Jul/Aug 2019  •   Fiction

Oh, My Papa

by Vashti Bowlah

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman

It wasn't easy being my father's daughter. At times while we sat in the living room, he would stare at the photograph on the bureau and say with a pained smile on his face, "She was a good woman, but she never shoulda leave me like this." He then escaped to feed the chickens or clean their coop.

He was a good man, never faltering in his duties as a father or barber. Ram's Barber Shop was a popular hangout in Tamarind Lane, second only to Jaikaran's Bar, but only because Jaikaran has a three-for-one drinks special on weekdays. My father's shop came about after he injured his back while digging out para grass from the sugarcane fields. His friends and neighbors asked for a haircut when they visited him during his recuperation. They sat on a bench under the huge chennet tree and held up a mirror while he snipped away. It wasn't long after that he recovered and transformed a small area in the shed into an open barber shop. He used the side wall of the house to hang a mirror and built a counter top and drawer to store his barbering tools. He also added a wooden bench for his waiting customers with a seat made from a fabric covering stuffed with coconut fiber he got from my friend Hema. He had asked for it the last time he purchased homemade coconut oil and guava jam from her aajee.

My father could rival any other man in the village with his six foot frame, thick wavy hair, and thin cheeks. Most of his clients wanted sideburns exactly like his. I often told him how handsome he was and joked about all the attention he got from the village women. But it wasn't always a haircut drawing customers to his shop. There was the added bonus of listening to film songs and sports on the radio and cassette player which sat on a wooden shelf made from an empty smoked-herring box. They discussed politics and other current events, debated opinions, and made family decisions. It was no surprise when wives turned up to drag their husbands home when they didn't return from their errands, some issuing stern warnings about one thing or the other.

My mother used to do the same as far as I can remember, though it's been over seven years since we lost her. She often complained about the long hours he spent in the shop and the chores he left undone. "I tired walk with bucket from the standpipe to fill up them barrels and clean fowl shit every day," she mumbled as she went about her duties in the company of Rover, the pot hong she had rescued as a pup. "You don't even play with the child a little bit and she growing up so fast, just now she go have three years," she would say whenever my father was within earshot.

At the end of the day when all his customers had left, my father would relax in the hammock after dinner and gently rock me to sleep on his chest. He took pleasure in playing my mother's favorite songs on his harmonica while she washed the dishes or prepared the vegetables she would cook for breakfast. It wouldn't be long before she hummed along to the catchy tune, trying to hide the smile lurking on her lips at my father's coy attempt to be romantic.

My father still talks about her a lot. He tells me childhood stories, some of which I vaguely recall. One of my favorites is when she took me along to see a movie at Metro cinema in San Fernando the weekend after I started private school. Afterwards, we visited a big variety store on the top of High Street to buy a piece of wallpaper to decorate the kitchen and yards of fabric for curtains. I helped her paste the wallpaper near the wares-stand by the window and held the fabric while she cut it for sewing.

I also recall hearing my parents argue on several occasions about my name, so I questioned my father. He explained about the day he took two taxis to get to the hospital to register my birth, and how my mother hadn't spoken to him for days after he returned with the new birth certificate. "I send you to do one little thing and look what you do," she fumed when she saw the name recorded on the document.

"Is them civil servants always spoiling people name," he claimed. "The woman ask me what name to put for the child so I say put Rani, but when I get the birth paper I see it have Putrani. I give she a piece of my mind and leave it just so because I couldn't waste a whole day to travel back again to change it. Who knows if she woulda even get it right the next time."

He related one of the most exciting stories while walking me to school one morning with our loyal pot hong trotting behind. He told me about the shopkeeper who had sent a proposal for him to marry his only daughter and how his life changed that day. His parents accompanied him to the shopkeeper's house where they sat on a bench in the front shed waiting to see his daughter. But then, a young beauty walked into the yard towards the shop. Her eyes were as round as her face, and her raven-black hair was windswept under the afternoon sun, forming natural curls cascading down her back to her slender waist. Her light skin was radiant in a yellow polyester dress with red hibiscus prints scattered about. The skirt billowed out behind her, and her slippers flip-flopped noisily as she walked. She bought a small tube of toothpaste and a beauty soap. He couldn't take his eyes off her and swore she smiled back at him. He knew right there and then that she was the one he wanted to marry. He turned down the shopkeeper's proposal without waiting to see his daughter.

The shopkeeper chased his entire family out of the yard, reaching for a grass knife hanging on a nail and brandishing it as he ran after them. "All you young boys don't know a decent girl when you see one. You go sorry you ever refuse my daughter because you go never get a good girl like she. Just watch what I telling you!"

The neighbor they had hired to transport them was waiting in his new Oxford Morris and started the ignition when he saw the commotion. They all dived into the vehicle, and when they were a safe distance, his mother rang his ear and gave him a good tongue-lashing. "You better have good reason for what you just do eh boy, because you go be lucky to get a wife now."

My father wasn't bothered. He made inquiries about his mystery girl and set out to convince her family he was the perfect husband for her. He wasn't prepared to take no for an answer. The next Sunday afternoon, he borrowed his brother's Raleigh bicycle and rode out of Tamarind Lane through Sugarcane Valley and almost to the end of Cedar Village. He identified the girl's house along Sapodilla Road and slowed down, stealing a glance in that direction. Her father was laid back in a hammock in the front porch, reading a newspaper with his legs folded, while her grandmother was sitting on a bench chopping up green mangoes and dropping the slices into a white enamel bowl. They were eyeing him with scrutiny, so he rode past the house then turned around and rode by again. He stopped in front of their house and leaned forward, pretending to check the chain and pedals.

"Tara! Come and see if you know this young boy in front here, he looking like he lost!" Her grandmother's voice was much more powerful than her petite frame.

The object of his quest appeared and spoke to the older woman, both looking directly at him. She moved towards the banister, twirling a strand of her long hair between her fingers. He was spellbound as their eyes locked. He was running out of ideas, and with his heart rate readily increasing, he didn't have time to catch his breath. He steadied himself on the bicycle, turned around and rode by again, leaning the bicycle sideways so it came crashing to the ground, throwing himself with it. It was only while he lay on his back with his head half-way into the drain and feet tangled in the bicycle that he realized he hadn't thought this plan through. But that didn't matter when he saw the three running to his aid. Tara's mother had now emerged but watched from the porch.

He was relieved they had a good sense of humor when he confessed what he was up to. It didn't matter that he was the target of numerous jokes at family gatherings when they reminded him of how he threw himself off a bicycle to impress their daughter. He only needed to steal a glance at Tara and her flushed cheeks. "I was too blinded by her beauty to know what I was doing," he always said.

My father's face lights up whenever he relates this story, and I always listen as though I'm hearing it for the first time. The only thing my father omits is how my mother died. It was Uncle Ajeet who explained she was carrying two buckets of water from the standpipe when estate police officers sped by in a jeep on their way to investigate a report of fire in the sugarcane fields. My mother stumbled and fell when she tried to get out of the way, hitting her head on a large boulder. My father raced out of the barber shop on hearing the news and held her, his hands covered with blood as he cradled her head against his chest. My uncle appeared within minutes to take her to the hospital in the neighbor's hired car. They placed her in the back seat with her head resting on my father's lap while he made tearful pleas for her to wake up.

My father scampered around like a madman at the hospital, demanding prompt attention when the nurses requested information to complete the forms. When they asked him to wait, he stormed after a female doctor who was walking by. Seeing my father's condition, the doctor agreed to see them. My father lifted her again, struggling to maintain his balance under her weight. He was too distraught to observe the young doctor's expression as he laid my mother's body on the narrow bed.

"What you waiting for Doc? You can't see my wife in pain? Do something!" he cried.

The doctor felt for a pulse, then checked for a heartbeat. "Sorry, but... she's gone."

Uncle Ajeet placed a hand on my father's shoulder but could not find the words that would be of any comfort to him. None would have mattered. I turned five three days later on the day of my mother's funeral. My only consolation is I was too young to understand. My father has never mentioned or celebrated my birthday since.

It's no wonder he always stares at the framed photograph next to the kerosene lamp on the small bureau in the living room, but only when he thinks I'm not looking. My mother's hands are resting on her swollen belly, and she's glowing in a long, red velvet dress. My father is beaming a toothy smile next to her. He's wearing his grey, short-sleeved crimplene suit with four front pockets and flaps on the shirt-jac and matching bell-bottom pants. He has a black Wilson hat on his head with a feather stuck on the left side, purchased for the occasion. The picture was taken at a photo studio after my uncle's wedding two months before I was born.

I was surprised once to hear my father say almost in a whisper, "My right eye was twitching for two whole days and I know something bad was going to happen, but I never expect that. Even Rover was howling the whole night before but I never thought it woulda be she." He never got beyond those words.

After the funeral, he buried himself in the shop, sometimes working late into the night when there was a wedding in the area or the new school term was about to begin. His customers hung around long after their haircut, some having nothing better to do after they completed their tasks in the cane fields by mid-morning. There were times when he shaved off a bit too much beard, or snipped off too much hair, but his regular customers knew better than to complain.

Once when the father of a bride came into the shop for the first time, he shaved off all the thinning hair around his bald spot instead of the low cut he requested. My father apologized with both hands clasped in front of him, but the man was in no mood for an apology, his face flaming red and nostrils flared. Two customers struggled to restrain and calm him when he threatened my father with the barbering scissors he had snatched from the counter. It seems my father had done the man a favor, though, because I often saw him coming to the shop for a clean shave. "My wife say how I looking like Mahatma Gandhi," he grinned, running his palms over his head.

No amount of time had made my father stop blaming himself for my mother's death. He believed she would still be with us if he had spent more time helping with the chores. I heard him screaming one night and ran to check on him. He dreamt he was being chased through the entire village by a pair of giant scissors. He had similar dreams where the scissors always managed to snip off his shirt, sometimes shredding it to pieces. Most nights he slept with a pair of barbering scissors under his pillow to keep away the nightmares.

Sometimes, he even blamed the shopkeeper and believed he had cursed him for refusing to marry his daughter. He tried to be strong but he wasn't very good at it. He didn't know much about being a parent, either. Taking care of a little girl was new to him since he had left that job to my mother. He sat alone for most of the time, but it was easy to guess what he was thinking. I once heard him say to my Uncle Ajeet that my mother gave him the best years of his life. I'm not sure if I was happy or sad to hear that.

Everywhere I went, the villagers would say, "Poor Ram, he wife die so sudden and leave him with a young daughter to raise, how he go manage to cook and clean on he own?" Some even tried matchmaking without success.

His lack of domestic skills never stopped him from doing what had to be done. One Sunday morning my uncle rode over on his bicycle and brought us three of the crabs he had caught in the mangrove. My father made us a meal of curried crab and served it with white lagoon rice for lunch. He must have seen the horror on my face when I saw the crab with its hairy legs and pointy toes looking straight at me. He allowed me to have rice with condensed milk while he battled with the crabs. I was grateful he never attempted to cook crab again.

He always ensured I had all the supplies I needed for school. When I entered primary school, he traveled with me to San Fernando to buy my books and uniform. He oiled my hands and feet and soaked my head with fresh coconut oil just like my mother used to do after she gave me a bath. He put me in my best underwear and polyester dress with matching rubber slippers, and combed my hair back in a ponytail.

"Papa, why you can't plait my hair like them other girls in school?" I complained while mimicking two plaits on either side of my head.

"Because you go look like a monkey," he ignored me while securing the pony tail with a thick, yellow rubber band.

We then walked the three miles to the junction to catch a taxi. The sun was so hot my feet kept sliding off my oily slippers. My father saved me twice from a nasty fall when I tried to cross on the wooden plank serving as a makeshift bridge through the short cut over the Aatma River. I was thankful no one had seen me, especially Prashant who was always exploring with his friends throughout the village. Sometimes at school, I wouldn't realize the coconut oil was running down my forehead until it reached the bridge of my nose and Prashant would sneak me his handkerchief.

When I moved up to standard two the next year, the teacher wrote a note at the back of my copy book addressed to my parents. My father was concerned about why he was being summoned, so he accompanied me the next morning to meet with my teacher before the bell rang.

"Girls must take pride in how they look, but Putrani's hair is never combed in a neat style and her uniform is never ironed," Miss Sammy lectured my poor father who was now too distressed to speak. "Where's her mother? She should take the time to iron the child's clothes and plait her hair with white ribbons."

My father pressed two fingers to his eyes to prevent the tears from rolling down his cheeks. I looked away while he brushed the offending cheek with his handkerchief. My teacher's eyes darted from my father to me with raised eyebrows. I explained my mother died when I was very young and my father didn't know how to plait my hair, and the stove iron didn't always work well. She apologized to my father and seemed genuinely concerned about him after seeing his reaction. Miss Sammy then sent us away without further complaints.

The next day before the school bell rang for morning assembly, my teacher taught me how to plait my hair and even bought me white ribbons. It took me a few days to get it right, but she was patient. I even mustered the courage to ask what I wanted to ask all along. "Miss Sammy, can you pleeease call me Rani in class?" I explained the story my father had told me about how I got to be named Putrani and how the students made fun of me with their rhyming jingles featuring my name.

She placed her hands on my shoulders and lowered her head so I was looking straight at her. "I understand, but you mustn't let others make you feel bad about yourself, okay?" She smiled, then added, "Did you know Rani means queen?" I told her I hadn't.

By the next school term everyone forgot about "Putrani" except for Prashant who still teased me from time to time. I told my father he didn't need to walk me to school anymore because I was old enough, but he only agreed on the condition I walk together with Prashant, Hema, and her brothers in Indian file one behind the other. Prashant took his responsibility very seriously and stayed close to me as we made our way home. But that didn't stop him from sometimes tugging at my hair or throwing teasing remarks behind me.

"Your lips look soft like barfi and your cheeks like gulab jamoon," he said one afternoon before dashing into his front yard.

"And you look like a big round yellow ladoo!" I threw after him as he ran inside.

Miss Sammy was kind to me throughout primary school even when she wasn't my class teacher anymore. She inspected my hair and nails, checked my homework, and often asked about my father. On the day of my graduation, my father sat in the third row of the school's hall which was furnished and decorated for the ceremony. He looked old and pale, much older than his 35 years. He wore his Wilson hat, his short-sleeved, grey crimplene shirt-jac suit, and his only pair of black shoes he had polished with an old handkerchief dipped in coconut oil. His clothes were as old as the framed photograph sitting on the bureau in our living room.

I stood on the stage with my shiny legs and white socks, mentally prepping myself to deliver the valedictory speech. My crepe soles, which had taken me through primary school, were polished bright white the night before. My father paid close attention throughout the ceremony. Even from the distance I could see the happiness and pride reflected in his wrinkled eyes that had seemed to shrink over the years.

"I can't do it papa, I can't talk in front everybody," I had confided in him before leaving home.

"Well I know you could do it because you is a bright girl and nobody in we family ever reach so far in school. So just picture your ma sitting down right next to me and how proud she go feel to hear you talk on top of that stage," he gave an encouraging smile.

As I stepped forward to the microphone with paper in hand, my father's chest rose as he looked on, his eyes carrying a tiny spark. His eyes remained fixed on me as I read the speech Miss Sammy had helped me prepare after I was nominated to speak on behalf of my class. As I closed, I saw my father wipe away a tear from his eye, and then again when I collected my award for the most improved student.

After the ceremony, we walked home in silence with my father holding on to my book award and certificate of graduation. As soon as we arrived home, he framed the certificate and placed it next to the photograph on the bureau, and the harmonica he never used anymore.

"You want any coffee, papa, with some crackers?" I asked later that evening.

He nodded.

I brewed some coffee in the small aluminum pot and fixed him a few crackers with guava jam. We still had the yellow wallpaper with the tiny pink roses near the wares stand, and matching curtains on the doors and windows. I walked over to my father who was now in the hammock strung across the living room, the same one in which he used to rock me to sleep at night as a little girl. I placed the enamel cup on the floor within his reach and the plate with crackers next to it. He was holding the harmonica with both hands in front of him, examining every detail as though seeing it for the first time.

"I always play this when you were a little girl," his voice was barely audible. "It used to make your ma smile even when she was mad at me."

He continued his examination of the small instrument. "I was thinking we could invite everybody to come for your birthday next week. You could help your nani bake a nice cake seeing as how you go be twelve. The chickens should lay some eggs by then and we go get a yard fowl to curry."

We hadn't visited my grandparents for a long time, or even talked about my birthday, so I was too emotional to give an immediate response. And later, after he ate the crackers and jam and sipped on his cup of steaming black coffee, he brought the harmonica to his mouth and started playing a tune, one which sounded familiar to me, like a song from an old Indian movie I once saw with my mother. It was a beautiful and melodious sound I hoped to hear more often.