Wed | Nov 22, 2017

Tony Deyal | Let there be light

Published:Saturday | October 21, 2017 | 12:00 AM

We were in Antigua. We had not been there long, just about two months. We had left Belize, a country that we still love greatly and would return to if we could, and had landed, bag, baggage, and two children, in Antigua.

It was a country I had previously visited several times when I worked with PAHO and a regional climate-change project, but a place with many new challenges, not the least of which was that it was not Belize or Barbados, countries in which we never experienced the casual racism that is a feature of both Guyana and Trinidad.

While I firmly believe that Heraclitus of Ephesus was right when, around 500 BC, he had observed, "You never step into the same river twice," and Agathon, another Greek, took it further a hundred years later by pointing out, "Even God cannot change the past", a creed I live by and pass on to my children, I still tried without knowing the extent to which I had not changed, even though Antigua was not the same place and I was not the same person.

It is a human trait, based on emotion, and not the logic of the Greeks, to try to dominate our surroundings, especially when these have changed drastically. In our search for comfort, or even sometimes mere sanity, we surround ourselves with artefacts and ceremonies that are familiar and hold meaning for us.

We moved into a country that had known slavery at its worst but not Indian indentureship. We lived opposite a house with a beautiful garden in which the standout feature, and the landmark we used for directions to visitors and even the utility workers, was a statue of a naked man urinating into a water fountain. Fortunately, the children were used to my prized painting of Da Vinci's 'Ascent of Man' hanging in the study and went with the flow.

 

CHRISTMAS CELEBRATIONS

 

We had always tried to make the children feel at home wherever we lived. For Christmas in Trinidad and Belize, we ran strings of lights, a spectacle the children and neighbours from miles around enjoyed enormously. It took me back to my childhood. It was an interesting feature of life in Trinidad that even though my parents were Hindus, we recognised and celebrated Christmas in a big way.

We got electricity in our house when I was about eight years old. I was at the standpipe across the road filling a bucket of water and the yellow electricity truck pulled up in front our house. I may have left the bucket right where it was and ran across the road shouting, "They come, they come." All the other children ran to see what was happening. The neighbours came out as well.

Even though they had seen this before, it still had novelty value. That Christmas, my mother bought a very small 'Christmas' tree made from wire with green-painted fibre leaves sticking out like hairbrushes, a tin of artificial snow, some 'angel hair' made from fibreglass that caused us to scratch horribly and develop bumps that went unnoticed in the excitement, and delight of delights, some baubles to hang from the little tree and a string of coloured bulbs.

Every year since, Christmas has been my special time, and wherever we lived, we had a tree and presents under them for the children, friends, neighbours, and family. We did Christmas in Belize as we had done previously in Trinidad and our efforts, while enjoyed, passed unremarked. We had hired a young electrician of Mayan descent to string the lights along the roof. As I told my wife Indranie, "If they could put up pyramids, what are a few lights on a flat house?"

But Divali, the Indian festival of lights, comes before Christmas. In Belmopan, where the influx of refugees from wars and internal strife has created many slums, the people tend to take everything in their stride. There are Indians living there and they have traditionally celebrated the festival in the playground.

Not being Indians but a family with one Guyanese, one Trini and two Bajans, we put our small clay pots or 'deyas', brought from Trinidad, around and inside the house and when our neighbours asked about them, we explained, but while they were interested, they took these too, as they had taken other invaders, in stride.

 

'FOREIGN OBEAH'

 

Not so Antigua. At least, not at first. We put our little lights flickering in the strong Atlantic breeze and realised that we had stepped into a different river altogether. People walking along our street crossed the road, and the devout may have crossed themselves. This was obeah - and foreign obeah at that.

But Antiguans, too, understand that while the past is a foreign country, if we understand it, we can learn from it and, unlike so many other civilisations, we will not be condemned to repeat the mistakes.

Our neighbour, who was responsible for the statue across the road, was Sir Reginald Samuel, a former teacher who had designed the national flag. The statue of the man with bladder problems was his, and despite the handicap of a stroke he had suffered which made walking extremely difficult, Sir Reginald dashed across the road in joy and great wonder, "Diwali?" he asked me. It was perhaps how the Indians, after three months at sea, having been bashed and battered around the ironically named Cape of Good Hope, must have felt when they saw Trinidad.

In my life, I have been to almost every kind of religious celebration there is in Trinidad, including Shango, where the feasting always attracted us. I remember one of the boys, Pampoolay, eating so much that he couldn't move and his mother had to take a Cocoyea broom (made from dried coconut leaves) to sweep his stomach so the food would digest.

I can still sing my Baptist hymns with the best. The sword in my hand is always ready for use. I am always going away to watch and pray, never to come back till the great Judgement Day. And more, wherever I have gone in this world, I have met what I have taken there. If you go in peace, you will eventually find it there. If you go with love, it will make your world go round wherever you are. Divali in Trinidad, Antigua or Belize. Baptists, Shango, Pentecostals, Church of the Nazarenes, regardless. Wherever I have gone, as the spiritual says, "Somebody touch my soul."

- Tony Deyal was last seen repeating what English writer, Samuel Butler, said: "God cannot alter the past, though historians can."