All I Want For Christmas
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, December 2007
For a child living in Guyana in the 60s the years preceding globalization, religious extremism and political correctness Christmas was a time to look forward to more than any other festive season. For children, especially school-age ones, it meant an escape from school, a time for new clothes, extra special time with friends and families, sumptuous foods and treats and, best of all, lots of toys and gifts.
For Sanjay Ramnauth, fondly known as Jay, the food was at the top of the list. But while others reveled in seasonal delicacies such as garlic pork, pepperpot and souse, and others in assorted sponge, fruit, black cakes, and such other imported delicacies as ice-apples, grapes, walnuts and marshmallows, Jay had his taste buds salivating over one thing mama's polouri. It was all he wanted. What made this all the more intriguing was that mama's polouri was neither a special-order dish nor a seasonal treat for, then, one could have understood the panting and expectation. Mama made polouri every week for her family. And even more perplexing it wasn't like every one of his siblings had the same predilection. He was the only one whose mouth watered and who circled the polouri bowl like a vulture who had not seen a carcass in a month. And more surprisingly, no one complained that he was gluttonously consuming most of it week after week. Not until this day, that is, Saturday, December 21st, 1968, the day Apollo 8 was launched into space.
It was four days to Christmas Day. And for many it was a welcome distraction from a world that was wobbling on its axis. A lot of bad things were happening everywhere. While the USA was sending astronauts into space on Apollo spacecrafts, back on terra firma they were having all kinds of problems, both internal and external. Locally, the charismatic civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr., was slain in Memphis. Not two months later senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel after winning the California primary. Abroad, the biggest nemesis, the Vietnam War, was still being waged, and war news made the papers almost every day. The U.S. had assembled more than half a million men in Vietnam and was at wits end how to get out of a war that it seemed like it couldnt win. Even poor President Johnson appeared to be worn out over the matter and to no ones surprise announced earlier in the year that he would not seek re-election. In England, our motherland, Mister Enoch Powell was stirring up racial strife with his Rivers of Blood invective. He wanted England to stop immigration and to send back those who were already there. Like Pharaoh, and Hitler, he was afraid that the immigrant population would become greater than the indigenous peoples and threaten their existence. Many believed that time will prove him wrong.
At home, things werent that auspicious either. We competed at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. We sent five men to the games. The very popular long-distance runner, Harry Prowell, came in a respectable 50th place in the marathon. Our bantamweight entry, Dhanraj Singh, lost in Round 2 to some Kenyan man. We had high hopes for Dhanraj because we thought he was the greatest thing since Dara Singh, and also because he was East Indian, and because he was into boxing when only black people were famous boxers. And when we heard he was up against some Kenyan we felt that serendipity was on our side because all the Kenyans we knew were skinny men running marathons and they had already exacted their pound of flesh from Harry Prowell. Another of our boxer went as far as the quarter finals but got polished off by a Polish man named Rudkowski. Our lone track and field star, Aubrey Bryce, never made it past the third heat for the sprint and placed 31st in the 1,000 meters heats. And Rudolph James, our weightlifter, made 19th place. It is funny how you think you are the best until you come outside your own boundary and see what is out there. We made our athletes feel so proud, so invincible that their fall became tougher to swallow, both for us and them alike. But we all learnt something that we hoped would serve us well in the future and that is, if you want to be the best you have to learn from the best. In our case that meant sending our athletes abroad where they would have access to better programs and training facilities.
On the local political front, well, the national elections were just completed and the PNC was declared winner. Everyone expected that result because we had heard how the Americans were helping Burnham to rig the elections even though they knew he was going to use fraudulent absentee ballots. But such was their determination to stop the perceived communist threat posed by Jagan and his East Indian-backed PPP party. They said Jagan was a Marxist, that he had an alliance with Cuba and Russia, that members of his party were trained in guerrilla warfare in Cuba, that the youth-arm members were being educated in communist bloc countries, that Russia gave him a lot of money, and that his school, Accabre College, was gearing up for teaching Marxist doctrine. Burnham, on the other hand, despite all his fraudulent election machinations, was still fearful of losing to the PPP because they were the ethnic majority, and so he was desperately considering anything, even the possibility of a merger with St. Vincent (an island that was predominantly black), as a backup plan. There was also talk that Burnham was trying to obtain a loan for the rice farmers, all of whom were Indians, in order to garner their support. Well, the elections were done, rigged and all, and the PNC took 30 of the 53 seats in Parliament. Overall they claimed almost 66% of the vote. The United Force finished with 4 seats in Parliament and Jagans PPP was allotted 19 seats.
While all these things seemed to weigh heavily on the minds of adults, the young children, blessed with innocence, at least for a few more years, played and frisked in blissful ignorance like carefree lambs in an open field. The adults were busy cleaning and painting their houses, washing and changing linens, sewing new dresses and window blinds, daubing bottom houses, cleaning up the yards and burning waste. Their chores seemed to be made lighter with the sounds of carols that were being blasted non-stop from radios and jukeboxes. Teenagers scurried around the houses, helping wherever they could, but mostly just waiting for their Christmas presents. The older children took great pride in arranging Christmas cards on the walls of their living rooms so that visitors to their home could see how many friends they had and how popular they were. In the distance one could hear the sounds of drums and whistles as the bull cow and long lady masqueraded through the streets. The smell of freshly baked cakes and breads and pastries saturated the air and the rum shops were getting their share of the estate workers who had nothing to do since the factory was closed for maintenance. As for Jay, well, he reveled in Christmas simply because it was Christmas. He loved everything about the season, especially the festive atmosphere outside of the house. While his siblings were into interior decorations and cooking and painting, he busied himself with weeding the grass, cleaning fowl pens, running to the market and grocery for small items, and all sundry errands that required using his fathers bicycle. He loved riding and no amount of chores that require the use of the Hercules bicycle was too much for him. But that day, when he heard what dish his mother was preparing for the potluck at the Staff Club his felt that Christmas had arrived earlier than usual.
Once a year, the management of the estate would throw a party at the Staff Club for all the children of the junior and senior staff members on the Saturday before Christmas Day. Each family was required to buy and wrap a present for each of their children and send it for Santa to deliver on party day. Santa was always the same fat and bearded Portuguese truck driver. Some people said he remained fat and kept the beard simply to maintain his monopoly on the jolly mans job. Whatever the reason it didnt matter to the children because Santa did a good job, had a gut-busting Ho-Ho-Ho, and looked just the man on many Christmas cards. Besides, none of the children, including the colored ones, would have accepted a brown or black Santa as the real thing. Anyhow, besides the gifts, parents had to come up with a dish for the party. Last year Jays mother made boiled channa (chick peas) and according to reports it wasnt really a hit with the children and most of it was returned after the party. So this year she decided to try her luck with polouri. After all, she had never heard anything but compliments on her polouri.
Mamas polouri, you see, was not like the average polouri. Most of the polouri on the market was what was referred to as wind polouri, because it had more wheat flour than split peas in its constitution and it was sort of hollow and oily. Mamas polouri, on the other hand, was solid, built mostly with yellow split peas, and it was dry and almost crunchy. People loved it because it didnt leave their hands oily, and it was so tasty that you didnt need pepper sauce or mango achar to awaken its taste. These two reasons explain in a large part Jays love for mamas polouri. He could stuff a handful into his pocket, go out and play bumper ball, or just ride around on his bicycle without having to worry about getting oil stains on his hands or pants.
Saturday, the day of the party, arrived under a cloud of mist, the portent of another hot day, and mama wanted to get her cooking done before it got really sweltering. She got up early that morning and put half a gallon of yellow split peas to boil in a pressure cooker. Jay was first to volunteer his help and of course he had his motive too. After the peas had been boiled tender to the feel, she drained the water and then Jay began to grind the peas with a hand mill. Forty minutes later all the peas were milled to tiny granules and then mama added black pepper, salt, a little bit of flour and a touch of baking powder, two bird peppers, and an egg to hold it all together and kneaded it all together into a nice yellowish brown dough. When a pan, half full with cooking oil, was boiling hot she began to pluck at chucks of the dough, roll it between the palms of her hands until it was round and then drop it into the oil. Jay followed suit and when his mama saw that he was doing well she left it altogether to him and went on to making lunch. Jay tried to make the balls of equal size and he had fun dropping them into the oil, watch them turn brown and float to the top before he removed them. For every spoonful that he removed from the frying pan he reserved one for himself and he ate it as soon as it was cool enough to the tongue. Of course he was careful enough to eat only when his mother was not looking. When the last of the dough was emptied into the oil his mother came into the kitchen and began to empty the dried polouri into a brown glass bowl with cover. She was surprised to see the entire inventory of polouri fit into the glass bowl. It seemed so much more in the drying tray.
Son, I really thought I made more polouri than this, his mother lamented. I used the same two pounds of flour like I always use. I wonder what happened. Maybe the baking powder wasnt good. I cant send this little bit polouri to the party. What will people say? I will boil some more dhal and make some more.
Just then her husband entered the kitchen. He had overheard her lamentation.
Listen, he said, it is already three oclock and the party starts at 5. The children will have to leave in an hour. You cant boil peas now and get it done in time. This is still a lot of polouri. Besides, most of the people at the party are white people and they dont eat things like this. They want ice apples and grapes and chocolates. Just pack it and send it as it is.
Are you sure? she asked.
Yes, I am sure. Jay, you will take it. And dont forget to write your mothers name on a label and paste it on. I dont want people to say we didnt send anything.
Well, Jay couldnt want anything better. The stars were aligned in his favor. He loved polouri. He had his fill while helping his mother make it. Now he was appointed the bearer of the polouri to the staff party.
He got dressed and waited for his siblings. He was the most important person from his family attending the party because he was the bearer of the food. He sat on the steps, with the bowl of still warm polouri in a cotton bag resting on his knees. The cover on the bowl could not keep the scent from drifting out to his hypersensitive polouri nostrils and at that instant he felt like a longtime cigarette smoker who had kicked the habit and was being offered a free smoke. He could not bear the temptation to take one, just one, but he restrained himself and waited until he and his siblings finally set out for the party. Then he drifted slightly behind them, and they, with faces set like a flint to the party hall, never even noticed he had fallen behind. He lifted the bag with the bowl unto his right shoulder so that his fingers could get into it and pluck out a polouri without creating much suspicion. And so he did, but he ate more than one, more than ten. By the time he arrived at the staff club his fingers and lips were all moist and when his sister asked him if he was eating the polouri and he said no, she asked him to open his mouth and she smelled his breath and saw remnants of ground yellow peas and threatened, Omigosh! I will tell mommy what you did.
I took only one.
One! Let me see that bowl. She peeped in. Boy, you really glutton, you know. You wait till we get home.
Like a drowning man Jay began to scramble for a straw. Desperation for survival sent his brain into overdrive. And I will tell mommy if I see you talking to that Johnny Williams boy.
And just like that he neutralized the threat. Johnny Williams, you see, was a red boy, a mixture of black and Portuguese, handsome and interested in Jays sister, and she in him, but at the end of the day he was black and that was bad karma for Jays parents. Besides, his sister was much too young to be interested in boys and, if her mother got wind of this puppy love, she would go berserk.
The rest of the journey to the club was uneventful. When they arrived at the club Jay grudgingly handed over the bowl to a chubby Portuguese woman dressed in red and green and all festive ornaments. Interestingly, she happened to be the real Santas wife. Then he watched her every move as she sauntered around the table, hopping in time to the beat of the Christmas song, The Little Drummer Boy, as she surveyed the table for an empty spot to place the bowl. There were so many foods and delicacies on the table there was hardly any space to fit the polouri. Finally, she juxtaposed the bowl between a tray of baked chicken and a glass bowl with cheese curls. Jay took stock of the coordinates and as soon as he saw kids shuffling around the table and picking at foods he moved in for the kill. The kids were after the grapes and marshmallows and imported candies. The adults were sitting in a corner not far from the bar, some drinking, others just watching the kids enjoy themselves. At the far end of the room a disk jockey spun Christmas songs. Most of the songs were about wishes. One kid was singing that All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth. Another deep voiced man was praying to Let it Snow. Then there was this kid with a high-pitched voice lamenting that he was getting Nuttin for Christmas because he was bad all year long. Well, no wonder he was getting nothing. He broke his bat on Johnny's head, hid a frog in his sister bed, spilled ink on his mother's rug, made his friend Tommy eat a bug, tied a knot in Susie's hair, and filled the sugar bowl with ants. And of course there was this man who was dreaming of a White Christmas; why? Jay had no idea. All he wanted for Christmas was mamas polouri. So he grabbed a festive napkin, folded it into the shape of a funnel and packed it full of polouri. Within the hour he had single-handedly consumed or stuffed into his pant pockets most of mamas polouri so that the bowl was the first ware on the table to become empty.
The party was scheduled to last about two hours but about an hour into the night, just after the bowl was empty, Jay noted that a group of women had gathered around the table and they were talking about something relating to the food. More importantly they were pointing to mamas polouri bowl and one of them was even looking in his direction. Did they see him snatch the polouri? He became anxious, then afraid, and began to feel cold sweat running down the sides of his face. Now, his sister was the least of his problems. He slinked away into a darker corner of the room and took cover behind the Christmas tree. Then the same fat Portuguese woman came forward, clapped her hands and raised her voice and called for everyones attention. Jay prepared for the worst.
Okay, everyone, said the fat lady. You will go back to your party in a minute. But first, the social committee that was in charge of the planning the program decided this year that we would have a winner of the best dish. The committee also decided that since best is something relative, you know, according to peoples taste preferences and so on, that we will decide the winner based on whose dish is the first to get cleaned out after one hour into the party. And we have a winner. She lifted the empty polouri high into the air, peeped at the name on the tag under it and shouted, Mistress Ramnauth! Everyone cheered and began to look around since most of them didnt know who Mistress Ramnauth was. Can one of Mistress Ramnauths children come forward to receive her prize, please? Jay, relieved, came out slowly from behind the tree in time to see his sister and his siblings step forward to collect the prize for their mother. He joined them after they dispersed back into the crowd, unsure if he should ask any questions because he was equally unsure if they knew what he had done. But his sister said nothing to him that indicated she was aware of his mischief. She just wore a proud smile and clutched the gift-wrapped package to her chest just as she would do to her doll when she was younger.
For Jay and his siblings, the prize ceremony and the award signaled the end of the party. All they wanted to do after the presentation was to go home with their trophy and that they did immediately after Santa had distributed the gifts. Jay received a model Boeing airplane with a wind up engine and he was deliriously happy with the way things turned out. Minutes later they left for home, literally dancing all the way, clutching on to their gifts and treating mamas prize with utmost reverence as though it was the Ark of the Covenant, extremely proud that their mama was the toast of the estate that night.
As for Jay, it didnt matter to him that he wasnt given any credit for the prize. He was glad that things worked out the way they did. And so he bounced along behind his siblings, his two pant pockets, bulging with polouri, dangling from side to side.