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An Evening Drive Interrupted
Life for Chandi Bhagwan could not be better. His bills were paid, his family was happy and healthy, and he and his wife were both gainfully employed, he as a supervisor at a lumber yard on Lombard Street and his wife as a registered nurse at the Medical Arts Centre across from Georgetown Public Hospital. That week she was on the evening shift and as usual he opted to pick her up from work as he was apprehensive about her taking a hire car home after dark.
Like many Guyanese drivers, he leaned against the door with his right arm hanging out through the window and his left index finger lightly manipulating the steering wheel of the old Austin Cambridge as it chugged its way at a constant 30 mph on the East Coast public road en route to the hospital. The Atlantic breeze was gusting steadily at around fifty miles an hour and he could feel his car bouncing up and down like a boat on a windy day on the Demerara river. According to his mechanic friend that was a good thing. Before purchasing the car he had asked his friend to check out the ride and was a bit surprised when the mechanic just depressed the back of the car a few times and confidently concluded, Good! See how it bouncing nice and soft? Good shocks. Now he wasnt so sure that they were good shocks as he found it difficult to control the car under windy conditions. He slowed and leaned forward in his seat as if to add to some weight to the front of the bouncing car.
With the moist breeze rubbing against his face and the constant humming of the old 1600 cc BMC 4-cylinder engine (amplified through the hole in the dash), humming in his ear, he felt so relaxed that he wanted to sleep. Not that he needed the breeze or anything else to make him sleepy. Chandi could sleep anywhere, anyhow, and at anytime. He could sleep while standing, lying supine, on the side, on his face, or sitting with legs crossed. He could sleep with bright lights or in total darkness, with eyes shut or opened, with noise or silence. His mother always lamented that her son was the only coolie-boy with niggeritis and that thief man can carry way de house and da bai na gon wake up.
At first it bothered him that he slept so much but, after visiting Brother Prasad clap-hand church under auntie Ritas bottom house and hear the preacher say that God gives sleep to his beloved, he felt he had been blessed with a special gift. Nowadays he simply sucks his teeth and unsympathetically shakes his head when he hears people lament their bouts with insomnia.
As he passed by University Gardens, he popped a Chico gum in his mouth and leaned out of the window to allow the moist sea air to splash upon his face and dispel the forces of slumber that were weighing heavily at his eyelids. His watch said 3:15 pm, but it was much later. He estimated it was around 7:30 pm and advanced the hands accordingly. He did this periodically through he day so that if anyone asked him the time he was never too far off from being correct. His wife on the other hand kept threatening to throw the watch away after he picked her up late on a few occasions, but he held fast to it as though it was a special heirloom. And for him it was special. For one thing, it was a gift from his sister in America and, for another, he was the only one among his colleagues at work with a watch. The way he saw it, half a watch was better than no watch at all and, besides, his co-workers depended on him for the best estimates of time during the day.
As the car approached Bel Air, he noticed a solitary shadow in the distance lurking by the wire cage that surrounded Conversation Tree. There was no one else on the street and apart from the wind howling through the palm trees the place was eerily quiet. A few seconds later, he saw a hand being extended outwards from the shadowy figure, and he simply dismissed it as a commuter trying to hail a taxi. His car was not a taxi, but even private cars were in the business of picking up passengers to defray increasing vehicle maintenance costs and, for commuters, it did not matter one way or the other, so long as they arrived at their destination. Suddenly, the shadow materialized a few feet unto the road with outstretched hands and forced him to a screeching halt to avoid a collision. It was only then that he realized it was a police officer.
He was agitated. Them damn kapar na gat time and place. Ah wah de heck he skites want now? he fretted. His reaction was expected, as none of his experiences with the police were pleasant. Just a few weeks ago he went home after a late evening visit to his mother and, before retiring to bed, he decided to get his clothes ready for the wedding of his black friend, Herman, the next day. It was then that he realized the brand new pair of black imitation leather shoes his aunt from America brought for him when she came for Christmas was nowhere to be found. He was completely enraged over the missing shoes, so much that he could not sleep a wink that night. As soon as morning dawned he charged over to his neighbor's house and woke them with the accusation that their son might have stolen his shoes. The son, for a small frek, ran errands for him on the weekends and, on one occasion, was caught fiddling with the shoes. So Chandi was convinced the boy was the culprit. The boy's father, on the other hand, his eyes red and still hung over from too much bush rum the night before, did not need a jury to convict his son. He charged out of the one-roomed shack in his bare buckta and fell before Chandi as though he was an aggrieved god.
"Buddy," he begged, "me na know who teach that bai for thief. He na come home last night. Me na able wid am. If me only see am me gon hise am up and knack am dunk. A kill me gon kill am til he dead."
So Chandi had no option but to scout the neighborhood for the boy. Eventually, he found him playing bumper ball with a bunch of hooligans near the mechanic shop. When he confronted him about the shoes he vehemently denied having stolen them or ever having seen the shoes. Just then a bloated-belly-half-naked dougla boy who was left out of the game shouted out, "He liad mister. He thief your shoes," and as if they saw a ghost the whole gang disappeared through alleys and holes in fences in less than ten seconds. It was then that Chandi decided to go the police at Golden Grove for assistance. He still remembers the conversation with the officer at the desk.
"Yes, comrade. What can I do for you?" the officer asked.
"I would like to make a report."
"What is it?"
"A lil boy thief me brand new shoes and I want you to help me get them back."
"How you know the boy steal the shoes?"
"Because he is the only one who ever come into me house. He does run some errands for me and ah does give him a lil frek and some dhal and rice. Pon tap of that he friend them say that he thief the shoes and he dadie say he does thief."
"Where this boy lives?"
"Next door to me."
"Well, I woulda come and check it out for you but I ain't gat no ride, and besides is me alone working today. I can't leave the station."
"So what ah must do?"
"Tell de bie if he na give you back the shoes me gon come for him."
As expected the shoes were never recovered and the police was of absolutely no help at all.
Then there was the unforgettable experience of how the police hassled him to get his drivers license. He was eighteen, of legal driving age, and already a proficient driver, having logged hundreds of hours backing his fathers car in and out of a narrow garage, and making short trips to the estate for potable water. So he expected that his driving test would have been as easy as the breeze that blew gently that Tuesday morning at Cove and John Police headquarters, the site of his driving examination. But he was in for a surprise. Although he drove mistake-free, the officer failed him on the grounds that he was driving too far from the curbside. He still remembers the argument.
Wha you mean me drive too far fram de cana?
You been out too far in de middle a dah road.
So how far me sappose to stay?
So much, the officer said as he widened his arms.
So much? De road nah so wide. If me goh so much me go knack dunk dem people wa walk a grass cana.
Comrade, you have to drive in your lane.
But me na see none lane. Dem na gat line pan de road. How you spect me for drive in de lane?
Look, na argue wid me. Come back next month.
So he returned exactly in one month hoping to meet the same officer as he surmised it would difficult for the same police to reject him twice. As bad luck would have it he was assigned to another police officer for his second driving test and recalled how without uttering a word the officer boarded the car and started writing something on a notepad.
Drive! the officer ordered.
He pushed the car in gear and was ready to release the clutch when the officer interrupted, Look, your dadie calling you.
Wondering what might be the problem he slowed and looked at his father standing by the pillions with other parents when the officer snapped, Who tell you fo stap? Ah soh you gon turn round pan the road?
No, sir! Sorry, sir!
Lock hard left at de turn and stop pon de hill.
He complied and, without further mishaps, it looked like he had the license wrapped up. But when they arrived back at the station the officer nonchalantly passed him a fail slip, exited the car and just as quickly entered the car of another potential victim. It was then that he and his father recognized there was no way he was going to get his license via the straight and narrow way. It became clear that the police wanted something more and that what they wanted had nothing to do with driving skills. So when they saw a skinny coolie boy who almost took out the gate to the compound being given a pass slip and his father thanking the police profusely he was furious.
Me know da bai! Chandi exclaimed, He cant drive. He a wan real mook. How he pass?
Chandis father was equally stunned and, in search for answers, they strolled up to the happy couple.
So your bai get he paper? his father asked.
Yes, man, me prappa glad because me weary come ya.
Wha you mean? Dis na fus time?
Fus time? Na crack joke! Dis a four time now me bring a bai. De fuss tree time dem fail am and den me decide for talk to de pilice.
Wha you talk to ram bout?
Me ask am fuh help out me bai. Den de capral say dat hand wash hand mek hand come clean. So me invite he and he inspector boss fuh curry and chicken, and me give dem a bottle London Dry Gin and $20 each. After dat de officer say ah must bring de bai to him de next time. He gon carry me bai on the road just for show-show, but na sweat nuthin, he gon pass de test.
So reluctantly, Chandis father made the arrangements for officer Williams and inspector Robinson to come by on the weekend for a little appreciation dinner. They came, saw, and devoured the roti and chicken like starving men, and intermittently washed it down with gin and Smirnoff. When the old man suspected they were "sweet" he flipped a twenty-dollar bill in each of their pockets and they offered no resistance. On the way out the inspector promised that everything will be okay next time and true to his word Chandi passed the driving test and received his license. But every time he looked at his license he could sense a burgeoning anger in his bosom. Even now he could feel it rising again as he slowed to a stop about ten yards past the police officer.
What the problem is, officer?" he asked.
"Lemme see your book!" the officer replied. After examining the license the officer strutted around the car as if he had the world of time on his hand and then returned to the driver's side and asked him to step out of the car.
"Come out de car!"
"Why? Wha me do?"
"Come follow me to the back of the car. Tell me what you see!"
"Me na see nothing wrong."
"Nothing wrong? Where your number plate lights?"
"It used to work. Something must be wrong. Lemme see." He tapped on the little glass encasement on the bumper just below the number plate and the little light came on, much to the dismay of the officer. "There! It working!" he exclaimed. Then, just as sudden the light came on it went off again and the elated officer smiled, "I don't see any light. You see any light?" He smirked. Chandi stooped down and fiddled with the light casement. When that failed he started to bang on the bumper, hoping to shake loose any rust that might be insulating the wires. The light flickered on and off at times during the banging but never stayed on long enough for him to refute the officer's charge. Then in frustration he jumped up and snapped, "Look! You can see the light working. Is just some lil rust get inside. I gon clap some steel wool and Autosol pon it when I go home."
"Comrade, I sorry but I have to charge you," he said.
"So what you gon charge me wid?"
"You lights not working."
"So what section of the law that is?"
"The section that say your lights must be working."
"But that law talking about headlights, not no number plate light. And let me ask you a question. When you stop me you coulda only see the front of me car. So tell me, how you can see me back number plate from where you been stan up?
"Dat nat none of your business."
With that he pulled out his ticket book and flipped to a blank page. He was deliberate and Chandi suspected that he wanted a bribe, but he was not prepared to give him a penny. Then he began to entertain thoughts about driving off from the scene. What would the officer do? He had no means of transport, no radio, and looked to be in no shape to chase after a fugitive. Nevertheless, he chose to stay and be a good citizen.
"So tell me, how for spell your name?" he asked.
"It deh in the book. You can't read?"
After a few minutes he asked again, "How you spell Canvasatian tree?"
"Me na know. You ah de police. A you a charge me. You spell am."
The officer was clearly rattled and embarrassed. He folded the book and said, "Look, this a the fuss time me stop you. I gon just give you a warning dis time. Next time me nah gon be so nice. Go and fix da light."
Already late for his wife and disgusted at the officer, he slammed the accelerator to the floor and the Austin strained and heaved to comply. But the car was old and could not do zero-to-sixty in a weekend unless it was aboard a GAC cargo plane. To be fair though, the engine was not totally at fault. Most of the blame lay at the feet of the autobody workers who used recycled oil drums to replace damaged or rusted body parts; so that over a period of time the entire body of the car was replaced, adding hundreds of pounds of load unto the aging drive train. In the end he was thankful for the faithful service the old Austin had given him over the years. It was definitely more reliable than his Timex watch from America.
When he finally arrived at the hospital, almost an hour late, he expected his wife to be angry but, to his surprise, she displayed no sign of anger or fretfulness. On the contrary she seemed as cheerful as a young girl after her first date. Naturally, he was forced to inquire as to the reason for her gleeful countenance and his unexpected fortune.
"Me say you gon swell your mouth pan me because me run late," he stuttered apologetically, "but a wan tupit policeman stop me a Bel Air."
"Nah, man! Me nah mad wid you."
"A what you so happy for then?"
"Oh! Dem gal been a tell joke bout police. Dem crack me up me belly bust wid laff.
Tell me de joke.
Padmini, you know Padmini, right?
Yes, the nurse gal from Ogle, right?
Yes! She prappa funny. She ask abie if you see five brains, how you can tell which one belongs to a policeman.
Me na know. How?
Guess na man. Wa you give up so fast?
Half an hour later he still had no answer. As they neared Conversation Tree on their return home he turned to his wife.
Me surrender. What de ansa?
The newest one! she blurted out and broke into a fit of laughter, the one what na get no uses, that one belongs to the police. You get the joke?
Just then, they approached the site of the cage and noticed that the officer was still standing under the tree, alone, and evidently bored as he was playing with his torchlight, holding it up to the sky with a smile as if convinced he was the one who lit up the stars. Chandi slowed for a look at his tormentor and noticed that the policeman had turned the beam into his own eyes. The burst of light on his pupils temporarily blinded him and he began to grope frantically for the cage. When he eventually regained his composure and sense of direction he aimed his torch heaven ward and resumed his noble task of keeping the stars alight. Chandi shook his head and smiled as he drove past the old Tree.
Yes, dear!" he chuckled, "now I get the joke!"
By Richard Rupnarain
Richard Rupnarain lives in Toronto, Canada
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by Richard Rupnarain
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