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The Last Race
a short story

By Richard Rupnarain

It was the summer of 1966 and as usual the buzz around the West Demerara region was the annual school track and field meetings. Sonny Ramsook's school was participating in the lower Demerara sectional finals taking place at the newly renovated community centre grounds and, to secure a good seat, he arrived early that morning at the pavilion. But once again, he took his seat as a reluctant spectator, evidently disappointed not to be among the competitors as he had practiced hard for the past two months on a makeshift sandpit behind his home. He had failed to qualify for all three of his pet events – the high jump, long jump, and the four hundred meters relay race.

Strangely, he was not bitter about his continuing failures in track and field events. (It was commonly believed that the black kids were physically superior and athletically had more prowess.) Having grown up in a village among black people, he was quite aware of his physical limitations in relation to speed and agility, and though he never surrendered his ambition to be track star, he knew it was an uphill battle to beat the black kids in a foot race. Even the black girls, like Desiree Gibson, outran him with ease. So, from the vantage of his personal experience he knew that running against black kids was like a mule trying to outrace a horse and, with that reality, he was gradually resigning himself to the fact that he would never become a track star.

It was slightly overcast that morning, with the usual forecast calling for scattered showers, but with the strong North East Tradewinds pushing the dark clouds south to the Soesdyke area it promised to be a glorious day for everyone on the coast. Sonny took advantage of his early arrival time to scout out a seat with a clear view of the track and the presentation area and then hooked his food satchel unto the security railing. He sat there alone, but not for long. A bevy of pretty girls, whom at first he did not recognize as they had traded their school uniforms for fancy dresses, settled themselves into the seats just two rows ahead of him. Among them was Savitri Pooran, a pretty petite girl from his class, who, for some unknown reason, was not one of the chicks the guys chased after. Nevertheless, he was infatuated with her and from the way she would smile at him in school he was sure she felt the same way about him. But he was always too embarrassed to make her acquaintance even when he had the opportunity, perhaps so because he was afraid of the consequences, for if he simply passed a pencil to her or picked up her exercise book he was sure to hear a chorus of oohs and aahs from the girls and endless teasing from his buddies. That morning when she looked at him and smiled before taking her seat he was purposeful that he would summon the courage to go up to her and make small talk during lunch interval.

In the meanwhile his eyes settled upon the large wooden table placed in the center of the ground and stacked head high with assorted prizes. Among the unwrapped gifts he could see school supplies, pens, pencils, rulers, notebooks, novels, book bags, ribbons, and there, towering from the center of the table was the silver plated trophy to be awarded to the champion of the last race.

As the morning progressed the athletes took to the field for warm ups. The black kids did some stretching exercises, some practiced jumping out of the blocks, and a few kept hopping around as they slapped their hamstrings into shape. On the other hand Ramsammy Goorwah and the small contingent of East Indian competitors leaned against the chain link fencing and observed the black athletes with the indifference of those who saw no need for such preliminaries. That prompted Sonny to contemplate the reason for the poor showing of Indians at track and field events.

Indians were not known for athletic prowess in the track and field arena. There were no Indians of track and field renown that he could recall, not in the Olympics, not in Commonwealth Games, not even in less prestigious events. And with over a billion Indians he expected at least there would have been a few exceptions to the rule, but still could not think of any. The athletes that did make the Indian Olympic contingent were either wrestlers or boxers and neither of these sports required track skills. But even then it came as no surprise to the international sporting community when all the Indian boxers hit the canvas in the preliminary bouts. The wrestlers fared a little better in their matches and Sonny derived an explanation. Wrestling required very little running and mostly lying down on a mat and trying to execute a yoga hold on the opponents stomach – and Indians could hold that position forever as they contemplated the karmic impact of their actions in the next life. So Sonny reasoned that it must have something to do with genetics. Maybe Indian genes were walking or strolling genes.

Then he began to reminisce on the possible impact of the Indian philosophy of pacifism and non-violence on their athletic aspirations. Was it possible that the "turn the other cheek" mentality was having a subliminal impact on the competitive spirit? Could it be that the contemplative nature of Eastern mysticism led them into a quietism of mind and body so antithetical to the spirit of competition? Or could the apathy arise simply from the continuous mental bombardment with the idea that sports cannot provide a living and should not be the prime object of one's endeavors? At least that is what his father always told him when he said he wanted to be an athlete. "Boy, you put your head down and study hard to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, and after that you could take up some sport as a hobby," his father would reiterate with parrot-like consistency anytime Sonny mentioned the subject of sports.

Just then his eyes caught the red and blue striped cricket sweater donned by a middle-aged man seated two rows ahead of him and immediately his mind flashed to the recent dominance of the Indians in international cricket. He mused on the fact that Indians have had much success in cricket and other events like squash and field hockey and since speed was not a major criteria for any of those events there was not enough credible evidence to support the notion that the philosophical orientation of Indians was to be blamed for their lack of success in track and field.

Then he lowered his sights to himself where for the past half hour he had been sitting like a sadhu with legs plaited under him on the hard greenheart pavilion, and instantaneously his mind drifted to the gods of Indian lore so lavishly pasted over the walls in his mother's sacred corner of the house. For a while he thought about the yogic posture that came to him so natural and so effortlessly and he wondered if it had a negative impact on the muscles and joints so critical for acceleration and speed. When Sonny ran against black kids he was aware of how fluid and coordinated they were in contrast to his languid and off-keel motion. It was like their legs and joints were oiled with 10W30 motor oil whereas the Indians seemed like they needed a few sprays of WD40 on the hip, knee, and ankle before each race. When the Indians ran they looked like straw men being blown in the wind, arms flailing and legs moving like they were tied together with heavy gauge elastic bands. Maybe it was a structural deficiency, he reasoned. But what could he do about it? Yoga, meditation, pacifism, the innate desire to squat on any available piece of open ground or park bench, were all intricately connected to their cultural and philosophical heritage and, such being the case, he reasoned, there was little hope for athletic improvement.

The cool mid-morning breeze tossed candy wrappers and odd bits of newspaper into the air as the rising sun began to peep through the dense foliage of a huge mango tree that ironically was made famous for its lack of fruit production. Local experts explained the phenomenon simply as a "man tree”. Any fruit tree that did not produce fruit was simply a "man tree". Of course, the local self-appointed agronomists never explained why this "man tree" produced buds and the occasional mango. Nevertheless, the tree appeared healthy and its huge branches provided bountiful shade to idle old people looking for somewhere to squat and "goatay" the same old stories.

Sonny unplaited his legs as though hoping to correct the structural problem for his posterity. An hour hadn’t passed since he ate his tennis roll and already his stomach began to growl again like an angry Alsatian. Then it occurred to him that just maybe the athletic malaise of his race might be related to their unique dietary intake.

His mother for one had often tried to alleviate the frustration of her son's runner-up finishes by explaining that black people gave their children a cup of carilla bitters for tea every morning while East Indians drank Red Rose tea like the white people. The bitters, she said, purified the blood and cleansed the pores. Besides, she added, black people ate a lot of beef, plantain and ground provision, whereas Indians consumed lots of garden vegetables and cow milk. As Bucky, a black kid with a bloated guts and bung navel from the neighborhood would chant, "plantain and duff make black man tough. Rice and dhal make coolie man tall." Naturally Sonny worried about the truth of that claim as Indians were on average no more taller than black kids, definitely skinnier but not taller or shorter. So the supposedly advantageous effects of their special diet were questionable. Nevertheless, the beef part had Sonny really worried because he was a Hindu and Hindus did not eat beef. The cow was sacred to them and was not to be slaughtered even if famine plagued the land. His sister Padmini once tried a sampling of curried beef at a Muslim friend's house but was betrayed next morning when she broke out in boils from head to toe so terribly it looked like she was in Egypt when Moses cursed the land. Of course, Sonny's mother explained that the boils were from Brahman who was angry with Padmini for dietary apostasy and, as expected, Padmini never again touched anything associated with the word "beef". Sonny finally resigned to the fate that it was the way things were and that it was not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Every race was blessed with some unique talent. As he saw it, the Indians will produce doctors and lawyers and engineers. The engineers will build the track and field stadiums, the doctors will mend the disabled athletes, and the lawyers will sue them both for malpractice.

There was however one light at the very end of the Indian athletic tunnel. As long as regional sports continued the Indians will still have the Last Race. The Last Race was a "2-mile" run, eight laps around the track. This was supposed to be the East Indian moment of redemption. Their last hurrah! Indians were supposed to be good in the long distance races. Perhaps it accommodated their nature and spirit. They were never in a rush to get anywhere and the marathon gave them ample time to meditate on the afterlife. But victory demanded more than pure endurance. It required local knowledge of the track. From the pavilion the track looked smooth and level but in reality such was far from the case. The ball field, though prohibited to animals, had over time become their favorite grazing grounds. It also became a pasture for horses and sheep that were smart enough to find the gaping holes in the chain-link fencing. In the rainy season the ground was often inundated and during this time the animals left hoof sized holes everywhere they roamed. Now the rains were gone and the track was dry but the clay surrounding the cow-hoof holes had hardened and produced hundreds of ankle-busting craters. The uncut grass camouflaged the holes and posed a serious danger to the reckless runner. To increase the level of danger the labaria, a slender but poisonous snake, took refuge in the cow-hoof holes and posed a threat to those who dared to invade their territory. It was not unusual to see dead cows in the pasture and hear the prognosis that they were bitten by labarias. Yet, for local runners like Jailall what was a danger to others was for him a definite advantage. He memorized the location of the holes with such precision he could avoid them even in the dark.

The games commenced on the hour at ten o' clock that morning with the singing of the Dear Land of Guyana, the national anthem, and a welcome address from Mr. Birbalsingh, the headmaster. Thereafter the mood was like that of Good Intent market place on a Friday afternoon as officials and teachers intermingled with athletes, checking their names and lining up contestants according to the event schedule. But for Sonny the day passed slowly and painfully as he watched race after race being won by black boys and girls and the delight on their faces as they examined their prizes. The only thing that kept him from an early exit was the Last Race and for that alone he was prepared to endure the agonizing wait. Well, that and Savitri. She was still in the pavilion and he wanted to make her acquaintance. His perseverance was rewarded when her friends left to purchase polouri and mauby at one of the vendors on the grounds. He grabbed at the small window of opportunity to exchange pleasantries with her and was more than surprised at her favorable response.

“Hi!” he said.

“Hi!” she responded with a giggle.

“Which house you belong to?”

“A-house. And you?”

“B-house! We lose every year.”

“I know. You all need some black people in your house.”

“True! I didn’t expect you here. I didn’t know you like sports.”

“Yes. I like sports, all sports, but cricket and table tennis the most.”

“You like table tennis?”

“Yes. I play at the community center with my brothers every Saturday morning.”

“I like tennis too. Maybe we could play a game sometime.”

“That would be nice.”

After that Savitri said very little but giggled at everything he said as though he was Habeeb Khan, the comedian. When they spotted Indranie making her way back with the polouri and chutney they abruptly ended the brief liaison and returned to their seats. But more importantly Sonny had broken the ice and allayed any fears he had that Savitri might not be interested in a relationship. He regurgitated the words “that would be nice” and with each iteration became more convinced that those words meant ‘I love you’. That day he felt like the biggest winner and he floated back to his seat on automatic pilot.

He was still in dreamland when the announcer's bullhorn called the entrants for the Last Race to step up to the starting blocks. So enthralled with his new love that he never even noticed when his father arrived and juxtaposed himself into the space between him and the racers directly to his right. Nor did he see the vast multi-cultural mob that charged through the gates and unto the track as though they were being chased by the bulls of Pamplona. Young, old, blacks, Indians, Amerindian, Chinese, and Portuguese huddled ten deep in the 20-foot wide single-lane grass track, hoping if not to win the race then at least to gain a respectable finish. For most of them the competition was their partners and friends. Winning gave them bragging rights for a whole year.

"So who do you pick, son?" the old man asked, "I pick Harold, the old veteran."

"Oh! I didn’t see you come in. You hungry? I still have two rotis.”

“No, son, I had a bite before coming here.”

“I think Jailall will give him a run for his money."

"You mean beat Harold? No way!"

"Harold getting old, dad. Besides, Jailall runs here every afternoon. He knows the track like the back of his finger."

"I still think Harold gon bust they tail."

"We'll see!"

The enormous din came to a hush as Jailall walked pass the gates and came to the front of the pack with his familiar blue Adidas running suit with sleeves deliberately removed to show off his huge biceps and chest. He sported a sweatband across his forehead and a stainless steel chain around his neck from which hung a pendant in the shape of an anchor. At certain angles the sun reflected off the pendant and forced spectators to shield their eyes from the blinding rays. Of course, no one dared tell Jailall to retreat to the back of the pack. Arrogance oozed from his pores.

They all watched him in awe and dismay just like the Israelites watched Goliath, the Philistine giant of old, and Sonny knew they were in a for quite a duel that day. Harold stood five paces to the right of Jailall. The affection accorded Harold by his many fans only served to increase the flow of Jailall's adrenaline. With quick jerks of the head from side to side and with eyes closed as if in meditation he cracked his neck bone and then flexed his arms and legs as though to shake off muscular cramps.

Harold, on the other hand, had the reputation of running to and from work every weekday. That was a distance of almost nine miles each way. Everyone who worked in the city knew him as they invariably passed him either on the way to work or on the way home. He was always the solitary man running alongside rush hour traffic and being hailed by taxicabs along the way. His fame spread and it was no surprise when he was the only athlete chosen by a six-man Olympic Committee to represent the country at their first Olympics. Harold left on the wings of high expectations and with the prayers of the nation. Sonny, like most Guyanese, never knew what really transpired at the Games. The unofficial report is that Harold ran well the first ten miles but was forced to drop out of the race because of blisters.

Poor Harold was raised in harsh poverty and could never afford the luxury of a pair of track boots. All of his training was done barefooted on the red clay pedestrian walkway along the highways and around local school grounds and though this rigorous training had fashioned strong and rugged feet it was still not enough to create insulation against the heated asphalt track. No one had forewarned Harold of the conditions under which the race was contested else he might have reconsidered his decision to run. He was not aware that the course wound along asphalt roadways and that the heat of the sun would render the surface unbearable to bare feet. Nevertheless, he ran, came off and cooled his feet, got up and ran again until the blisters became bleeding sores. Even then he refused to surrender and even decided to borrow a pair of track shoes from his coach as both he and Mr. Jones wore size nine shoes. But it was too late. His feet were too badly blistered to continue. Besides, Mr. Jones was nowhere to be found. The night auditor at the hotel where they stayed said the Guyana contingent left close to midnight with people who looked like their families. Apparently the coach and four of the officials seized the opportunity to abscond to the United States.

Nevertheless Harold came home alone and disappointed. But running was in his blood, long before the dream of Olympics and prizes, and soon he was back, outrunning cars caught in traffic jams along the East Coast highway and waving to fans and admirers on their commute to work. He was still the idol and inspiration for all East Indian marathon hopefuls. One could see the excitement in the little eyes that lined up behind him at the starting block. They jostled for a position closest to him as they waited for the blast of the starter's pistol.

The shot came without warning and immediately the black kids were off as if they were being chased by Klansmen across the Mississippi but Sonny knew their moment in the sun would be short-lived as they would not be able to sustain the pace. Nevertheless, in desperation to keep pace several rookies foolishly pursued the lead pack convinced they were on the right course. Unfortunately, they all fell prey to the ever-present cow holes. One by one they grabbed their ankles and limped back to the pavilion. Nelson was the only surviving black contestant. He competed in the event a few times and had some knowledge of the track. Besides, it is said that the cow holes were no match for his size fourteen feet.

As for the ‘coolie’ boys they found safety in Harold's strategy and tried to keep pace with him. Unfortunately, they found themselves lagging further behind him with each stride. Sonny watched them from the pavilion as they ran with long and lazy steps as if their legs were coming out of hibernation. Even his father sitting next to him, a usually quiet man, was forced to comment that if the camera had to cover Indian track-and field-sports there would be no need for slow motion replays. Nevertheless, the Indian aspirants strained to keep pace with their hero even though some of them were about to be lapped. Then one by one they reluctantly dropped out of the race and limped their way back to the finish line.

In the meanwhile Jailall had put on the after burners and raced to the front with four laps to go. Nelson, the last black hope refused to yield but knew his chances for winning the Last Race was fading fast when Harold and Jailall threatened to overtake him at the turn with two laps remaining. Nevertheless, the blacks cheered him on and several of his friends and family ran alongside him on the inside of the track.

As expected Harold executed his game plan and quickly caught up to Jailall. Then the two men, legend and heir apparent, ran alongside each other for the next two laps with such rhythmic precision they looked like they were rehearsing for a synchronized running competition. When they were about a lap ahead of the remaining stragglers the marshal rang the bell signaling the final lap and, as if on cue, huge sections of spectators from the pavilions rushed unto the track and began to run behind the two men totally without regard for the remaining contestants. Nelson ran into a blockade and was virtually slowed to a walk. A handful of supporters encouraged Jailall but the majority were rooting for Harold. They offered him cool-aid but he refused. Jailall kept watching over his shoulder with half a lap to go. He knew this was the moment when Harold made his move and he was right. Harold took advantage of the tailwind and began to accelerate but could not shake off Jailall who maintained pace and, with a hundred yards to go. Jailall showed why he was the legitimate heir. He shifted into yet another gear and outran his older counterpart, beating him to the tape by just a shoulder. One could hear the collective sigh of disappointment from the crowd as their hero had finally met his Waterloo.

But their disappointment was short lived. The magnanimous Harold smiled and reached out to Jailall with a hug and few congratulatory words. Then he patted the young man on the back and raised his left hand in triumph. The partisan crowd roared their approval. Their hero had lost but another had won, assuring them that for next few years the East Indians could always look forward to The Last Race.

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