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Monday, April 17, 2006

The Wedding by Cyril Dabydeen


Mahal was coming to the wedding, all the way from New York City; and driving was nothing to him, he boasted. "It's jus' like breeze," he said, in a familiar idiom. Immediately I recalled him "a poisoner of rats" at the Rose Hall sugar plantation, when we lived there. Then Mahal weighed one-hundred-and-nineteen pounds, and thin, wiry, he was, and agile: sometimes he moved with the swiftness of an eel. "We will meet sure enough," he threatened. The phone rattled in my hand.

Mahal hopping over drains, ditches, scuttling after the rodents, I conjured up, and wanted to laugh. Rats indeed were a nuisance on the plantation, and youths were hired to spray a special poison in order to eradicate them and save the cane harvest. At times the youths moved with the speed of dogs, Mahal being the best among them; he even made squealing sounds as he chased after the rodents. Then in the afternoon he rode by on his bicycle, shirt-tail hanging out, his hair greased with thick vaseline and combed straight back, and he looked like a swank, even thought he was Elvis Presley. He rang the bicycle bell loudly, and everyone hailed him, some calling out to him.

Laughter filled the air. He would pass by our house next along the main road and again ring the bell.
When he saw me looking out from the window he yelled: "How's the application comin' along? When you leaving, man?" He was referring to my impending immigration to Canada.

"I have to be patient," I said, humouring him.
"It mustn't take forever. Hurry up, na," he rallied, implying Canada would somehow escape me if I didn't move fast; he encouraged me to go to the Canadian High Commission Office in Georgetown, and "urge them on." Funny, Mahal never thought of leaving himself: only the "educated" ones among us would emigrate. No doubt Mahal accepted his fate as "the rat killer"; he wasn't supposed to have ambition. When three or four of us, the young school teachers, gathered in the late afternoons, Mahal would join us, appearing diffident, respsectful. Then he would try to astonish us with his brashness, his words sometimes mixed with a strange logic.

Immediately we laughed at him. Mahal tried bluster next, then vehemence. "Is not only teachers who read books," he resounded.

"Mahal, you're right," I said. He was patronized, and he knew it.

His eyes glazed. Another moment, though, he forgot his hurt, and again attempted bluster as he mixed metaphors while quoting scraps of Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, all he picked up from pamphlets and flyers lying about the house. He even quoted from religious tracts like Awake and The Watchtower left by those doing the house-to-house rounds; this "learning" Mahal threw at us. His voice rose, his entire body shook. Mahal had been saving it all up for us; he also had an astonishing memory.

Mahal next tried astonishing us with his epigrams: "Trifles make perfection, but perfection is no trifle," as he thrust his hands in the air. Another occasion when I asked him how he was, he sang, "Happy and well-fed!" Only later I realized he was quoting psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Mahal's eyes narrowed. "Laugh all you want, but rememba is he who laughs last does laugh loudest!" His bicycle bell ringing, and he was off again.

From the window of our high house, a week later, I hollered at him,

"Guess what, Mahal?"

He stopped, he already knew. "You leaving?" He coughed, almost nervous. "How soon?"

"In two weeks' time."

"'Merica or Canada?"

"Canada." But it could have been America; to him there was no difference. His face creased, and he was immediately sad about my leaving, I figured. He genuinely liked me, and I liked him. Then, blustering as before, he said, "I'll see you there!"

"You will?"

"Wait an' see." His mild boast yet a threat.

"Ah, Mahal, are you tired killing rats?"I teased.

"I can kill rats in 'Merica too. They have bigger ones there," he said with a grimace.

Once more I laughed.

His lips twitched.

In Canada I often thought about Mahal; and I planned on returning home for a visit, and I'd see him, I imagined: Mahal, still on his bicycle, and the bell ringing loudly. Thinner he'd be too, darker, because of the tropical heat; and Guyana was going through bad times, which was why many kept leaving there, youths mostly, I knew. A scowl etched across Mahal's suddenly handsome face, I saw.

Then, one morning Mahal's voice on the phone I heard: he was calling me in Canada from New York. Yes, to announce that he was coming to the wedding of a common friend living in Toronto. I was now living in Ottawa, five hours by car from Toronto. And a wedding was the occasion for most of us to relive old times, ethnics as we were. Always old talk, memory alive with sustained nostalgia. He was living in New York City.

How did he get there? He'd called me on the phone at about two-thirty on a cold December morning, and heavy snow was falling outside. I'd been shivering in bed because the furnace wasn't working properly. "What's up, man?" his voice grated as I picked up the phone; immediately it sounded like a weird dream.

Mahal's voice catapulted me back in time to the village. "Who's it?" I asked nevertheless.

"Who do you expec'?" he trilled his reprimand.

"MAHAL!"
"It's me? How's de winter?"

"Cold--very cold." I shivered, and Mahal didn't apologize for calling me at such an early hour, but boasted about calling from the Big Apple.

"When did you get over?" I asked, meaning America.

Mahal took his time to answer; he wanted to string out the surprise as long as possible. Not wanting him to gloat anymore, I said, "Are you illegal?"

He laughed. At once I saw the end of his rat-killing days: it was no longer the searing tropical heat for him. Then he told me he was indeed an alien. But before long he'd be allowed to remain permanently in America: the confidence in Mahal's voice preempted my further questions.

Next he told me he'd driven taxi to make a living in the Big Apple. "It's the best way to get to know the city, man. New Yawk's not a bad place." A real New Yorker he was now; I also imagined him laughing. "Yes, I makin' good connections too," he chirped. "Soon I will be permanent in America."
I didn't doubt him.

"I'm still with the trade union business, you know." Mahal was doing a lot, all in one year. Back home I recalled him being involved in marginal trade union activity. But now in New York also? Was he putting on an act for me?

In the jungle of highrises I tried to visualize him, amidst the maze of subways and cars...in New York, and people with a constant busyness, many in a fashionable lifestyle and show business all around; Mahal now in jacket-and-tie strutting around Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, consumed with his own importance. Next I imagined him in an office sitting behind a fancy computer, then chatting with sophisticated-looking administrative assistants, including a few curious executives...all whom he charmed with his familiar bluster. The women attractively roughed, lipsticked, a few blondes among them, warming to him, so "popular" he was.
Mahal was now indeed on the phone to me, and he let out a banal truism, "Don't worry man, life's like that!" Then he told me he'd come to America exactly one month after I'd left for Canada. He rattled on about his many "connections," and his Yankee lifestyle. God, what else would he say? The snow outside blowing harder. And why was I living in Ottawa, the coldest capital in the world?

I forced a smile. Soon I'd meet Mahal and the others in Toronto at the wedding. Good times were ahead. More phone-calls, to all the others who'd left there. And it was as if Mahal was the one getting married. I started thinking about the wedding in more detail; then suddenly I wanted it to be put off. A strange anxiety beat in me, because Mahal would be there.

What would he look like, and how would he greet me?

Only slowly I was coming to grips with the fact that he was actually living in North America. Other thoughts in my mind, too: the bridegroom facing immigration red tape, which would delay his bride's arrival in Canada--one here, the other there. Mahal's voice, more confident, as he at once dispelled doubt in me. "I'll see you in Toronto!"

"Yes, Mahal."

He awed me.

I tried talking about old times, to put him back in his place, to regain the psychological advantage. But he snickered, a deliberate affront to my "Canadian" ways--as he called it. And Mahal had been keeping track of each one of us--the young school teachers who'd left to come abroad--he said. He mentioned the word "diaspora," and scoffed.

"You like it in Canada?" he tried.

"It's not like back home." Regret in my voice, which he no doubt sensed.

"Make de best of it, man," he counselled, like an older brother, and laughed.

Next he began telling me he'd recently attended a symposium in Albany on minority rights; he'd sat next to New York Mayor Giuliani who congratulated him on coming to America. He'd also met former New York mayors David Dinkins and Ed Koch; he really liked the latter. He previously met Governor Mario Cuomo--a real politician if ever there was one, he boasted.

Mahal baffled me. In the same breath almost, he said he was attending university part-time. "Delphi University's black people college, man," he intoned, not giving me a chance to overcome my surprise.

"Are you joking, Mahal? I mean, are you really attending university?"

"Education's the thing," he grunted. "I have ambition; I will attend Stanford next to do my Masters."
"You will?" I was floored.

Then Mahal confessed to giving his psychology professor, Mrs Katz, a hard time. "How so?" I was intrigued.
"The old bitch think I stupid. She thinks I am anti-septic."

"You mean anti-Semitic?"

"Yeah." His mind simmered. "I threaten to report her to the Dean. I know my rights; I'm not a trade unionist for nothing."

"You're not back there, Mahal," I warned.

He ignored this. "I won't take anything from anyone--not lying down, Jewish or not as she is."

From the smugness in his voice, I figured Mahal must have been a nuisance in the class, often attempting bluster to draw attention to himself; and poor Professor Katz didn't know how to take him because of his whimsical ways. Mahal, the inveterate attention-getter! Did Mrs Katz threaten disciplinary action, to the amusement of the entire class? Did the latter egg Mahal on? "I have the blacks on my side, man," he rasped. "Ninety percent of the class is black. I bound to win. Ethnic solidarity's the thing...in America!"
I sighed.

With a chuckle he told me how it all began with Professor Katz.

A discussion about dreams had taken place in class, and the theories of Jung and Freud were thrown about. Mahal had become confused; he wanted more explanation. But Mrs Katz wouldn't acknowledge his raised hand--much to his chagrin.

"I paying school fees, I told her," Mahal shouted. "And dreams were dreams, so I asked: What about wet dreams, Professor Katz?"

I laughed.

Mahal quickly started another story: how he'd begun taking swimming lessons at the Bronx Community Centre, which catered mostly to matronly types. He wasn't living far away on Burnside Avenue in South Bronx with his latest Puerto Rican girlfriend.

"But you blasted well know how to swim, Mahal," I cried. "You could out swim a rabid crocodile!"
Mahal laughed. He confessed to taking swimming lessons in order to learn the "perfect" strokes: to swim "the scientific" American way.

But Mahal was up to his old tricks, I figured; maybe New York was bringing this out in him, now that he couldn't simply ride around on his bicycle and ring the bell as much as he wanted.

On his first day of swimming lessons, he climbed the highest diving board...and dove straight in, in an almost perfect dive! The leggy female swimming instructor with exquisite cream-coloured thighs was astonished at her "beginner," even as her matronly students waddled about the shallow end with large hips and sagging breasts. Suddenly everyone was watching Mahal dive in again, some cowering in fear.

As if this wasn't enough Mahal, in the middle of the pool suddenly propelled himself into an acrobatic somersault, then lashed out fiercely with his right leg as if against an enormous foe! It was the cuffum, a game which Mahal was an expert at back home as he swam in the alligator-infested waters.

The cuffum was actually a giant freshwater fish known to create a remarkable stir in the water. Mahal now acted out the role of this fish in New York...going after another prey. Bam! His right leg slapped heavily against the water; a mighty splash resulted, which absolutely frightened the others.

The leggy instructor tried to rein him in; but Mahal insisted on learning to swim the "scientific way." His false air charmed her, as he added that he was simply warming up in typical South American fashion. He was determined to swim the correct way!

She smiled, she was won over.

I said to him on the phone, "People are going to see through you, Mahal. It's not like back there."

"People are the same everywhere," he blithely declared.

"You're in America, man!"

"It's still the same."

"You used to be a rat-killer--"

"I'll soon get my BA."

"By harassing your professors."

"I will also get an MA."

"No doubt you'll be an expert swimmer as well," I scoffed.

"That too." He ignored my irony. "Anyway, about the wedding."

"What about it?"

"Next month..."

"Okay, Mahal, I will see you there."

"So will I!" His voice again sounded like a threat.

I figured too that maybe he wanted to tell me more about his other exploits, and a host of taxi-driving stories.
But for now I'd had enough.

Driving to Toronto I quietly began expecting Mahal to be cooperative, civil, even assuming the finer graces of life in North America. We were all adapting, growing with the new experience, and Mahal was adapting the fastest. Closer to Toronto, I continued thinking of Mahal being less gauche or awkward; he now acted with decorum as every occasion demanded. He'd climbed the ladder of success by speaking softly, quietly: all according to North American rules. Astute too he might have become.

I smiled.

Suddenly I was looking forward to seeing him again. And hadn't he hinted that he'd put on weight? I now weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, bigger. I fantasized a smiling Mahal greeting me, congratulating me on how well I looked. Then Mahal would be eager to tell me more about his meetings with the New York politicians. His voice calm, reasoned.

But I wanted to hear the funny bits as well. I also thought of the weddings in Guyana, the guests coming from all over. It didn't matter what the financial circumstances of the family were­everyone was invited; a wedding was always a big celebration, talked about for years to come. Would it be the same in Toronto?

Nearer I drew to Canada's largest city, and I looked forward to meeting the bride and groom also, and the various family members, the many friends. Romesh­a close friend, a young school teacher as he'd been in Guyana--greeted me at the door of his large apartment in a Toronto high-rise; I'd be his guest.
Mahal was his guest, also: it was all pre-arranged, organized.

Immediately I became anxious as I saw Mahal sitting on an easy chair.

I rubbed my eyes...I was flabbergasted by his size. Then he got up and embraced me in a bear hug; I had difficulty breathing. "Boy-Mahal, look at you," I blurted out, once more in a familiar idiom. "What have you been eating? Concrete?" I mocked.

Mahal weighed two-hundred-and-fifty pounds. He was also bald; well, nearly so. He wore a light-blue three-piece suit and shiny black shoes. He reminded me of a blimp I'd seen on TV.

When I told Mahal this, he burst out laughing. Then he said he had six suits, all light-blue. It was his "American style." He simply liked blue.

Romesh also laughed. Then it seemed the joke was suddenly on me.

Mahal hummed that soon he would get his BA. "I will be like the rest o' you," he said.

I concentrated on the thin strands of hair on his head, his eyes, puffy cheeks almost without colour, swollen in places. Mahal knew what I was thinking. He touched his scalp, then tapped his forehead as if tapping at a rock. "It's what inside that counts," he rasped.

We kept assessing each other; we weren't in the village any more, he seemed to say. Romesh kept smiling. Suddenly it seemed we hadn't left the tropics. We talked on, berating the colonial politicians. Mahal railed against corruption, though agreeing there'd always be greed. Next he talked about the trade union movement, how different it was in America: how much more satisfaction he got doing this kind of work in New York. He knew all the issues, his knowledge really astonished me. Again he hummed about minority rights.

Yet I laughed.

Mahal's eyes narrowed. We weren't taking him seriously, he knew. Then conversation shifted to women, and Mahal quickly said how many he knew, the many races, colours, Puerto Ricans mainly, though. He talked in a rapid-fire way, waved his arms about, jaws moving back and forth like large mandibles. When he guffawed, it was like a torrent of wind slapping against another. Impulsively I let out, "Mahal, you're in Canada...not America, man!"

"Eh?"

I alluded to Canadian ways being different from American's; here we weren't so loud or raucous. Romesh muttered in a conciliatory way, "You have come to a wedding." He was trying to change the subject.
"Yes-yes," acknowledged Mahal. "Tomorrow...but now we must catch up with the past."
I didn't like the way he said that, with determination; and maybe he felt I'd suddenly disappear on him, and he would have none of that.

Romesh passed around the drinks, and Mahal's Adam Apple jutted out as he swallowed. When we ate, he was absolutely ravenous as chicken wings disappeared before his nose. I didn't approve of his eating habits, strips of chicken vanishing so fast, he sensed. But Mahal defied me, his nostrils flared.

He belched hard and simultaneously stifled another act at the lower end: I could tell by the way he twisted his mouth. Then he said we must have a fresh start for the wedding tomorrow; he wanted to look his best. He wiped his mouth with an already soiled napkin.

I figured Mahal didn't expect our meeting to be like this.

He scowled and belched again as he got up. God, he was bigger than I thought. "It's not like how I was back home," he grated.

Romesh kept smiling. Mahal--Romesh said--would occupy his mother's vacant one-room apartment on the floor below; I'd share the room with him.

A smile flitted across Mahal's face, though he seemed anxious about something. Then he repeated that he wanted to be fresh for the wedding tomorrow. As I looked at him, he insisted that he was now different.
I wasn't sure what to think next.

Anxiety grew in me.

The room was large, spacious. A spare mattress rolled out on the floor would be for one of us; the other would sleep on the mother's bed a few feet away. A somewhat confused expression was on Mahal's face, I noted.
He said he'd sleep on the floor; he was deferring to me. The village had immediately come back to us, and he figured he knew his place.

I watched Mahal fall heavily on the mattress.

For a while a chasm of silence was all between us. Maybe Mahal was thinking about our changed circumstances and life in America and Canada. And the far tropics...and now the close-up temperate, though it was summer. Suddenly I wanted to say to him, Mahal, what's the matter with you? Instead I muttered about the anxiety of the bride on her wedding night, and the groom's eagerness. Small talk, my even trying to be falsely humorous.
Mahal grunted. On the mattress, with his shirt off, Mahal looked like a beached whale. He heaved in, sucking in the air around us. His upper body bunched forth. He looked, well...like Sonny Liston.

When he rolled over to one side facing the wall, the mattress creaked, though there was no spring under it.
The night grew on us. And the two of us were really alone, I figured, and Mahal would tell me his secret fears about life in North America: about New York especially; as I would tell him mine, about Canada, the difficulties of adapting as an immigrant.

But Mahal remained dourly quiet. I knew he wasn't asleep.

Again he rolled over to one side, and the mattress creaked louder.

I turned off the light. Then I imagined Mahal with one eye open, like a Cyclops, watching me in the darkness.

"What's the matter, Mahal?" I tried

No answer.

"You have changed, you know."

"No..." he grunted once more.

"You can't fool me. You're no longer in the village." And on an impulse I added, "What about the rats?"

Mahal made two quick turns, and seemed about to pull the entire mattress away from under him.

Fascinated I was by his movements back and forth and sideways, all without his saying a word. Palpable silence, a longer night ahead of us. Then Mahal seemed to have fallen asleep.

I continued thinking about our being so far away from where we were born. Mahal stirred again. Yes, asleep he might be, he yet had an inkling of my thoughts.

Just as I was on the verge of falling asleep, Mahal started to snore.

Heavy, stentorian sounds, the walls almost throbbing.

Immediately I thought about the rats, like a whole battalion of them in the sugar plantation, squeaking-grunting, at once. Now they were right here, in a veritable cacophony...or symphony, and I was the unwilling conductor and sole audience of this orchestra.

About 2 a.m. the snoring grew more deliberate, as I kept thinking of the past and the circumstances that shaped our lives...and I yet wanted to fall asleep...to awaken fresh the next morning when we'd meet all the old acquaintances, especially the bride and groom.

Mahal turned and shifted, and the mattress creaked louder.

"Mahal," I let out, unable to bear it longer. I figured he'd wake up, he'd stop snoring.

The snoring indeed stopped.

Then it started again: the orchestration, the rats large as pigs running helter-skelter I imagined. And Mahal chased wildly after them, or they came after him. It was now half-past three.

Again I called out to him, telling him to wake up--he was driving me crazy. He turned heftily on the mattress.
I became distraught. Slowly I got up and moved towards him in the dark.

Everything now seemed unreal, bizarre. It was as if Mahal really wasn't here; the wedding itself wasn't taking place. All the sounds too I heard earlier weren't real. Even Mahal's presence in New York City was fiction; and my being in Toronto, Ottawa, wherever, also wasn't real!

The minutes, hours, ticked by. I imagined Mahal facing the wedding guests, with everyone greeting him, saying how exquisite he looked in his blue suit! This too didn't seem real. My thoughts see-sawed, as I studied him in the semi-darkness.

A dim morning's light filtered into the room. I became more amazed at his bunched shape, Sonny Liston! This was no fiction. "Mahal, you alive, man?" I said, attempting black humour.

It was half-past five. I hadn't slept a wink all night. I figured that if I tried sleeping now for a couple of hours, it might be better than no sleep at all.

I yawned.

But Mahal started snoring again, like a frenzied alarm clock that wouldn't stop. He turned left, then right, in quick succession.

I forced myself to think of the bride in virginal white and looking really beautiful. The groom, handsome, grinning. Vaguely I thought I was the one getting married. Then, Mahal.

Again he turned heftily, even as the groom was telling me, "See, I have changed. We all have. You, from Ottawa, or New York...what does it matter? We are here now!"

I was distraught from too much thinking.

Then the snoring stopped, though strangely I fought to recreate it because it seemed a part of me.

More morning light filtered into the room.

Mahal, awake, got up quietly and pulled the blanket away.

Instinctively I pulled the blanket over my head; I didn't want to see him, I wanted to sleep now. But I kept being aware of all he was doing.

He went to the sink and poured water, the tap running as if it wouldn't stop. Mahal drank, then flexed his muscles. He had a good night's sleep, and he felt refreshed, happy. Sunlight filtered in...it was fully morning.
Seven-thirty, and I yet pulled the blanket over my head.

Mahal came towards me, gargantuan size and all. Looking over me he was...smiling. My eyes tightly closed, as I heard him laugh. His hand reached out. A large head, large body, drew closer.

I cringed.
"Wake up, man. You can't sleep all morning as well!" he barked.

I opened my eyes, one eye first; it was my turn to be a Cyclops. I slowly pulled the blanket away from my face.
"You've come to a wedding--not to sleep all night and day! It's a big affair, rememba?" Mahal was smiling, and he looked almost handsome.

Slowly I rose, like an obedient younger brother.

But it was as if I wasn't rising too. I forced a smile before he could say anything else, a sign of my further compliance.

He grinned, the widest grin I ever saw.

Later that day, I returned to the room to get some sleep; I was unable to take part in the wedding celebrations because of tiredness, fatigue. My eyes closed, I imagined Mahal moving from one group of guests to another. And everywhere he was being joyfully greeted, expressions of happy surprise filling my ears, the words echoing:
"Mahal, look at you! Gosh, what a change! You're a bigshot American now, so handsome!"

It was as if no one knew what else to say to him; even the bride and groom fussed over him. Mahal was stealing the show, and no one really minded. It was just like back home, I figured.

And Mahal lapped it all up. Beaming, he began telling everyone in a loud and clear voice: "I'm here too. I am jus' like the rest o' you!" Then heaving in air and remembering me no doubt he added, "Where's Mick...?" Then, with a wide smile--as if this was really what he wanted to say--he let out, "And when are you all goin' back there, eh?"

A knot in my throat, because of a strange emotion mixed with embarrassment in me, maybe due to what I figured everyone was experiencing now, and what our circumstances were indeed like, in a changed world, a changed spirit too in us, among us.

But with Mahal, though, it was still the same, even as he tried to appear different. A bicycle bell ringing, and a voice called out I heard: "What's up, man?" Then, "When are you leaving?" Rats scuttling all around me, as I closed my eyes tightly... and I really wanted to get some sleep. In Ottawa snow kept falling. In New York City, taxis moved past, making dizzying turnarounds. Sleep started to overcome me... oblivion, as I indeed tried thinking, and perhaps nothing would ever be the same again. Mahal yet laughing, somewhere, or everywhere.

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Posted by jebratt :: Monday, April 17, 2006 :: 0 comments

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