Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Jus call me Cooligan! Bois and bacchannal in meh blood

Mooma mooma yuh son in d grave ahready....

Some people, like Destra and her Lucy, are introduced to Carnival.
And some of us are just born into bois and bus’ head!
So, Ricardo, just call me Cooligan!... more

One of my earliest memories, so early that is only an impression on my memory and not a memory really, is of Pa, coming home with his head bust – blood dripping down the sides of his ears and Ma, mixture of fear and anger on her face, mopping up the blood with a wash cloth.
Then, the impression deepens into memory. I am sitting on Pa’s shoulders, a little more than a toddler. We are wading in predawn darkness through a forest of mud and grease-smeared bodies gyrating to the most sensational music of steelpan hung around the necks of semi-inebriated men, dodging the pitchforks and jab-jabbing blue, black and red devils popping up with evil grins on their faces, the graceful powder-faced sailor mas and the beautifully plumed ‘Red Indians.'
Pa was able to get us out of the house and past Ma’s displeasure, at the ungodly just-past-midnight of pre- J’Ouvert for the hour and a half journey to San Fernando, on what we conspiratorially knew was the excuse that we would help him with his sales at the San Fernando market. That of course, meant being piloted through the mayhem of J’Ouvert Morning dong south to get to his ‘work’ at his market stall. And so it was that on Carnival we were just let ‘loose,’ through to the years when we were now too heavy to carry on his shoulders, he having aged and we having gown, he is gripping our hands in his, or we are gripping his hands – I am not sure which - but we are again being expertly piloted through the darkness of grating bodies to the rhythms of Calypso Rose’s  then newly released, Gimme More Tempo:
I goin dong San Fernando
Dong dey have plenty tempo
Hatters’ Steel Orchestra jamming sweet
We goin’ join San Fernandians
And roll dong Coffee Street
So give me more,
Tempo….

Those few years later, the thought of rolling down Coffee Street in the darkness of pre-dawn still held remarkable appeal: at the bottom of Coffee Street was the San Fernando Market.
As if that was not excitement enough for two country children, on the way home, just as the sun was setting with its bloody blush over the undulating panoramic stretch before the Naparima Hill, we would board the bus from the wharf in San Fernando to Rio Claro/Mayaro. Pa had a good reason to take the bus, apart from the lower cost, of course, with his two little passengers.
Since the bus did not go into the district where we lived, it meant stopping off at New Grant Junction, with the hope that some neighbour or relative with a motor car or a bull cart or tractor heading homeward, would stop for us or we would walk the mile and a half home – like the ole lady who tillalay.
On this occasion, Pa had another conspiratorial excuse to stop off on the Junction – one about which Ma would not be pleased. Pa sometimes had some excitement planned after his hard day of work, whether in the garden, or the market. We could only wonder what it was this time, when we alighted on the crowds and crowds, and thumping drums and music and shouts on New Grant Junction. We would soon know why, the terror of which experience still rattles through my bones to this day.
A red devil jumped into my face, hands outstretched, beating on his biscuit pan, ‘pay d’ devil’. It’s not that I didn’t know devil mas. We had cut enough mas face out of card board and made costumes out of newspaper cutouts and pitchforks from twigs pa cut off the chennette tree in the yard. We had taken enough of Ma’s biscuit tins, and condensed milk tins from which to make music, but this devil, red forked tong dribbling in and out like a snake, looked real.
Pa handed him a coin and three more came over, different colours – blue, black, yellow. I moved closer under Pa’s arms. 
But the terror had just begun. Making sure that my brother and I were safely on the side with the tempo driven crowd dodging off greasy pitchforked devils pounding on biscuit tins and holding back our screams as if in a horror house - undiminished even when we may recognise behind the crudely crafted cardboard mask, an otherwise friendly neighbour - the terror reached a new pitch when horror of horror unfolded in slow motion:
 ….to the urgings of his friends,
….the irresistible drums and the fading sunset,
…Pa is rolling up his khaki pants to mid calf,
… Pa's guarabara market shirt is already halfway unbuttoned, left corner tucked into his khakis;
…the sappath he had carved with his own hands - from wood he cut with his own hands, smoothed with a jackplane with sewn-on rubber he cut from discarded tyres – clattering;
…His grey eyes, the light yellow irises which when blazing we knew not to cross, like it is now in the evening sun;
…Pa is reaching for a bois someone’s outstretched hands are handing to him...
...The musical chorus picks up….
That was when I came to know what having one’s heart caught in one’s throat meant. I saw Pa’s life flash before me eyes, and I saw flashes of those impressions on memory of years earlier, of Ma mopping blood rolling down Pa’s face, because Pa is not just sheriff; Pa is not just 'like ah Boss', +MachelMontano, Pa is Boss! Bois Boss!
Pa and his opponent are taunting each other, tossing heads like cocks in a ring, circling the ready-made ring of spectators, surrendering to the cheers and jeers of the crowd, egged on by the drums. For each crack of the bois, eyes shut tight, we are watching Pa evolve from gardener-market vendor and sometimes defacto district sheriff, to Bois man:  Kalahari, Taiaha, Shaia, Marakau, Macahuitl, Silamban, Gatka,and Calinda in resounding clash after clash; timeless millennia condenses, coagulates and encapsules a multicultural milieu in one moment.
It was a terror we would witness for several Carnivals to come and the repeat ritual of Ma mopping up the blood dripping down his face, season after season. It was a terror, we knew, mixed with pride; like Ma’s concern, mixed with fear and anger, as we learnt too that the purest sensations are but a cacophony of intermeshed mixed emotions, like Gatka, stroking and caressing Calinda into complicity.
Much later, preparing an article for my column Discover Trinidad and Tobago, and later yet, exploring the literary landscapes of Trinidad and Tobago through the short and long stories of Ismith Khan and Seepersad Naipaul's Gurudeva and VS Naipaul and Earl Lovelace and Michael Anthony and Samuel Selvon and James Isiah Boodoo New Grant Junction FesTTscapes in LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago would pop out for its centrality to the legendary stick fighters of Moruga and Mayaro and Sangre Grande, as described in the section
Pa had ‘gone to he grave ahready,’ or cremation pyre rather before I could ask him why. As much as I would have liked this recount to describe his as a death induced by a great crack of a bois that might have felled a master-stickfighter, his was from a head cold, acquired as a part-time side job as woodcutter in his multi-tasked lifetime, and at the end of a rather full life.
The sun setting now on our stickfighting heritage, in which New Grant Junction was sacred territory, springing - from its blood-soaked soil - many-a-king-of-Bois, we can recreate some of the glory days from our literary heritage captured in LiTTscapes, and stylised versions now staged at various legal venues.
The ritual of testing one’s endurance beyond present reality is mounted onto the art of stickfighting, now fading into heritage sunset - unknown to us, because he never attempted to explain his actions, not to Ma and nor to us, Pa was participating in an ancestral-old tradition, long before the tributaries of the Ganges and of the Nile flowed into Trinidad and Tobago. Part of the ancient, ancestral heritage of Asian – Indian, Chinese; and African, Trinidad and Tobago that fade into the nebulous recesses of history’s hauntingly unwritten nebulous spaces ….. (more in…. Glocal Culture… coming soon)