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The story of terror and triumph behind Doubles

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Zalayhar Hassanali, wife of late president Noor Hassanali, is a huge supporter of Badru Deen and his book, Out of the Doubles Kitchen. PHOTO: DAVID WEARS

Within recent times, doubles (as in the barra and channa-based food-group) has found a place not only in the national palate, but in the national consciousness. More than one Facebook page is dedicated to it and as a food and a cultural artifact, it’s crossed the class and ethnic divides: in brief, everyone eats doubles, and apparently likes it.


But the route to this enviable culinary and social status is less felicific than the average gobbler might imagine, if, indeed, origins are imagined at all. Some have ascribed the origin of the food to Ali’s Doubles from south Trinidad, but, according to Badru Deen in his book Out of the Doubles Kitchen, his assertion is spurious, scandalous and scurrilous.


According to Deen, doubles was in fact invented by his father, Emamool Deen, or MamooDeen, who was born in Piparo in 1917, and his mother, Rasulan, born in 1920. For those interested in doubles qua doubles, this is an easy read: the story ends when MamooDeen had the “eureka moment” and thought: “Why not add another barra on top of the one with the peas on it?” The rest, as they say, is history. And in this case, they would be right. To be more specific, it’s a much-needed and revealing micro-history of the first generation post-Indenture IndoTrinidadians. 


Deen writes ostensibly to set the record straight, to reclaim his family’s pioneer and master entrepreneur status. The end of chapter five includes testimonials verifying his father’s bona fides, which seem to be as definitive as could be expected. It’s a fast food, after all, and the documentation is hazy on the subject. Was Colonel Sanders the real originator of his blend of 11 herbs and spices? Who knows?


But where the doubles story ends another, more gripping story begins, as hinted in the title Out of the Doubles Kitchen. 


Deen’s writing this book is much more than an account of a family invention; it’s an exorcism of family ghosts. The one shortcoming in this regard is also the book’s strength. Deen does not attempt to impose order, structure, or thematic coherence. The only ordering principle is chronology. 


Neither is there art or artifice in the syntax or style. The tone is either celebratory or stoic. Almost involuntarily Deen avails himself liberally of the language of Indian perseverance and pioneer spunk which comes from existing Indo-Trinidadian history/mythology. 


This is the popular view endorsed by Indo—and other historians in books like Calcutta to Caroni, Across the Dark Waters and what not. Given this internalisation of this way of looking at the Indo experience it’s interesting to observe how the limited tonal/emotional range contrasts with the perceptual apparatus required to do justice to the actual facts of the matter, as the story Deen really wants to tell takes over about a third of the way into the book. 


MamooDeen is described early as a “handsome, fair-skinned” man who “had the determination and commitment to change his paradigm from wage slave to an entrepreneur.” The story of doubles becomes a parable /metaphor /metonym for the journey of the determined Indo-Trinidadians for whom “necessity became [a] catalyst for invention and creativity” allowing them to escape their “prison of poverty.”


There’s the significant point here that the Deens are not Hindu, but Muslim, which histories are far from identical except to Creole Trinidad. But this conflation occurs almost involuntarily in Deen’s account. The Muslim identity emerges at times, but disappears when the rum-drinking, wife-beating, music, loose women, and outside children enter the story—and there’s a fair bit of that. 


From the start, Deen hints at the powerful undercurrent of brutality running through his life. From the story of his circumcision, through his sister’s marriage at age 13, to the recurring abuse of women and children, the central role of violence in peasant life is affirmed. After witnessing a particularly brutal beating his father wrought upon his mother, Deen writes of his sisters: “None of the three girls would escape physical and verbal abuse from their husbands as soon as the novelty of their marriages wore off.” And his sisters “endured physical and verbal abuse, believing it was their ‘cross to bear.’” 


Another poignant moment is Deen’s account of his sister’s marriage, at 13: “My indelible memory [is] of Subrattan as a bride, dulahin, in a truly innocent white satin bridal gown with a pattern of white eyelets throughout…these eyelets most appropriately represented the wide-opened eyes of Subrattan and many other child brides of the village, staring blankly at society’s norms and not having the right to even ask why.” 


At this point you know you’re in another story, and it ain’t about doubles. Through the medium of doubles, as it were, Deen allows us revealing and painful glimpses into the first generation after indenture, and it’s not a pretty sight.


It was the doubles trade that took the Deens from Fairfield in south Trinidad to the heart of Creole Trinidad, San Juan, in the late 1950s. Village life, in the first place, was hardly idyllic—it was a pit of violence, jealously, and pettiness. Neither was there automatic ethnic solidarity. MamooDeen does attempt to help his family, but his relatives (in-laws) are jealous, violent and deceitful.


Leaving all that behind, the Deens found another set of problems in the town, as they were made to understand their place in independent Trinidad—as barefoot coolies. And here begins another grim chapter—post-independence prejudice against Indians, badjohns extorting money, and the stigma of being the son of a doubles vendor. It’s harrowing but Deen’s optimism makes it all digestible, so to speak. 


And here is another weakness of the book. The story proceeds from event to event, alternating entrepreneurial gumption with private brutality and desire to escape. But it never gives the most interesting insight: the psychic/psychological dimension: how did a body and mind mediate, survive, and reconcile those worlds? 


The world the Deens grew up in was most faithfully recorded via fiction, in the novels of Harold Sonny Ladoo (No Pain Like This Body and Yesterdays), and G-rated versions in the early Naipaul, like Elvira and The Mystic Masseur. In both these writers, there is some disaggregation of the psychic struggle, through which you get to feel how they felt.


It’s fascinating that someone who actually experienced it, as Deen has, seems incapable of describing it except in received, pre-packaged language of ambition and entrepreneurship. He literally does not have the emotional language to describe his past. 


This is a serious indictment of the consciousness of Trinidadians in general, the emotional range we’re equipped with by school, culture, and religion, which affects our ability to deal with trauma. How can you deal with something you can’t even describe?
The verbal and visual language, and the enlarging of the consciousness of the nation, is provided by its artists and writers. Unfortunately this function is virtually absent in contemporary Trinidad, as the money and energy for these explorations have been spent on Carnival. 
More profoundly, you might say the almost aphasic lacunae in the story (the gaps between the triumphs and the terror) indicate a peculiarly Indo-Trinidadian psychological trauma which no one has even identified yet, analogous to the Fanonian postcolonial trauma afflicting AfroTrinidad. Unfortunately, Indo-Trinidadian scholars are too busy flogging the “pious pioneer” narrative to think of such things. 



Deen’s story continues well past independence. He gets married to a rich town-Hindu girl (a revealing tale in itself) and leaves Trinidad for Canada in the 1960s. There, like many Trinidadians and West Indians, he finds nirvana—a place where his colour and family background do not count against him, and where he thrives. Most evident in the writing is the relief at the rationality and order of Canada. But (in an almost fictional turn of events) he was led back to Trinidad.



He returned as an executive for a multinational company in 1978 and the prejudices he met while working are revealing. A Port-of-Spain business executive in no uncertain terms told him he would “not take directions from cane cutters.” The anecdote and this section of the book suggest, for me, the most resonant theme in the book to here and now, which I think is faithful to the author’s intentions: those un-exorcised prejudices persist. The largest failure of Trinidad is that the inordinate amount of talent, inventiveness, and genius here seems only able to thrive when it escapes Trinidad.


I understand this book was launched by the government. That is ironic, since the government is as guilty as the PNM of suppressing native potential, chasing away the best and brightest, and smothering Trini native genius in the crib, if not the womb. 
That said, this is a valuable book, which every Trinidadian would benefit from reading, and which historians would find especially valuable.