Burning hot it keeps becoming, and Professor Ivor and I have been traipsing around the island. Tall, angular, and English to the core, the Professor says he wants to learn about creole ways, and grins.
“Authentic, do you mean?” I ask.
Odd companions we now are, here in Guadeloupe, like our destined island. Does he expect to become bronze-looking after a week in the sun? The locals, one or two squint-eyed, watch us, and we get down on hands and knees under the huge open-air tent. Tantalizing smells in the air, oh, such culinary aromas: here at this Indiante Festival in the town of St Francois. But not so long ago a hurricane devastated the region. But now the festival is all with tabla beating, throbbing: not unlike one’s hardened skin. Now it appears we are on veritable homing ground. Are we?
Atlantic waves rise and fall; the “big sea,” one local calls it, as island-people are all around us…around me? Professor Ivor makes a face. What a face. Cymbals clashing, in this island-mela. Pondicherry, the locals being all Tamils? Ivor is now getting more attention. See, he’s from a south-eastern English university, Sussex. Now everyone’s dark-brown features I look at, if like my very own. But not Gallic-looking, on this territorial French-department of a Caribbean island? More waves keep rising, falling. The Atlantic, indeed.
Now Ivor tells me he hopes to visit South Africa next, which is why he’s really here: like a sort of cultural training ground. Really? Attractive women move around us, maybe wary of Ivor now: they are thin-boned, or just sinewy-looking, one or two with long faces, necks that curve down to slender waists. I follow Ivor’s gaze, to the women’s colourful clothing. .
“Will my students approve?”
“What will they think?”
Multihued, or just surreal, as the locals keep moving around us. Indeed India-in-the-Caribbean; as more waves hurl, and the wind keeps surfing.
Maracuja, the Caribs’ own brew, we will drink; we’d drunken.
How much more multicultural do we want to be? What his students expect of him. Not me? Canada in the background, where I am now from, I tell myself, with change of pace, change of identity: like what I dream about. Do I really?
Now Ivor says he’s never seen so many beautiful women in one place before. Oh? “Creole food’s the best,” he adds, as we now splay out on dry grass under the tent, waiting our turn to be “served”. A medley of voices, and music again. Unconsciously I cast my mind back to being in the open market, in Bass-Terre–where Ivor sniffed the array of spices. The charcoal-hued matronly women became amused by his quaint English ways, didn’t they? They look at me too? He bantered, kept bartering; and one African woman with a garish Madrasi headkerchief suddenly burst out laughing. See, authentic she is.
South Africa here I come.
I do too?
Now under the tent the food is being ladled out. And the tropical air I inhale, indeed, more than regular sea-breeze. But whose side am I on with plantain and cassava trees and an array of fruit trees not far away, all I look at, on the horizon. A tabla keeps throbbing. Ivor yet thinks of his students behind, somewhere in Sussex, I know.
—Sir, you’ve done the real thing; you’re one of us now.
More palm trees waver, the trade winds blowing all across the Leeward and Windward islands.
The ushers ladle out rice on wide, curve-tipped banana leaves, like special plates. Easily Ivor runs his long fingers through the fluffy rice, as the steam blows out now. Creole, see.
One usher insists on giving us, not just Ivor, more rice…because Ivor’s so tall? How tall is he really? The other guests watch us. Ah, Ivor finds the fare tantalizing, his English taste buds are now stirred, he tells me. Alloo, pumpkin cooked with masala.
Ivor drools, licking the dhal on his fingers mixed with rice. He’s bound to tell his students it’s authentic fare.
But do I hear one feisty student, Miriam, asking: “Why are there no genuine Caribs left on the island?”
Ivor shrugs. And I must know more about everyday Britain, I figure. Another student: “Are there only Africans and Tamils on this coast with French history intact?”
Miriam is berating Ivor. Nothing’s ever real in the Caribbean, she says. Oh? Take my word for it, I was born there. The other students come on her side.
–You’re missing the point, Professor Ivor. You really are.
Ah, it’s again about race: black and white, in England or the USA.
What about South Africa with apartheid still at work despite a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Miriam waves with a tremor of her hands. Her language of life, she calls it. Echoes are now everywhere. And does Ivor really want to go to South Africa to meet ANC members, if Nelson Mandela himself? Not meet Zulu Chief Buthelezi or Cyril Ramaposa?
Ivor’s mouth is yellow-stained; he’s slurping, more like it.
“Eat up,” I say. And the sun’s heat begins to make us uncomfortable. I want the ocean to come closer. “Yes,” Ivor says, his “plate” still primed. Rice falls like confetti, as the male ushers come to him again. Ah, curried goat–the same animal I’d earlier seen tied to a shrub and had seemed irritable on this the hottest day of the year. Who’s the real vegetarian now among the Hindus?
“Eat all,” a food-ladler urges with glee.
Ivor slurps once more.
“Eat all or they will be offended,” I murmur. “It’s the custom to eat everything on your plate.” It’s the way of the French in the Caribbean, no?
Ivor laughs at my deduction; he calls me Ravi, as everyone hails me. Not call me Shiva?
“I am not from India,” I say.
–What d’you think, Miriam, with your armful of books weighing you down?
Ivor’s now just the object of everyone’s curiosity. One distinctly thin woman with truly dark features laughs loudest.
–Hey, Ivor, she isn’t the real thing, says Miriam.
Ivor scrapes at the edge of the banana leaf, his makeshift plate.
“I’m really enjoying it,” he says.
“I’ve been looking forward to it, to Carib-creole food.” A gargoyle’s face; everything keeps overwhelming Ivor, if only because of his ingrained English ways.
Miriam laughs. Multi-coloured South Africa is also laughing?
Canada now…the same? I hum to myself.
Ivor boasts that he will become the most “knowledgeable man” in England, with knowledge of the authentic Caribbean. Oh? Now, though, it’s really the urge to eat more with such appetizing local fare around. But the banana leaf-plate is bitter, it’s not salad. Christ!
The others watching him applaud.
Will he start eating the edges of the leaf, his way of complying with local custom?
“It’s the heat that makes you swelter so much,” I say.
Ivor scoffs, “Maybe not.”
Then, “You’re just exotic to them, Ivor.”
The word “exotic” has its own special appeal or resonance; and maybe he will again bite into the banana leaf, as the locals keep encouraging him…to eat all! Hand-gestures, drama being acted out, I imagine. Ivor is playing along, isn’t he?
Ritual, more like it.
—Stop making a fool of yourself, man, Miriam’s voice is in my ears. Ivor’s lips twitch. “Maybe we’re fated to be here,” he says, his eyes lighting up against the umbrella-slanted sun. He points to my own empty leaf-plate; then he tells me that I am also a foreigner here.
The surge-slap of water at Pointe des Chateaux, like a distant sea, I hear. Buccaneering days, ah, long-gone in the Caribbean.
Now the crowd drools, one almost pulling Ivor’s hand. Pulling him up. As the women make faces. They really do!
I simply incorrigible Miriam’s voice again: Ivor, run for it. It’s your only chance.
Cymbals clashing. Kali-goddess and Maria-ma–the twain meeting.
A Hindu and Catholic mix in Guadeloupe, see. Where else are people really changing everywhere around the world? Ivor’s own Germanic tribe, in the mix, I imagine. The Madrasi-headed women in the market are yet laughing. Imagine someone coming at him with a crude spear. Heads being unceremoniously lopped off!
—Run while you can, Ivor. This is no National Geographic special, you better believe it.
Palm trees thrash and hurl, like another hurricane coming. There’s no denying what occurred here not so long ago. Trade winds literally kept brandishing swords.
Nothing to deny?
Ivor looks at the thin but attractive swarthy women with their particular allure. Miriam makes a face, a genuine Caribbean face, eh?
Oh, to live in England…longer. But I unconsciously long for Canada’s cold. Do I really?
Gosh, we are multicultural everywhere.
A mixed-race TV crew, all American, with media link-ups across America and Europe, who will buy their “feed”–who tell us there’s always interest in people of the Caribbean, don’t we know?
A tallish woman with sallow skin forces the tripod in place. She looks through the lenses, eager for magnification. The interviewer, a handsome male mulatto, smooth or just glib in his manner, first addresses Ivor. Not me?
–What d’you think is the importance of this festival you’re attending here? You’re a professor of cultural anthropology in Britain, aren’t you?
–What brought you here?
Go on, tell the truth, Ivor.
–My students want me to be here. What I mean to say is that this is a good opportunity for the people in the region, all the races, as I will tell everyone back in Sussex.
– About the real Caribbean? But how real?
–Well, er…. Asia.
– Go on, please.
–The European powers have had a long history in this region, which can’t be denied or ignored. But…
–Continue in this vein, Professor.
–I mean, there’s an interest in ideology, too. Your American audience will understand that.
–Don’t get me wrong, it’s not about terrorism only we should be interested in.
– Muslim fundamentalism, or drug-pushing, eh? Tell us, Professor.
–I believe all the races are one…before the time of slavery and indentured labour. Indeed sugar is the Caribbean’s only legacy, nothing else. Here now it’s a wonderful mixing of people, I mean…blending. It’s why I am here, so I can tell my students.
–What about the Natives, have they disappeared?
–Natives?” Ivor’s eyes rove around. Where are the swarthy-complexioned females now?
–D’you feel any responsibility, Professor Ivor Jones, as an Englishman, I mean?
–Not at all. But, er…the Natives, they’re still around; they will be eager to talk about their ancestry, if you ask them.
–Arawaks, d’you mean?
Ivor contemplates; as Miriam and the other students seem to be urging him to it. My own inner ear at work. Do I next see a man astride a horse with whip in hand in a slave plantation…somewhere?
Do I really?
–It’s always a question of race, isn’t it, if it’s what you’re asking, no? Ivor is taking his time, bemused as he is.
Slowly the camera shifts away from Ivor, and turns to me. The tallish TV woman before her tripod smiles.
–You are from Canada, are you not?
She wants me to articulate, to keep on talking.
–You’re considered, er …a black Canadian, are you? And is the Caribbean a place you feel you must return to?
–The last time I came here was eight years ago.
–Seen many changes as you look around: the music, the food, Indian lambada?
A crowd comes around; they expect me to tell it as it is.
What? The TV tape will soon be played around the world; but not in Canada? Space and time, for students only, who will want to hear everything…about actually being here, no?
Ivor looks at me.
What about South Africa that you want to visit next, mate?
The TV tripod starts unfolding. Oh, the matronly Madrasi women in the market are in the background, but coming closer.
A close-up shot with more magnification, only. What’s now more exotic in a tropical island-place with drums beating everywhere …pounding. Echoic sounds I hear. A special journeying now.
And who will eat what next? Another goat tethered not far away, in the sun, waiting to be “sacrificed” by Hindus here in Guadeloupe. Oh, again the ushers will ladle out food on banana leaves spread out under the zinc-roofed tent. Ivor will keep a careful eye on everyone one, you see; he will want me to fo the same because we are indeed two of a kind.
The heavy aroma will begin to be oppressive in the heat: sounds and smells, which the TV camera will never capture, I know.
My heart starts beating faster.
(It’s not fair that you should do this, for what’s to be edited out, you know.)
–So Professor Ivor, tell us what d’you really feel being here in the Caribbean? Waves come crashing down on all sides now. And, you see,
I will conjure up winter, with ice-crystals coruscating in the sun.
But beaches I want to be on, as I will go once more to Pointe Chateaux, then wander around Guadeloupe, including to Marie Galante. All the while Ivor will contemplate visiting South Africa as Miriam keeps being at his heels. Will he want to shake Nelson Mandela’s hand because of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s hearing?
–Do not go there, Ivor. Nothing’s authentic anymore.
Indeed the races will mingle, I say to myself. And I will keep thinking about ancestry, if only about the Tamils in Pondicherry, and then about the first Indian man or woman who came here.
Who? Now natives all.
Voices keep calling out, like twittering sounds I will keep hearing everywhere; as Ivor will also relive his genuine experience of the Caribbean, with creole food in him…as he also thinks of Asia and Africa being less exotic, won’t he?
His students like now laugh louder, some indeed dark-hued in Sussex and others coming from across England. Coming from Canada too? Tabla sounds again beating, and a crowd is marching…being ready to embrace Ivor and me, I know. A close-up snapshot…the Caribbean, indeed. Then it’s also South Africa we’re talking, aren’t we?
Will you really go there too, Ravi?
Because of where I might have come from, you see. Come from other parts of India too, like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, or some place else…now being originally from Guyana.
Ah, I know I will head back north again, where I watch Ivor’s face on the TV screen from time to time and dwell on more authentic meeting ground, everywhere. But never mine.