Fiction: The Old Lady and the Pension

V. Ramsamooj Gosine
The Surujdeos lived on Fourth Street, Brentwood Park East, and had been living there for more than twenty years. They lived in a split-level house with a free open space on the eastern side, a large porch at the back and the rest was a square two-storied building crowned off with reddish, cocoa-brown shingles. 
            At its front, Mrs. Surujdeo planted an assortment of flowering plants in her spare time.
      Mr. Surujdeo had died some years ago after the family settled there. Mrs. Surujdeo  ran the house. She was ten years younger than he, short, stocky, wore glasses on her nose, somewhat fair and wore dentures.  Her weight was concentrated in the lower part of her body. In many ways, she looked like an overgrown dwarf. She, it was believed, could beat a snail in a race but was no match for the stealthy cats, which sneaked into her kitchen when her back or that of her Guyanese maid, Chandra, was turned, granted that the maid saw only close up stationary objects. Chandra was half deaf, slimmer than a bamboo and was brisk only at the eating table.
        Two of Mrs. Surujdeo’s daughters, Janki and Kanta, and their brother, Bram, made up the rest of the Surujdeos living on the island. The two other children, Prema and Bickramdass, had migrated to Canada.
        Janki, an accountant, once married to a salesman, was also an event co-ordinator, a skill which weekly fattened her bank account. She allowed people to know she was an accountant and knew the who’s who in Windsor Town and in the parliament of the land. As one person commented, ‘She is the big shot in the family.’ It was her desire to accumulate money and this drove her and gave her the feeling of superiority over the others. Anyway, she and her husband were divorced. Happily, she bought his share of the house and lived there. Her mother was not exactly proud of this achievement but said little, mainly because Janki looked after her many needs and she didn’t want to interrupt that flow of goodness.
    Whenever Janki was asked about her husband, she said, ‘Too damn lazy so I kick he tail out.’ To her mother, brought up with the values of the fifties, she said, ‘Ma, as soon as I get a nice, hard working man, I’ll get married again. He have to be taller than you though.’ Mrs. Surujdeo entertained high hopes, seeing that Janki was regularly having lunch with someone, usually someone of financial worth.
      Bram was the short, shrunken brother, a male version of his mother. He did tell one or two people that he should be described as ‘five-foot tall, not five foot short’ and he most unfortunately did have a compulsion to display his knowledge. Usually he ended up speaking to himself when people discovered that it was most difficult to establish their point of view. Then he added, ‘Take what I telling you. I know what I saying.’ Or at other times, he said, ‘Here na. You can’t dispute that, you know. That is man talking there.’ 
      Kanta, on the other hand, was no brain, or so Janki and Bram thought. She had taken courses in computer science and married someone, who ran a travel agency. She was simple, a good mixer, knew when to say please, thank you and could shut up when the conversation did not encourage her to continue. She was her mother’s pet in Janki’s absence. She should have really been the first pet because she was the youngest and commanded enough money to live comfortably. Additionally she did have a good, caring family-oriented husband and was most pleased with him. Her modest achievement satisfied her and she was happy with her status. 

    And me? At the time of this story, I, three years ago, had dropped out of school at age fifteen. I was too wayward but nourished a feeling for the technical subjects. I knew some of nearly everything. I could handle ordinary jobs- a little plumbing, electrical work, assembling tents, painting houses, motor car repairs etc. Many people were amazed at the many skills I possessed but paid me miserly for jobs, which a professional would have charged thrice the amount to do. Others thought I needed supervision in the more challenging areas. 
        I had met Bram many years ago. He used to work in a complex which housed the offices of a major road passenger-transport company. I never visited his office but saw him on my way in and out of the building. You see I used to work for a big contracting firm and did repairs to the plumbing and electrical systems of that building. 
    ‘Hi,’ I said. ‘We pass each other all the time.’
    ‘Yea. Yea.’ He whipped out a cigarette from the packet in his breast pocket. ‘You don’t mind if I smoke though? Just a bad habit.’ His teeth were discoloured and a few were saw-toothed.
    ‘Na. You go ahead.’ I cared but this was our first meeting and I thought it impolite to say no.
    ‘So you work here?’
    ‘Not really. I come in now and then to do stuff for the company.’
    We chatted for a few minutes and during this time, he puffed more than four cigarettes, each time blowing the smoke in front of him. I learnt he was angry, disappointed and felt he knew everything about labour laws. Later I found out he represented the company at the negotiating table. He felt too he should have been in the elected parliament of the country.
      ‘I could topple the government in the wink of an eye but I don’t want to do it.’ He shot an arrow of smoke straight at me. ‘All we have to do is call a general transport strike and the country will shut down.  Hit the airport first. All taxi drivers there on strike.’ He laughed. ’And we have the oil people backing we up. Strong union I tell you. From the days of Rojas.’
    ‘Why you want a strike for? Ent things going good?’
    ‘If you was in transport, you wouldn’t say that. Every damn day the government pushing up gas’ He smiled. ‘You happy making a little change so keep it that way. What I talking about here is real politics. You not cut out for this kind of thing.’ He shot another arrow of smoke at me.  ‘By the way, where you does live, man?’ 
    ‘Not far from Carlton Bay?’
    ‘Yea. A few minutes away.’
    ‘Here what. What you doing on Sunday?’
    I thought for a second. ‘Nothing.’
  ‘Then come by me for a lime. Come in the evening.’  
      From that day I became a regular visitor to their home and over the years I became, as his mother said, part of the family. She welcomed me without reservation. She often compared me to her son and this made me feel a bit uncomfortable. However, Janki, behind her mother’s back, said that I was not a member of her family. Her exact words were, ‘Somebody we happen to know.’

`    ‘I here son. Come this side na.’ I had called to see the old lady one evening and she invited me to the kitchen. 
            ‘That is me work na. Bram go come just now.’
      ‘I just drop in to see how you going.’
    ‘What I go tell you, son. This arthritis giving me trouble. Can’t walk sometimes.’
    ‘You using anything, ma?’
  ‘Oh Gad. I tired using this and that. Janki bring all kind of thing for me.’
    ‘And it not helping?’
    ‘Every day she bringing something new. I using it but it not helping plenty.’
    ‘My niece in Toronto tell me walking does help…’
    ‘Oh Gad, how I go walk?’ She got up to go to the stove. ‘Gad, every time I get up is pain.’ She stirred the vegetables in the pot. ‘What them doctor know? Specially them young one. Take this, take that. Drink, drink, drink. And nothing helping. And on top of that, they giving you injection.’
    ‘Like you have it really bad, ma? And you leaning on one side.’
    ‘If I tell them children, they will say, I not taking the medicine. Don’t talk about that Janki. She like me mother.’
      ‘Maybe she doesn’t like to see you in pain.’
    ‘But what I go do? Old age.’ She paused for a second. ‘But eh eh. I ent offer you a cup of tea self. Gad, I forgetting.’
    ‘Is alright, ma. I okay.’
    ‘Plenty sugar or one spoon?’
    I was never allowed to leave there without partaking of her hospitality. 
      Ma and I got along really well. She confided in me and I too confided in her. She had been a mother-figure in my life. Things I could not discuss with my mother, I discussed with her. 
      One day she told me about a major event her children were planning.
      ‘Between me and you, son. Oh Gad, I don’t know how to tell them no.’ She paused. ‘Tell me this thing na. Birthday party?’ 
      ‘Janki own, ma?’
      ‘No, son. Mine.’
      ‘You mean they want to celebrate your birthday?’
      ‘Oh Gad, yes. What I go do.’
    ‘Is your children, ma. Three of them here and the rest away.’
    ‘Yea, son. That is true but they coming too.’
      ‘That should be good then.’
    ‘Prema should stay in Toronto and don’t bother me head here. When she come, she does dig up here, dig up there, throw way this, throw away that. She does look all over and find thing I buy from Kassim Store. She say them thing old fashion and throw them away. Them thing you can’t buy again, son. And they was cheap then.’
           In Toronto, Prema was called Dorothy, a name she assumed as soon as she landed there. She told her father and mother, ‘People there find Dorothy easy to pronounce.’ To that he replied, ‘You is still Prema in my house.’
         To sum up her conclusion on Dorothy and her tidying up the house, she said, ‘Maybe she just trying to clean up the place. But, Gad, everything she throwing out so?’
      The old lady shared her one deep concern openly. ‘Birthday party. Birthday party. Yea. In my old age, they want birthday party for me. Son, when the day come and I get a little bit of food, I ent want nothing more than that.’ She shook her head sideways. ‘Bram does cook when the maid ent turn out to work.  He does try but he does smoke a whole pack of cigarette before he make a little rice and something. And when I eating the food, it does smell smoke smoke.’
      ‘Bram is a good boy,’ I said.
    ‘I not saying he bad but this cigarette thing? Gad, he wouldn’t stop smoking.’
    I was going to say, Since his wife leave him, I think he smoking more but decided against venturing there. She paused to catch her breath, her face worked up in anger and she breathed deeply. ‘Better he did married the girl from England.’

      Two days later I stopped at a roadside restaurant to have lunch. I wanted something simple as I was hustling to finish a job I started two weeks ago. Bram was there, well-dressed, his protruding belly pushing out his sky-blue tie, a cigarette stuck in his mouth where a tooth was missing, the front teeth a little curried.
    He said, ‘I catch you.’
    ‘What you doing here?’
  ‘Just like you. Come to grab a bite.’ We shared the same table. ‘We throwing a birthday party for my mother. Take what I tell you. It going to be a bumber party.’ I listened. ‘Janki planning a…..…No. I shouldn’t be telling you this. But take what I tell you. Is something great.’
    ‘Is alright. If is a family secret.’
    ‘Anyway is a birthday party before ma go to settle in Toronto. And I up to it.’
  ‘Wait na. Wait na. I didn’t hear you right. You mean ma going to live in Toronto?’
  ‘That what I telling, man. Go there, spend a few months, get she pension papers fix up and then she happy like pappie.’
    When I returned home that day, too many thoughts were going through my mind.
    Immediately I asked my mother, ‘Ma, you want to go to Toronto to get pension?’
  ‘Me? To get pension? You mad or what? I living good here. Not me.’ 

  I dropped in to see ma at about eleven on another day. It was a hot day and she was in the back porch sucking a starch mango. The maid accompanied me because of the new attacking dog.
    ‘How you going, son?’ She was in her wheelchair. ‘How you going?’
    ‘I okay. I doing a work in a new house up the road. So I just dropping in for a few minutes.’
    ‘How your mother?’
  ‘She good. A little arthritis but she alright.’ 
              Ma withdrew an envelope from a pocket in the wheelchair. ‘Here. Read this.’
    I read the card. It was the upcoming birthday party invitation. 
    ‘Ma, so you’ll be dancing and thing then?’
    ‘Dancing? In the wheelchair. These children go kill me, yes.’ She bent her head low. ‘You must take care of your mother. All she want is a little food. Nothing else. Old people don’t want plenty. But don’t throw she away, son.’ She paused again and played with the wheels of the chair. ‘You and your mother does get along good, eh?’
    ‘She does quarrel sometimes but that is okay.’
    ‘You know….Here what. Close that back door. This maid does hear too much.’ I did as she advised. ‘You know what, son? I will tell you. That Janki and them two in Toronto want me there to live. They say I will get pension and go be happy there. But I happy here. Yes. Janki does give me a little money, buy things but Kanta and Bram does do the same thing too. You know, son, I will get damn vex one day and tell she I ent want nothing from she. I just getting fed up hearing the same thing every day. Pension. Pension. Pension.’
      ‘But ma, they want you to go to live in Toronto?’
             ‘I don’t know, son, but it looking so.’
              I did not respond and she continued, ‘Them children father left a house for me. This is the house. What I going to live there for? And son, oh Gad, this arthritis does give me trouble. It does hurt too bad. This last time I come back from Toronto I say I not going back. Son, they making me wear tight tight pants and a bundle of clothes. One on top the other. You can’t walk proper. And you coup up in a room day and night. You can’t see a neighbour. You can’t see a bird. And when you go out, you going in a park. And even though I don’t want to go, they still dragging me. Son, this is me house. Me life here. Prema father leave it for me.’
    ‘But ma, what about Kanta and Bram, they want you go?’
    Someone with a loud, grating voice called, ‘Ma! Ma! Where you?’
      ‘Oh Gad, son. Is Janki. Give me the card. Let me put it away.’ She answered. ‘Over here, Jan. In the back with Vickram.’
      Janki ignored me. ‘How… you going, ma? I….I bring some food for you. Bake and smoke herring.’
    ‘Thank you, Jan. You mustn’t hurry. Kanta bring something in a container. I don’t know what.’
    ‘Ma, is cook I cook it, you know. This…this not from any fast food place.’
    ‘Don’t quarrel na, Jan. Kanta does try. Bram, too.’
    ‘She too selfish. She only for she and she husband who only flying about the place all the time. Anyway I …..’She looked in my direction.
    I sensed what was taking place. ‘Ma, I better go. Let me see what these boys on the job doing.’
    ‘Okay, son. Next time I go make some soup for you.’
    ‘Okay, ma. Thanks.’
    Janki was surely not pleased. ‘Em Em. Vickram. I want some help soon. I will tell Bram and he will tell you.’
    ‘Once I could do it.’  
      As I was walking out, the maid said, ‘Mr. Vickram, Me gat something to tell you.’ I never had a conversation with the maid before.  ‘Me go tell you something. Janki na like you at all. She does tell ma you na have brains, that you na go to school. And one day me hear she telling ma how you ah da drive old car. Me find she too impartant. She da ah play big shat ‘cause she ah know all them big pappie and them.’ She looked around to ascertain no one was over hearing them. ‘Me ah hear she ah having birthday party for ma. But me did hear she tell ma all kinda big pappie da go come and them in govment. So them ah go have to give she big shat work.’
    I dismissed the maid’s monologue as idle chat. Most of what she said made no sense. Something occurred to me that evening. Suppose Janki did say those things. Perhaps she too  wanted to be a minister or a senator. And what did the birthday party have to do with all this? 
      Just about this time, Kanta said to me, ‘I have a work for you. We want to redo the bathroom in the master bedroom.’ 
        I visited her home, listened to her as she explained the changes needed, discussed the cost of the work and that ended our meeting.
    Two weeks later while working on the project, Janki said to me, ‘Ma tell you anything?’
           ‘I not sure what you talking about.’
    She smiled, handing me a glass of orange juice. ‘You and ma close and she will tell you.’ I listened. I also knew that Kanta did not speak out of a hat. She was concerned about something and perhaps she thought she could trust me. ‘You know Janki throwing a birthday party for ma?’
    ‘Ma tell me that.’
    She smiled. ‘I know ma will tell you a lot of things.’
    ‘Some things. Not everything.’
    ‘And then Janki want to send ma to Toronto so she’ll get a pension there.’ I nodded my head. ‘But ma doesn’t want to go and she doesn’t want to tell Janki that. And then the others in Toronto agreeing to it. Especially Prema. She say it have a lot of people from all over the world coming there and getting free pension. So ma should take it. Is free money.’
    ‘That’s terrible. Why push her to go if she doesn’t want to go?’ I was going to tell her what ma told me about all the ‘bundle of clothes’ she wore but decided against it. 
    ‘Listen, Vickram, we have to work against Janki. She think she smart but we have to outsmart she.’
    ‘I am a stranger, you know. Not sure I could do anything.’
            ‘You are part of the family. Ma consider you her son.’
             I smiled. 
    Then Kanta told me of her plans to counteract Janki’s own. I felt the plans could work but haboured a little doubt. There was also a little misgiving in my mind about taking sides. As all knew, ma would not oppose Prema and especially Janki. It wasn’t that Janki wanted something special from ma but she was the kind of person who wanted all her dreams become realities. Kanta pointed that out to me and I agreed with her. Janki was not a compromising person and it was for this reason that she and her husband went their separate ways. Kanta even said that a person in a marriage could take only so much. After that, the person went his or her way. When Janki offered her husband a little money to leave, he grabbed the opportunity. He told friends that ‘She only bullying me and that is something I can’t take. She rich but she want a slave. She think I mustn’t have a mind of me own.’  
      Three weeks before the birthday party, Bram said to me, ‘You are the outsider with the voice. Kanta counting on you.’
    ‘For what?’
  ‘Ma doesn’t want to go to Toronto but she can’t tell Janki that.’
    ‘But why?’ 
    ‘Is not Janki alone. Is those in Toronto. Ma doesn’t want to go but doesn’t want to refuse to go. And she doesn’t want to get anybody vex.’
    ‘Jees and ages, man. You putting me in a real spot. Janki go tell me off if she hear I on all your side.’
    Bram laughed. ‘Once ma around, is only a mad Janki that go touch you.’
    ‘Blood thicker than water,’ I said.
          ‘The exception is the rule.’
    Some days later Kanta, Bram and I worked out a plan to carry out on the day of the party.
    In preparation for the occasion, Janki was dictating to us the many changes and painting jobs she wanted done. They were not challenging jobs but called for a little effort to meet the deadline.
      Four days before the birthday party, ma and Janki clashed.
    Janki said, ‘Ma, we have to have a birthday cake, you know.’
    ‘Birthday cake! What birthday cake?’
    ‘Ma, every birthday must have a cake to cut and you have to cut it.’
    ‘Look, Janki, don’t make me get mad this hour of the morning na. You and this birthday cake. Gad, you will kill me or what.’
    ‘But ma…’
    ‘Alright. Alright.’ Ma gave in and I was surprised. ‘You know I like rice cake. So make the birthday cake with rice.’
    ‘I done talk, yes.’ Later she said to Bram, ‘You sister mad, you know. Imagine in my old age, she want me cut cake for birthday.’
    ‘Hm. Hm. That is a interesting one. Very interesting.’ Ma looked at him in surprise. ‘Hm. Hm. Birthday cake now. You never know with Janki. I tell you money talks.’
    ‘I not cutting any cake, Bram. Not in my old age.’
    ‘But ma, I thought you like rice cake.’
    ‘Rice cake. A big rice cake and I go enjoy meself.’
      Whenever there was a large function in the family, the ladies got together and cooked. Now Janki was changing that. ‘A next thing, ma. We have to cater.’
    ‘What? Cater?’
    ‘Cater na. Order the food. We will order the food and the people will deliver and then they’ll serve us.’
      ‘Janki, all these days we having pooja and we cooking in the back shed, how we go change that now? So you can’t cook it for yourself? Eh?’
    Janki sucked her teeth loudly. Her impatience was running out. ‘Ma is not oil down and ordinary food we serving, you know.’
      ‘What you serving then?’
    ‘Chinese. That is why we want caterers.’
  ‘Girl, you want to kill me in me old age or what?’ Ma paused. ‘You know what, Janki? Do what you want. Is your birthday party. I go just be there.’
    Janki looked at her mother. ‘I trying to do something special and you don’t appreciate that. I wonder if you don’t fed up of them kind of food you eating every day?’ In stronger tones, she said, ‘Ma, I done order the Chinese already. If I change that, I go lose me money.  So we going to have Chinese.’
    ‘Alright, Janki. Chinese or Indian or Creole food. Do what you want. Once is something good to eat.’
    When Janki walked away, she was smiling under her chin. ‘Give my friends pig tail and cow heel soup? Cheap food. They go think they come to a wake.’
  When Janki told Bram of the discussion, he was not supportive and this forced her to say, ‘You just like your mother. Doing things cheap cheap.  And all you not even paying for it.’ In the end, she agreed that she would order a rice cake. Bram laughed because he knew Janki would have her way. She would make a black cake and have the outer layer covered with multi-coloured rice. When ma saw it, she would surely agree that Janki listened and so would agree to her wishes. Bram knew, too, that Janki never liked to lose. 
    One day before the birthday party, Kanta, in whom I had great confidence, said, ‘Vickram, just follow what I say and I bet you one thing. Ma not going to any Toronto. This is one time Janki not going to have her way.’
    ‘But your brother and sister already come for she. Ent Dorothy is your big sister.’
    ‘They could bring the Niagara Falls for ma. Once my plan work out, she not going anyway. The poor old lady doesn’t want to live anywhere but here. So why not leave she to spend she last days here?’ She shook her head in dejection. ‘Janki is trouble, yes.’
      Left to be seen, I said to myself. To Kanta, I said, ‘Just tell me what to do. I in your corner.’
    And on the day of the party, we waited for that hour when our guests would join us. Slowly they trickled in and within half an hour, there were about fifty people greeting ma with ‘Happy Birthday. Eighty years, eh? Nice age. Few of us could make that.’ 
    True to Bram’s calculation, Janki brought a rice-layered, colourfully-decorated cake about eighteen inches tall.
    Bram said, ‘See what I was saying, Kanta.’
           ‘Shhh shhh. Just look on.’
    The caterers placed the food in one section and from there all guests would take their platefuls and sit on their comfortable seats at the reserved table.
    Kanta whispered to me, ‘Janki’s special guests are now inside at the big table with the vase of fresh flowers. You better stay inside and help out because the caterers short staff. They  alone can’t manage. And too besides, I not seeing Janki at all.’
    The caterers had placed their small containers on ma’s dining table. They were all covered with large spoons at their sides. The plates were stacked high on separate tables and it seemed to me that Janki’s special guests, all casually dressed in jerseys, flowered t-shirts and jeans, were waiting to be served.
    I said, ‘I guess I can help.’ I removed the lids from the pots. ‘Anybody ready? I am here.’ They sprinted to the table, grabbed the plates and one gently said to me, ‘A moderate amount, sir.’
    ‘Just you tell me when to stop.’
    When I, along with an official waitress, had served them, I said, ‘There is a cooler here with ice. You can choose as you please. From hard to soft. Take to your leisure and pleasure.’
    ‘Oh sure, man. Thank you.’
    They were one talkative bunch, who discarded most of the cutlery and used their hands, licking their fingers and crushing the bones with their teeth.
      I stood attentively aside and waited for a gentle call for a second helping.
      At this point, Janki strolled in, regally dressed, a broad smile on her face, her eyes brighter than the midday sun. 
    ‘Hi, everyone. I am here. Traffic jam as usual. This is Trinidad.’ She placed two bottles of expensive whisky and two bottles of ice-cold coconut water on the table. ‘I’m glad you all came. Have fun.’ Within minutes, she kissed more than fifteen of them on their cheeks.
      Her next move surprised me a great deal. ‘Who serve these people?’ She spoke almost in whispering tones, a smile lingering on her lips.
    ‘Me and another person.’
    ‘Kanta ask me to help out. And that is all I do.’
      ‘Kanta has no brains. Listen. You’re not supposed to be in here. These people have class and I suppose to serve them. You can take a break but don’t bother to come back. I can handle things from here.’
      ‘Okay. Sorry.’
    At this same time, one of the guests called out. ‘Hi, sir. Just a small portion of duck meat. Boneless please. And torn up roti.’
    Another corrected him. ‘You mean buss-up-shot, man?’
  ‘Yea. That.’
  ‘Paratha,’ another added.
              And they looked at him in surprise.
    Janki saw my intention and said, ‘Oh, sure. I’ll handle it.’
    When Kanta ran into me, sitting with ma and a few elderly ladies and chatting, she said, ‘What you doing here? I thought I ask you to help inside?’
    ‘Janki ask me to leave. She say she’ll see about the people.’
    ‘She ask you to leave?’
           ‘Too damn hifalutin. Feel she is upper class.’
    ‘And she say don’t bother to come back.’
    ‘She say that too?’
    ‘Eh hm. Exactly that.’
            ‘Jees and ages.’
  Two important parties were taking place at the one birthday party. It was strange how things turned out. In a tent outside, ma, accompanied by about twelve ladies, was laughing and chatting and cracking jokes. They had originally grown up in a particular village but were now living here. Ma was at her best that night. For one moment, I didn’t think she was the hopping lady, the leaning lady or the lady with the pain. All that seemed to have disappeared. Ma was bubbling over in happiness.
    One lady, one hundred and six years old I was told, said, ‘I know you since a little girl and you didn’t tell me you going to live Toronto?’ 
    ‘Yea,’ another added. ‘You leaving we and going?’
    Dorothy and her brother, Bimboy, were standing close by but ma was unaware of them. Bimboy, had rechristened himself in Canada. From Bickramdass , he was now Bimboy or sometimes Bim.
    ‘Me? Going Toronto? Not me. Here is home. Ha. All my friends here. Me going to wear a bundle of clothes? Give me a little dress and some flowers outside. I want to get up in the morning and hear the birds whistle and the dog bark and the cat meow and the cock crowing four o’ clock in the morning. I want to hear the donkey bray. I want to hear them thing. I want to get up in the morning and watch outside and see my neighbours and say Morning and Hi and Hello and how you do. And I want to see Moonsie mother, who does come to pick flowers every morning. I mean I don’t want to miss the Flowers Lady. And I like to see the sun in the morning.’
      ‘Oh, so you not going then?’
      ‘Not me. I have ‘nough pension money here. The children here does see ‘bout me. All three. Janki and Kanta and Bram and then me and Vickram does get along good. He like me next son. Ent, Vicks?’
          I smiled.
    However, the story did not end there. Dorothy stepped forward. ‘So ma, what we come for then?’ There was a touch of anger in her voice, her over-sized lips growing, or so they seemed. ‘We come to carry you because you say you can’t travel alone.’ But Dorothy too had her own hidden agenda. Ma owned two acres of prime lands in Carlton Bay. She knew that once ma was settled in Canada, she could influence ma to give her those lands. And there was of course ma’s pension which would come in handy.
            ‘Me? I never say I want to go anywhere. Not me.’
            ‘So why we come back to this dump then? This hole all you living in?’
    ‘To have a good time for me birthday. Jump up, dance and sing. Don’t mind I in a wheel chair. All you never celebrate me birthday before. Is nice to see all me children get together at least this time. I feel so happy all of them here. And you know what Prema? Janki did bring some cascadu. Let we all eat cascadu. I hear cascadu is a great fish. Once you eat cascadu, you not going to leave Trinidad. So lay we eat it.’
      And all the ladies agreed that cascadu was a great, sweet-tasting, fresh-water fish.
    ‘The best in the west,’ one lady said. ‘So let’s have a cascadu dance.’ And all the ladies stood up, joined by Dorothy, Bimboy, Bram, Kanta and me too and we sang and danced around ma, singing ‘Happy Birthday………’
          Ma saw Janki standing aside and said, ‘Come on Jan. Join.’
          And she did unwillingly, abandoning her friends for a while to dance with ma.

      It was Kanta who suggested that they cut the cake and ma said, ‘Sure. Bring it out.’
      When ma sliced the cake, she passed the first piece to Kanta ‘Here. You is me oldest daughter.’
           At this point Janki stepped away from the group. 
      Kanta said, ‘But ma, this is black cake. Black rum cake.’ She bit another piece.
      Then ma herself bit a piece. ‘Yes. Black rum cake. ‘She paused. ‘And where ,Janki?’ Ma looked around. ‘You see how Janki trick me. She tell me is rice cake. Never mind, put half for Janki and she friends inside and we could eat the other half. But she shouldn’t lie to me. I is she mother.’
      Kanta was quietly smiling. Only Bram and I knew why and we all smiled with her. Bram, puffing a cigarette, said, ‘Interesting. Very very interesting. I want to see Janki’s face tomorrow when she hear ma say she not going for no pension anywhere. She have enough pension here.’

      Janki was Janki and there could be only one Janki. She was busily attending to her very special guests. She had met most of them on other occasions, and had asked her ‘advisor’ to point out who’s who. She had gone around the table with a broad smile, kissed all and then brought out an additional bottle each of the most expensive wine and whisky. To crown it off, Janki began dancing and perhaps forgot it was her mother’s birthday they were celebrating. She became the center of attraction to all and that was exactly what she calculated. She knew that once she entertained especially her guests lavishly, she would be the event co-ordinator at most of their celebratory occasions. 
    ‘At least,’ she said to herself, ‘I have one foot inside. They will dance to me tune for years to come. Else my name is not Janki.’
      We knew of Janki’s success long after Dorothy and Bimboy returned to Toronto disappointed. Janki had really seized ma’s birthday as an occasion to bring together a few influential people, who would benefit her. In fact, so much was she taken up that she forgot to tell ma happy birthday. 
     Surely Bram and Kanta had not really lost because for the first time ma, now eighty plus years old, spoke out that she wanted to stay here because she was so used to her way of life. Janki wasn’t too bothered that ma didn’t go. And she didn’t bother too how Dorothy and Bimboy felt. That was her least concern but she began to show more respect for Bram and Kanta, whom she knew could counteract her moves if they chose to.
           Janki now moved in circles as the great event co-ordinator. It was her crowning achievement.
      Not long afterwards, she joined the ruling political party. It brought her to the inner circle and as she calculated, she received lucrative government contracts as the event’s manager for many of their functions. It seemed that the cheque-signing officials were too happy to dish out taxpayers’ money to her.
    It was always, ‘Yes, m’ am. Sure, m’ am. Sorry to keep you waiting, m’am.’
      Her success caused her to tell Kanta, ‘You have to know how to live and who to talk to. Life is not about driving straight. Is also about changing lanes.’
      As for me, I could not fathom if Janki cared for me or not. That was not something on my mind. Ma and I got along very well. Bram and Kanta were my trusted friends and remained so even after Ma died.

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