Taxi Driver. By Valerie Coddett.
Saved Twice. By Valerie Coddett
Manu the Cane Cutter. By Hari
By Valerie Coddett
Earlier, the sky was clouding over but the day turned into a fine afternoon that seemed to augur well for the occasion to which we looked forward. Desa, a close friend, my sister Glenda and I were invited to a wedding in Woodbury in Long Island, New York. We all hail from New Amsterdam. Both Glenda and Desa, having graduated from nursing school together in London, were now nurses at the same hospital in New York City. Desa and I have known each other since public school days, and we attended Berbice High School together.
We asked Desa if she was driving from Queens to Woodbury for the wedding. She said that she did not like driving late as it was too dark at night on Long Island. A taxi would pick her up in Queens. I asked about our sharing the taxi fare. She then added a sentence that puzzled me – “The driver does not like to discuss price.” We both knew that it was going to be a long trip. She later called to inform us that we would be the first pick up; and she, a half hour later.
Kumar, the driver, had called to tell us he would pick us up in fifteen minutes. We waited in the lobby for about twenty minutes. Desa told us that he drove the taxi mostly in Manhattan; so did he lose his way? To be picked up at 5:00, we had arrived in the lobby at 5:02. When he phoned, we did not write down his cell phone number and so a predicament arose!
When I called Desa to get his number, her daughter informed me that she was already waiting in the lobby. Why is she in the lobby so early, I inquired. It would take almost half an hour’s drive to arrive at her home. Her daughter said that she would call her mother but that she might not answer because the cell phone would probably be in her handbag. The choice was to go back upstairs and get Kumar’s number that was recorded on the landline, or continue waiting indefinitely in the lobby. We decided to go out to the sidewalk to look for him. We knew that he was a taxi driver of Indian ancestry. After a few minutes, we noticed a young man approaching us. He had found parking space about half a block away.
We exchanged apologies knowing that we would be extremely late for the wedding. It was approaching rush hour when we departed. Settling into the taxi, I assumed that he was from India, and I mentioned the fact that my ex boss hailed from Kolkata and now lived in Delhi. I then asked him where his hometown was, and we spoke briefly on the topic. On the previous day, I happened to read in The Guardian that his compatriot, Rahul Bhattacharya, won the Michael Ondaatje Award for his “brilliant” evocation of the history, inhabitants and landscape of Guyana in his book, The Sly Company of People Who Care. I had read the novel and so I related the story of the author visiting Guyana, falling in love with the country, and then writing about his journey.
We arrived at Desa’s address. It took a while for us to get to Woodbury where the wedding was already in progress. Kumar exited to find parking. Why was he parking? Was he preparing to wait for us? I wondered. Apparently, he was. He could not accompany us into the wedding … for who crashes a wedding! Around 10:30 p.m., after speeches and dancing, we told him that we would leave shortly.
“How did you spend the time waiting all those hours?” I asked.
“I listened to music, and I have a small TV in the car. Also, I went to the Seven 11 store.”
He dropped Desa off first, ensuring she not only entered the building safely, but her apartment as well. On our way home, Glenda and I proceeded to discuss the fare with him. “It’s all right,” he said “there is no fare.” We kept insisting to no avail – “It’s all right, there is no fare.” The only answer – a refrain – back and forth! – it could have been $100.00 each way or more, not including waiting time.
… Finally the revelation surfaced. He had held Desa in very high esteem. His twin sons were born prematurely and had remained in the hospital for more than two months after birth. She was a nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit while the boys were there. We learned that the twins were now 8 years old.
While speaking later with Desa, we discovered that they had kept in touch with each other. From time to time, she would use his taxi to the airport, and he would never accept the fare when she offered it. The courtesy to Desa was by association extended to us!
This experience reminded me of a comment by Sir Winston Churchill – “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
By Valerie Coddett
Overhead the sun shone. I stood on the Long Island Railroad Station at Jamaica awaiting the train to Freeport to attend the funeral of an ex-boyfriend. It was some forty years ago that I met him. Running late for the event, I barely made the service. I observed that the atmosphere was not too somber, as funerals these days seem to be more of an event celebrating the person’s life rather than the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
At the repast, I only knew three family members, and a friend. We had traveled together to arrive at the church where we were introduced to other mourners. In certain cultures, it is not unusual to give the family an envelope with money or a check placed in a card. And so it was a surprise to hear that envelopes could be placed in a bag that held a notepad where names could be written, and contributions recorded. My friend and I did not follow protocol, as we had already handed over our respective envelopes to a family member.
Soon it was recollection time and I had one story to share within my group of mourners in an attempt to lighten the mood. During a holiday weekend, the deceased had been invited to go sailing on a lake on Long Island. He picked me up on the morning of the event. As I was leaving home, my sister admonished: “You do not know how to swim! Why are you going on a boat?” I then placed a book in my bag that I would read while lying on the beach.
The party set out in small boats and we traveled for a short while before returning to shore. On the beach, food and drink were served, conversation attempted, and everyone lay around in a relaxed atmosphere. It was about two hours later that someone suggested another turn on the lake. I remained on the beach and pulled out my book from the bag that I carried. Deeply into reading and enjoying my book immensely, I happened to look up. There was a commotion going on. The boat that the deceased was steering and in which I would have been a passenger, had capsized in the middle of the lake. The water-logged passengers were able to swim. I pondered what my lot would have been, non-swimmer that I was – although the deceased sailor did claim he would have saved me.
On the day following the funeral, I awoke in a strange “occult” mood. I reflected on what a stranger had said to me at the funeral, after I related another story that also involved my sister’s apparent foresight. This stranger, whom I met for the first time, had worked with the deceased for the UN in Africa, they were both Africans. She declared “your sister saved your life twice!”
. . . In the late sixties, I was learning to drive. Early one morning I was on the road with the instructor, when somehow, I found myself heading into another vehicle; accelerating instead of braking. Were it not for the instructor’s swift intervention, there might have been quite a serious accident. I was terrified and became even more so when I arrived home. I did not even remember why I rang the door bell, I must have had my key. My sister who was a nurse worked nights and slept during the day. The insistent ringing of the bell awakened her. She opened the door and looked at me … and with great concern she said – “I just had a dream about you. You were in an accident and when I arrived there, you were being placed in a black box, although you were still alive!”
From that day I decided I was never going to continue learning to drive. I never completed the lessons for which I had already paid. “I don’t need to kill myself!” At the funeral when this stranger said to me — “Your sister saved your life twice” — in that moment everything changed. I’d never thought of it that way. I now pay attention to her observations.
Manu the Cane Cutter
Manu, my grand father, was bound to Blairmont Estate and there he lived until he died. He and his elder brother worked very hard and after their contract was completed they stayed on in the estate.
The brother wanted to return to India and he worked some more years to save enough money to take back to India. Before he left, he used some of his savings to get his younger brother Manu married and provided for with some valuables. Manu was well over twenty years old then. He had spent by far the greater part of his life in British Guiana and this was now his country.
Manu was married to Lakpat. She was the daughter of Driver Tega Singh.. I am told she was pretty. The old people described her as small with a round face long hair and bright eyes. I think the bright eyes run in the family. My father and his brothers and sisters, even our children do have bright eyes.
Lakpat worked shoulder to shoulder with her husband. She used to work in the weeding gaing, in their early marriage years. They had seven children, three died when very young. The four survivors who lived to a good age were a girl, then my father, a brother, and young sister.
Manu and his brother worked as cane cutters. Manu continued as cane cutter after his brother went back to India. Cane cutting was the hardest job in the cane fields. After the cane had grown to its full size, the fields were then set on fire to burn out the leaves which otherwise were plentiful and thick and made access through the fields difficult. This way it was easier to get to the cane stalk to cut it. The fire also had another purpose which was to reduce the water content in the cane and concentrate the cane juice for later extraction to make sugar.
Manu’s job was to cut the cane, pile it up, make up bundles, fetch these to the nearby canal and place them in punts to be taken to the sugar factory. The punts were drawn by mules. Driving the mules was another person’s job.
Manu went to work barefoot, as it was the way in those days. He was armed with a very sharp cutlass. He wore his kurta , dhoti , and a pagree. The pagree was essential to protect his head from the intense heat of the sun, all day long. He worked from early morning until sunset, until it was impossible to see clearly.
There were many hazards in the job. The ground was not level. It was built up into planting beds for the cane, heaped up in the middle where the cane grew and sloping sharply on both sides. The cane stalk was cut to about six to nine inches above the ground, so these stumps stuck out of the ground. Because the cut was made with a slanting action, the remaining stub stuck out of the ground with a hard sharp edge. A cane cutter had to be careful not to step directly on to a stub nor miss his step and end up with a gash along the side of his foot. It was like walking on o bed of very fat nails. That was the most serious problem. I saw men showing off the cuts they had when they cut cane.
There was also the odd snake, the poisonous type. Normally driven out of the fields during the burning, they returned to the fields, given time. Another hazard was the sharp edged part of the leaf not entirely burnt out in the fire and remained sticking out on the cane stalk. The cane cutter’s hands had to be tough and skilled at holding on to the stalk while cutting to avoid the sharp edged leaf cutting his hands. Then there was the black soot and dirt from the burning. After a couple of hours of cane cutting, clothes, face, legs, everywhere was covered in black soot.
Cane cutters earned good money, but the job was hard and it was not continuous, not year round. Cane cutting was only done for a few months in the year when the crop was harvested. Manu therefore perfected his skills with the shovel and became an expert using the shovel. He was therefore able to work fully doing at least two jobs throughout the year.
Manu had another string to his bow. From the time he was young, he used to join his elder brother at prayer and at poojas. The elder brother could read all the religious books. That knowledge he had come with from India and he passed it on to Manu. Besides, they both used to take an active role in hindu religious functions in the Estate because they were brahmins by caste. Manu could easily read Ramayana and Gita, and the other religious books. By the time his brother returned to India, Manu had acquired considerable knowledge of the scriptures and had learnt to read sanskrit and translate it and also perform poojas.
Manu used to assist the pandit at the temple also. He was therefore well qualified to be a Hindu priest. Indeed he had a big decision to make a few years after his elder brother returned to India. The pandit at the temple had decided to return to India also and they were looking for someone to take his place as pandit. Manu ‘s name was suggested.
When the time came for the pandit to leave, some of the people suggested Manu could be the pandit. He would have been quite comfortable in the job. He knew what was called for and it had prestige in the Estate.
The Management of the Estate respected the priests and moulvis and gave them many privileges, one of which was their own house, and in those days they would be excused from the set hours of work which others had to do, so long as they used the time to perform specific duties as pandit. So Manu had the prospect of this job.
Manu was summoned by the manager of the estate. The manager Mr. Gordon said, ‘I heard some people saying you can do the pandit’s job. Do you want to be pandit?’
Manu was not sure what to say. In those days you had no say in what you did. You were told what to do, so this question to Manu came as a surprise. ‘What you want me to do, sir, that would be allright.’
The manager had other plans for Manu and told him, ‘Well, I want you to be Driver. What do you say.’
Again Menu was not used to being asked his opinion about work, so he replied, ‘I will do what you want me to do, sir’
The manager called Mr Linley, the overseer in charge of the cane cutters. Manu waited in the office. The overseer came and the manager told him,
‘ Linley, I am making Manu a Driver. He will start on Monday as Driver.’ So the die was cast for Manu.
Manu was not made the pandit. Instead he was appointed Driver. At any rate, some of the people wanted a more experienced man to be pandit and they eventually got somebody from another Estate. In the meantime Manu filled in as pandit too, until the new pandit arrived.
A Driver was a foreman. It was the highest but one position a non white person could reach in the sugar plantation system at that time. The highest position was Head Driver, that is the senior most Driver.
The management system in the Estate at the time consisted of the Manager, who was the supreme head of everything, like a ruler. He answered only to the plantation owners in England. He managed through overseers, only white men at that time. Each overseer was responsible for one section of the work. There was an overseer in charge of cane cutting, there were others in charge of shovelmen, weeding, the factory and so on.
Next to the Overseer was the Driver who was the foreman or supervisor of the actual workers. The Driver was the link between the workers and the management. The Head Driver’s role was to supervise the other Drivers. He worked closely with the Estate Manager. Junior overseers would sometimes come to the Head Driver for advice and assistance. The Head Driver was given a special house and other privileges.
As Driver Manu found a turning point in his fortunes. Now in his late thirties with no contact with relations in India since he lost touch with his elder brother, he was doing very well in his work and so he saw a future for himself and family in British Guiana. He had seen other people who had come before him, work hard and move out of the Estate, bought land and cattle and made a living independent of the Estate. He thought he would do that too.
The job of Driver gave Manu more money and some privileges which he used to advantage. He soon bought a cow which the Estate allowed him to keep in the compound. He and his family now had another source of income from the milk. They were able to buy another cow and in time they owned a few head of cattle. That was the base for going independent. Manu did well and bought a piece of land at Rosignol, the nearby village. There he planned to build a house to live when he left the Estate.
Man proposes, but God disposes. That was the case with Manu. Yet it was for the best of reasons. Just when Manu had saved up enough and was planning to go to the manager and ask to leave the Estate, the manager called Manu and gave him the job of Head Driver.
With the job came, the Head Driver’s house and a piece of farmland in the Estate on which to grow his own greens and vegetables. At the same time a part of the Estate near the living quarters was fenced off to provide people with pens to keep their cows. That was as a direct result of Manu having been the first to be allowed to keep his cow in the Estate.
Manu then decided he would live out his life in the Estate. He had a respectable position as leader of his people in the Estate and he had a good income. He had gained tremendous respect from his people not only as Driver, but as a good hindu who kept up the customs and traditions and lived well amongst the people of all religions and races and was highly respected by the Estate Manager.
Nevertheless although Manu made his decision not to leave the Estate, he had instilled in his children the ambition to leave the Estate as soon as they could to make an independent livelihood outside.
It must be said that for many people, leaving the Estate was not attractive. In the first place, the Estate provided you with a job, house, school for the children, hospital and the assurance of work when the children grew up. Everything was there plus an environment where you lived among your own people and lived your own way of life. Outside of the Estate you were out on your own, with non of the guarantees of job, house and security, non of the support which you had in the Estate.
On the other hand, in the Estate, you did not own your house, nor land and you lived there entirely on the goodwill of the estate Manager. He could at any time dismiss you from the Estate and you could do absolutely nothing about it. You would be cast out into a bleak world with no home, no job, no support, no community, Working conditions in those days were far from satisfactory. Manu had seen the plight of many whose whole lives depended solely on the whims of the Estate management.
So for those who wanted to break new ground the rewards were very good outside of the Estate, though they had to be bold to make the break. That was Manu’s ambition which he passed on to his children. So when Manu’s son, my father got married, they started to build a house at Rosignol and as soon as it was finished my father went to live there with his family., though he still held on to his job at the Estate. He also made a good living from the cows he had inherited from Manu.