in Esperanza in a quiet area off the main road. It was a village within a village but we gave it no name. Some people referred to it as ‘Down-the-Hollow’ because there was a low hill and we lived beyond that. We lived next door to Mr. Sammy and his wife, who kept much to themselves.
      Recently though our peace was threatened.
     For two weeks Mr. Gopalram, who lived past Mr. Boodoo’s shop, quarreled with Mr. Sammy for a roadway to enter his cane lands at the back of our house. Mr. Sammy, however, refused to yield even one foot of land and this started a series of quarrels.
     Then Mr. Gopalram withdrew for a while and continued to use the long circuitous bushy trace to get to his lands. However, every day he passed in front of our house and looked at our lot of land as though he were measuring it with his eyes. I never liked the stealthy looks he gave and one day I told ‘aaja’.
        ‘Aaja’ looked at me with penetrating eyes for a moment.
       ‘He must be looking at the mango tree. He must be want some mango,’ he said, his eyes focused on the ground. ‘You know how nice and sweet the doo douce mango is. I go offer him some one day.’ He paused for a second. ‘Don’t worry. I will see about him.’
         ‘Aaja’ spoke indifferently but I still didn’t like Mr. Gopalram’s look. Something was telling me all was not right.  A little later, ‘aaja’ and ‘aaji’ were talking softly in the kitchen and when I entered unexpectedly, the flow of conversation ceased abruptly. The two looked at me as though an intruder. Then ‘aaji ‘handed me a cup of warm cocoa tea and hot sadda roti and tomatoes’ ‘chokha’ in a blue enamel plate, the little one that was reserved for me. ‘Aaji’ asked me to sit on the green, wooden bench near the Singer sewing machine and eat my food. I was now far away from them.
        That night ‘aaja’ was very restless and I saw him talking to himself many times.  Later he and ‘aaji’, usually standing by themselves, were again whispering.  Once I was tempted to put my ear near the wooden door and listen but I was afraid that ‘aaja’ would catch me and punish me severely. So I went to bed hoping nothing dangerous would happen.
         While hurrying from school the next evening sucking a long piece of B. H. cane, I saw tall Mr. Gopalram in black rubber boots talking to Mr. Dil Mohammed. As I approached them, they lowered their voices and they too whispered. I observed Mr. Gopalram holding a glittering cutlass in his hand. I was not afraid because he was holding it for it was not the first time I saw him hold one. I was afraid because he held it as though he was going to chop someone and I feared he might chop the retired Mr. Sammy. So I held the piece of sugar cane tighter and with my book bag hanging on my shoulder, I ran home very fast, my heart beating dhup dhup.
     ‘Aaja. Aaja,’ I shouted as soon as I began to climb the flight of creaking, wooden stairs. He was draping the loose ends of his lily-white cotton dhoti around his waist. He dashed out of the room. Long, grey-black hair carpeted his chest and because the hair was short, I saw the outline of his ribs. His moustache curled at both ends and he looked like Ravan I had seen in the Ram Leela celebration in Dow Village, except that Ravan was tall and broad and had fierce, burning eyes.
    ‘What happen, Johia? What you shouting for?’He asked these questions so quickly that I had no time to answer. ‘Something wrong, beta?’
     ‘No ‘aaja’.  Nothing wrong…but I ‘fraid. I frighten.’
         ‘What you ‘fraid?’ By the tone of his voice, I felt he knew something was going to happen. ‘Turning to ‘aaji’, he asked,’ Ka bhail e chowra?’ Aaja usually spoke in Hindi, sometimes in English and sometimes in a mixture of Hindi and English.  He hugged and patted me on my back.
        ‘Mr. Gopalram have a cutlass in he hand. He coming this side and I feel he want to chop Mr. Sammy and them.’ When I told ‘aaja’ this, I expected him to rush over to Mr. Sammy’s house and warn him but he didn’t look surprised at all. He told ‘aaji’ to take me inside and give me some food.
         I sat down on the bench eating sadda roti and curried cabbage but my mind was not on my food but on what would happen. And really I didn’t want anything bad to happen to Mr. Sammy, who always gave me governor plums and red cherries from his trees. And whenever he sent me to the shop to buy tobacco, he always said,’ Take the changewa, Johia. Take the changewa.’
         I looked though the window and saw ‘aaja’ cutting a piece of thick, red mangrove wood from the heap outside and wondered what he would do with it. I was really becoming afraid and could eat no more food. Mr. Gopalram had big strong sons who used to lift weights and had plenty muscles and then too he was an obeahman. Hamza told me it was Mr. Gopalram who made Fat Mousia knock her head against the old, concrete wall of the cistern near The Pen because she had beaten his wife. So he hurt her and she used to even shout and run about naked while people laughed at her.
         Meanwhile, Mr. Gopalram was approaching our house but Mr. Sammy was nowhere in sight. I felt very happy then. I was so curious to know what would happen now that I climbed on a bench near the window to see the looks on his face when he found out Mr. Sammy was not responding to him.
         Actually, and I learnt this later, that Mr. Gopalram had actually come in search of ‘aaja.’ As ‘aaja’ walked down the steps in front of our house, Mr. Gopalram stuck his cutlass in the ground and folded his big, strong, hairy hands across his chest. He then stretched himself and looked taller.
         ‘I want to talk to you, Persad.  Is about this land business.’
          ‘Aaja’ breathed deeply and noisily. ‘Talk to me about land business? I don’t want any land to buy and I don’t have any land to sell. So I have no talking to do with you.’
         ‘Don’t pretend you don’t know what I come for.’ Mr. Gopalram almost shouted. ‘Don’t pretend, man. Don’t pretend.’ He became, very serious and the tip of his nose was becoming red.  He placed his thumbs in his thick black leather belt around his pants and looked at ‘aaja’ as though he would beat him.
     ‘Beat ‘aaja’, I said aloud. ‘Never happen.’ The muscles on my face grew tense. I became angry and trembled. Rushing into ‘aaja’s’ room, I whipped his thick brown leather belt from around his pants and held it firmly in one hand with the brass buckle at the other end and waited. I knew the belt would sting him because that was the same leather belt with which ‘aaja’ beat us at times.
         ‘Well, Persad, you know you have more than one lot of land and you know my cane land behind your house.’ Mr. Gopalram narrated in a story telling voice. ‘I want a little road to pass. Not a broad one. A little one.’
         ‘Aaja’ looked at him straight in his face. ‘Why you don’t ask the sugar company? They have plenty land. They could give you ah highway if you want. Ask them.’
        From my hidden position behind the fluttering, multi-coloured curtains, I saw Mr. Gopalram take a quick step foward as though he wanted to fight. Imperceptibly my bony fingers clutched my belt and I prepared myself for the assault. Then Mr. Gopalram raised his muscular hands slowly towards ‘aaja’, who stood defiantly without moving either forward or backward exhibiting great signs of bravery.
          Meanwhile, ‘aaji’ who was standing under the laden doo douce mango tree near the ‘jhandi’ with the red cotton flags flapping in the breeze, moved closer to ‘aaja’. Behind the chameli plants, she dropped the thick piece of wood she was holding. So ‘aaji’ too was prepared for this confrontation, which I believed that she and ‘aaja ‘expected but never allowed us to know. Well. Ma too didn’t seem to know.
         ‘I want that trace and I want it from you and I want it now.’ When Mr. Gopalram shouted these threatening words, he made me believe that if ‘aaja’ did not surrender the land, he would snatch it away. How could he snatch it away as though it were a piece of roti? I laughed at the idea but though I laughed, I feared what he might do next.
          ‘I going to pass in your land. Do what you want.’
          ‘If you going to pass in my land, I going to damage you. I going to fix you good and proper.’ ‘Aaja’ said these words with force and confidence and I felt very relieved. At least ‘aaja’ was showing signs he was no coward. Bravery was one thing I wholeheartedly admired and ‘aaja’ was demonstrating it quite clearly. Before pa died, he said ‘aaja’ was a very brave person and I was seeing it now.
          When Mr. Gopalram walked in the drains that bounded Mr. Bhola’s canefield to our lot, he trampled on the dasheen plants   ‘Aaja ‘became increasingly angry and dashed inside the house.  From under his bed he pulled out one of the pieces of thick solid he had cut that evening and ran to the back of the house. ‘Aaji ‘raced behind him, keeping close to his heels. Her long white ‘orhani’ trailed in the air like a kite tail.
        ‘Aaja ‘was very angry and I knew that a fight was imminent. For days he had worked in his kitchen garden cleaning and planting his vegetables and food crops. He usually got up at five o’ clock in the morning when the place was still dark and watered the plants. Then he would put the hose in the drain  with the dasheen plants  and allow the water to trickle down  leisurely. And now to have an ignorant man, who thought he was a bully and an obeahman, damage his dasheen plants, was surely too demanding on his patience.
        ‘Ai, Gopalram, I is no badjohn. If you want ah fight, we could have it out man to man.’ Aaja shouted at him, brandishing his short thick piece of wood.’ Is either you or me. Right now if you want.’
        ‘Aaji’ rushed to ‘aaja’s ‘side, attempting to restrain him. ‘Don’t worry with he Rattan. He only want to put you in trouble. He is ah shameless man. You never was ah badjohn in Calcutta so you can’t be ah badjohn here. Don’ take he on.’
         ‘He feel he could do anybody anything and get away but not with me at all,’ he said biting his cracked up lips.’ Is either he or me. Man to man. I have to protect me family and me. And that land is what I get after hard work.’
          Just then four other men emerged from behind the cane clumps with sticks and cutlasses in their hands and looked at ‘aaja’ sternly in his face. The men were hooligans who would beat anybody once they were given a bottle of rum.
       ‘Aaja’ looked at them and said under his breath,’ Bitch you. Bring badjohn, eh. I will get me chance one day. One day. One day.’
      ‘Aaja’s ‘fighting spirit suddenly receded and he said nothing more. His face grew pale and he did not seem anxious to fight anymore. Perhaps he knew he could not beat all these men singlehandedly and to attempt to do this would be endangering himself. So he began to retreat. I was still holding the belt in my hand but when I saw those big strong men, without knowing the belt fell on the ground and I stood behind the banana tree, stealing glances at them.
           ‘So what happen? I thought you was ah badjohn just now ‘ Mr. Gopalram was tempting ‘aaja’ but intelligence  constantly reminded him  not to rush blindly because certain defeat awaited him.’ I thought you was going to have it out man to man? Fair and square? Like your mouth gone in your ….’ I plugged my ears with my fingers for I sensed he was going to curse.’ And you see them cane fields you have near mine, just make sure when you burning them, the fire don’t spread over in mine or else I go take out all that millionaire business in your tail for you.’
         ‘What you go do?’ ‘aaja ‘shot at him.
         ‘You forget what I could do? You forget who I is?’ These words were filled with threats and I remembered Hamza’s mother and the terrible time she passed through. I was becoming even more afraid while ‘aaji’ was biting her finger nails.
         ‘What you go do?’ ‘aaja’ said. ‘You see me. I is Rattan Persad. Don’t forget that.  I is ah Bramhan. Obeah don’t touch me but just in case one finger hurt me tonight. I’ll chop your tail up bits by bits. Bits by bits I tell you. Just remember that.’
          ‘So you feel because you is ah Maharaj obeah can’t touch you? Well I will show you. ‘With these threats still echoing in his ear, Mr. Gopalram left with his train of bodyguards and I felt greatly at ease. 
         Two days later, three men wearing khaki cork hats and carrying tapes, graduated steel rods and a telescope, came to your house. I was frightened when I saw them because I thought they were a kind of policemen. They greeted ‘aaja ‘pleasantly and when I saw him smile, I felt relieved.
          Then a short heated conversation followed and ‘aaja’ was very angry with the men. Immediately they spread their tapes and began to measure our land carefully. Mr. Gopalram stood on the clay covered road with tufts of nut grass here and there and looked on attentively. At times he flashed his many gold teeth like a madman and laughed boisterously with the other men who stood next to him. I believed he was openly provoking ‘aaja’ with his laughter but ‘aaja’ did not respond to him. When ‘aaja’ looked in his direction, he laughed even louder as if to mock him further. ‘Aaja’ ground his teeth and grumbled with himself but said nothing.
          About three hours later, when the men had carefully surveyed our lot, they reported to aaja. At first he was tense and anxious and locked his arms across his chest.  Gradually a smile lit his face.
      ‘You okay, man. Everything alright.’
      ‘Aaja’ was silent at first and then, ‘Me okay.’
      ‘No worries. You land okay.’
      ‘Aaja’ smiled. ‘That good. I glad to hear. Me very very happy.’
      The survey proved that we occupied only one lot of land. Mr. Gopalram was bitterly disappointed and looked at the men as though he wanted to beat them but he said nothing.
        When he was leaving, he hastily shouted, ’We go talk tonight. This thing ent finish yet. You not any millionaire for me na. I will do for your tail.’
      Then certain statements which Mr. Gopalram made became clearer to me. He wanted to buy the cane lands which ‘aaja’ bought from Mr. Ali Khan but he was not on friendly terms with one of Mr. Ali Khan’s bosom friends who was ‘aaja’s ‘close friend. The friend recommended that ‘aaja’ should get the lands and so ‘aaja’ bought them.  So ‘aaja’ was the real owner now and this angered him. Since then Mr. Gopalram  hated  ‘aaja’. However, this success established ‘aaja ‘as one of the largest cane farmers in Esperanza and indeed the whole of California.
       It was a position ‘aaja ‘cherished and Mr. Gopalram envied.
      That night, pitch dark, at about seven o’ clock there was a growing uneasiness at home.  ‘Aaja‘ sharpened his cutlass and carried it inside the house. He also cut two pieces of solid mangrove wood, each about three feet long and also carried them inside. He then placed the green bench near the window facing the road. At times he lay down on his bed, got up, paced the floor thoughtfully and then stood up motionless and listened.  He would lay down again, light his pipe and smoke.  Sometimes he would follow the smoke until it was lost in the corners of his room.
       At about ten o clock dogs began to bark angrily and then quieted down.
        Suddenly amidst the dead silence, stones rained on our house and one or two banged on the front door.  Everyone got up screaming for we did not know what was happening. For one moment I thought our house would be pulled down. Suddenly the front door flung open and’ aaja’ rushed outside.
          ‘Gopalram, wait there you son-of-ah-bitch. You is man?  You pelting down my house. Wait there you scamp.’ Aaja was making signs with his cutlass while he was speaking. ‘The day you touch this family is me and you. I not any frighten villager. I is Rattan Persad. And I don’t ‘fraid obeah.’
         The noise of our shouting and screaming and the banging of stones awakened the neighbours. During this time, the stones ceased to fall.  ‘Aaja’ flashed the torchlight anywhere he felt Gopalram would have hidden but he was no where around.  The darkness had swallowed him. ‘Aaja’ swore that should he catch him anywhere anytime, he would beat him so severely that he would have to be hospitalized in Windsor Town.  And I knew my ‘aaja ‘was a man to his word.  He would do that at any cost. That was my ‘aaja.’
        One Thursday evening before I returned from school, I learnt that ‘aaja’ had beaten Mr. Gopalram near Mr. Boodoo’s shop. Many people said that ‘aaja’ was not at fault. Mr. Gopalram provoked him and only when he could have tolerated him no more, did he retaliate and his sudden, solid staggering blows  would have been fatal  had not too men intervened.
         I dropped the piece of burnt cane I was sucking and hurried home eager to see if anything had happened to ‘aaja.’  I was surprised. ‘Aaja ‘was not badly hurt but there were drops of blood, like something dripping, on his white dhoti and over-sized merino. His face was not hurt though but his right thumb was swollen.
        Later that evening after ‘aaji ‘had nursed his wounds, a black squad car with blue flashing lights on its roof,  stopped  in front of our house. It brought two fat policemen, who were walking like ducks. I ran inside and began to cry loudly because I thought they would jail ‘aaja’ and I would not see him again. But the policeman with the smiling face followed me.
        ‘Don’t cry. Your grandpa will stay with you. We only want to ask him a few questions.  Everybody is saying he is ah good man. So we would not hold him.‘
         I smiled amidst the tears and one of them patted me on my right shoulder before he left and I felt pleased that nothing would happen to ‘aaja.’
        When Mr. Gopalram was discharged from the hospital one week later, he stayed home to recuperate before he began to work in his cane fields once more, and whenever he passed our house, he either looked straight ahead or on the other side of the road.  It was as if our house was not there.

1 comment :

  1. a great story on land possession. Land is not a land, it's an identity, a legacy to 'aaja". Mr. Gopalram got his due in the end! I like the boy's apprehension and fear seeing Gopalram's cutlass and hectic activities.

    ReplyDelete

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