in Tobago as a 12-year-old from India, thinking I was going to land in
America and instead landing from Delhi to London, London to
Port-of-Spain to Tobago. Tobago, where the fumes rise like smoke on
asphalt in white hot afternoons, mangoes, pommecythere and chennette
trees, the guava patches are signals of a perpetual bounty.
And always the sea, everywhere the
sea, reflected in the sky, powdery blue, steel grey, deep navy at dusk
over the wildest of burnt orange, crimson, pink blended sunsets. And
that was just the landscape. The people. We barely understood what they
were saying and they didn’t understand us.
The Tobago thing was like a stewed
cherries love affair. Started haltingly, in the sunshine without too
many words for a family of five, led by a brave father, an engineer a
colonel in the Indian army, Mahendra Mathur, in his early forties, who,
in Delhi, sees a job description to design a highway in Tobago, a place
he’d never heard off. Soon enough this dreamer was in Tobago, and
meeting his wife and children in that dusty gold twilight hour, taking
us to our new home, past the sea, up a hill, on a fort with a silhouette
of a cannon and huge trees, the curve of an island.
There was the moment in school when
having asked a tall big girl “What language?” getting hauled by the
collar and told “English, you coolie.”
“But coolies lift loads,” I said,
thinking of coolies at the train stations in India carrying steel trunks
on soft cloths on wiry frames. Her response was to say “you crazy yes,”
laugh and thump my back with delight. We were 12 years-old and became
best friends. Just like that the barrier to Tobago came down and we met
Our Trini family—the Wheelers—a room
and a flimsy barrier separated our homes. We three to their four.
Shoulder to shoulder brothers and sisters. The Syrian family—the Khourys
with the shop in Scarborough. Indelibly Tobago. The Muslim Indian
family—the Mustaphas, uncle Jimmy who is as part of its landscape as
Bacolet beach on a Sunday.
The Serranos—our family from the
Philippines, simultaneously exotic and familiar. Intricate as the
plentiful lace in their home Mrs Serrano interspersing Tobago English
with Filipino as easily my parents did with Hindi. No boundaries.
Mrs Robinson, (unknowing then that
her son would be one day both Prime Minister and President of these
islands) who seeing a woman in a sari carrying a parasol stop to rest
under a mango tree on her way to the fort on a hot afternoon, offered
her a cool glass of water and promptly became mother to my mother,
granny to us.
The Gibbs brothers, with their
eminent lawyer father who made all the Tobago girls hearts beat faster.
They are ours still. Just ask them. The Chinese and Indian mixed Yips
from Trinidad who taught us about swimming, and Dr Allen Patrick who
became uncle and a source of pride in Trinidad.
The Knotts and Degannes, fragments of
our colonial India.
The fledgling mosque
The temple that was a room. The
church on the leafy hill with the sea view where I witnessed my first
burial of a classmate.
The marketplace where people would
ask after my mother. Watching the fishermen come in with their catch in
Charlotteville. Moonlight picnics in Pigeon Point. The jetty where we
learned to jump deep into the warm water, a jumble of our young bodies,
yellow, brown, red, black, white, limbs of all continents—joy like rain
playing in sea. To the people who say they’ve been called coolie, I say,
mesh into the island.
Tobago is dominated by a single race
but has never been about that. Don’t set yourself apart. Tobago belongs
to us all and Trinidad belongs to her. Join the waitress who is singing
without inhibition. Be the landscape.
Tobagonians are people fashioned with
the beauty of the sea and our landscape. Tribalism hasn’t congealed
here. Sometimes we speak first and think later. We are not worldly. We
are a bit cocooned, unexposed, can be awkward. We too have among us the
bumbling who say things they ought not.
But they don’t speak for Tobago.
Break it down. It is not a virulent hate. It’s not racism. Its fear that
you will use your power against us, our grace and lack of virulence
against us. Take away the fear and we become ourselves again.
We are not bitter. We let the sea
salt take away those historical wounds long time ago. Don’t make us that
way with talk of ships in Calcutta and coolies. Take away your politics
and don’t bring your rage, your wounds, your politics, your shrill cry
for power and your insidious bogeymen of obeah, of race to us.
When Mrs Lolita Wheeler our second mom
was teaching us children of all races to make stewed cherries, she was
mixing in with it a good dose of Tobago-style love that is enduring. If
you can’t share our love, don’t poison us with your politics. Leave us