Robert Clark's Talk: Our St. James

Our St James

In this house at 26 Nepaul Street, St James, from 1946, lived the Naipaul family — some for longer periods, others for shorter.

The most celebrated of the family, one Sir Vidia, lived there for four years while at QRC, before leaving for Oxford University in England just before his 18th birthday.

Another, father Seepersad Naipaul, a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian, lived there for seven years between buying the property and escaping the overbearing influence of his wife’s in-laws, and his death at the age of 47.

Mother Droapatie Capildeo, of the Capildeo clan from the Lion House in Chaguanas, lived there for over four decades, well beyond her husband’s passing.

But it is Shiva, the third writer in the family, who has left us the best portraits of a fictionalized St James. He spent his formative years there, from the age of one well into his teens and beyond. So perhaps it is fitting that we should begin with him. Or rather, my imagined version of his 5-year-old self:

From the second story of 26 Nepaul Street, Shiva heard the first rap-pap-pap of the Hosay tassa. He tumbled down the staircase, past the oil portrait of his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul, snatched a piece of roti from the tabletop bowl, gave Gyp the family dog a friendly kick and bounded into the yard.

From the light of the bare incandescent, through the leaves of the cassia, he spied cousin Deo, shoo-shooing by the gate with the Muslim drummer boy. Good thing Pa ain’ reach from work.

So what is historically accurate? There was a dog called Gyp, and an oil portrait of Seepersad (PIC F) – a curious indulgence that cost him $52 when money was tight – and a cousin named Deo, who scandalized the senior Naipaul by dating outside her religion. There was a cassia tree, and a shade tree that Gyp died under after being struck by a motor-van on Nepaul Street. There was a rich scarlet bougainvillea and several orchids, that Seepersad had taken up as a hobby. There was roti and there was rice; neither was missed by Vidia off in England.

And beyond the front wall, there was a street.

Nepaul Street was home to Indo-Trinidadians. It was they who had begun the settlement of St James, transforming it by degrees from former cane lands to residential community and suburb of Port of Spain. But by the late 1940s it had already assumed its multi-ethnic character.

(PIC G) “By the time I was born,” writes Shiva, in the preface to his book of short stories Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth, “the living link with the sugar cane estates of the Caroni plains had been effectively broken. About that other life I knew virtually nothing. I was a town boy through and through.”

A stroll down the Town Boy’s street would have led him past the home of pan pioneer Anthony Williams, (PIC H) and perhaps it was unsurprising that, by the age of 6, Shiva was beating pan – news of which Vidia in London found “distressing”. It may have been a passing fancy, rather than a life-long pursuit, but there was no lack of options for an aspiring pannist in St James in the 1950s: North Stars on Bombay Street, Five Graves to Cairo in Belle Vue, Tripoli at the corner of Ethel Street and Mucurapo Road.

(PIC i)
From the second storey window of his snug box-shaped home, Shiva could see the Rialto cinema at the corner of Agra Street and the Western Main Road, where 9 cents would get you a wooden chair in Pit for a double feature of the Westerns that proved so influential in the naming of St James pansides. Occasionally the theatre was plunged into darkness as the film reel snapped and from the gritty depths, the first shout rose, aimed at the poor projectionist: “Bascombe, your mother-so-and-so!” That gem from one of the denizens of Pit, a contemporary of Shiva’s.

But it is in Shiva’s stories that you are invited into his St James, just as you were introduced to the characters of Woodbrook through Vidia’s Miguel Street, written from observations made from the safety of his grandmother’s yard while living at the Capildeo house at Luis Street, Woodbrook.

In Shiva’s Beauty Contest, Doon Town stands in for St James.

“There were two hardware shops in Doon Town, and the Oriental Emporium, proprietor R. Prasad, was one of them. There was nothing remotely oriental about the place, but the name had been given by Mr. Prasad’s father (a man noted for his flights of fancy) and no one cared enough to change it. The other, just a few doors away, was the more aptly named General Store, proprietor A. Aleong. Though selling the same goods they had competed amicably for many years, and Mr. Prasad appeared to derive a certain pleasure in telling his customers, ‘Me and Mr Aleong is the best of friends. Not a harsh word in ten years.’”

It is a story about suburban development, American cultural imperialism, and a parochial shopkeeper spurred on by an ambitious wife to ever more ridiculous competitive feats. In it you recognize a St James that exists even today: “It was the custom in Doon Town for shops to bring their goods on to the pavements, where the bulkier items were displayed.” I don’t need to show you a picture for you to know that this is true.

Mr. Aleong, whose son has returned from studying business management in America, takes the goods off the pavement and puts up a sign: “Pavements were made to be walked on.” He erects a neon sign with flickering lights and the image of a man dressed cowboy style, saying: “Darn me if this ain’t the finest store in town.” Of course, he captures the market.

“Man, I know what you could do,” said Prasad’s wife one day, visibly excited. “You could enter someone for the Miss Doon Town contest. Imagine you get a really nice girl, Miss Oriental Emporium – you know they have to say who sponsoring them in a sash across they chest – and if she win Aleong go come crawling back to you. He’ll keep his tail quiet after that.”

Disaster ensues. Miss Oriental Emporium portrays Isis, Egyptian fertility goddess. By custom, the more exotic your Carnival Queen the better. But Aleong, recently an upsetter of tradition and embracer of foreign-ness, has his queen go local: Miss General Store as Fruits and Flowers.

“Mr Prasad stiffened. The audience digested the significance of this before bursting into rapturous applause. Miss General Store wore what was basically a grass skirt, hidden behind bunches of hibiscus, oleander and carnations. Her bosom and back were encased in banana leaves overspread with wreaths of fern and more flowers, and on her head she balanced a fruit-filled basket from which hung chains of roses reaching to the floor. People rose from their seats and applauded. Someone threw a straw hat on the stage.
‘Fruits and flowers, a local thing.’”

Aleong is elected mayor, the General Store grows into a chain, and Mr. Prasad enjoys recounting the memory of his close friendship with the Mayor.

The inherent tension of racial and religious diversity is also among Shiva’s themes. In The Tenant, Pankar the jeweler buys a house on the up-and-coming Western Main Road. There his wife Dulcie gives birth to a deformed baby, and pegs her misfortune to her husband’s growing proximity to their tenant — a tall, dark woman of half-Indian, half-Negro extraction — widely believed to be an Obeah woman.

Dulcie abandons the house, Pankar’s jewelry store prospers, and Eugenie Radix, tenant-cum-common-law-wife-of-a-sort, replaces her garlands of hibiscus and oleander with “necklaces of an intricate and occult design.” Again, disaster: The business fails dramatically and it seems that Pankar will abandon Radix. But he is deep in her thrall.

In A Man of Mystery, Grant Street could easily be replaced with the name of half-a-dozen St James streets. It is in the process of being commercialized and gentrified, but retains its communal character. (PIC J)

“Grant Street lived an outdoor, communal life. Privacy was unknown and if anyone had demanded it he would have been laughed at. The constant lack of privacy had led ultimately to a kind of fuzziness with regard to private property. No one was sure, or could be sure, what belonged to whom or who belonged to whom. When this involved material objects, like bicycles, there would be a fight. When it involved children, more numerous on Grant Street than bicycles, there was a feckless tolerance of the inevitable doubts about paternity.”

In the story, shoemaker Mr. Green, described as spectacularly black is taunted for dressing in a cork hat and starched white tropical suit while taking the neighbourhood children for walks: “Make way for the Governor, everybody make way for the Governor.” His jaunts from Grant Street lead him to the Queen’s Park Savannah, the Zoo, the Botanical Gardens.

The Greens, in some ways are different from their neighbours. Apart from the tropical suit, Mr. Green’s wife paints — ships in stormy seas —and is often seen carrying books. But in many ways, they are the same.

“The Greens did come to have one thing in common with their neighbours: they shared their unchanging way of life. In that life, no one ever got richer or poorer; there were no dramatic successes or, for that matter, dramatic failures; no one was ever in serious trouble. Basically, they were cowards. Now and again Grant Street spawned a prodigy, a policeman for instance, but that was considered an aberration and did not happen often.”

This is a caricature of St James, to be sure. But as Vidia said of the biographical House for Mr. Biswas, whose protagonist Mohun Biswas, is heroic and pitiful as he strives for a house of his own: “It’s not a portrait. Fiction is one thing and real life is another. My father is a much more serious man than the novel makes out. To make him a very serious man, in this novel, it would not have worked.” In other words, characters have been altered for dramatic effect.

Shiva’s and Vidia’s mother has her own St James. (PIC K) Shown here with her seven sisters and two brothers – the tallest one, standing in the back – Droapatie’s St James revolves around the home, where her three-burner stove and wash tub reside. One of her daughters says that she loved J’Ouvert, and would be out on the road every Carnival Monday morning at 4. But it was the Ethel Street Hindu temple that was her domain. (PIC L)

Listed among the founding members, Droapatie’s contributions, a shilling here, a few cents there, helped build the impressive structure that took shape in 1962. (PIC M) Before that, Hindus had prayed at home or in a tiny kootiah, no more than a hut really, near the very same site.

(PIC N) There were big names among the temple donors – multi-millionaire Port of Spain businessman Jang Bahadoorsingh; Droapatie’s brother, attorney Simbhoonath Capildeo; Bhadase Sagan Maraj of the Maha Sabha – but the mandir’s construction was driven by the working class Hindus of the community.

Imagine a Sunday morning puja, an offering of sweet-smelling smoke rising from the hawan bowl as flames devour the ghee and guggul-sap. The younger temple-goers show the older women respect for their seniority and knowledge of the rituals; they are referred to as mausis, or aunts. Droapatie Naipaul is Bhola Mausi, a light scarf draped over her head as she performs her aarti. She’s described as being there every Sunday from 1962 until her passing in ‘91.

The temple expanded around her, with marble murtis (PIC O) imported from India and a congregation drawn from well beyond St James. “People used to come in abundance because this was the flagship of the Caribbean,” says Ralph Lakhan – a member of the Lakhan family, as instrumental as any in the temple’s establishment and upkeep. “There were fewer temples then.”

In the late 70s, the temple is expanded and smaller mandirs are built towards the back (PIC P) – to Kali, Shiva, Hanuman and Rama. Once again, Shiva and Vidia’s uncle, Simbhoonath Capildeo, is a major donor. His wife and then his daughter-in-law, Shakti Capildeo, manage the temple affairs.

Droapatie’s temple is a truly Trinidadian structure. (PIC Q) The original mandir was designed by a British expat, architect John Newel-Lewis. (PIC R) The smaller temples were designed by Chinese Trinidadian, John Yip Young – whose Kali Temple design, you see here; and built by a Muslim contractor named Shaffeek Shah. Afro-Trinidadian masman and copper sculptor Ken Morris (PIC S) made Hanuman’s mace, which tops Hanuman’s temple, and Kali’s sword (PIC T), which tops hers.

And then there is Vidia, raised in the faith but an atheist himself. His knowledge of Hinduism originates with his mother and her extended family. It is best displayed in his short story My Aunt Gold Teeth, where the narrator is effortlessly specific about the objects of ritual required for the healing of Gold Teeth’s sick husband: a brass jar of fresh water, a mango leaf, a plate full of burning charcoal.

Gold Teeth, of course, actually existed; she was a family friend. Her death is recounted to Vido in a letter from Pa, written from the Nepaul Street house. “Gold Teeth Nanie died last Sunday night at the Colonial Hospital and was buried the following day.” Whether she was indeed an addict of Christianity as described in the story, who brought misfortune on herself by adding Christian charms to her arsenal of Hindu icons, I cannot say. Nor can I confirm that she had sixteen gold teeth as related in Vidia’s story.

As much as Vidia was happier close to the metropolis and did not often long for “insipid” Trinidad, he did have moments of yearning for the familiarities of home. In the collection of letters Between Father and Son, (PIC U) on March 7, 1952, he writes: “I feel nostalgic for home. Do you know what I long for? I long for the nights that fall blackly, suddenly without warning. I long for a violent shower of rain at night. I long to hear the tinny tattoo of heavy raindrops on a roof, or the drops of rain on the broad leaves of that wonderful plant, the wild tannia. But in short I long for home, or perhaps, the homely atmosphere. And I miss my bicycle rides, and the sea, and the pit at Rialto, and the sort of cigarettes I used to smoke, to everyone’s scandal.”

He would ride from Saint James to Point Cumana to swim, in what was likely a solitary endeavour.

A year later, on a glorious Saturday evening at the Oxford library, he remembers distinctly “the road home, the Oval and all the signs and the Oval Café and those Chinese shops and the Police Barracks and the Post Office.” Plot the route: In his memory, he is riding East to West, from QRC to Nepaul Street. Every thing, he writes, is absolutely clear in my mind.

Seepersad’s St James is, again, the home of an observer. (PIC V) But he also knew much of the rest of the country through his time at the Trinidad Guardian. He writes to Vido from Nepaul Street, plotting their correspondence, already well aware of his son’s immense talent and the possibility that their letters might, one day, be assembled as a book. “My letters then would not be just preachings,” he says, “but descriptions of people and incidents in these parts… A Kamla, a Bhagwat, a calypso night, a shango; a chat with Baboolal, a chat with Rapooche.”

He is introduced to every tradition. (PIC W) “Today was Hosey. Everybody went to see the things, except me. But I did have a look from upstairs, and as the tadjahs were passing the Rialto, I went across and took two snaps of hoseys and the moon.”

He lives among a welter of religions and races – Shango, Hosay, Muslims, Christians, Chinese, Portuguese – but his exposure does not relieve him of prejudice. Two cousins, Deo and Phoolo, are living in his house with his daughters. He fears that their “lamentable perversity” may rub off. “These girls have become so ultra-modern that they make no distinction between Negroes, Mussulmans or any other people. Deo says, without the semblance of a blush, there’s nothing bad or ugly in a Hindu girl marrying a Negro boy. Her actual words: ‘What does it matter as long as you can be happy?’ As to Muslims: ‘Why, they are only human.’” Vidia agrees that it’s a sad state of affairs, and then goes and marries a white woman.

This is St James – cheek by jowl we live and our relations are generally cordial, despite the dark recesses of our petty biases.

(PIC X) But within his house, now a home, Seepersad/Biswas is content. Free of the Capildeos/Tulsis, he is man and boss. There is space and privacy. Around him, there is a community, sometimes alien often intriguing.

To some extent, as Professor Ramchand notes, the move from the country to the town is an evolution of the Indians to becoming more Trinidadian, more exposed to the rest of society. It was so for Shiva, a Town Boy through and through.

(PIC Y) Returning home from hospital after his heart attack not long before he died in 1953, Seepersad Naipaul wrote of his domestic bliss: “What a neat little home we have in 26. I had never seen it in this way before. The girls are to be commended for this, though they are rather quite apathetic in other ways.”


Friends of Mr Biswas

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