FROM THE TIME ATA CAME TO VISIT this place as a shy child she told herself—this is a place for adults. From the time them lovely Maracas waves first chewed her up, when she saw teenagers dressed like big people, rich homes flashing TV style—everybody rushing, buying food, driving and eating and drinking, picong talk flying—she promised herself she would come back to this prancy, peacock island. But she never trusted the perfumed strutting. And Trinidad never promised her anything. Never once invited her. No matter how many times Ata came from her island home. Because Trinidad is a metropolis, she thought. A complicated process and a place busy keeping up with itself, carrying on at a rate. Horrendous rates. Every time, in the taxi from Piarco Airport to Port of Spain, she could see the mess of it right there. All along the road, without shame or design. Ignoring her arrival.
Today the customs man doesn’t bother with her bags, he glances at Ata’s mixed-race complexion. “Yuh come back home?” he asks, just after Immigration finished giving her hell for visiting the Home of the Greatest Show on Earth
, yet again.
“Yes,” she says. She does live here now.
Outside the shiny cheap-tiled airport, the Indian taxi driver has her bag. “Where you going—is up a hill? Because my car does cutout on steep hill.”
No need to answer. Business as usual. Down the highway. Ata looks out at familiar gaudy shopping malls and incomplete housing schemes, factories, fast-food chains, mosques, the Hindu girls’ school. On this island of oil, with its asphalt sun and pothole roads, the highways are packed with cars crawling like shiny lice.
They inch through the junction by Nestlé’s compound. It’s midday and diesel-dark-skinned vendors comb through heat waves of glittering cars, dripping plastic bags of red pommeracs. Air-conditioned windows roll down. Cool bills for hot fruit. None for the limping polio beggar with his black cracked palm. The taxi man turns up the radio slightly to catch the latest news. A neutral voice offers, “Four victims were murdered in the country’s latest fatality … A seven-year-old, who survived by hiding under a bed, reports that his father and brother were tied up while his mother and sister were brutally raped in front of them by three men and chopped with cutlasses. All were then shot several times … Police say…”
The taxi man switches off and sucks his teeth loud. “Every day is some nonsense, yuh know. What de hell really going on in this place?”
As if she, the newcomer/returnee, should know the answer. He doesn’t need an answer. Like any Trini living in Trinidad, he has had to find a way to live with the unanswered questions. The same ones that bring Ata back, again and again.
They pass big Indo-Greco homes with icing-cake concrete balustrades, lots of sliding doors, curly wrought iron, and designer “features,” all locked up; patches of farmlands, with Gramoxone-dead grass borders. And plenty of billboards. White-teeth-smiling Miss World dressed in her airline uniform waves from hers. Bright multirace, happy people gulp down Orchard juice, cheersing each other. Trendy cricket heroes toast, with Pepsi and cell phones. Restbest Mattress is De Best.
They bypass town and the ex–railway terminal, the Sea Lots shantytown stretching up to Laventille, and the La Basse dump that leaks human scavengers and corbeau vultures, heading over the hills. “Some people don’ like passing this way, yuh know,” the driver tells Ata, “’cause of what them fellas used to do up so.”
“I know,” she says, and shifts herself to admire the Northern Range. There, behind Barataria, Tunapuna, and Arima, in the distance. These hills are the ones to watch. Blue-gray soft in the rainy season, hard and fire-scarred in the dry season, they talk. Incessant, annoying, fanning and waving and calling. They laugh, they mock the radio, echoing whatever they hear. They are part of it, she knows. Plumage of the peacock island. How to live with the ugliness of the beauty we love? Or die with it? “If you think living is difficult, try dying,” Fraser had said.
* * *
She had walked straight into Camp Swampy, on her return to Port of Spain as a young adult, eight years ago. This was the worst of Slinger’s Carnival-costume centers. But it was work that Ata had negotiated wages for. She felt she had a right to enter any Caribbean territory, or anywhere in the world for that matter, and work and participate and carry on as normal, and not feel like an illegal island immigrant. Growing up hearing about Caricom ideals and global citizenship, Ata felt “Caribbean,” not Dominican, not Guyanese, not Trinidadian—a true no-nation.
This in-between feeling, neither one nor the other, moved her from island to island, from Europe to the Caribbean, without obligation to either. A nonbelonger. Unrooted in place and race and in herself. Each island, each time, as she saw the secrets of the land and the lying creases of the culture, she found out something about herself. Unsettling things, not to be proud of, detaching until she sometimes felt outside her own body. But at the same time unretractably entwined in it all. A disappointed accomplice locked in but able to share remarkable, particular treasures.
She walked away from her village cocoon of books and dreaming, from alien European attempts to draw out the talent in her hands, talent that she felt was there like green juice in a leaf, pulsing. Practice and apprenticeship, she thought. Her father had warned her, “Independence is only real when you are outside of the rat race! Work for what you want, Atalanta, but don’t worry with this nonsense of working your way ‘up the ladder.’ Hierarchy is oppression!” But Ata knew that money is what bought independence. So she took what she could of her father’s words, gathered the strength and patience her mother used to cope with her father—and stepped into Camp Swampy. Straight into the cussing, roughing, gnarly hell of Carnival production boiling day and night to the explosion.
Ata stops, tentative, just inside the gate. The ugly old house with its burglarproofed veranda is crammed full of cloth and poles. The small, scrappy yard exhales a mouthful of bad breath. A stench of glue, fabric paint, stale sweat, cigarette butts, alcohol, piss, and stress. Prepared in cap and overalls, she climbs the littered steps and enters. The floorboards give under her slight frame. She moves forward cautiously and stops at the scream of a cutting machine controlled by a shirtless man. On a huge table, thick layers of bloodred fabric are spread with cardboard shapes, laid like a puzzle. The cutter man guides the blade, pressing and pushing the heavy beast. It whines and chews, spitting out red dust. The man shoves a sliced wad out of his way and braces himself again, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, ignoring her presence. She waits for a while, hearing more commotion in other rooms above the noise. Eventually she calls out to the cutter man. He is the same mix as she is but darker, straight dougla, black and Indian, wiry and tough. After a while he turns off the machine, brushes cigarette ash and red fluff from his chest, and finally grunts at her. He shouts to the back of the house, that a young boy is here to see Francisco.
She steps deeper into the den, overflowing with paint tubs, buckets, brushes, sponges, rags, and dirty Styrofoam cups. Another room full of decorated poles and standards, bracing the walls. A moon and a man’s face top the poles, strips of lamé, chiffon, and crêpe, hang from them. Spray-painted calabashes of all sizes lie on the floor or dangle by leather thongs from nails in the walls. Year of Gold Callaloo. The end of Slinger’s brilliant trilogy of masquerade bands transforming myths and legends. Four thousand people had joined that year—fifty-seven sections each in different costume. Meaning four thousand accessorized costumes paid for, to be finished by hook or crook.
“Just two weeks to go and I don’t know how the fuck we go finish!” Francisco bursts through the back door laughing his nasty laugh and strikes a Hindu-dancer pose for Ata. “You like it?”
His T-shirt, cut into shreds, and short dhoti stick onto his short chubbiness, completely covered in wet green paint. His head, shaved and painted gold, is well disguised as a calabash, but the hairy legs and whitish patches of skin shining through show him up as Po’tagee.
“Fellas”—he turns to them huddled in the back room over a joint—“this girl is my good-good friend. Yes, is a girl, you see?” He whisks off her cap. “And, I will pussonally kill any one of you who touch her or trouble her. You hear?”
The fellas laugh and take in Ata’s short, curly hair, boyish features, and shy eyes. Laughing at Francisco’s empty threat.
“Yes, laugh! Allyou know I fucking crazy, when I ready. Come, girl.” He leads her out into the yard full of tables of fabric waiting to be painted. Miles of spinach-green wet cotton hung drying on fence, lines, bits of lumber, and propped-up zinc sheets. The smell of the fabric paint was the bad breath. But it’s not toxic, Francisco reassures her, that’s why he could put it on his skin.
* * *
Ata dips her hands into the green paint and squeezes the sponge a couple times. The cold sliminess feels good. Splattering it freely over the fresh white fabric feels even better. Liberation and new-found creativity fill her young heart. Dreams and visions miles long. Cotton realms of rainbow gauze, like Francisco’s “floaty dhotis.” She imagines more than beauty. Clothing long brown fashion-model limbs, draping homes. A business built on the patterns of tropical flowers, shadows of leaves, textures and tones of earth, skin, and the rippling Caribbean Sea. She daubs and streaks, brushes and splatters, the black, the gold, the green, working her way under the skin and into the churn of Camp Swampy.
Catching a few hours’ sleep under a table, she tries to figure out the rules, the hierarchy and upper echelons of this kingdom. Or fiefdom. The kings and queens of the band are not leaders, only puppets. There is a God of Design and he is King of Mas. An impetuous genius out of the wrong color and class, in this world of black independence. Slinger, the “real artist,” came home with all his London classical-actor training, all his appreciation of the cultural fabric that he grew up with in Trinidad, bringing overstretched intellect and endless vision to transform the masquerade. This God of Design set about changing up everything in the arts—doing away with the commercialization of mas, not worrying about profit or loss—determined to re-create a costumed identity and the way ordinary people celebrate their body, their freedom and ancestral genes. The struggle nearly killed off God of Design. But “as he going off—is so he getting better.” According to Francisco.
Flood, the first year of the trilogy with the thirty-foot puppet, Tantie the Washerwoman, and her charming Sugar Boy. Streets of white fabric rippled a river over revelers, shuddering to the stampede of socalypso and thousands of feet. Full flounced skirts, headties, loose shirts, and wide pants—more pure white cotton than was worn in petticoat days, or dreamt of as costumes in this age. Blinding in the sun. Then Fire Crab scattered sci-fi smoke on the Savannah stage and drew pyrotechnic blood as the awed nation watched. Buckets and floods of paint burst onto white. Rainbow colors washed the river like one big coolie Phagwa festival. The crowds went mad, the island shook, and mas changed forever. The next year he floored them again with a band called Cascadoo, named for the armored fish that will bring you back to the island if you eat it. “But they didn’t give him Band of the Year then,” Francisco said. “Because he white. But you just in time now, for the cooking up of Gold Callaloo. And with all these calabashes … this might be the golden egg!”
Despite the prejudice, this prolific creativity fashioned devotees, Slingerites—loyal followers who would never play with another band. These made up the masses. Visiting royal guests came from far and wide and blessed elite performers had direct contact with the King of Mas. Ata wonders if it is His profile stamped into the plastic discs crowning the poles, to be carried as staffs. Francisco watches her eyeing the work suspiciously. “I call them bobolees, these pole things,” he declares.
“Yes, a bobolee—a stupidy, a joker. And every band member has to have one. Pure boboleeism. We still have two thousand to finish. So … I am the Bobolee King.” Francisco looks at Ata, gauging. “And you are a gofer. Yes, you now start—so is go for this, go for that—a gofer.”
Not the cute little animal that came to her mind. She stares at Francisco’s googly eyes behind thick glasses and his crooked, stumpy-teeth grin, and has to laugh. He is as mad as this crazy Carnival kingdom. And what does that make her?
The Port of Spain traffic behind the wall continues its stinking rumbling and she shouts over it, “What flicking hellhole is this?”
“Whaaat?” Francisco stops stacking the painted bobolees in the yard. “You cussing now?”
“What the fuck you think I have to do?” she shouts back. “Think I can survive if I don’t? Nastiness flying around here like paint.”
“Yes, Lord. Hallelujah, yuh baptize!”
* * *
Ata stumbles through the squalor after a week deep in Camp Swampy. Slimy, painty nights without sleep. Living on curry roti, channa doubles, and soft drinks. The dank house steams and sweats, continuously. Fueled with fire rum, crack, weed, whatever it needs to feed on. Vomiting green rejects to the putrid yard and batches of bobolees, calabashes, and wads of fabric to the master mas camp, two doors away. Women would visit the front yard, bringing money, food, whatever the men needed. Sometimes demanding money for child support. Once a fight broke out between two women arriving for the same man—clothes ripping, thumping and tumbling on broken beer bottles and cigarette stubs, while the men cheered. Francisco broke up the fight and was left standing there trembling as the women cussed his “faggot hands” for touching their bare flesh. They disappeared then, covering their shame with a shield of foul language.
Now early evening feels like eternal damnation to Ata. She can barely focus on balancing down the front stairs, to the gate. She steps carefully, trying to hold something in her heart from bursting. A violent grunting, a man and woman jerking together, stop her dead. Right there, against the concrete steps. The woman’s head, bowed, bumps on the cutter man’s shoulder as he pounds himself into her. His snarl and red eyes roll to meet Ata’s shock. “Walk, girl, don’t fucking watch!” He continues pumping.
She bolts out of the yard straight onto the nightstreet. Her thumping heart pushes her feet fast round the corner pub, past the cars and limers outside. She stops at the door of the mas camp showroom suddenly, gazing blindly at the Gold Callaloo emblem on the plain glass door. Staring right through it for a moment. Floating, like the delicate Carnival-costume drawings framed and titled in there, all along the air-conditioned white walls. A middle-class couple step past her into the showroom, chattering with anticipation. Cool, neutered air wafts out onto Ata’s face and she wraps her frail arms around herself. The pounding is still there.
She walks past Ma Pau casino, crosses Ariapita Avenue, to the quieter side streets. Near the police station, she stops at a neglected square. Woodbrook’s vagrants live there. She passes the sleeping forms huddled against the public toilet and sits on a swing. No tears spill because she doesn’t know what she would be weeping for. Anger and then a surge of extreme exhaustion and futility fold her into a hungry, homeless, vagrant figure. Suspended there.Where do the vagrants go for Carnival?
The places they rest in are taken over. This square becomes the assembly point for Slinger’s revelers to adjust their costumes; help each other fit and pin, comparing how much pounds they had to lose; and stamp new gold boots to break them in. Where are the vagrants then? They blend into the dirty “ole mas” dawn of Carnival but are pushed aside, ridiculed, and pitied for the rest of it. While rich folks prance in their home square, the few brave homeless who dare to dance in their everyday costume are given a wide berth, out of fear or scorn—“respect”—in the once-a-year show of equality. What is it all for, now? And why do people put themselves through slavery to make mas, or slave for the money to buy the costume—to “free up” for a few days? Two days of bought identity? Why the last-minute scramble and the stampede over dignity and dying skills?
And what is she doing here? She knows the answers are back in the chaos of Camp Swampy. In the experience, the music and rhythms of Trinidad. “Is we t’ing,” people tell her. But who is “we” when so many Trinis pick up their families and run from it? When the Indian population hardly embrace it? When Carnival bands are associated with class?
Vagrant questions move her again. Vaguely. In the direction of the Slingerite artists’ house, a tiny white fretwork asylum, tucked into a small yard packed with banana trees.
Three beautiful dancers, male dancers and local actors no less, one red, one black, one white, welcome her warmly with their usual tone of alarm. “Oh Gawd! What happen to you? You need RESS. Laus! Take a break, child. You can’t keep up with dat madness right through, yuh know. Or else it go kill you. Is true. Come.” And they share. Generously.
She showers and eats and sleeps on a bed in the tiny bedroom, in their clothes, their protection, their little house full of throaty banter, incense, gentle music, and rumbling laughter. Grateful, she breathes deeply in her sleep. And outside, the wide banana leaves cluster, pressing close, filtering the Port of Spain night air before it enters the jalousie windows, before it enters her.
* * *
The hills breathe and settle round the ex–swamp nest of a town. Spore-thick moist warm nights. Silk cotton trees with “shining eyes” line a street called Mucurapo. One of these old trees rots in the botanical gardens and a young straight one stands guard on the hill above. Breeze tugs off their white cotton-hair tufts and spreads their magic far. Soucouyant and Lagahoo. Old spirits and superstitions lived in them. But not now, the hills sigh. Look how things change and rearrange.
Copyright © 2013 by Oonya Kempadoo
Oonya Kempadoo was born in England to Guyanese parents. She has lived in Europe and on various islands in the Caribbean. Her first novel, Buxton Spice, was published in 1998 to great acclaim. Her second novel, Tide Running, won the prestigious Casa de las Americas Literary Prize for best English or Creole novel. Kempadoo lives in St. George’s, Grenada.