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Tobago belongs to us all
Bangalore—Delhi—London—PoS. Landing in Tobago as a 12-year-old from India, thinking I was going to land in America and instead landing from Delhi to London, London to Port-of-Spain to Tobago. Tobago, where the fumes rise like smoke on asphalt in white hot afternoons, mangoes, pommecythere and chennette trees, the guava patches are signals of a perpetual bounty.
And always the sea, everywhere the sea, reflected in the sky, powdery blue, steel grey, deep navy at dusk over the wildest of burnt orange, crimson, pink blended sunsets. And that was just the landscape. The people. We barely understood what they were saying and they didn’t understand us.
The Tobago thing was like a stewed cherries love affair. Started haltingly, in the sunshine without too many words for a family of five, led by a brave father, an engineer a colonel in the Indian army, Mahendra Mathur, in his early forties, who, in Delhi, sees a job description to design a highway in Tobago, a place he’d never heard off. Soon enough this dreamer was in Tobago, and meeting his wife and children in that dusty gold twilight hour, taking us to our new home, past the sea, up a hill, on a fort with a silhouette of a cannon and huge trees, the curve of an island.
There was the moment in school when having asked a tall big girl “What language?” getting hauled by the collar and told “English, you coolie.”
“But coolies lift loads,” I said, thinking of coolies at the train stations in India carrying steel trunks on soft cloths on wiry frames. Her response was to say “you crazy yes,” laugh and thump my back with delight. We were 12 years-old and became best friends. Just like that the barrier to Tobago came down and we met family.
Our Trini family—the Wheelers—a room and a flimsy barrier separated our homes. We three to their four. Shoulder to shoulder brothers and sisters. The Syrian family—the Khourys with the shop in Scarborough. Indelibly Tobago. The Muslim Indian family—the Mustaphas, uncle Jimmy who is as part of its landscape as Bacolet beach on a Sunday.
The Serranos—our family from the Philippines, simultaneously exotic and familiar. Intricate as the plentiful lace in their home Mrs Serrano interspersing Tobago English with Filipino as easily my parents did with Hindi. No boundaries.
Mrs Robinson, (unknowing then that her son would be one day both Prime Minister and President of these islands) who seeing a woman in a sari carrying a parasol stop to rest under a mango tree on her way to the fort on a hot afternoon, offered her a cool glass of water and promptly became mother to my mother, granny to us.
The Gibbs brothers, with their eminent lawyer father who made all the Tobago girls hearts beat faster. They are ours still. Just ask them. The Chinese and Indian mixed Yips from Trinidad who taught us about swimming, and Dr Allen Patrick who became uncle and a source of pride in Trinidad.
The Knotts and Degannes, fragments of our colonial India.
The fledgling mosque
The temple that was a room. The church on the leafy hill with the sea view where I witnessed my first burial of a classmate.
The marketplace where people would ask after my mother. Watching the fishermen come in with their catch in Charlotteville. Moonlight picnics in Pigeon Point. The jetty where we learned to jump deep into the warm water, a jumble of our young bodies, yellow, brown, red, black, white limbs of all continents—joy like rain playing in sea. To the people who say they’ve been called coolie, I say, mesh into the island.
Tobago is dominated by a single race but has never been about that. Don’t set yourself apart. Tobago belongs to us all and Trinidad belongs to her. Join the waitress who is singing without inhibition. Be the landscape.
Tobagonians are people fashioned with the beauty of the sea and our landscape. Tribalism hasn’t congealed here. Sometimes we speak first and think later. We are not worldly. We are a bit cocooned, unexposed, can be awkward. We too have among us the bumbling who say things they ought not.
But they don’t speak for Tobago. Break it down. It is not a virulent hate. It’s not racism. Its fear that you will use your power against us, our grace and lack of virulence against us. Take away the fear and we become ourselves again.
We are not bitter. We let the sea salt take away those historical wounds long time ago. Don’t make us that way with talk of ships in Calcutta and coolies. Take away your politics and don’t bring your rage, your wounds, your politics, your shrill cry for power and your insidious bogeymen of obeah, of race to us.
When Mrs Lolita Wheeler our second mom was teaching us children of all races to make stewed cherries, she was mixing in with it a good dose of Tobago-style love that is enduring. If you can’t share our love, don’t poison us with your politics. Leave us alone.
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