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Chetan’s Call
By Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, June 2007


For most East Indians in Guyana the word curry would trigger the idea of a fare of mouthwatering meat or vegetables sautéed and cooked in a yellowish powder of freshly blended herbs and spices. But when Chetan Manniram ploughed through the baked mud streets of Better Hope squat scheme and called out the word curry or curry-curry it provoked a different response to a select group of individuals in the neighborhood. And that is because, for Chetan and his drinking buddies, the word curry was a secret code that summoned them for a rendezvous at the rum shop down the street.

Chetan’s call had pretty much the same hypnotic effect upon these men that the call of the Pied Piper had on the children of Hamelin. Within seconds of the call there would be strange stirrings in these select homes. Grown men, tired from a hard day’s work and glad for a respite, suddenly became restless, like children with overextended bladders being forced to wait at a locked washroom door. The men would drop whatever they were doing and begin to pace, back and forth, from kitchen to living room, from upstairs to downstairs, thinking of a way to be excused for a few hours from home without having to be subjected to a grueling inquiry from their spouses. For unlike the children of Hamelin, these men were not at liberty to skip out of their houses at their whim and fancy. After all they were not leaving to follow after a benign musician. They were following Chetan, the nemesis of wives and mothers, a spawn of Satan who had come to destroy their homes and families, the wretched no-good boy who had something against the world for taking away his mother and who now wanted every man to join his miserable company.

So to make good their escape these men had contrived a repertoire of reasons and excuses to give to their otherwise suspicious spouses for a sudden desire to leave home. The most plausible of the excuses was that they wanted to get some fresh air, and the most popular destination was the community center. After all, how can a woman reasonably resist a request from her tired husband for a stroll for fresh air, or for a few hours of relaxation at the community center where residents gathered for sports and recreation? But the real genius behind this explanation was that the community center was in the same direction as the rum shop and that it was removed far enough from the cluster of homes in the housing scheme so that even if the men were indeed at the community center they would be out of range of their wives’ prying eyes.

Apart from the angst the men experienced in securing a temporal pass from home there was the other problem of the finding money for a round of booze. They dared not ask their wives for a “small-piece” as that would undermine the idea of fresh air. And they dared not borrow money from a friend or neighbor on the grounds of some contrived emergency for fear that the lender would come to their home in their absence and demand repayment from their wives. So they would rummage through shirts, trousers, their children’s belongings, their wives purses, anything, to find a dollar or two. Often the search was to no avail and the men were forced to beg their comrades for a moratorium on payment.

The women on the other hand had developed a simple but effective system to keep their men away from the bottle. They controlled the money. They made it their sworn duty to go to the pay office every Friday, accompanied by their children all nicely dressed up, and wait for their husbands. As soon as the men collected their pay envelope they had to deposit it into their spouses’ outstretched hands and the women would in turn extract a dollar or two and give their men for pocket money. The men were simply conduits through which the envelopes passed on to the women and their presence at the pay office was required only for the sake of verification, honor and politeness. Of course, the machismo in some of them tempted them to retaliate, especially if their friends taunted them; but how could they create a scene when they saw the eyes of their innocent children and were reminded of their domestic responsibilities? And how could they cause a furor when they realize that the price to pay would be no food and no intimacy? To be deprived of those things was for these men the worst form of emasculation.

Unfortunately, Chetan’s call was like gravity upon the souls of these men. Playing upon the craving in their innermost beings the men would go into a freefall when they heard that singsong call. Unknown to their wives and most of their community, the minds of these men had been diseased and their bodies were dying slowly from the poison of alcohol abuse, and the prevailing ignorance concerning their addiction only made their condition worse and drove them to further substance abuse. As far as the women were concerned, the men could stop drinking if they wanted to but chose not to because it made them loose, flippant, sociable and popular. As far as the community was concerned the men were just ‘rum-suckers’ who simply chose a bad habit because of ignorance and selfishness and therefore they were not to be pitied. But as far as the victims were concerned the craving was overpowering, beyond their will to manage and their power to suppress, and, with boys like Chetan and his Pavlovian curry call the odds of deliverance were stacked against them. The irony in all this is that Chetan Manniram was a product of the very society that he now torments.

Chetan was the only child of Bettia and her husband Lalo Manniram. His mother was a hardworking woman who diligently tended the managers’ yards in Ogle estate. From Monday to Friday she was at work, pulling weeds from the roots of flower plants and vegetable patches, weeding the parapets, pruning rose bushes, and sweeping up and burning garbage. Her husband was also assiduous and apart from the occasional drink he pretty much stayed away from alcohol and bad company. From the time he was seventeen years old he began to work in the cane fields cutting sugar cane in the intense tropical heat. He was now thirty-eight years old but he looked more like fifty-five. He was so badly sunburned that Chetan only saw his father’s real color when he was in his underwear. Both husband and wife grew up as underprivileged kids and never made it pass third standard in school. But they wanted better for their son. They wanted him to go to school and get an education so he would not have to join the estate and suffer like they did.

But things did not turn out for Chetan the way his parents had hoped. When the boy was in second standard his mother took ill with cancer and she died before they even knew the real nature of the disease. Chetan’s father simply said that his wife died from a growth in her stomach. But neither father nor son was adequately equipped to deal with the grief that resulted from Bettia’s death. She was the heart and soul of their family and her passing created a void in their lives that Lalo sought to fill with something else. Bettia’s restraining hand and words of wisdom had kept her husband from the bottle, even when things were really bad, but now with the restraints gone he capitulated easily and quickly to the grief counselor of the day – rum.

Soon the old man became a veritable drunk. He was always late for work, consumed all his earnings on alcohol, and often had to be picked up from the roadside and brought home, much to the embarrassment of his young son. It came to the point where in less than a year after his wife died, Lalo had forgotten he had a son to take care of and a home to maintain. The house fell into a state of disrepair and the electricity was cut for failure to pay the light bill. With no food in the house and with no money to buy clothes and school supplies Chetan fell prey to an insensitive community and became the butt of jokes at school. The children at his school mocked and jeered him and even imitated how his father would stagger along the streets and how he would collapse into the gutter like an empty rice bag, and they even tried to replicate how the dogs peed on him while he was down. They told Chetan he smelled awful, like ‘gander’ egg. They squeezed their noses when he passed by, and refused to sit in the same bench with him in class. And Chetan reacted in a way that any schoolboy his age would have done in his position and under his circumstances. He entered into a phase of destructive behavior.

Chetan began to attack the teachers who scolded him by letting the air out of their bicycle tires and even slashing a few tires. He broke the railing on the corridor and used the spindles to make cricket bats. He stole chalk and school supplies and scribbled swear words on blackboards. He wounded several students by throwing stones at them or by beating them for a song on the playground. And he terrified the girls by pulling off their ribbons and stealing their lunches. The kids in the school thought he was the devil incarnate and, capitalizing on the pronunciation of his first name, they nicknamed him Satan. Naturally they broke into celebration when he was suspended from school. For them the devil had been exorcised from their midst.

Chetan was only eleven years old at the time he was suspended from school. This time it was for maliciously scraping the headmaster’s new car with a piece of broken Pepsi bottle. That was his final act of perfidy. When his suspension was over and he did not return to school the headmaster came looking for him. But no one could find him. Not even his father, in a brief moment of lucidity, knew of his whereabouts. Chetan, however, was alone, a mile away, sitting on the banks of the sideline trench, fishing for tilapia, setting traps for birds, and just thinking about survival. How quickly everything had changed, he thought. Less than a year ago he was a happy go-lucky child, without a worldly care, being raised in a loving home and a caring community. Now he was a pariah, motherless, the son of a drunk, friendless, without guidance, and bereft of a community’s compassion. His mother wanted him to go to school in Georgetown and get an education and a job in the estate office or some place in town. His father wanted to see him move beyond the estate life and make something of himself. But as things stood those dreams and aspirations were like mirages in a desert. If Chetan wanted to live he had to work. Either that or turn to a life of crime. But what kind of work could he possibly do at the age of eleven? He was too young to be employed at the sugar estate and too young to get work as a watchman. After much rejection he finally realized that he could not get a job unless he was fourteen years old. He also noticed that no one had asked him for a birth certificate to verify his age. So he upped his age to fourteen, and with the height and body mass of most teenagers, no one showed any indications of suspicion.

His first job was in the rat gang at the sugar estate. The job required him to wear a chemical mask and carry on his back a spray can full of fertilizer that weighed as much as thirty pounds when full. He was required to trek through the cane fields and spray anti-rat pesticide on the canes to repel the sweet-tooth rodents. (The rats obtained about seventy percent of their diet from young sugar canes and unless they were exterminated the cane crop was in serious jeopardy of being lost). Chetan had carried the spray can for a few weeks when it dawned upon him that he was covering much more acreage than the other boys and the older men but that they were all getting the same pay. He realized this only when he overheard rat gangers counting their pay at the pay office. The inequity of the system made him really mad and immediately he began to make inquiries about work that was more equitable, where his effort would be compensated accordingly. He found that type of work when he met Jailall, an affable cane cutter, on the way home that Friday afternoon.

“Mr. Jailall,” he called out bluntly as he looked beside him at the soot-covered veteran, “I want to join the cane-cutting gang.

“Why? This is hard work,” Jailall replied.

“Well, I work hard in the spray gang but I get the same pay as those people who are loitering all day. I heard that in cane cutting you get pay according to how much cane you cut.”

“Yes. This is tough work but at least the pay is better and fairer. You should join if you think you are up to it. You look like a strong boy. I will talk to the sardar and if he says it is okay then you can work with me, that is, if you want to.”

“Thanks, mister Jailall.”

“By the way, aren’t you Lalo’s boy?”

“Yes, you know my father?”

“Know him? Everybody knows him. He was a good man, hard working, and that man could chop cane, eh. But the cane got him back.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, my boy, you see this business we are in is like a war. We are cutting down cane and cane is cutting down us.”

“I don’t understand what you mean. How is the cane fighting back?”

“This thing here is more than just a stalk of cane,” Jailall replied, brandishing a nice juicy stalk that he had cut for his grandson. “It only looks sweet on the outside but it has the potential to sour your life. The Spanish and Portuguese people who first came to the West Indies brought sugar cane with them and they used to ply the slaves in Brazil with fermented drink, known as garapa doida or crazy sugar cane juice, to get them to work and feel happy. Then they started to do the same with the indentured immigrants. Rum was a cure all. At first the white man gave them bush rum as medicine. They said it will numb their pain and misery and you know them coolies had a lot of misery and pain. When they clamored about going back home the white man doused them with more rum. Is so how they learnt to drown their sorrows with rum.”

“You mean that rum comes from this sweet sugar cane?”

“Yes, man. You didn’t know that? Sugar cane and rum are family. Rum is like sugar cane’s grandchild.”

“How so?”

“Yes, man, they crush up the cane at the factory and extract the juice. Then they boil the juice and after clarification they add some crystallized sugar and boil it again under a vacuum. When they extract all the sugar they are left with molasses. You know molasses, that thick, sticky, black-brown gooey thing?”

“Yes, but what do they do with the molasses?”

“They add water and yeast, boil it and extract the liquid from which they make the rum.”

“How come you know all this?”

“I have a brother who works at the distillery. He took me there once and showed me how they make rum. So that is how the sugar cane is fighting back, man! It’s cutting us down one by one, just like it did to your father. Rum ate out his liver. Poor man!”

“Well, not me! It will not cut me down because I will not waste my money on it. I don’t want to be no rum sucker, and I don’t want to come to ruin like my father. Do you drink, Mr. Jailall?”

“If I drink? Hah yah! Every cane cutter does drink. It is what keeps us going in this merciless heat. You will be drinking too, my friend, sooner than you think. It’s in our blood.”

“Not me, man, not me.”

Cane cutting was hard work but it was fairer that the rat gang and the young and determined Chetan quickly earned the respect of the veterans. Within two days he had gotten the hang of his new job and had devised his own system where he was able, with Jailall, to cut and load two six-ton steel punts in one day. At three dollars a ton, Chetan made good money and soon every cane cutter wanted to work with him. He chose instead to remain with old man Jailall, a fifteen-year veteran who put to shame men half his age.

At he approached the end of work on Thursday, the last work day of his first week in cane cutting, old man Jailall, cleaning up his food carrier and cutlass, and changing into his going home clothes, asked Chetan, “So, you survived the first week. You still want to do this job?”

“Oh, yes! Chetan replied. “So, how much money did I make this week?”

“You made good money. But you know, we have a tradition here.”

“What tradition?”

“Well, all the new boys are expected to treat the gang to a round of drinks and this being your first week in cane cutting, they already told me to tell you they expect that you will throw them a round when you collect your pay tomorrow.”

“Well, you know I don’t drink.”

“Look, you don’t have to drink. You could buy a Pepsi or something. But just buy the fellas a large bottle of Bonded Reserve and some sardines and bread and make them happy. Or else, you will not hear the end of it.”

“Alright. So long as they don’t force me to drink I don’t have a problem putting up a round.”

“Don’t worry, son, I will watch out for you.”

After Chetan collected his pay envelope on Friday and checked his pay against the slip, he and Jailall headed for the rum shop. To his amazement the gang was already there, salivating like hungry Chihuahuas, their eyes alight upon the young man about to be initiated in the ways of the cane cutter. Despite the assurances he received from Jailall he was still apprehensive about all this. He had firsthand experience with the deleterious effects of alcohol. He saw it every day, lying beside the road, or on the floor, drooling and muttering incoherently before breaking out into fragments of Hindi lyrics. His father was a mess and he was not going to be like his father. But Jailall told him it was a custom and that it would look bad if he did not treat the men to a round of drinks, even if he did not wish to partake. And so, the way he saw it, he was about to engage in his first battle in the war with cane.

The rum shop was a dark and foreboding place, where two or three of the more popular songs kept rotating for most of the day. Many of these songs, though sung in Hindi, a language that few of the men knew, dispelled an air of sadness, perhaps befitting the psychological state of the patrons. Apparently the men were able to make some sense of what was sung because they had seen the Indian movies and were able to recollect the scenes surrounding the songs. Since Chetan did not know about brands of rum and rum shop etiquette he asked Jailall to undertake the responsibility of ordering the drinks. The old man ordered the rum and cutters for the men and a ginger ale for his protégé. At first, the men toasted Chetan as the newest member of the cane cutting division and then they welcomed him as part of a special sorority. Cane cutting was for real men only, they said. The other gangs were for girls and girlie men. Then they began to speak about his father, what a good man he was, and they all testified how he helped each one of them at some time or the other. The conversation then moved along to cricket, from the international scene to local and regional matches. And then, as Chetan suspected it inevitably would, it shifted to women. He became uneasy and hoped that Jailall would recognize his uneasiness about the subject and bring a diversion. But poor Jailall, with his good intentions and all, was falling rapidly from sobriety to a state of inebriation. He seemed to be lost in a world of his own, swaying in time to the sad Jim Reeves song on the juke box and singing bits and pieces at times, and completely indifferent to the conversations around him. He was so drunk that he could not insulate his young friend from the hounds. And the hounds recognized it too. They realized that a few rounds of rum had neutralized Chetan’s guardian angel and that his charge was theirs for the taking. “Have one shot!” they urged. “One shot can’t kill you,” they insisted. To make matters worse they called one of the women who patronized the rum shop to come over to the table and meet their young friend. The girl was much older than him, but she was pretty, and when she came over and looked at him he began to blush like a new groom. “Meet our new friend,” they said. “Hi,” she said, bewitchingly, “your first time?” The men laughed, but at what he was not sure. “Hi,” he replied. What is that you are drinking?” she asked.

“Ginger ale,” he replied.

“Ginger ale? That is for children, not a strong virile young man like you. Come on, have a drink with me. I like you. Rum and coke! You will like it.” She poured him a drink. The men looked on as if it was a game and they wanted to see the outcome. As for Chetan, no girl, not this pretty anyway, had ever come this close to him before, and none had ever said they liked him, and immediately he began to feel strange stirrings within his being. He was hypnotized by her eyes, bewitched by her perfume, calmed by her silky voice, so that he became helpless, as a lamb being led to the slaughter, and at that point would have done anything she asked of him. He took the glass and drank. Then another. Then another.

He woke up next morning at the foot of the staircase leading up to his home. How he got there he had no idea. He could not recall what happened the night before, after the girl came over to his table and he had taken the third drink. It was like a dream. The hammering in his head was unbearable and he rushed to the shop down the street for two Whizz tablets. Then he fell asleep and did not wake up until Saturday afternoon when he heard a banging on his front door. It was Jailall.

“Son,” the old man said, “I am really sorry about yesterday. Instead of watching out for you I let those hooligans take advantage of you. I couldn’t even bring you home because I was so drunk. I had to ask one of the boys to drop you home.”

“Drop me home is right. They dropped me on the ground. Oh, my head!”

“Are you feeling better?”

“A little.”

“Look, you did what you had to do. Now you stay away from them and from the bottle. I have to go and help the wife with the garden so I will see you Monday.”

After Jailall left Chetan began to recap the episode in the rum shop. He was determined not to drink but he did. Jailall had failed him. Or maybe, he had failed himself. He resisted the men but could not resist the girl. It was as if everything was orchestrated to bring him into the warfare even though he did not want to be drafted. Now he had another problem on his mind, or rather, on his heart. He could not get the girl out of his mind. Just thinking of her brought goose pimples on his skin and caused his heart rate to increase. Did she really like him? The only way to know for sure was to go back to the rum shop where she hung out on Fridays. And so, he returned the next Friday, without Jailall. Soon the visits became two, then three times a week, and then it was everyday. He ordered drinks and they chatted and he went home, sweet but not drunk. She flattered him and he construed her flatteries to mean that she liked him, in a romantic way. He did not know that she was being paid by the rum shop owner to keep the men in the shop as long as possible, spending their hard-earned money on rum and bread and sardines. In time she had become so good at it that the men opened up their pay envelopes in front of her and took out notes and stuffed them in her hands. The rum shop owner also cashed in on their drunken states by randomly increasing their bills. Those men whose wives did not collar them at the pay office lost more than half of their pay at the rum shop, in one night of drinking.

Soon Chetan became lovesick. He could not stop thinking about the girl at the rum shop. Then one day he decided to ask her to marry him and she laughed out loud. “Marry?” she cried and then laughed, “I already have a husband and four children.” He was devastated. How was he so dumb that he did know this? How was it that it never occurred to him to ask her or find out about this before making himself an ass? Soon everyone heard about his marriage proposal to a married woman, including her husband who came to his house and threatened to chop of his hand if he ever came near to his wife again. The cane cutters mocked him and the young men teased him. The older women jokingly offered to marry him and the younger ones snickered when he passed by. Alone, ashamed, and embarrassed, he simply raised the white flag and surrendered to the enemy. The cane had won. It had beaten his father, overcome Jailall and the other cane cutters, and now had made him their latest victim. He thought he was well insulated, with Jailall and with the memory of his father acting as his guardians. But he never banked on this girl coming into the picture. He never counted on ever falling in love and then being humiliated. He never anticipated love and the pain of a broken heart. The cane had outwitted him and felled him faster than he could drop a bundle of cane into a punt.

So he capitulated to the enemy and started to drink heavily. Within months of his humiliation in the rum shop he had become a full-blown alcoholic, drinking every day after work, on credit, and virtually handing over all his pay to the shop owner at the end of the week. But unlike his father who kept to himself and who drank alone, and who blamed no one for his addiction, Chetan had taken a sinister delight in creating strife between the men and their wives, especially the ones who reveled in his misfortune. It was his means of revenge. It gave him a sense of power and satisfaction. He was having the last laugh. He controlled the men who led him down this destructive path and he infuriated their women. For whenever he calls “curry-curry” the men must answer. And wherever he leads they must follow, just like it was with the Pied Piper and the children of Hamelin.

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