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FOR FLAG AND HOMELAND

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This story, written in the late 1980s, is about cricket.  But  for those reading it in 2005, take heart.  It is not about West Indies Test Cricket! 

            The crowd at the cocktail party was a mixed lot.  There were businessmen recounting successful deals, and university lecturers parading their intellects, and the odd engineer and lawyer bridging the gap.  Of necessity, the major talking point was the state of the nation.  They had celebrated the obvious blessings of the country, bemoaned the recession, and damned their Caricom neighbours.  Now the talk turned inevitably to leaders.

 

            “What this country needs,” said the businessman-host, “is a leader who would appeal to the patriotism of the people.  Like how the Americans do.  We have to rally round the flag and lay down our life for our homeland!”

 

            This thesis was greeted by a non-committal murmur.  Few wanted to take a stand on such a touchy subject.  After all, who could be sure how this surge of patriotism would affect their bank accounts?  Stray comments were tossed up, until a lecturer in political science spoke up.

 

            “You must be mad,” he shouted.  “Patriotism?  In this country?  You must be mad!”

 

            The entire room fell silent.  Lubricated by all the attention and foreign whiskey, the lecturer lectured.

 

            “These two islands are not a nation.  They are a patchwork.  We have Indians and Blacks, Chinese and Whites, capitalists and communists, poets and peasants.  Where is the common ground?  Where is our common loyalty?  How can we be patriotic – to what?”

 

            The audience mulled over this powerful denunciation in silence.  The lecturer seized the opportunity to confirm his dominance.  He issued a challenge.

 

            “I defy any of you to show me a true patriot in this country,” he said.  “Show me a man who was prepared to sacrifice for his country, with no thought of personal gain, that is all.”

 

            The party was growing uneasy.  They had come to have a good time.  This patriotism business was becoming too serious.  They wanted to get back to drinks and flirtation.  Beside, no-one really seemed to have an answer for this boorish lecturer.  Then, to the surprise of all, someone spoke.  He was a minor store-owner, a lesser light, but he took up the challenge.

 

            “Listen,” he said.  "I could show you somebody.  In the village were I come from is an old man who I feel is a true patriot.  Is true he didn’t go to war or get jailed, but he did suffer for his country.  And he didn’t do it for any reward.”

 

            The host, a business magnate in his own right, sensed an argument in the making.  He moved to intercept it.

 

            “Let’s call this a draw,” he suggested.  “I’m sure we can’t settle such a ponderous question tonight.”

 

The party signalled its agreement by breaking up into small groups and resuming the serious business of drinks and old-talk.  The host apologetically approached the would-be antagonists.

 

“Sorry, fellas.  But I just couldn’t let you hog the spotlight like that.  Anyway, we weren’t going to solve that problem here tonight.”

 

The lecturer was miffed.

 

“I would genuinely like to hear about this true patriot” he said.

 

“I’ll do better,” replied the store-owner.  “I’ll take you to meet him and let him tell his own story.”

 

The lecturer decided to end this once and for all.

 

“Why not tomorrow?” he asked.  “Or would that be inconvenient.”

 

The accent he placed on “inconvenient” left no doubt that he was calling the storeowner’s bluff.

 

“This sounds interesting,” the magnate said.  “Maybe I should come along.”

 

To their surprise, the store-owner did not flinch.

 

“It’s arranged, then,” he said.  “Tomorrow is Sunday.  We’ll meet right here at three o’clock and we can travel in one car.”

 

+++***+++***+++

 

            The road from Valsayn to the agricultural south of Trinidad is a bridge between two worlds.  The store-owner and the lecturer entered a time-machine when they stepped into the magnate’s posh automobile.  With tinted windows would tight and air-conditioner blowing, they sped down the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and then turned left onto the Uriah Butler.  The drive to San Fernando was rapid, with little time to glance at the canefields as they flashed by.  The talk in the car was light and almost witty, as three very different men pretended to be friends.

 

After San Fernando, the mood and the road both changed.  The road was narrower, more pot-holed, more meandering.  The great speed of the divided highway slacked to a more controlled pace.  Houses, too, crowded closer and closer to the roadside; and dogs, chickens and children presented fragile obstacles to the driver.

 

Further and further off the beaten track they went.  The store-owner gave increasingly detailed directions, as the magnate ventured into unfamiliar territory.  Soon houses became sparser, and finally the road was walled in by cane and ‘bandon on both sides.  The tinted glass and the air conditioning killed the glare and the heat of the afternoon sun.  At last, the tall bush and sugarcane yielded to neatly cultivated vegetable crops.  Then a few low huts appeared.  Self-consciously, the store-owner tried to hide the joy he felt at seeing his birth-place.  He pointed to a dirt house and said, with a level voice, “right here”.  The magnate pulled the car to one side, and stopped.  Then they opened the doors.

 

The heat and glare rushed to assault the occupants of the car.  Stripped of their protective comforts, the three urbanites were reminded that this was a tropical country.  Already, a woman had come out to see why this symbol of wealth had parked in front of her home.  The store-owner got out of the car and greeted her.

 

“Aye, man, is me.”

 

“Is you in truth?  I did get a message you was coming.  What bring you this-side today?”

 

“I bring some friends to see you father.  He home?”

 

“Yes, he home.  He inside.  Come, nah.”

 

The three men followed the woman into the hut.  They found an old man sitting half-asleep in a low morris-chair in the corner.  The old man roused himself and peered through thick glasses at his guests.  Then he recognized the store-owner and pulled himself into an upright sitting posture.  His greeting was a stylized ritual.  He called the store owner to him and held his hand with great pride.  He asked about his health and his family. He joked about his wealth and his premature grey hairs.  He poked a sinewy finger into the store-owner’s rich-man’s paunch.  Then he recognized the others.

 

“Is what make all-you come this-side today?” he asked.

 

The store-owner introduced his friends and added, “I bring them to talk to you.  They want to hear ‘bout the time you bat and make runs in Skinner Park.”

 

“That is long-time talk,” replied the old man.  “Nobody does want to hear ‘bout that again.”

 

“These fellas want to hear, and they want to hear from you-self.”

 

“All right, I go tell them.  But we must take a drink before we start all that talk.  Beti!”

 

The woman came, and was sent for rum and glasses.  She went to the back of the hut, and returned with four glasses and a half-empty bottle of strong local rum.  The magnate asked for ice, but the woman looked embarrassed.  They took the unfamiliar  drink straight, and  in tiny sips.

 

The old man took some rum into his mouth, swallowed it slowly, and smiled.

 

“That is the thing!” he exclaimed.  “So you want to hear ‘bout the time I bat in Skinner Park, eh?  That must be more than fifty years.  I could’a bat then, though.  I could’a really bat.  That is why they pick me.  In the whole of Trinidad, is me they pick.  Me and a next fella from this village self.”

 

The years rolled back in the old man’s mind.  It was just like yesterday.  He was a young man then, and strong, and handsome.  He used to work for the sugar company in crop, and somehow find time to play cricket too.

 

“In them days we used to have a team name Trinidad Indians.  When we had a chance, they used to send we team to B.G.  And sometimes them from B.G. used to come here.  Well, the year I get pick Berbice Indians did come.  And they send a man on a bicycle from quite San Fernando to tell we that me and Jagganath get pick.

 

“That was fete father!  The whole village pack up and gone San Fernando that Saturday.  Was to see me bat and Jagganath bowl.  They cook curry and roti, and they buy rum, and they pack up all that in they basket and thing, and gone Skinner Park.  Me and Jagganath feel so big, we say we must do something.

 

“Well, the Berbice captain win the toss, and tell we to bat.  I was the opening bat, so I pad up.  Is when I was walking out with the Berbice team that I see this big dougla with them.  That man was big!  He big like Pelto jackass, if Pelto jackass could’a stand up on he back foot!  When I was taking my guard, he take the ball and gone to mark out he run.  I ask the wicket-keeper which part of he is Indian.  The keeper only laugh and say, ‘Don’t mind, he name is Ramlogan.’

 

“That dougla bowl fast!  All the Trinidad bowlers I bat against was nothing next to he.  The first two balls was wide, so I didn’t study them.  But the next one was straight-straight.  Is then I know that dougla was a real bowler.  The fourth ball bounce and hit me – biff! – right in my chest.  It pain like a bull-pistle.  I bend-over and groan, but then I stand-up straight and take my guard.  I play out the last two balls, and I thank God!

 

“When my partner see how the dougla bowling, he decide to stay up that end.  So is me to face the dougla.  He watch me and smile as if to say, ‘I go out you stupid-stupid.’  That get me damn-vex.  I tell myself, ‘You playing for Trinidad, so you can’t let that dougla out you.’  And so said, so done.  It wasn’t easy, but I didn’t out.

 

“Well, I start to score a few runs, and the dougla getting vex.  He bowling faster, and I getting hit every over.  Mostly was in my chest.  Once was in my shoulder, and like I lose the feeling in my hand.  I rub the shoulder rough-rough, and the feeling come back and the pain start.  A next time he hit me – cox! – in my forehead.  I stagger back and like the whole field is a hammock, rocking, rocking.  The umpire tell me to retire hurt.  I wanted to cuss he mother, but he was a white-man from the sugar company, so I ent say nothing.  I only telling myself, ‘I playing for Trinidad, that dougla can’t out me.’

 

“But all the time I batting better, and the dougla getting tired.  At last, he stop hitting me, and I start hitting the ball.  After he was too tired, they take him off.  To tell the truth, after the dougla stop bowling the other bowlers was easy.  I make a good set of runs before I out.  When I out, everybody stand-up and clap as I come in.  And where the village was sitting-down, they jump up and beat bottle and spoon and dance!”

 

The store owner could contain himself no more.

 

“This old man was a hero!  The Guardian write the story on the back page.  The headline was: TRINIDAD INDIAN TAMES BERBICE DEMON BOWLER.  When I was a little boy my father had that clipping framed on the living room wall.  And we little boys used to come to hear this man tell his story.  Here is your patriot.”

 

The lecturer was sceptical, but he did not want to be rude.  He suspected that the old man’s heroics had more to do with the bowler’s mixed parentage than patriotism, but he could prove nothing.  So he took another sip of his drink, set it down, and shook the old man’s hand warmly.

 

“You are really a hero, and it was well worth coming all this way to hear your story.  But is a long way back home, and it will get dark soon.  So we really have to go now.

 

The three pilgrims stood up to leave.  The woman came in from the back of the hut, and walked them to their car.  They each shook her hand and bade her goodbye.  The magnate – because he was a magnate – gave her a rolled-up blue note ‘to buy a bottle for the old man’.  Then they climbed into the car, turned tortuously in the narrow road, and drove off.

 

+++***+++***+++

 

Darkness had descended on the hut.  Inside, in the dim light of a smoky pitch-oil lamp, the woman sat watching her aged father.  They had eaten the evening meal, and she had washed the wares.  After, they had talked about their visitors, and how nice it had been of the store-owner to bring them.  The old man had objected when he heard of the magnate’s gift, because he feared it might be an insult.  But it was too late to give it back, so he tucked it into his hatband.  Still, the woman had one more question to ask.  She began tentatively.

 

“Bap, that story ‘bout your batting, is true?”

 

“Yes, beti, true-true.”

 

“So you mean you take all that lash just because you was playing for Trinidad?”

 

The old man smiled.

 

“Well, wasn’t because of that,” he admitted sheepishly.

 

“Ah-ha!  So was because he was a dougla!  I know it was that.”

 

“No, beti.  Wasn’t that.  We never used to study that kind of thing when we was playing cricket.”

 

“So why, then?”

 

The old man leaned back and smiled.  His mind caressed emotions of half a century before.  He revelled in his thoughts for just a moment, then he replied.

 

“Is because of your Mai, beti.  She was Jagganath big daughter.  I did see she and like she, but I did never get to talk to she.  In them days things was different.  So I didn’t know if she did like me too.  When Jagganath get pick for the match, he feel real good.  So he carry he wife and all he children to see him bowl.  So you Mai was there too.  I did see she, and I tell myself that if I bat good-good, she might like me little-bit.  That is why I had to bat good.  That is why I take all the lash.  That is why I couldn’t let the dougla out me.  Was to make you Mai like me little-bit.”

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