On my seventeenth birthday I became an acting second-class clerk in the Registrar-General’s Department. It was a filling-in job, between leaving school and going away to England, to the university; and it was one of the most hopeful times in my life. The Registrar-General’s Department was in the Red House, in St. Vincent Street. This was one of the first streets I had got to know in Port of Spain.
I was a country boy, and still am in my heart of hearts. Only a country boy could have loved the town as I did when I came to it. This was in 1938 or 1939. I loved everything about the town that was not like the country. I liked the paved cambered streets and even the open curbside gutters: every morning, after they had done their sweeping and gathering, the street-cleaners opened the water hydrants and flooded the gutters with fresh, clear water. I liked the pavements. Many of the houses had decorative fences of a particular style, with a big carriage or cart-gate at the side, usually of corrugated iron, and an elegant small gate in the middle, leading to the front door. These front gates were of stiff patterned wire within a tubular frame and with a metal arabesque at the top. Sometimes they had a bell. I liked the way the pavements dipped outside the big side gates (to let in the carts or cars to the yards, though very few people had cars). I liked the street lamps; the squares with their trees and paved paths and benches; the routine of the town day, from the street-cleaners’ brooms in the early morning, to the newspaper being thrown on to the front steps, to the horse-drawn ice-cart in the middle of the morning. Port of Spain was small, really, with less than a hundred thousand people. But to me it was a big town, and quite complete.
My father was my guide to the city in the very early days. One Sunday afternoon he took me to the city center and walked me down two or three of the principal streets. Sunday was such a quiet day that you could—for the sake of doing something unusual—get off the pavement and walk in the street itself. Frederick Street was the street of the big stores. More interesting to me was St. Vincent Street. At the lower end, near the harbor, it was the street of the newspapers, the Trinidad Guardian and the Port of Spain Gazette, facing one another. My father worked for the Guardian. It was the more important and more modern paper. From the pavement you could see the new machines, the big rollers, the big unwinding ribbons of newsprint, and you could get the warm smell of machines and paper and printing ink. So, almost as soon as I had come to the city, this new excitement, of paper and ink and urgent printing, was given to me.
Later I got to know the higher or upper parts of the street. The tailor who made trousers for me had his shop in St. Vincent Street. My father took me there one day. The tailor’s name was Nazaralli Baksh. His shop faced west and was shaded from the afternoon sun by a white canvas blind hanging vertically over the pavement. His name was painted on this blind. He was a small, slender Indian man, standing some way inside his shop, perhaps because of the sun. He had a fined-down face, with dark shining eyes set in darker sockets, and with his thin hair brushed back flat: a severe man, friendly to my father, but more matter of fact with me than I expected adults to be. I expected adults who had been properly introduced to me to be a little awed by me, and my “brightness.” The thin tape measure hanging round Nazaralli Baksh’s neck was like part of the severity of his appearance.
I don’t know how good his tailoring was; but this introduction made him the man I thought of as “the tailor.” I thought of no one else as a tailor.” I thought of no one else as a tailor in quite this way; every other tailor in Port of Spain seemed to me counterfeit. I understood at some stage that he was a Mohammedan. This didn’t at first make him less close; but then, with Indian independence, and the religious partition of the sub-continent, the idea of difference began to attach to him, though I never stopped going to him for my clothes. It was Nazaralli Baksh who made the clothes I took with me when I went away to England.
I heard later that a lot of his work was for the local police force; he made uniforms for them. For us who were his fellow Indians this would have been part of Nazaralli Baksh’s legend and success. Police Headquarters was just across the road from his shop. It was an important Port of Spain building. It was distinctive, with a high gray wall of stone and rubble. Later knowledge told me that it was a British colonial building in the Victorian Gothic style. At the time that rough gray front wall and those pointed reddish arches in the open galleries at the back seemed to be just what you would expect to find in Police Headquarters.
A small town, a small street; but it took time to know. I had no interest in the law or lawyers, for instance, and for many years I paid no attention to that part of the street, opposite the courts, where the lawyers were. Then one day I went to the “chambers”—quaint word—of a famous black lawyer.
This happened quite late, shortly after I had left school. I had been successful at school; it was known—people took an interest in these things—that I had won a scholarship and was going to go abroad soon. The lawyer’s son had been right through school with me, and one day he said he wanted to take me to meet his father. We went to his father’s chambers. These chambers were in St. Vincent Street and occupied the whole of a very small house, a real Port of Spain miniature from the Spanish time. It would have been one of the earliest residential houses, built perhaps in the 1780s, not long after the city had been laid out. I suppose a number of these early houses were as small and squashed as they were because only short stretches of the streets had been made up; bush and plantations would have been quite close.
The little front room of the chambers was full of black people, ordinary people, sitting very close together on two benches, bench facing bench across bare floorboards. The slats of the jalousies of the little front window were coated with dust from the street; you could see on the distempered walls where over the years the people on the benches had rested shoulders and heads. The people I saw were as silent and patient as people waiting for free medicine in a Health Office. Bright eyes, shining faces, reverential expressions: black people coming to one of their own, not minding the discomfort and the stillness and the wait, and not resenting the young boy who, just arrived, simply went into the inner room where the great man was. The atmosphere of the narrow little waiting room was new to me.
In the more open, cooler room at the back the lawyer was in shirtsleeves, with his lawyer’s jacket on a hanger. The lawbooks and old folders with old papers, the general scruffiness of the chambers, the worm-eaten boards of the partition, made the lawyer’s profession seem a very dull one: it was hard to imagine that anything done in this room could generate real money.
I didn’t know what to say to the lawyer, after the courtesies, which went on for a while. And he seemed equally at a loss; he seemed content just to look at me. I myself had a wish to look below the desk at the lawyer’s shoes. His son had told me, years and years before, when we were both in the fourth or fifth standard at the elementary school, that you could always tell a gentleman by the way he kept his shoes.
My friend didn’t help with the conversation. His manner had altered in the inner office. He had become very much the son, the family treasure, the person who didn’t have to try. He seemed now to be more interested in finding a cold drink. He was very casual with the great lawyer.
The lawyer was famous for his first name, which was Evander. And all I could think of, at this artificial moment, was to ask how he had been given it.
He said, “My father worshiped education. It was his way of giving me ambition. He was not an educated man. But he was born in 1867 or 1970. That’s a long time ago for us. If you look it up, you’ll find the name in Homer. Book four or book five.”
It was surprising, that this famous man hadn’t gone into his unusual name, didn’t know that the name came from Latin and Virgil, and had simply tried to bluff me. He was a self-made man. He hadn’t had anything like a formal education; all his energies had gone into his profession and making his way. But this flaw in his character, so casually revealed, was worrying. While I was getting used to that new idea of him, he was taking the conversation, by ways I cannot reconstruct, to something else.
The moment came when he leaned back in his Windsor chair, thrust his big white-sleeved forearm across the table, in a gesture of strength, and said, with a smile, and as a kind of pledge, “The race! The race, man!”
The black race, the African race, the colored races: I suppose that was what the lawyer meant, and that was why I had been brought to his chambers.
I looked at his son. His face registered nothing, as though he hadn’t heard what his father had said and hadn’t noticed the gesture he had made.
I didn’t believe that, didn’t believe that blank face. At the lower end of St. Vincent Street I had years before smelt paper and ink and warm printing presses, and certain fantasies had come to me. In this back room of the chambers, with the jalousie-strained light, were other fantasies, subterranean emotions that had to be hidden from the light of St. Vincent Street, from the colonial reality of that street.
This was in the late 1940s. Few black people at that time could see a way ahead. How strange, then, to find an old man, a man born in the last century, to whom the way ahead was clear, something he could even toast, with an instinctive gesture across the desk that twenty years later might have been seen as a black-power salute. What was stranger was that the public idea of Evander, my friend’s father, was not like this at all. In the gossip Evander was the self-made black man who wanted only to be white, wanted to have nothing to do with black people, and in everything he did was fighting only for himself
This other dream was like a family secret, which father and son were now admitting me to. I was moved, but at the same time embarrassed. I understood their feelings, shared them to some extent, but I wished, even with that understanding, to belong to myself. I couldn’t support the idea of being part of a group. I would have felt tied down by it, and I thought Evander’s idea of a great racial movement forward too sentimental.
The civil service didn’t employ anyone under seventeen, and in the next year, on my seventeenth birthday, I went to work in the Registrar-General’s Department, and got to know St. Vincent Street in quite another way.
The department was on the ground floor of the Red House. The Red House was the principal building of the administration. It was one of the biggest buildings in the island and we all thought it was beautiful. I am not sure whether its dull red color came from paint or from something that had been mixed into the plaster. It was one of the buildings that made Port of Spain Port of Spain. You saw it from the harbor, from the hills, and from across the Savannah.
It was in the Italian style, we were told. It was on two floors, with open galleries on both floors, and with a dome. It was as wide as a block, and there was a walkway, below that red dome, between St. Vincent Street and Woodford Square, on the other side. That walkway gave a special big-town feel. You went up stone steps, and then you walked in an echoing openness past a fountain and then down other steps to the other side. The fountain didn’t work—one of the interruptions we associated with the war—but the marble, though iron-stained and tide-marked, was still beautiful, and the idea of the fountain was somehow still there.
On either side of the empty fountain big, free-standing, wooden notice-boards, head-high, were set in front of the open doors of government departments. These notice-boards also served as screens, shielding clerks and typists and other civil servants from the gaze of the people passing to and fro. At the back of the notice-boards were bicycle-racks, where the civil servants chained up their bicycles. Notice-boards and bicycle-racks took away something of the openness of the walkway below the high pierced dome. So already there was a feeling of a fine building not being seen in all its beauty, and beginning to be misused.
The notice-boards didn’t carry government instructions. The pinned-up posters were about health care and the importance of vaccinations, things like that. Many of them came from London, and didn’t always completely apply to local conditions; but we were used to that. These notice-boards and posters were the work of the Information Office, a department that had been established during the war—in a timber building set down on the lawn of the Red House—to give out pictures and booklets about the war and about life in England. These posters and notices about health and bloodtests and X-rays and clean water were a peacetime continuation of that world. You saw these posters only in the Red House; you didn’t see them anywhere else. I never thought they meant anything, but they introduced me to the idea of government as a benevolent agency, concerned about people.
This idea of government shouldn’t have been new to me, after all that I had learned at school. But in every practical and concrete way it was new. It must have been that I carried in my blood and brain very old Indian ideas about the indifference or the arbitrariness of rulers and governments. They were simply there; you looked to them for nothing. Or it might have been that—without any words being spoken—I had grown up thinking of cruelty as something always in the background. There was an ancient, or not-so-ancient, cruelty in the language of the streets: casual threats, man to man and parents to children, of punishments and degradation that took you back to plantation times. There was the cruelty of extended-family life; the cruelty of the elementary school, the bad beatings by teachers, the bloody end-of-term fights between boys; the cruelty of the Indian countryside and the African town. The simplest things around us held memories of cruelty.
The Registrar-General’s Department was to the right of the fountain, if you entered the Red House from St. Vincent Street. If you walked right through you ended in Woodford Square. This was the most beautiful square in Port of Spain, and it was named after the very young English governor who in the second decade of the nineteenth century brought order and law to the colony after the anarchy that followed the British conquest. The Spaniards lost Port of Spain almost as soon as they had laid it out. Woodford Square, at that time, would have been nothing, empty ground. It had been embellished by the British, and we thought it of a piece with the splendor of the Red House. It had a bandstand, a fountain like the one in the Red House, benches, decorative iron rails, paved paths; and it was full now of old, shady trees.
Always beautiful, always a glorious thing of the town, yet even when I had first seen it, that Sunday before the war when my father took me on a walk through the town center, this square was one of the places in Port of Spain where homeless people lived. Most of these people were Indians. Many of them would have been indentured immigrants from India who had served out their indentures on the sugar estates and then for one reason or another—perhaps they had become drinkers; perhaps they hadn’t been given their promised passage back to India; perhaps they had quarreled with their families—had found themselves with nowhere to live. These people were without money, job, without anything like a family, without the English language; without any kind of representation. They were utterly destitute. They were people who had been, as in a fairy story, lifted up from the peasantry of India and set down thousands of miles away—weeks and weeks of sailing—in Trinidad. In the colonial setting of Trinidad, where rights were limited, you could have done anything with these people; and they were tormented by the people of the town.
We all lived easily with this kind of cruelty. We saw it, but we seldom thought about it. Eventually these people from India died out; by the late 1940s they would nearly all have died. In the early 1940s my father talked to some of them and wrote an article about them for a local Indian magazine. When I went to work in the Red House they were no longer there in Woodford Square. What I remember were the black madmen, two or three of them, one of them with tangled long plaits or tails of stiff hair, gray-brown with dirt and dust and oil, and wearing a Robinson Crusoe–like set of clothes, an accumulation or improvisation not of skins but of rags that had all lost their original color and turned black and greasy. Perhaps he was harmless; but he had the madman’s assurance, and people walking through the square kept away from where he was, and tried to avoid his bright, inward-seeing eyes.
This was where I went to work every day, in the Registrar-General’s Department, between St. Vincent Street and Woodford Square.
My job as an acting second-class clerk was to make copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates. People who needed these certificates came to the Red House and made an arrangement with one of the free-lance searchers who hung about the entrance to the department, near the notice-boards, waiting for customers. These searchers, after they had been given possible dates by their customers, then used stamped forms to requisition various volumes of certificates; the department’s messengers brought out the thick, heavy bound volumes, more wide than high, from the vaults; the searchers sat in the outer office on a polished long brown desk and searched through the volumes. In this room—with a view through the tall windows of the lawns of the Red House and the trees and iron rails of Woodford Square—there was an unexpected atmosphere of the classroom, with grown and sometimes elderly black men sitting side by side at the long desk, sometimes for a whole morning, as if under an enchantment laid on them at school, and turning the very wide pages of very big books, one page at a time. In a separate area of the outer office lawyers’ clerks looked for deeds. These men sat at single desks and some of them wore ties. They were altogether a higher class than the birth-and-death certificate searchers, who really were in business—making a small, insecure living—because they could read and write, and many of the people who wanted certificates couldn’t.
When a searcher found what he was looking for, he made a request for a copy; and a messenger brought the request and the appropriate volume to my table. A table, rather than a desk: I was only an acting second-class clerk, a stop-gap, and I sat at a narrow table near the vault, and did my work facing the green-distempered wall. The messengers passed behind me all the time on their way to and from the vault. The volumes I had to copy from were placed in a pile on my right; when I was finished with them I put them in a pile on my left. The piles were high: each volume was three or four inches thick, and about fifteen inches wide.
The volumes smelled of fish glue. This was what they were bound with; and I suppose the glue was made from a boiling down of fish bones and skin and offal. It was the color of honey; it dried very hard, and every careless golden drip had the clarity of glass; but it never lost the smell of fish and rottenness.
I had been told that everything printed in the island was lodged in the vault. All the records of the colony were there, all the births, deaths, deeds, transfers of property and slaves, all the life of the island for the century and a half of the colonial time. I would have liked to look at old things, old newspapers, old books. But the smell of fish glue was very strong in the vault. That, together with the smell of old dust and old paper, the airlessness, which became worse the deeper you went in, the dim light, and the sheer quantity of old paper, was too much for me.
Morning and afternoon the copies I had written out were checked and initialed by a senior clerk, who came and sat at my table, like a teacher in the kindergarten. Then they were taken for signature to the desk of the big man of our office: the deputy registrar-general or sometimes the acting deputy registrar-general, in whose full name I had had to write out the copies. Then stamps were stuck on, canceled with the raised letters of the iron seal of the department; and the copies were at last ready to be handed out.
All of this searching, writing, checking, signing, the attentions of so many people—for a job that might nowadays be done by one person and a computer. All of that fetching and carrying by the messengers: they were on their feet for much of the day, tramping between the vault and the outer office, cradling those bulky, awkwardly shaped volumes in their arms. Theirs was technically an office job, but it required strength and stamina, and they were powerfully built men.
I would try sometimes to imagine myself spending all my life in that department. A working life of checking and being checked, of writing out certificates in the names of one’s seniors: I thought I could see how, after longing for the security of the civil service job, the job could get at you and you would become full of hate, and not only for the people whose full name you wrote out, as though your own didn’t matter.
There were two people in the office, a brown man and a Chinese woman, who had served many years and whose thoughts were now of retirement. They had probably entered the government service during the First World War. It was hard for me to think back so far, to imagine that stacking up of the weeks and months and years; it was hard enough for me to go back just ten years, to my discovery of the city, and the first time I had walked down St. Vincent Street with my father. But now for these two people the years had passed. They had seen the job through, and the job had seen them through. Age and endurance were now like a kind of luck that lifted them above other people, above office strife and ambition. They made small, unhurried movements, as though the job and the years had taught them patience.
The woman—her desk was directly below the front counter: she gave out the completed certificates—was motherly, tender with everyone, as though the job had brought out all her feminine instincts. But the gentleness of the man had been given him by drinking. He was known for it; he would come in on a Monday like a man both revivified and rested, worn a little finer by the drinking of the weekend.
Sometimes, near pay-day, there was drinking in the office after office hours. It seemed to be a recognized office facility. The drinkers—some with a towel over their shoulders: that towel an emblem of the end of the working day—the drinkers would sit on desks or with their legs over the arms of chairs, and drink seriously for half an hour or so. I was not a drinker; it was the seriousness of these occasions that I remember. There was no humor, no friendship. It was as though the rum went straight to the soul and privacy of every man.
In the department there was a black boy from St. James. We had been street acquaintances, no more, for some years. I knew he lived near me, but I didn’t know exactly where, and I felt he wanted to keep it like that. He talked sometimes about his mother, and I imagined him living alone with her in a crowded backyard, in one of those tottering old St. James shacks. The difference between us, though, lay not so much in money as in our prospects. I was a college boy, aiming high; he was an elementary-school boy, accepting his limitations.
That was the basis of our street relationship, and I had thought of this boy, tall and thin and seemingly uncoordinated, riding a lady’s bicycle, as a jester, a loud-mouth from the backyards. It was only now, seeing the seriousness with which he drank, and seeing how the rum altered him, seeing how he became red-eyed and unfunny, that I felt that he was serious about himself, about his job, his duties as a clerk, about his own ambitions, in a way I had never supposed. He was not at all content. His jester’s personality, the personality of a man not expecting much, not aiming high, was a cover; he didn’t really mean many of his jokes.
Belbenoit—one of the senior clerks who sometimes checked my certificates—didn’t have this cover. He was a middle-aged “colored” man. On both sides he would have been of mixed race for some generations; he was fairskinned. He had no particular qualifications, but he didn’t think he had done well enough. Though every kind of racial assumption showed in his own querulous face, he felt he had been discouraged for racial reasons from aiming higher: at the time when he had entered the service, the best jobs were reserved for people from England. That was no longer so; but the changes had come too late for Belbenoit. He was famous in the office for being a disappointed man; and people treated his unhappiness like an illness, though it was no secret that Belbenoit (with all his old assumptions) felt he hadn’t had the treatment due to his fair color, and felt his position in the office was in the nature of a racial disgrace.
His unlikely ally in the office—in office politics, and in representations of various kinds to the civil servants’ council—was Blair. Blair was a black giant, smooth-skinned, erect, with powerful shoulders. His manners were perfect; he could be very serious; he could also laugh easily, but always with control. He had an immense confidence. He came from a purely black village somewhere in the northeast of the island. This made him unusual: he didn’t have the combativeness and nerves of black people who had grown up in mixed communities. At the same time, because of that isolation, Blair had started school late. But he had made up for that. He was already a senior clerk, and everybody in the office knew he was studying now for an external degree of some sort, looking for the qualifications that Belbenoit never had. Blair sometimes checked my certificates. That very big man had the tiniest and neatest initials: they spoke to me of his ambition and strength.
Blair was courtesy itself to me; but I felt about him that, though we met with ease in the government office, there was much in his background I could never get to know. That all-African village in the northeast, isolated for some generations, without Indians or white people, would have had its own subterranean emotions, its own faith and fantasies. Blair no doubt felt the same about me; my Indian and orthodox Hindu background might have seemed to him even more closed. But in the neutral ground of the department we didn’t have to worry about these home matters; we got on, as far as we had to get on. In a civil service way Blair was perfection—and not without the disquietingness of such perfection. Just months out of school, and having only that experience to judge outsiders by, I thought of him (in spite of Belbenoit’s apparent alliance with him) as a kind of head boy: someone who could be one of the boys and at the same time represent authority.
He lived out what I felt about him then. Seven years later he abandoned the civil service, gave up that fine career, abandoned that restrained departmental demeanor, and went into local politics. He judged the moment well. He shot up, and then, in a decolonizing world, he rose and rose. He was to have an international career. Nearly twenty years later we were to meet in an independent East African country. He had gone there to work for the local government on a short-term contract. He would have been especially pleased by this assignment in independent Africa; but it was there, not long after we had met again, that he was to die, murdered by the agents of some wild men in the government who felt threatened by him. For two days Blair’s big, mangled body lay undiscovered in a banana plantation, partly covered by dead banana leaves. A career is a career; and death is inescapable. I do not know whether the ironies of his death made a mockery of that career or undid the virtue of it. But that matter will be raised in this book in its place.
Remember him now, in the office at the Red House: at that mid-point in his career, when with his extraordinary gifts he could have gone one way or the other. Remember him (like me) trailing all the strands of his own complicated past, animated by that past, feeling the current running with him (as the lawyer Evander did), and feeling (again like me) as he studied after work that he was at the most hopeful time of his life.
When I had free time—usually an hour or two a day—I did my writing, the way Blair did his studying. But I had nothing to write about: I was just preparing to be a writer. I kept a kind of notebook and in turquoise ink wrote comments about books I had read and thoughts about life. What I wrote was pretentious and false; I thought of it like that even when I was doing it, and wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see it, though with a small part of my mind I was hoping it was profound. Sometimes I wrote descriptions of landscapes: the Petit Valley woods, remnants of old cocoa estates in the hills to the northwest of the city, after afternoon rain. Sometimes I did Port of Spain scenes: the Western Main Road in St. James at night, after rain (more rain), the red neon Coca-Cola sign on the Rialto cinema flicking on and off, the shiny uneven asphalt reflecting the lights of cars and open shops, the naked light bulbs in the parlors, the flies sleeping on the hanging electric cord, rough with their droppings, the bald head of the Chinese parlor-keeper, the smeared glass case with stale, floury cakes and soft coconut turnovers. I liked doing those tableaux. I liked even more correcting them, for the sake of the appearance of the corrected page. Artificial, but everything I worked on in this way stayed with me, and years later those descriptions were to be a key to events and moods I had thought beyond recall.
I went one Saturday or Sunday to a black beauty contest at the Rialto. I went for the material; I hadn’t gone to any beauty contest before that. It was a shabby occasion, shabby to everyone except perhaps one or two of the girls. It wasn’t really funny; I hadn’t found it so; but I tried to write a funny piece about it. There had been no twist, but I tried to give it one: I made the queen cry because of the hoots of the crowd: The writing took two or three weeks, too much time for the simple or flat things I had to say. I wrote with pen and then on an office typewriter, correcting and correcting, deliberately lengthening out the writing time. The correcting didn’t help; it made the essay more and more of a school-magazine piece, with the humor depending more on words than on observation or true feeling.
I concentrated in what I wrote on the master of ceremonies: his formal clothes, his ungrammatical speech, his vanity. I showed the finished article to a black woman typist in the office whom I had got to know. She held the sheets against her high standard type-writer and read them through. I thought she smiled once or twice, but at the end she said, “If it was an Indian man, you wouldn’t have written like that.”
It was the last comment I was expecting. I had offered her a piece of writing, and was expecting her to judge it in a higher way. And though what she had said wasn’t true, I grew to feel after some weeks there was something wrong with the writing. What was the basis of the writer’s attitude? What other world did he know, what other experience did he bring to his way of looking? How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world he knew? I never formulated the questions like that; the doubts were just with me.
It was some time, six years, before I worked through those doubts. I was in England then, and the first true book that came to me was the one prompted by my discovery of Port of Spain before the war, my delight in the city. To me then it was like going back to the very beginning of things, the Sunday walk down St. Vincent Street with my father, the visit to Nazaralli Baksh’s tailor shop: things barely remembered, things released only by the act of writing.
After that writing I went back to Trinidad for a few weeks. I went by steamer. The clock was put back every other day; the weather slowly turned. One evening on deck a breeze started up. I braced myself for the chill, but the wind that played about my head and face was warm. I felt when I arrived, and went visiting, and found people becoming less dark than they seemed on the streets, that an age—a vanished adolescence, a forced maturity, England, a book—separated me from the people in the Registrar-General’s Department. But for them only six years had passed. Dingier walls; a more crowded office; more tables. Blair had gone, but so many of the others were still there: Belbenoit, the long-limbed boy (or man) from St. James with the lady’s bicycle, the typist who hadn’t liked what I had written. They were friendly. But there was something new.
I had heard on the steamer that a new kind of politics had come to Trinidad. There were regular meetings in Woodford Square, across the road from the Red House, which the Spaniards had laid out in the 1780s as the main city square, and which the British had later embellished; where the destitute Indians, refugees from the plantations, had slept until they had died out; and where later the black madmen had come to camp. In that square now there were lectures about local history and slavery. People were being told about themselves, and black feeling was high. This was the politics that had claimed Blair.
I went to a meeting one night. The square, its scale already altered for me, looked different again now, with the electric lights, the speakers and the microphones on the old bandstand (which I had found so beautiful the first time I had seen it, and now saw as the Victorian or Edwardian bandstand of an English city park); and the dark, scattered, unreadable crowd. The big trees threw distorting shadows and looked bigger than in daylight. Some people stood at the very edge of the square, against the railings; there were some white people and Indians among them.
The men on the bandstand spoke of old suffering and current local politics. They spoke like people uncovering a conspiracy. They were at one with their audience. They made jokes easily; and laughter, or a kind of contented humming, came easily to the crowd. The people who spoke were not all black or African, but the occasion was an African one; there could be no doubt of that. (I didn’t see Blair on the bandstand. He was never an orator or front-of-house man; he didn’t have the manner.)
I knew few of the speakers; I couldn’t pick up the references and the jokes. It was like entering a cinema long after the picture had started, but I felt that what was said didn’t matter. The occasion itself was what mattered: the gathering, the drama, the mood: the discovery (and celebration) by many of the black people in the square, educated and uneducated, of a shared emotion. Of aspects of that emotion I had had many intimations long ago, before I had gone away.
Intimations: people had lived with this emotion as with something private, not to be carelessly exposed. Everyone—the typist in the office, the black boy or man from St. James, Blair, even the master of ceremonies at the Miss Fine Brown Frame contest, the mocking crowd there, and some of the self-mocking contestants—everyone had lived with it according to his character and intellectual means. Everyone you saw on the street had a bit of this emotion locked up in himself. It was no secret. It was part of the unacknowledged cruelty of our setting, the thing we didn’t want to go searching into. Now all those private emotions ran together into a common pool, where everyone found a blessing. Everyone, high and low, could now exchange his private emotion, which he sometimes distrusted, for the sacrament of the larger truth.
In the square, romantic with its lights and shadows, they talked of history and the new constitution and rights; but what had been generated was more like religion. It wasn’t something that could be left behind in the square; it couldn’t be separated from the other sides of life. And I understood the exaltation, and distance, I had sensed in people when I had visited my old office in the Red House.
In the outer office of the Registrar-General’s Department I had remembered the lawyer’s clerks sitting like students at their sloping desks and searching for deeds in large bound volumes. They were modest but self-respecting people; some wore ties and white shirts. They had a kind of ambition, like everybody else. Sometimes they pretended to be more ambitious than they were, but many of them knew they weren’t going far, and they were reconciled to it, as you could see when sometimes an older man—of a generation without possibilities, a generation now more or less finished—came to do some searching, and led them all into a kind of pointless barber-shop chatter, like servant-room gossip, full of knowingness and conspiratorial hints, but really quite empty, mere words.
(I had got to know about this barber-shop gossip even before I went to work at the Red House. After I had applied for my little temporary clerkship, word was sent back to me, through a cousin, from someone said to be in the know, someone deep in the machinery of the Red House: “Pereira is the man he have to see. All those papers pass through Pereira hand.” Pereira was a clerk in some department. One midday a man cycling down the Western Main Road was pointed out to me: “Look. Pereira.” The great man, just like that, in the Western Main Road, with everybody else! He was a mixed man, more Indian-looking than Portuguese, not old, and I suppose he was cycling home from the Red House for lunch. He had no hat and, in all the hot sun, he was taking his time, sitting upright on the saddle of his heavy, pre-war English bicycle, pen and pencil clipped to the pocket of his shirt, and with his socks pulled up over his trouser bottoms, which were neatly folded back over his shins. In another memory of this sighting, Pereira was on a slender-framed racing cycle, crouched over the dropped handlebars, sitting high on the narrow, ridged saddle, and pedaling away. The second memory is probably satirical and mischievous. I don’t know. I never saw Pereira again; I don’t even know whether the man pointed out to me was Pereira. I got the job because my former school principal recommended me for it, and no one talked to me about Pereira again.)
Some of those search clerks in the Registrar-General’s Department were still there. They were easy with me; they were ready to chat. But there wasn’t the barber-shop slackness about them. I thought I detected a new intensity, a new stiffening; and I felt that that intensity—hidden, unacknowledged—had always been there, and even in the older man.
I felt this even when I met simpler people. Like the paunchy department messenger, pleased to make the same joke he had made six years before (“You always query me. Why you query me so for?”). Or the elderly, sour-faced free-lance searcher, waiting every day outside the office door for illiterates to come and give him work, living on the edge when I knew him, occasionally needing the gift of a drink, and now a little more broken down, his services less and less needed. Or the old Barbadian mason who had done work for our family. I used to like to see him at work; I liked his songs; and I liked the way the hairs sprouting out of his nostrils were dusted with cement, like a bee’s legs with pollen. He came to see me now. He stood on the pavement and leaned on the gate. He didn’t want to come into the yard because he had come to ask for money. Times were hard, he said. The lighter color on his nostril hairs was not cement now, but the gray of gray hair. Even in these people I felt the new sacrament of the square, a little new glory.
Much of this feeling might have been in me—I was full of nerves on this return, for all kinds of reasons—but I believe I was only amplifying something that was true. The history of the place was known; its reminders were all around us; scratch us and we all bled. The wonder was that it had taken so long for black people to arrive at this way of feeling. In our colonial set-up the champions of black people had been white men or colored men like Belbenoit. Black men, with their self-distrust, had looked to such people to be their leaders. Political life had come late to black people; confidence had come late; too many generations had had to bury or mock their emotions in barber-shop gossip. There had been a big strike in the oilfields in 1937, but the leader there, a man from one of the smaller islands, had been more of a country preacher, uneducated and a little mad, quickly going idle after his initial political inspiration, and offering his followers only a kind of religious ecstasy. The new sacrament of the square went far beyond that.
On this return everything I had known, every street, every building, shrank as soon as I saw it. I liked, as I traveled about, to play with this shift of scale, to compare what existed in my memory, from childhood and adolescence, with what existed now, as if suddenly, before me. In some such way every black or African person from my past altered. And I felt a double distance from what I had known.
At the meeting I had gone to in the square I had seen a white family walk out in an interval between the speeches. They were an old trading family. I had had some slight dealings with them. For a few weeks, just before I went to work in the Red House, I had been a tutor to one of their children. I felt I had been tricked by them into accepting very low payment for what I did. They had left it to me to fix the fee, and I, not yet seventeen, hadn’t known what to ask. I had given a very low figure, moved by some absurd idea of honor. They hadn’t sought to match that idea of honor; they had paid me the very low fee I had asked, and no more. Old shame and rage (an aspect of the very mood of the meeting in the square) came back to me when I saw them.
They had been standing at the edge of the square, noticeable, confident, respectful of the occasion. Perhaps they had gone for the show. But then, like me, they might have felt excluded; they might have felt the ground move below them. White people in the colony were very few, though; and they were not really threatened. Much of the hostile feeling released by the sacrament of the square would have focused on the Indians, who made up the other half of the population.
The town had been important to me. Its discovery had been one of the pleasures of my childhood: the discovery of fine buildings, squares, fountains, gardens, beautiful things meant only to please people. Yet I had known the colonial town for only ten years. To me it had always been a strange place, a place I had come to from somewhere else, and was still getting to know. Now on this return I felt it had passed to other hands.
In a few weeks I left. It was four years before I returned. And then I came and went irregularly, coming back sometimes for a few days, staying away once for more than five years. It was from this distance, and with these interruptions, that I saw this place I knew and didn’t know, which continued in its state of insurrection. People fell away, retired, died, went abroad. The time came when there were no offices for me to visit or people to call on.
As with those pre-war pads of photographs showing a cricketer in action—pads of twenty or thirty photographs in sequence which you flicked to see, jerkily, Constantine bowling or Bradman holding the bat high up the handle and doing a cover drive—my vision of the place began to run fast.
It went into independence in its state of black exaltation—almost a state of insurrection—and with its now well-defined racial division: the Indian countryside, the African town. And soon the town I had known began to change.
Black people from the smaller islands to the north came to settle. There had always been this movement of people from the islands; during the war they had come in some number to work on the American bases, and they had then built a sensational-looking, gray-black shanty town, of old wood and packing cases and rusty corrugated iron, on the bad-smelling swamp to the east. This immigration had never been legal, but now it increased. The immigrants were drawn into the local mood; they added something of the passions of their small islands, their small shut-in African communities.
The immigrant shanty town spread, on the filled-in swamp and on the hills above it. To the west, at the same time, the town spread, with new middle-class developments along the coast (where there had been bathing places) and in the valleys of the Northern Range, where there had been plantations of cocoa and citrus until the Depression.
The small town the Spaniards had laid out in the eighteenth century had had many squares or open spaces between its residential blocks; and there had been countryside and plantations all around. Now there wasn’t that kind of countryside, and the town itself began to feel choked. Already, during, the war, the Americans had put up big two-story buildings on some of the central squares, near the harbor. At about the same time the local government had built the Information Office on one of the Red House lawns; and some of the Office’s wooden noticeboards had been set up around the unplaying fountain in the open walkway of the Red House, under the pierced dome. Now, where there had been the notice-boards, there were rough and awkward wooden extensions to government departments, and they looked like big crates. The elementary school I had gone to was extended and extended; the grounds where we had played disappeared.
Eventually there was no longer a division between town and country. That was a loss: as a child I had loved the separate ideas of town and country. In my memory I had made a journey from the country to the town; and then from the town I had made occasional holiday journeys to the country. If you were going to the east, you stood in the queue at the George Street bus station. Not long after you left the slums around the wide concrete canal known as East Dry River, you began to see big trees, patches of bush, and then you had glimpses of the sugar-cane plains to the south. To the west, the ending of the town was even more dramatic: there was, suddenly, a coconut plantation, and no house was to be seen.
Now to east and west it was all built up, with no open spaces, no green breaks. There were just houses and houses; sometimes the plots were very small. There was always noise, no rest from noise. The impression was of people cooped up and constantly agitated in their small spaces. But new roads continued to be cut, especially in the narrow valleys to the west of the city; more hillsides were graded away; and the hill landscapes I had known (and written about in my spare time at the Red House) were so altered, so much a place now where I was without my bearings, so much the landscape now of other people, that I preferred for many years to stay far away.
A new rubbish dump was established in the black-water mangrove swamp at the east end of the city, on the other side of the highway that ran through the shanty town—officially recognized, officially added to sometimes, but always a shanty town, and always growing, spreading over the hills. The fires of the rubbish dump burned night and day. The smoke was black turning to dark brown; it often billowed over the highway; the smell was high; you had to turn up your car windows. The people of the shanty town, men and women and children, worked in this smoke—emblematic silhouettes—raking over the rubbish for things that could be salvaged and sold. The local corbeaux, black, heavy, hunched, hopped about the slopes of rubbish; the children of the shanty town ran between the traffic on the rubbish-strewn highway to get to the dump.
It was as though, with the colonial past, all the colonial landscape was being trampled over and undone; as though, with that past, the very idea of regulation had been rejected; as though, after the sacrament of the square, the energy of revolt had become a thing on its own, eating away at the land.
In the square, at the beginning, all those years before, in the glamour of the lights—and where the beauty of the paved walks and the fountain would have been an aspect of the richness of the world that was about to be inherited—the speakers on the Victorian bandstand had talked of history and suffering and the great conspiracy of the rulers, and had suggested that redemption had at last come.
It came for many. But that promise of redemption was so large that some people would have felt defrauded by what had followed. These people would have continued to find virtue in the original mood of rejection; and over the years they would have grafted on to that mood the passions of more extreme and more marginal and more publicized black causes from other places. So disaffection grew, feeding on an idea of an impossible racial righteousness; and there was always the threat of an insurrection within the insurrection.
One year there was a serious revolt. The government survived, and afterward the last big open space of the eighteenth-century Spanish city was blocked up. What had been the Calle Marina, the Marine Street, the wide square that ran the length of what had been the sea front, was offered as a marketplace to the mutinous, dreadlocked people of the hills and the shanty town to the east. To enable them to compete with the established merchants of the city, the big square was built up with little wooden shacks, and there the shanty folk sold or offered for sale the simple leather and metal goods they made.
This led to the further isolation of the city center, the place we used to call “town” (and where, newly arrived in the city, I had gone walking one quiet Sunday afternoon with my father, so quiet that we had walked in the street, and I had seen our undisturbed reflection in the store windows). Shopping plazas and malls were established in the new settlements west and east of Port of Spain. There was no need to go to the center; and sometimes now, when I went back to Trinidad for a few days, I never went to the city at all.
People continued to live on their nerves. They did so even during the oil boom, when it seemed that money, given away every day in doles to everyone who claimed it, had come like a reward for their passions, their loyalty to their sacrament. When the depression came, and times became harder than people remembered, the mood of rejection and righteousness was there again as a balm. But now there was a twist that the first speakers in the square would not have dreamed of.
There began to appear, in Port of Spain and country towns, black men and women dressed like Arabs, the men in long white gowns and with white skullcaps, the women with black veils, men and women noticeable in the street, self-consciously righteous and apart.
These people were Mohammedans of a new kind. They were not Mohammedans by inheritance, like some of the Indians of the island: people like Leonard Side of Parry’s Funeral Parlour and Nazaralli Baksh, the tailor of St. Vincent Street from fifty years before. Nor were they like the Black Muslims of the United States. These people gave the impression of being in direct contact with the Arab world. Here and there in the city center, in what in colonial days had been a fashionable area, important property had been bought by these Arab-style Muslims. These buildings had their windows and verandas blanked out, and they displayed green and white boards with Arabic lettering.
They had occupied open public land in Mucurapo, near St. James, and built a little settlement and a mosque. This was not far from the cemetery of Mucurapo, with the very old and tall royal palms, and not far from the little house on the half-lot where, up to twenty years or so before, Leonard Side had lived with his mother. During the war the land had been occupied by the Americans. They had built enormous brick warehouses on it, like hangars. One such building had become the USO building, the entertainment center for the Americans, very bright and glamorous to us, on the other side of the guarded fence. The land had been reclaimed from the shallows of the Gulf of Paria before the war: land built up on pebble-less and very soft black mud exposed at low tide. I remembered the reclamation taking place, the dredged-up black mud of the Gulf drying out in cracked gray cakes. (And long before that, and for hundreds of years, all this area, St. James, Mucurapo, Conquerabia, Conquerabo, had been Cumucurapo, an aboriginal Indian place.)
People were nervous of this settlement, which appeared to be ever growing, to have money, and to obey its own laws. There was a school in the settlement. The group were keen on schooling; when you saw them at the end of the morning doing their shopping in the markets of certain country areas, they—adults, men and women—were like children after school, with textbooks and exercise books in their hands. But the books were in Arabic, and their schools were said to be Koranic schools. This idea of learning was distasteful to many local people; and, like the Arab clothes they wore, further set the group apart. The mosque they had built was not like the usual local Indian mosque, a rectangular concrete structure with domes on top, and painted green and white. This was taller, more angular, and more flashily colored. Local people didn’t know where the style had come from. I thought it might have been from North Africa; but I wasn’t sure.
Late one afternoon, after they had said their prayers at this mosque—all this is as it was later reported—about a hundred of the men of the sect went with guns and explosives to St. Vincent Street. They assaulted Police Headquarters and set off a big explosion near the armory. A number of policemen died in this first assault. Later or at the same time an assault was made on the Red House, obliquely opposite. The parliament was sitting. Shots were fired; people were hit. And then, as so often happened during slave revolts in these islands, the rebels appeared not to know what to do: all energy and exaltation had been gathered up and consumed in the drama of the attack, the surprise, the drawing of the first blood, the humiliation of the people in authority. For six days or so the rebels besieged the Red House and held the ministers of the government and everyone in the building hostage.
The Red House and St. Vincent Street smelled of death. Some fifteen people had died in the late-afternoon assault, it was said; and a number of the bodies had begun to rot. There were stories that some of the bodies had been put in the Red House vault, near the entrance to which I had for some weeks had my table while I wrote out copies of birth and death certificates. How true the stories were I don’t know. But when the rebels had surrendered, and the siege was over, and the local papers carried photographs (taken from far away) of people leaving the Red House with hand-kerchiefs to their noses, I remembered the smell of the fish glue in which I had worked; and thought of the dimly lit, airless, oddly quiet vault, full of paper, where I had been told all the records of the British colony were stored, all the records, that is, since 1797, records of surveys and property transactions and then the records, starting later, of births and deaths, together with a copy of everything that had been printed in the colony. I was told that the smell of death lingered for days in that area where, thirty-five years or so before, the fathers and grandfathers of some of the rebels (many were very young, boys in their teens) might have once partaken of the sacrament of Woodford Square.
I had never thought of St. Vincent Street—so calm and quiet in my first memory of it—as a place where men might fight so desperately. But all scenes of human habitation are touched by violence of this kind. Nearly every town has been besieged and fought over and has known this kind of blood. And as soon as I thought back, even to my own nerves at the time of my first return from England, I saw that there was an immense chain of events. You could start with the sacrament of the square and work back to the black madmen on the benches, the Indian destitutes, the plantations, the wilderness, the aboriginal settlements, the discovery. And you could move forward from that exaltation and that mood of rejection to the nihilism of the moment.
As soon as the siege began there was no effective government. It took a little while for this to be understood; and then the effect on black communities—local and immigrant, in the capital and all those contiguous settlements at the foot of the Northern Range, north of the mainly Indian countryside, which remained quiet, untouched by the frenzy to the north—the effect on these communities was extraordinary. They were like people who had been granted a moment of pure freedom. They formed looting gangs. It was of this—of the inflamed, unrecognizable faces of the looters, the glittering eyes—as much as of the siege at the Red House that people spoke when I went back. For six days or so whole communities had lived with the idea of the end of things, a world without logic, and they had been lifted out of themselves. At least twenty-nine people died during this looting.
For many years I had accepted that the city I had known as a child no longer existed and what was there now belonged to others. Nazaralli Baksh, who had made the clothes I had gone away in, had ceased for some time to be a name in St. Vincent Street. But to see the destruction around where his shop had been was to be reminded of him more than ever. Across the road, the Victorian Gothic Police Headquarters—he used to make uniforms for them—had been blasted in at one side. The gray outer wall, where it still stood, was blackened; smoke had poured out of the pointed arches. It was unsettling to see what had been city—regulated, serviced, protected, full of wonder and the possibility of adventure—turn to vacancy, simple ground. The commercial streets of the center had been leveled. You could see down to what might have been thought buried forever: the thick-walled eighteenth-century Spanish foundations of some buildings. You could see the low gable marks of early, small buildings against higher walls. You could look down, in fact, at more than Spanish foundations: you could look down at red Amerindian soil.
There had been blood here before. Where the shacks of immigrants now scaffolded the hillsides there had once been aboriginal people. The eighteenth-century Spanish city had been laid out on a wilderness the Spaniards had themselves created two centuries before, when they had taken over the aboriginal settlement of Cumucurapo. The Spaniards, always legalistic, nearly always had a notary to hand to “give faith” to what he witnessed. “Doy fe,” the notary would write: “I give faith,” “I give witness.” And there was a notary on hand who recorded the names of the Amerindian chiefs of Cumucurapo who had surrendered their land to the Spaniards; the notary said that they had done so willingly, and that the people had “rejoiced.” The names of these chiefs were confirmed by an extraordinary accident. A short while later an English marauder came raiding. The Spaniards, who had so recently taken “true possession,” were themselves now put to flight; and, in the jail of the new Spanish settlement beyond the hills, five of the dispossessed chiefs were found, with the very names the notary had recorded, the last aboriginal rulers of the land, held together on one chain, scalded with hot bacon fat, and broken by other punishments.
May 12, 1994