It was a good day for a funeral. The sky was half-cunning , like a Montserrat girl it could go from tears to laughter with equal ease. Still it was solemn. Annie Dyer Howe was being buried. (She of the large hats on a Sunday) She had done enough for three lives and had contributed so much to Montserrat that they made her funeral a national holiday. But it was for Sunday mornings I remembered her. That’s when I would take my woman to the grotto and play fife for her. Down past the silk cotton tree on the highway on the way to Salem, someone had built a concrete bench there in a kind of glen. It was the only one I’ve seen on Montserrat. (Someone else must have been Victorian and in love).
Anyway, Dyer Howe would drive by on her way to church and seeing us would beep. Montserrat loves romance so they forgave us being heathens on a Sunday morning . Just a lover playing fife for his woman. She with her dreads and me with my rage. She could still hear it then, the fife I mean. I was writing “The Cusha Poems of Montserrat.” She was editing the book but at the last minute I didn’t want it published. It didn’t feel right. But that refusal was as if I ripped a fetus from out of her womb. She never forgave me. That’s when the silence started.
I wonder what the Christian Council would say about the abortion of a poem or the stillbirth death of an idea? Is there any guidance. Writers aren’t nice people. We can’t allow ourselves to be otherwise we’d never write. Death holds no mystery for me anymore and so I refuse to go to funerals. The last one was Big George Daley. Or maybe it was Jackie Fire who tried to build a house of dreams. Anyway, that thing they wheel into the church and call the remains has more to do with the guilty undertaker’s artifice than the person you mourn. The Spirit isn’t there in any church, only the shadow. So what I do if I love that person is play fife for them outside their house or if the neighbors are too nosey (meaning too Montserratian ) is to play for them by the Silk Cotton Tree at Cudjoe Head. Otherwise I play to the Sea at Carrs’ Bay which is just a Jumbie-walk away from the cemetery.
For Annie Howe though I went the long way to the grotto where she used to greet me and my shorty (who I call “Spoon” when I’m angry. Don’t ask what she calls me). I went there looking for a memory. The first thing I noticed was that the stone bench was gone. Government had probably used the concrete for something else important although they’ve long forgotten what exactly. But the ghaut was still there and the sanction of the trees. The fife sounded good there, I know because the birds “jealous me.” I knew Annie was at peace. If it wasn’t so the notes would have come back shrill. Death is as much a lie as history. There’s no such thing as the past. There is only the eternal present and the future is just the consequence of the present. The future is the things we get away with (for now)
So anyhow here I am feeling pretty mellow. Agreeing with the sky. Agreeing with the trees. I stopped in Angelos’ to get some shopping because since I knew it was to be a national holiday I knew I better get my groceries now before they close early. I got some food stuff quickly and the boy told someone who was entering that they were soon closing. So I was at the check out counter and said aloud:
“Oh I better get a Guinness”. Then thinking better of it (I didn’t want to drink anything until she was buried). “Never mind”. So I’m walking out the store with my groceries having spent over $50 dollars when suddenly this clerk comes running after me:
“Oh did you get the Guinness ?”
“No, I changed my mind…” Then the penny dropped and I realized what was happening.
“Wait, do you really think I would have gone past you without paying? Do you realize you’re insulting me?”
“No, just asking!”
Now you see how quickly a day can turn from serene to war? My first impulse was to light this boy up and put my foot up inna his cooker-hole. I looked at this Indian boy with his vacant bovine cow-like face. No doubt he was his mother’s favorite . No doubt she would give him the extra Chapati from her plate or the Parata or most of the lamb curry while his father would stare at him like a grudgeful insect. I was sure he had his mother’s face but he was already turning to fat like his slothful father and it would be just a matter of time when they could pass for brothers.
I decided to let the incident go and not cause a scene because of the nature of the day I didn’t want to get on bad. But you see , when you insult me you also insult my father (Tuma Dyer). And when you do that, then is when his spirit comes out in me. You don’t want to see that. Trust me! Better to leave me in peace with my music and my childish pleasures. The world is a nasty place and that’s why I seldom visit it. What this incident did though was to trigger thought and I reflected on the many times I’ve had to come down hard on the Indian merchants here in The Kingdom. It has taken me three years to teach one Indian grocer’s wife to say “Thank you” after she serves you. Three years to learn two words. I need not name her because every Montserratian knows exactly who.
I had to finally say:
“You have a good imagination, yes?
“Yes, why you ask me this?”
“Good, now just imagine that I’m a white tourist with lot’s of U.S. money. Or an expat living in Olveston. Now try saying it : THANK YOU.
Now unless you keep this up on a regular basis their minds atrophy. This one shop keeper already boasted to me of never having read a book in his life. He was very proud of this. I said yes, but you watch thousands of Hindi films, right? And you can spell the name of every film star (especially the women) He agreed.
What I think is important is not just the way I am treated but the fact that what they do to me they do to everyone (Black). I witnessed that at Kings Super market he ran out of the store after Dr. Lewis because he thought he had not paid for a bottle of water. I said to him :
“Do you know who this man is. He is the Chief Doctor at the hospital!”
“I don’t care about doctor or no doctor…”
“You will care when your ass needs medical assistance or your family and India is a long way away.”
Now what I find most insulting is the fact that they would think me petty enough to try to get away with an item so low-life. Were I to steal I would do it like the former Chief Minister John “Bassy” Osborne. He would regularly enter any Indian grocers and fill his cart to the brim and take it to his car and wave cheerfully to them and leave them with nothing but an anecdote. “Studiation beats education, every time ” This he would do despite the fact that his pockets were filled with three different currencies (the pound, the dollar and E.C.)This he did as a matter of principle. Cash was too important to give to shop keepers he needed cash for the needs of his constituents. They had better memories at election time than grocers. Bassy was my kind of guy. A damn scamp.
Now for those who might not have noticed let me say something strange here:
Montserrat is a very peculiar place . The word simple does not exist in the Montserrat lexicon. If anyone uses the word you know immediately they are not from here but merely passing through. And why is nothing simple here is because of another word “Family”. In Montserrat everything begins and ends with it. We all of us come from large estates. We are the product of slavery (although there are some among us who still think they came as explorers or navigators on ships.
The simple truth is that the only reason we have so many surnames in common is because as we were sold from plantation to plantation it was easier for the owners to just name us after the estates. As a result, those sold three or more times simply added on the estate names. That is how we ended up being both Fenton and Allen as well as White and Bodkin. This leads to perfect confusion. That is why we identify ourselves by saying: “Well, I have to call she Aunt Nan, or I would have to call he Uncle.”
The problem is that family is also code for Land , Property and Class. Something as simple as the moving of a “peg” by three inches in either direction can end in either loss of life or worse having to deal with a Montserrat lawyer. In this life there are lawyers and then there are Montserrat lawyers. (You will soon learn the difference). What these lawyers love most are family feuds over land. What happens more often is that they end up getting money from both litigants. The one who pays the most will get the most attention. And what do lawyers light candles for most? “Please Lord, send me an old woman that’s a shut in!” They assure them that there is no problem and all they need do is forget and when you hear the ready cliché : “We were poor but we never knew it.” Bullshit! Not only did they know it they resented it. And more still, they never forget and if they get the opportunity to get back at those who grew up better, they will surely take it!
Many men “marry up”. In other words they want a girl who come from class (anything higher than themself)! They then devote their lives to punishing and torturing their mates for being “too Prep-up” What is even worse is when the wife informs the lawyer that despite the fact he may see himself as some big time attorney he will always be nothing more than an uncouth insecure lout because you can’t buy class. She may even add “crook “ somewhere in there. As I say, nothing in Montserrat is simple because there is too much history in the water. What I’m saying is that your very lawyer can be working both for you and against your at the same time.
It is now the day after Annie Dyer Howe’s funeral and so I’m now free to return to Angelo’s to have a word with his shop assistant. I see him there at the register. The same vacant bovine expression. I look at him and realize that he probably was raised rural. He doesn’t look as if he has ever had to sleep in the streets of New Delhi or Calcutta. Never been attacked by street gangs or raped. Never sniffed glue or shot heroin down behind a railway station. Strictly country. Sex with animals is probably his only sin. However much more serious is the fact that at least one member of his family has probably committed suicide as the only way out of debt. Hanging is the favorite means of exit in India because it’s cheaper than a gun. Whatever the promise of the Hindu government they never pay farmers the agreed upon price for their goods. Many parents sell their children into a life of concrete making in order to pay off debts. You work for the local concrete factory owner who also is a landlord. He may run everything in the village (including of course the Police) As for girls:
Dawn is Hindi for rape.
Webbed in the cocoon of custom like silk
A violated daughter
Now no further use to the family.
She’s now unsellable.
Let someone else fetch milk,
Might as well kill her as well
So that they
Won’t have to.
Given this sort of background what is a boy like this suppose to do? What does he make of Montserrat? How does he decipher The Kingdom given what he’s come from? He sees the Caribbean as one large cash cow to be milked for all it’s worth. At least there are no riots here. As for the people Montserratians are funny people they think they’re Irish. And so wear green all the time.
I wrote my name down on a sheet of paper for him. but of course he can’t read it. I have a long speech for him but why bother. He doesn’t even understand why he running out of the store after me was an insult. So instead I reach in my pocket and give him ten dollars. I now have his undivided attention.
“Why are you giving me this money ?” “Because I need to speak to you in a language you understand, and since this is the only one you know, here take it. Never be stupid like that again!.” His fellow prisoner tried to explain it to him . He looked baffled but he damn well took the money. We Montserratians are funny people. I left Angelo’s and wiped the dust from my shoes.
I love to watch the Indian shop keepers and how they each deal with money. Angelo for example has an erotic relationship with it. He prepares himself before he touches it. (He loosens his shoulders and though he is about to make a stroke with a billiard cue. He straightens his glasses and only then reaches for the money like reaching for a girl’s nipple. Ashok on the other hand has been around money long enough not to be overwhelmed by its aura. He alone among the Indian grocers at least has some love of Montserrat. He gets what Montserrat is about. Now this is not to say he would ever let a black stand behind the counter and operate the cash register (he would put his five year old child there before he do that).
Come to that there is only one Indian shopkeeper who I have seen let a black operate the register: Deepak. Indeed, so shocked was I to witness this that I was unable to remember what the hell I came in the store for. I have never seen this before in my astonished life. We all of us know clearly that the first function of a black employee in an Indian grocery is not to pack, sweep and clean or carry grocery to peoples car for them. No, their first role is to police and watch their black brothers and sisters. Likewise the first role of the Montserrat police is to make tourist and expats feel safe from us. The locals.(They will of course deny this forever. Denial is always the way to go especially at election time).
Note well that the expat community seldom ventures beyond the sub-Kingdom of Rams. And will never venture further North to Brades unless to go to the Cultural Centre and almost never at night. The fact that there is no crime here means nothing. Fear is from force of habit.
Remember this: The Indian is bred to suffer sacrifice and achieved. This is why they alone open 7 days a week and never take holidays. No Montserratian will do that. Why? Because it is too damn close to slavery. Period. The taste of plantation is too fresh in our mouths. Now here is a surprise for everyone: We are not the only one with self hate and loathing. Indians hate each other even more than Montserratians. But unlike us they will still do business. Take for example the enigma of Aravins. The most successful grocery shop in Montserrat at present. Believe me, the fact that they are in fact Sri Lankans and not from India (having come to Montserrat as boat people : “Dem Bang Water a come ya”.
Now a few short years later they are flourishing. You can bet your ass that behind closed doors the Indian community grind their teeth and cuss them. Talk about “grudge”, yet they know to co-exist. There is enough meat on this cash cow called Montserrat, for everyone.
It makes me recall one day watching Levon Watts standing outside his ice-cream shop with an expression of ineffable sadness on his face. “What’s wrong?” I asked expecting him to go into a long tirade about how Reuben T. Meade was destroying Montserrat to keep his cronies rich (he hated even Reuben’s shadow and always called him “Twisty” which is his nickname. But no, it wasn’t Reuben this time. “I was just trying to find a Montserrat face among this crowd. That’s all. Soon there won’t be any! I’m just glad I won’t live to see it. (He in fact died a year later).
Here then is Montserrat’s dilemma:
We find ourselves overwhelmed by an influx of strangers. We are an island of five thousand. Not a nation of five thousand an island. There is no sense of self or purpose because our primary concern is maintaining office not maintaining Montserrat. No I am not a fantasist. Deal with the real world. The world as it is, not as it should be. I don’t expect Montserratians to suddenly fall into each others arms and love one another. Not in either my life time or that of my children.
That will only happen when we know what we’re worth (we don’t yet realize that). If we don’t know then how can expect others to? What I ask for Montserrat is respect : Polity not politics. Continue saying good morning to each other (one thing the Irish left us that’s worth something). And above all else never fail to remind foreign merchants that they are guest here not plantation owners. This includes Fly Montserrat. They work for us , not we for them (Mr. and Mrs. Nigel Harris).
Now regarding our Indian merchants they are a classic example of how easy a thing reality is to lose. They have lost all sense of reality. I have one say clearly: “If it weren’t for us, Montserrat would starve.” Hello, you provide a service, period. No Indian merchant in Montserrat even grows one grain of rice. One potato. Or any product other than curry. Were they to disappear from Montserrat they would be instantly replaced if not by Montserratians surely by Syrians who were the first traders to invade the Caribbean because they were in flight from carnage and bloodshed in the Levant (sound familiar?)
The Indian merchants have to be reminded of the fact that they are fortunate guest here. If however they continue with the level of disrespect and racism which is ever accelerating, they will find themselves in problem. One day the wrong merchant will disrespect the wrong Montserratian and all hell will break loose because this has been building up for years. All this because they do “Trust”. They therefore feel entitled to speak to people anyway they feel like.
I would also strongly advice Montserrat people to try and keep these debts to a minimum if at all possible. You can’t in good conscience cuss someone you owe hundreds of dollars to. Although we do it all the time. I personally do not want my name to appear in any book I didn’t write!
The faculty Montserrat uses least is that of sight. We don’t look at things we don’t like to look at. We hope it will just go back to sleep like the volcano. We deal with all “uncomfortable” situations like dealing with a jumbie. If we walk backward it might just go away. After all is said and done however, I just thank God that I was born West Indian and not Indian.
Thank you God that I was not tasked with bringing India into the Twentieth Century as Nehru had to by bringing education and math scholarships to rural India. This is the reason that Silicon Valley is so filled with Indian computer experts. (It makes a difference what the first chief minister does. In the case of India it was Nehru, in the case of Montserrat it was W.H. Bramble.)
As I say I am just grateful that all I have to deal with is the aftermath of 400 years of slavery and not 2000 years of a caste system that maintains Brahmins on top (Tall and Teutonic and Untouchables on the bottom who just by coincidence happen to be short and dark. It is they who must still clean shit with their hands) The Hindus are 22% of the population and own 44% of India’s wealth. It is they who get to send their children to Europe and America for education. And guess what? They have no intention of changing anything. Even Gandhi wanted to keep the Untouchables in their place.
Well, Montserrat is not India. I want Montserrat to stay the same peaceful place it is. I want Police Commissioner Foster to keep sleeping the sleep of the Just and the blessed. And his police force to continue peacefully doing what they do best on Montserrat i.e. chase underage girls and impregnate them. May they have nothing more difficult to do than persecuting Rasta for the unpardonable sin of poverty. Not being rich enough to own a yacht and smuggle in whatever they like (as the expats do, untroubled).
“Them no eat what we eat,
Them no drink what we drink”
The Kingdom is not an easy place, but as George Irish said:
“The people,(La Gente) always find a way around government”. It is only when we are made to make bricks without straw that we come to know
how much we’ve always loved straw!