Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Bong Coolie- Poonith

A Bong Coolie  -  Poonith:  A History of Bonne Aventure Estate from Amerindian Occupation to Slavery to the East Indian Diaspora as exemplified by a Bong Coolie, Poonith,  Xlv,275 pages, 2013. Privately published Leila Jailal. Printed in Trinidad by Eniath’s Printing Company Limited.  


A Bong Coolie-Poonith (2013) by the late Harold Phekoo (1940-2012)  is a well-researched work put together in an unorthodox and surprisingly effective way. Covering ground similar to V.S.Naipaul’s fictional work A House for Mr Biswas (1962),  it tells the history of an indentured Indian and his descendants over three generations from 1885 to the 1960’s. This family’s history is presented along with and within the history and evolution of Bonne Aventure (close to Gasparillo in the county of Victoria)  from the Amerindian period right down to the 1960’s, the history and evolution of family and village reflecting in many ways the history and evolution of  Trinidad itself.

The focus is on Poonith and his descendants, and his historical ‘coolie’ identity is proclaimed without shame or embarrassment. By the end, the ‘ordinary’ Poonith comes over as an extraordinary person and a representative figure.

The book  is a virtual museum of the religion, folk culture, social and economic arrangements, domestic life and household artefacts of the Indians of Trinidad in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. It is not a static museum of dead people, customs and objects however.  It is alive and moving,  and its displays adjust themselves  to register change and adaptation, and the results of the meeting of cultures.

Of special interest is its capture of the part that song, dance, music and performance played in the life of the Indians, and  what music meant to the indentures. It contains  valuable references to and descriptions of the music of Indian Trinidad and its sources.

The work is an interesting example of oral history and of  community history. It is told in bits and pieces  by members of the community about the daily life  of the community. The author does not use the actual words of his informants to any great extent. He stitches together in his voice the things he has been told. Where he can, he verifies his oral information by checking official records. When the author died, it was left to  other members of the community to come together and complete the work. Great value is added to the book by the inclusion of a number of rare photographs, some of which have never been published before.

This article is broken up into seven separate parts to facilitate reading. The quotations may be skipped but they are inserted for those who may never read the book or for those who want to get the flavour of the book while reading one person’s interpretation or commentary.

I. Overview of the life of Poonith

Harold constructed the life of Poonith out of oral sources, mainly old people in the village and in the family  who knew or knew of Poonith. His main informant was his youngest uncle Nackchadee also called Gocool. The construction is quite a feat when you consider that Poonith left nothing in writing and nobody ever wrote anything about him as far as is known.

Poonith came to Trinidad as an indentured labourer on the Clipper ship Brenda in 1885.  “At Pointe-a-Pierre Railway Station three mule carts arrived to take us to the Bonne Aventure Estate. The sun was already moving to the west and we were subjected to the sweltering heat. We all hopped on to the carts, each of us sitting in two rows of four facing each other. We were like prisoners devoid of rights and feelings with nothing to say to each other except to be subservient and to comply with our plight.”

The twenty-seven year old Poonith was allocated to Bonne Aventure Estate. After serving out his indenture he attached himself to the Estate as a worker, choosing never to live or work anywhere but in Bonne Aventure. He worked as a field labourer until a happy accident (for him) gave him an opportunity to  show his skill in handling horses. This led to his being pressed into service at the Manager’s House  as “horseman, trainer, buggy driver, and caretaker of the harnesses and buggy”. He had brought this talent from his work of grazing cattle and horses for the wealthy land-owners in his Indian village of Rownia.

His main place of work in Trinidad  was at the Manager’s/Owner’s Grand House set in a well-ordered five acre plot on the corner of Aladdin Trace and Bonne Aventure Main Road. Poonith enjoyed the great house and its extensive grounds. He got to understand the networking of the planter families as he drove the buggy taking them on shopping trips to San Fernando, on visits to other estates, and to parties where the butler and the cook made sure that  domestics had their tots of alcohol and food from the party.

Poonith loved most of all, to take the boss and his family on shopping trips to San Fernando where they spent most of the day replenishing the household domestic and other supplies and delighted in taking them to suppliers and merchants at the San Fernando Wharves, High Street and Mucurapo Street. It was also the profoundest of pleasures to take the Manager’s family on inter estate visits. Most of the Planters maintained a system of friendship through social networking. One of the Planters by prior arrangement would host all the Planters from the surrounding estates as well as specially invited guests to a grand afternoon party generally held on a Sunday afternoon with music, dancing, drinking, merrymaking and feasting very often late into the night. These parties, according to my grandfather, would have touches and characteristics of the nationality of the host. For example, the proprietor of Madion Estate was of French origin and his party was famous for a wide variety of French cuisine and cheeses; one cheese Poonith tasted for the first time in his life was called “rotten cheese” or gorgonzola served with pieces of bread called a French Stick with the famous French wine, Beaujolais. The music would be dominated by the accordion. The owner of the Harmony Hall Estate was English and his party had tinges of English characteristics. The Manager of the Williamsville Estate was Scottish and his party was the wildest of them all with music supplied by bag pipes accompanied by the finest of Highland folk dancing and believe it, the drink was the “wee dram” of Scottish whiskey. In these wild parties there was good evidence to believe that wife swapping, lesbianism and homosexuality were all part of the life styles of some of the elites. While the masters and mistresses were busy frolicking, the buggy men joined with the domestics, the butler and the cook and also had a small party of our own. Although alcoholic beverages were strictly tabooed, with the cunning of the cook and the butler, we were able to have a couple of tots and some of the Master’s food followed through their own styles of merrymaking. (p.116)

Unlike his son who took over the job of buggyman later, Poonith was neither intimidated by the planter life-styles  nor stirred to imitation. The move from the fields to the Grand House did not bring an increase in earnings. When he retired medically unfit in 1915 he owned only what frugality had allowed him to purchase. There was no pension or golden send-off except that  his job was passed on to his oldest son Phekoo. (p.117)

But there was a house for Mr Poonith. In 1888, Poonith put an end to the horrors of barrackroom life by building, with the help and  blessings of the Shivanarayanee Sect to which he belonged, his own tapia and grass-covered ajoupa that would “create a peaceful private space of his own in which he could live peacefully, joyfully and lovingly.” (102-103) The ajoupa blended naturally with the surrounding green and became the seat of the Poonith extended family. Poonith was the centre. He reigned as patriarch. He decided the menu, made policy, and imposed order and degree. As holder of the memories of the tribe, story-teller and entertainer up to the 1930’s, he gathered them around him often.

Evening pastimes and entertainment centered on Poonith himself who would talk about his upbringing. He was schooled in an oral tradition which placed much emphasis on verbal communication, singing, dancing and storytelling all of which required amazing memory and powers of recall. Story telling time took place mainly on evenings just before bedtime and particularly during periods of inclement weather which curtailed outdoor activities. Poonith kept his family entertained by enacting favorite family kahanies or stories which were passed on to him through a long line involving generation after generation from times immemorial. These stories had a rich variable flavor involving music, singing and dancing, humor, stories of deep historical, moral and ethical significance – all intended to set the pace of acceptable family behavior.  p.164

Poonith spent his last moment in the presence of his extended family. The final Samskar was performed by the Shivnarayanee Mahant . The eldest son  Phekoo was chief mourner. The funeral was a grand Shivanarayanee affair conducted with due solemnity;  and the life of  the departed was celebrated  with tassa drumming, singing and dancing. (See p. 199-200    )

II.  Poonith’s Illumination
(The argument here is that Poonith’s success is not a materialistic one)

Poonith knew that he was being taken advantage of by his employers, but this did not affect the thoroughness with which he performed what he regarded as his duty. According to Harold, Poonith approached his work “through the enterprising spirit of ‘seva’ , service to fellow human beings, not for reward or for recognition but for its own sake …” (p.161). From the reports of  his youngest uncle Nackchadee, Harold saw that Poonith lived in the certain knowledge that “extra powers are in the mind of man”; held the conviction that suffering in the world  is unchanging;   and lived the  belief  that pain and suffering are a passage to illumination:

He was convinced that life has meaning under all circumstances, even the most miserable one. The little freedom he possessed was to find meaning in doing whatever he was asked and whatever he experienced in the light of unchangeable suffering. Poonith found the meaning of life by doing his daily task, by experiencing the value of the nature of his work through pain and suffering. He found that through the medium of pain he was able to dwell in the “within” where there was a store house of relief in coping with the drudgery of work on an ongoing basis. (p.162)

The success Harold is celebrating is not the success of someone who pursued money power and the love of women. It  is a spiritual success, one deeply conditioned by ancestral religion and philosophy.

III. Falling Apart  
(After the death of Poonith, the extended family broke up into nuclear families in response to social change; the next two generations as represented by Phekoo and then his son Harold are discussed.)

Writing seventy-five years later about the funeral of his grandfather, Harold ruefully observes: “The ritualistic practices of celebrating samskars and all the traditional pujas exist even at this moment but are enacted as family conventions sometimes devoid of meaning to younger Hindus, as they are not very well explained by officiating priests or Mahants.”

On the death of Poonith, Phekoo became head of the extended family: “My grandfather had passed away in 1933 and for the first time Father had to shoulder the full responsibility of conducting his own affairs. Grandfather had carved out a template for survival and unhesitatingly passed on worthwhile techniques for survival to his sons.”p.213. The second part of the book from chapter 36 to chapter 41 covers the second generation  and  centres on Phekoo’s family. Harold’s descriptions of his father Phekoo’s lifestyles and activities are based largely upon his own experience of Phekoo as father, food crop farmer, canefarmer, coconut grower and entrepreneur. They show Pekhoo as a descendant continuing the family traditions but a descendant who cannot and perhaps does not want to resist change; and who, in any case, does not have the cultural self-confidence of Poonith and the clarity about his identity to negotiate on equal terms with change.

As the family grew, people in Poonith’s small house began to get in one another’s way and on one another’s nerves. After the patriarch’s death,  the deteriorating house was not repaired or preserved. As nuclear families began to break out in the area, the idea of using the savings accrued from living in the extended family to branch out on their own entered the minds of Poonith’s sons. (201) When, with the cooperation of his brothers, and in keeping with the dictates of  Poonith himself, Pheeko moved into his unique wooden house in Marjadsingh’s Lands in 1939, it was confirmation that Poonith’s family were ready to accept a change from the old way. They would respect what their father’s establishment had done for them, and maintain kinship ties but without all living in the same house or on the same compound. Harold cites  frequent visits, consultations on important matters, help in the planting and reaping of crops, and  financial cooperation.

Poonith had been an elder of the Shivanarayanee Sect, a democratized form of Hinduism he had followed in Rownia that used the teachings of Guru Anyas “as a guide to becoming individuals of repute irrespective of caste distinctions and status in life”. Phekoo stayed with the sect in his fashion, but time was now secular, it was moving faster than in the old days and religion did not necessarily mean spirituality.

Phekoo took on the role of story-teller to the family but his audience was not the extended family and there was no ritually-appointed time and place as in the days of the patriarch. He  adhered to Poonith’s belief in the arranged marriage, but  was  more absorbed in the marriages of his three daughters than in those of his sons. There is nothing in the weddings of Phekoo’s children  to match the joy of the marriage of Poonith’s youngest son Nackchadee in 1926. Harold’s mother Mahadaya told him about the maticoor with Shivanaraynee ladies singing and dancing Bhojpuri songs. Ironically, it was Phekoo who told Harold about that joyful day for the family and the community:

Scenes were enacted against specially prepared props and the play was called the Raja Harrischandra Dance. They portrayed snapshots of real life situations such as courtship, marriage and life thereafter. The actors hailed from a diverse background of the descendants of street performers in the Indian tradition and included actors specially noted for their specific skills in singing, dancing, musical abilities and talents such as juggling and acrobatics.

Costuming was carefully designed and the choreographer used a blaze of color to effect stage presentations to fit the expectations of the pleasure of the audience.

Singing and musical presentations represented the soul of Indian culture which witnessed interesting variations in styles of presentation. The setting of the play was typical as the bride and groom were the representative king and queen, resident in their palace. It was the duty of the artistes to entertain them in their domain amidst invited guests. The messages of each scene were directly conveyed through the complexity of voice intonation, mudras, singing and dancing with added colourful facial make up.

The opening scene depicted the bride groom on his horse entering the village amidst a fanfare of shehnai music. After all the due ritualistic welcoming of the bridegroom by the host the bridegroom refused to alight from his horse and in the flamboyance of a cow boy style the queen’s brother skilfully roped him off his horse which was a source of great laughter amongst the receptive audience.

For the scene which depicted the consummation of the marriage, instead of the groom leading off the circumnabulation of the sacred fire in a clock wise direction, he commenced in a reverse fashion moving backwards.

One other scene which grasped my childhood memory was the one in which the bride was an expectant mother. Amidst the splendor of Bangra music and dancing there was the symbolic honoring of the new arrival of “pota” presumably a boy child and with prayers of a safe delivery, gifts were given. The arrival of a baby boy was portrayed as Lord Krishna with special mythical powers that were able to inflict just punishment to those who victimized their parents.
As a brief comment on the style of presentation, it was not typical of any one Indian traditional style but a combination of Odissi, Manipuri, Kathak, Bharathnatyam and many more mudras with costume styling taken from renowned folk performances. (156-157)

Of the boys’ weddings, only Chautee’s had the ceremony, solemnity, display, drumming, dancing and singing as of yore (p.218). But that marriage came to a bad end. The other sons had small family- sized table weddings; and one of them got married at the Registry office in San Fernando. Harold returned from England in 1981 without his four children and Sylvia Ragoo with whom he had what he calls an “association”.

The world was changing fast. Harold observes without criticizing that Phekoo was moving up:  “In hindsight,  the exposure he gained by being in the company of the circle of elitist Planters served him in good stead along the road to prosperity. He grew to become one of the larger cane farmers with superb managerial skills and a dogged love for the soil and hard work. I have seen Father’s overflowing joy when at the beginning of the crop time he would plough his fields and allow the sun to roast the soil free of all harmful insects, termites etc and upon arrival of the April showers the soil gave off the richest of aromas intoxicating enough to make Father dance with the glee of immense joy shouting; ‘I love the smell of the soil’’. (p.204)

Everything hasn’t changed but Phekoo is the  new man. In the nuclear family, Harold did not thrive on the way the  new economic man fathered him. Harold is only  saved from the food crop business because his mother reminds Phekoo that Poonith left instructions that all his grandchildren should be sent to school. Two of his sons had disappointed Phekoo as regards education. Harold only got Phekoo’s permission to go to  secondary school when the boy was able to show that he could help to pay his way.

The mobile Phekoo is a successful food crop producer; a big cane farmer, and  the best copra producer of 1942. It is not for nothing that he was “selected by his peers as a model entrepreneur in our village”. (207) Although Phekoo is as resolute as his father in the pursuit of his goals,  he tastes a different kind of success from his father and he pays a human price. Harold tries to be cool in his assessment:

 Phekoo’s lifestyle can be described as puritanical which took its cue from being employed as a buggy driver…Being absorbed in service of his masters, he was therefore not free like others in the village to take part either in hunting , fishing, bird –catching or gambling.He did not even have the time to join the local cricket club, or do like his father who grew his own ganja or marijuana and smoked his pipes openly. p.206.

The third section runs from Chapter 42 to the end of the book and presents the third generation, not  a family this time but Phekoo’s individualized son Harold. Chapter 42  describes Harold’s childhood; his years at Bonne Aventure CM School;  some of the self-seeking of the better off Presbyterians; and the secondary school education he was determined to get : “I was conditioned into believing in myself and at the back of my mind I knew that the canefield was patiently awaiting my return.” He was cheated of a chance to go to Naparima College so he had to go to a College that was  less hallowed. He  left Kenley College to benefit from the teaching skills of Mr Parray Ramnarine who was just starting his St John’s College in San Fernando. At the end of this chapter, Harold age 21 is turning his back on the canefields  and waving goodbye to family and friends.

Frustrated by bleak economic prospects, and with a thirst for learning and for England  inspired by Parray Ramnarine  he made his journey to an expectation on a Dutch cargo/passenger vessel ‘The Prince of the Netherlands’. He had as sole  jahaji  a Mr Bachan Boodram who had been a fellow student at Mr Ramnarine’s  St John’s College. Harold summarises his activities in England thus in the last sentence of Chapter 42: “I worked slowly and progressively into becoming a business entrepreneur.”

The story as story  really ends in this Chapter. The book tells  us little or nothing about Harold’s life in England or about what he calls his “association” with Sylvia Ragoo with whom he had four children. Harold returned to Trinidad in 1981, met Leila Jailal in 1982, and they went into a meat business in Couva in 1983 from which he retired in 1999. There are  no references to the death or funeral of Phekoo or to Harold’s business activities. It is likely that he was gathering material for this book and he appears to have written some poems. He visited Mr Ramnarine,in 2010 and about the same time he found a number of valuable documents including Phekoo’s tenancy agreement of 1956 with St Madeleine Sugar Company and Poonith’s Colonial immigration form and his Certificate (“free paper”?) dated July 18, 1885. There is nothing else about his life between 1982 and the time of his death. Would Harold have gone into all this if he had lived or did he decide on his subject, settle on his title  and  determine  to stick to that?

IV. All that  History
( The history of Bonne Aventure in general and of the Indians in Bonne Aventure. This is not a dry as dust section. As part of the history it shows the travails of the Indians and the institutions - social, cultural and religious that held them together. Poonith and his immediate descendants are active in this chapter.

 Harold  tells us that the idea of the book  came to him when he was twelve years old (which was in 1952). In the Acknowledgements, he gives thanks for “the gift” of kidney failure which offered him a last chance to set about “resurrecting that childhood dream of mine which was to uncover my genealogy and most importantly the historical growth and development of Lavantee or Bonne Aventure where I was born”.(p.3) [Note the word 'resurrect', which comes into play when Harold's reasons for going over Poonith's life are speculated upon]

He knew there were special difficulties in writing a history of Bonne Aventure, and that the work would take long : “The community of Bonne Aventure belonged to an oral tradition with no written documentation of its historical past. This publication consists of individualized accounts rendered by many senior citizens giving intricate details of over two hundred years of the history of Lavantee and Bonne Aventure and its environs.” (p.3)  [Note: Lavantee’ is probably related to Old French ‘eventer’   meaning to let out or expose to air hence, for us,  ‘opening’ or ‘prospect’. The name ‘Bonne Aventure’ given by Lewis Pantin who established the estate in the early 1800’s can be said to retain the sense of the original name. ]

It would be difficult enough  to write the history of what was really an obscure village.  It would be harder still because Harold wanted the work to reflect a discovery he had  made in putting together the intricate  account of Poonith’s life: What was most interesting was that his life story influenced at the core and revealed or uncovered in a unique way the very history of Bonne Aventure and its environs. In other words, Poonith’s daily activities became history itself.”  ( xli)   

Harold naturally formed strong bonds with the Bonne Aventure into which he was born  and he found that Poonith’s arranged marriage to it, as it were, had led to a lasting love. It is true that to the end Poonith  nursed a dream to make a fleeting return to Rownia, the village of his birth, but  “Poonith developed a special love for Bonne Aventure. He felt within his psyche the vibrations of the past , the tamasha of the present and the promising future. He became attached by family ties , the availability of work and the development of fibrous roots which bound him fixedly to Lavantee” p. 57-58

Not surprisingly, therefore, thirty-five of the forty-nine  chapters are about the work and  life of Poonith in the matrix of the Bonne Aventure Estate  and  the village of Bonne Aventure. Even when we are focused on Poonith, we are never allowed to forget Bonne Aventure. The longest chapter by far in the book  is Chapter 11 ‘History of Lavantee and the Bonne Aventure Estate.’  Incidentally, Harold drops this chapter into the book when we are not looking for it.

This is how it happens. In Chapter 10, the indentureds are about to commence their first day’s work on the Bonne Aventure Estate. They feel something in the air, in the quality of light, in the clouds: 

As we gazed around we observed that the sun was just about to peep out of an overcast sky. It was wet and damp and there was a strange, uncomfortable feeling which engulfed us. There was an unusual stillness and the sugar cane field stood silently like soldiers awaiting the next command. In the distant fields there were a few isolated coconut palm trees, evidence of sugar diversification. They were heavily laden and offered us a moment’s silence before we commenced our tasks. Such silence was occasionally broken by the barking and howling of dogs and immediately above our heads were a flock of parrots speaking with one another on their way to their feeding grounds. P.39

Harold leaves the indentureds right there holding their brushing cutlasses and  crooksticks  in the midst of portents, while he presents the long Chapter 11 which concentrates on Bonne Aventure as village and estate. Bonne Aventure and its environs are not  detachable  from the whole region of estates stretching in all directions from the Gulf  and  Pointe-a-Pierre reaching across the Churchill Roosevelt Highway and including more estates up to Bonne Aventure. Harold does not expand on it sufficiently perhaps, but the history of Bonne Aventure and the surrounding cane-lands  is  strongly affected by the encroachment of oil  upon sugar and the impacts  upon people and place of the refining operations spreading outwards from Pointe-a-Pierre in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Harold’s research into the history of Bonne Aventure and its environs is painstaking, comprehensive, and in general reliable. All the social cultural and political changes are covered including changes  in patterns of settlement, the shifts in the distribution of religions, and the tensions between free Africans and the Indians who were being used to deny them better wages and working conditions.

From the evidence that came to him, Harold saw a great positive in the African presence for the meeting of cultures and the making of Bonne Aventure: “Within the community of Bonne Aventure, the African slaves represented a potent force drawing from their multi- faceted traditional cultures which tightly meshed with the Carnival spirit. They had within their culture the age old traditions of moving in circles with their colorful costumes and indigenous masks. Circulating through villages had a religious significance mainly to bring good fortune, healing to their pressing problems of famine and drought, and to appease the spirit of the dead in helping in the transition to a better world. “ p. 186

The history of Bonne Aventure written by Harold suggests that this village experienced the meeting of peoples and cultures which is the Trinidad experience. In his Introduction p.xliii-xlv, the late  Parray Ramnarine praised this aspect of the book: “Harold wanted to tell the untold stories about all our peoples and all of us. Hindus, Muslims, Christians, East Indians, Africans, Chinese and all else. He wanted to show us the full picture of life at those times of which he writes , and about how we have travelled up to this point in time.”   

The chapter on Bonne Aventure  includes a subsection on the ‘History of  Education in Bonne Aventure’: a general account of the provision of primary education informed by Harold’s revolutionary belief that the primary school is the base and foundation of the education system and the only guarantee of a just and democratic society; an appreciative but critically measured account of the Presbyterian mission of educating Indians at a time when nobody seems to have thought it necessary;  and a tribute to the Bonne Aventure CM School for the role it played in a process that produced such fine fruit even though its favouritism towards the children of elders and members of the Church (232)  denied him the opportunity to attend Naparima College:

The influence of the school was felt throughout the village and transformed the community of mainly sugarcane peasants and small contract farmers into  a society of young entrepreneurs, nurtured by dedicated teachers. . The school recorded a movement of upward social mobility in the personalities of teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, tradesmen, politicians, entrepreneurs; men and women who became the foundation of nation building. (74)

In another sub-section, ‘The Hindus in Bonne Aventure’, there is a realistic assessment of the challenges to identity and religion faced by young Hindus. The Shivanarayanee Sect that Poonith belonged to was in the majority in Bonne Aventure in the days of Poonith (its head was a member of the panchayat),  and there was no stigma attached to Kali worship. The Sect lost ground as Hindus became better off and more anxious to seem respectable. At a certain point Poonith’s son made open declaration that he was not going to make sacrifices to Kali anymore.   Harold  writes about “the slow loss of religion and culture among the Hindus, about the revival that took place (incidentally pushing Shiva Narayanee to the fringe), and about more recent challenges by more aggressive and evangelical Christian sects. There is no hatred in this, only encouragement to Hindus to see that you did not have to shed your religion to take part as an equal member in the social, economic and political process. (79)

Harold acknowledges the help given by the planters to the Presbyterian mission but  in this chapter as throughout the book he finds the planters flouting the indenture agreements to squeeze more time out of the workers, and to  pay them  less money. They seem to have discouraged remittances to family in India and did their best to prevent too many immigrants from leaving  for India at the same time. They  schemed to settle Indians on nearby plots of land in order to encourage them to form attachments and develop roots so that they would not move to other estates or claim their return passages when the time came. This policy took its grossest  form with the opening up of what the Indians called Dangla Bangar  “the road or way to derelict or unwanted lands” where the poor were doomed  to appalling slum existence:

It was located in the vicinity of the animal pens which housed bison and mules. It was also used by the Bonne Aventure Estate to dump the carcasses of dead animals. This area, located at the foot of the Caratal Hills, was lightly covered with black sage and guava trees interspersed with thick patches of needle grass with heavier wood patches in the valley areas. Agriculturally, this area was of little or no value to the Estate as the soil cover was thin, sandy in composition and acidic and not aptly suited for the cultivation of sugar cane or general gardening . (118)

It was in Dangla Bangar, however, that Poonith’s Shivanarayanee Sect was based, and it was here that,  with their help and blessing, he built his tapia house in 1898.

Harold follows up the history of Bonne Aventure with Chapter 12 entitled ‘Problems Experienced by the Indentureds on the Bonne Aventure Estate’. It was close to a declaration of the need for political action and it reminds us that there were rumblings from the indentureds,  that the way was being prepared for political action. Harold does not connect all of this to the Muharram Massacre or Hosay Riots of 1884 and he does not register the formation of the East Indian National Association in Princes Town (1898) or the East Indian National Congress in Couva  after that. It would have been interesting to know how the people of Bonne Aventure felt about such developments. But one of the philosophies in the book is to recognize your blessings, and Harold makes no bones about the achievements of Indians and their  contributions  to the development of Bonne Aventure:

The East Indians labored and contributed substantially to the growth and development of Bonne Aventure. By sheer numbers they were responsible for increased demand and they were innovative in a variety of ways such as in the growing of food and devising the necessary wherewithal, such as tools and equipment,  necessary for survival in the process of tilling the land. Many became small cane farmers, businessmen, merchants and shop keepers. They became self sufficient in the production of rice which they considered as the safest form of insurance against hunger. Poonith remarked that  once rice was available it was not too difficult to find some “talkari” even though it was bhagee . p. 55

Harold turns directly  to the social institutions of Bonne Aventure in Chapter 25 ‘Money Lending in Bonne Aventure’ ,Chapter  24 ‘Child Labour in the Bonne Aventure Estate’, Chapter 23 ‘Child Marriages’ and Chapter 22 ‘The Panchayat System in Bonne Aventure’. This chapter includes a description of the ‘chaupal’, a regular forum and gathering of all villagers, “the founding bedrock for the functioning of grass –root democracy”, and an oral database for the collecting and transmission of  technical information and news.

The titles of these chapters might frighten off a reader who is looking for story, but story is what you get when you read them, for in these accounts Phekoo invariably shows the Poonith family or other individuals involved with the institutions. Poonith used the chaupal with good results as “a Vivah Sabha or a marriage mart to announce to the public his intention to get his granddaughter married.” And the Poonith family’s involvement animates Phekoo’s description of the panchayat which was vibrant in Poonith’s day.

Harold’s book is at pains to inform us that   these institutions  were in existence in the India from which the emigrants came, and in their new place they functioned to hold the Indians together as families and as members of a community. This was crucial in a  society that made no concession to their customs and traditions, and for a long time gave them no access to political power,  influence or equal opportunity.

The book provides some telling instances of the subscribing of the Poonith family to the moral authority and the power  of the panchayat. which was vibrant in early Bonne Aventure. Poonith’s oldest son, Phekoo was hauled before the Panchayat for having “an extra marital affair with Nassiban who was the daughter of an orthodox Islamic family and who bore him a son. The child was sent to his father, and my mother, Mahadayah, wife of Phekoo who willingly took care of the child for a while. Nassiban was unable to withstand the anguish of being separated from her child; she defied her family and reclaimed her child. Nassiban’s father referred this matter to the Panchayat, and Phekoo was ordered to pay a child support fee of one dollar per month.”  (131) This compressed little story is one of several in Harold’s book that offer us intimate and tantalizing  cross-sections of life in Bonne Aventure.

The panchayat  seems to have been flexible. Poonith’s wife had died in childbirth in 1910. In 1913 the panchayat agreed to his marriage to a widow identified in the book  as  "Etwaria’s mother". In another case  they conducted professionally and with humanitarian concern a long discussion on the pros and cons of child marriage . The panchayat was considering the application of Poonith to marry his first  two sons to two sisters from an impoverished family. “Taking into account the homeless plight of Mahadaya and Sahadaya,  the fact that they were left with one ailing parent, and the fact that Poonith was willing to adopt the girls as virtually his own daughters, the Panchayat voted in favour of the children’s marriages in this case.” (136)

Just as significant for our understanding of how important the transferred institutions were for the development of the indentures and their descendants,  we notice that in 1910 the panchayat held a major debate (139-143): "Be it resolved that East Indian parents should be encouraged to   send their children to school instead of joining the Child Labour gang of the Bonne Aventure Estate". Such child gangs were common in the period of slavery. A representative of the estate defended the continuation of the practice on the ground that “the owner had a social, moral and ethical responsibility to create and maintain full employment for all his employees”. Harold lets us know that Mrs Sheldon the wife of the estate manager was a member of the panchayat by invitation. To the surprise of many, she supported the motion, doing so with wit, liveliness and sound reasoning. Mr Bedaysee represented the views of  parents with passion and analytic rigour.

The matter had been brought to the panchayat by Poonith’s youngest son Nackchadee who, in the closing contribution,  called for the drawing up of  a charter of children’s rights and freedoms. By a brilliant stroke, Naka put the fear of slavery among the audience. He read, one after the other, without comment  a notice of 1833 offering a reward for the recapture of runaway slaves and a recent one of 1910 for the capture of two runaway Indian labourers. The panch had no hesitation in adopting the motion.

V. All the Aeons  
(the drift of this section is indicated in its first three lines)

Although Harold’s book is an attempt to present history, its ‘history’ is allowed to proceed in the shadow of a humbling and liberating consciousness of Time or Eternity. History is virtually displaced by Time.

A Bong Coolie- Poonith  tells us a lot about its own time and it is palpably rooted in a particular place whose features are presented to us with  precision and with realistic descriptions. But it often reads like a book steeped in several ages or aeons.

The account of Bonne Aventure’s development begins with the Amerindians and proceeds to a careful survey of all the peoples who came: why, when,  what they did,  and where they went. Harold describes this in such a way that you feel Bonne Aventure with its meeting of peoples and cultures is a code word for Trinidad.

But symbolic dimensions open up. The cruel exploitation in quick succession of Amerindians, Africans, and Indians is recounted, and before you can figure it out you are not responding to Bonne Aventure or to imperialist exploitation alone but  to something almost unchangeable - a ubiquitous landscape of pain and suffering. I don’t know if Harold intended this but no author would want to deny the interesting things that a good reader finds  in his book. At its best this is for me a book about presences - in the air, under the ground, and in the consciousness of men and women: the sweat of labouring Indians dripping down to mix with  the bones of slaves already kneaded by time into the bones of the Amerindians, victims of the first and most comprehensive genocide in recorded history. Their dust shining in the sun. In the sky the voices of the parrots, birds reputed to host the dead, voices from the future and the past, sweeping over the heads of the indentureds on their first day in the killing fields. The footfall of the Amerindians whose tracks were used to penetrate to the secrets of the country and which underlie the layers of bridle paths and roads that came later. The free Africans passing in and out of the plantation as casual labour, or secreting themselves in the surrounding Crown lands  as squatters, their drums reaching out in the night. And Rownia too. In Rownia,  Poonith had slaved, herding cows and horses for the rich, and in Kolkata he experienced slum life as horrific as in the barracks and Dangla Bangar. One of the effects of Harold’s account of Poonith’s growing up in Rownia is to make the village another one of the places of pain and suffering  on earth and in history.

The whole area in Harold’s account is replete with all the aeons, ghosts of all times and places, a landscape of pain and suffering, intimating to the indentures that it was always so and will always be so. In passing through the pain and the suffering they will find and make  their soul.

VI . Harold as Agent and Vessel 
(Harold was a poet and some of the inspiration for his book came to him from unidentifiable sources. It is argued that Harold came to get the feel of Poonith so completely that at times he is Poonith.)

Harold’s book is a demonstration of  the importance of oral history in countries like ours. In Chapter 46 he lists his sources and explains what each person  in their life and in their report contributed to the making of the book. He depends upon oral sources to give focus and immediacy to his recap of the history of Bonne Aventure and its environs and to bring Poonith into our consciousness.

Harold wrote that “Poonith’s daily activities became history itself.” When you see how much  the live sources contribute to the book, you realize  that this is not just oral history stitched together by the industry of one man. This is community history lived and told by the community. Harold is not simply  an individual author writing a book. He is  an agent of the community who share in the making of the history and the writing of it.

The idea of agency is far-reaching, and that is what I want to look at now.

The poems in the book  are crucial to the meaning and value of the book. When you read them you realize that Harold had one of the prime capacities of the artist. He was a vessel chosen to receive inspiration. The sources Harold used to make up his book are  identified by the researcher. But there is more in it than that. I think that in groping for Poonith’s story Harold was guided by voices that entered  his head from unidentifiable sources. The same voices that inspired the poems. 

Poonith was seven years dead when Harold was born. He never knew the living Poonith. Harold’s father Phekoo was an important  source not only for things Poonith might have said or done but also for conveying impressions of the one whose place he took as head of the extended family.But the main informant was his uncle Nackchadee, Nacka, sometimes called Gocool (1907- 1995) who appears to have listened to Poonith, studied him, and remembered more about him than anybody else. It is Nackchadee’s reportage that allows Harold to work out Poonith’s way of seeing himself in the world:

Poonith left a verbal legacy of the seeds of life’s experiences with his family and this was patiently communicated to his youngest son Nackchadee. From day one, it was the ambition of Poonith to transform himself to do well in the light of pervading difficult circumstances. He took his cue from the goldmine of India’s spiritual heritage of re programming the human character. This he accomplished mainly through the concept of “Sadhana”,188 persistent effort in attaining a specific goal. This idea was used individually to purge his weaknesses and vices which were likely to interfere with imbibing correct human values irrespective of “prarabhda”, inherited conditions and tendencies, Purushartha189 that is, effort to take care of one’s thoughts followed by actions taking care of themselves. The principle follows that through thoughts you can sow an action and reap a tendency; from a tendency a habit in which the seeds are sown for character building and reap a destiny. It followed that destiny was of one’s own creation.  p. 161

Neither of these informants tried to reproduce Poonith’s speech so we don’t know when he spoke bhojpuri or when he spoke a form of English and how mixed the two became. Harold is careful not to attempt to put Phekoo before us in the way a novelist would create a character. Harold got the facts but more than that he got the feel of Poonith. The bits and pieces of identifiable information Harold  received were digested and fused with whatever came from the fusion of facts and material from   unidentifiable sources. The process turned Harold into Poonith  when he was writing about Poonith. This may not have been cultivated or even noticed by Harold. Harold impersonated Poonith quite deliberately in some of the poems, where the poet or person speaking is Poonith. But there is more than impersonation at stake. It is as if the seeds and germs that entered Harold grew a Poonith inside Harold and the grandson who came to know the  Poonith he had never met better than any of those who actually knew him.  He knew what Poonith would think and feel, he understood Poonith’s religious and philosophical views.  At  certain moments in the book, often without knowing it, Harold is Poonith.

VII. Till I Collect  
(Harold’s putting together of the book happened at a time when he needed to find himself.  Writing and learning about Poonith was a voyage of self-discovery.)

In an email of May 28, 2013 Leila Jailal wrote in response to a general query about Harold and Phekoo that Harold  “always  said his father was a generous person to family members and villagers but not to children”. She also reported that he “talked about his admiration for Poonith and was curious about the family he left behind in India, and in his research found out that he has a grandson in India but very old and weak”, now most likely dead.  
Parray Ramnarine saw that the book was as  much about Harold as about Poonith . He  says perceptively in his Introduction  that “the one distinguished and most significant feature is a passionate spirit that seeks perfection in thought, word and deed.” We see that in Harold’s poems. 

It is not speculation that young Harold was on the lookout for mentors. At Bonne Aventure CM School he looked up to the highly evolved  Mr Narinesingh: “He was a gentleman of the highest order; he came from Hindu background and was closest to the pulse of the ordinary folk in the village. He was very much acquainted with the trials and tribulations of his students, their Hindu beliefs and practices and in particular the crossover issues which we Hindus and Moslems were confronted with in the process of attending a Presbyterian School whose aims and aspirations were concentrated indirectly on conversion. He had an in depth understanding of our poverty, deprivation, poor housing conditions and all the social and psychological ills and in particular the wishes of Hindu parents which bedevilled us and militated adversely against our educative potential. His conscious efforts were designed to build bridges across these gaps. He got us to believe in ourselves and motivated us into learning, using both orthodox and unorthodox methods…” (232).[It would be interesting to identify this Mr Narinesingh] At the secondary school level he found Mr Parray Ramnarine who he visited fifty years after leaving school, sharing with the unforgotten teacher his poem ‘In Tribute to an Eminent Teacher, Parray Ramnarine’. (p 235-237) 

We have seen Phekoo’s attitude to his sons and the resistance he put up to Harold’s education. Harold tells us that it was his sister Janey more than anybody else who shaped him into what he was to become. On the ship taking him to England he discovered “a mentor educationally” who employed him  for four months until he took the bold step of entering London.   

It is reasonable to think that it was an alienated Harold who journeyed to England in 1961. This journey comes over  as a compressed analogue of the indenture passage: “As the boat sailed out of the Port of Spain harbour, the waters were rough and most of us fell prey to vomiting and sea-sickness. This lasted through the twelve day journey with special baksheesh to the end with gale force winds as we crossed the Bay of Biscay.” Harold’s struggles and searchings in London are like the struggles with barrackyard existence and the searchings of the indentures: “The complexities of that period of my existence took me at first to the noble quest of learning, traumas of daily living at the basest level of poverty, failure in the handling of new found freedoms and the dogged determination to shake off the ugly shackles of poverty. I worked slowly and progressively into becoming a business entrepreneur.”

But the son of Phekoo was also the grandson of Poonith. His return journey to Trinidad without wife and without child was the beginning of his true arrival. My reasons for saying this relate to the decision to include Harold’s poems as Chapter 45 and to name it ‘Epilogue of the Poonith Saga’. I don’t know if this was Harold’s decision. Whoever did it  did what was right for our understanding of the book and its author. [Post-script A recent  comment from  Leila Jailal on this article states: "The poems were not part of the book as I read the script many times. About 5 weeks after his passing I was looking for a business document on his computer and came across the poems. I was shattered for days for not having the opportunity to discuss the poems with him. The only one I knew about is 'A Tribute to an Eminent Teacher'. "

The great themes and motifs in human life and art – themes like departures and arrivals , births and deaths, continuity and change , history and Time, season and eternity  are the themes that Harold worried over in his  poems. In the poems you find an interfusion of all the ‘opposites’ that set us against our selves and one another  and cut us off from the Universe:

Fleetingly I’m blood, flesh and bone,
Just as I’m the body and mind,
I’m the firmament, the space, the sun too

Just as a blade of grass, the earth, the trees, the stump am I,
In the vastness of the forest, the ocean, the mountains, all an illusive scam
Know I the non-dual eternal truth
In whose will all activities and things are strung
For I’m consciousness, the essence of  truth,
    All in One, One in All.

This consciousness should give us perspective and some detachment,  and free us from obsession. That is what  it did for Poonith according to Harold’s poem ‘Epilogue of the Poonith Saga’. In this poem, Harold allows the old man to go over in modern idiom  the passages of  his life between Rownia the village of his birth  and Bonne Aventure  where he died:

Bound by the pride of place to Karmic duties,
 I’ve done that which was ordained of me;
 I’ve walked the walk, talked the talk.
 Done willingly whatever was required of me in given circumstances
Without hankering for the fruit,
But the fulfillment of life’s dream in the Infinite Oneness.

Be vigilant for the end of freedom is wisdom,
The remnant of culture is perfection,
The crowning glory of knowledge is love,
And the end of life’s experiences is simply character.

That my offspring, my grand children
Would adequately shoulder the burdens
Of worthwhile existences,
Ever present the memories of the enigma of the East Indian Diaspora.

I surmise that after Harold's  return to Trinidad in 1981, a long-drawn out process began.  His own personal life had taken some hard knocks. The island he returned to was not heaven. The childhood project awoke. He began to engage with Poonith. He began to speak for Poonith. He began to write his poems.

It is possible and rewarding to think of Harold’s research into Poonith’s life as  more than an act of piety. He was going over Poonith's life but he was piecing together his own. Constructing Poonith's life  was  personal to Harold. It was a  mental journey or pilgrimage, a quest for knowledge and a voyage of self-discovery of the kind essayed by  the Guyanese poet Martin Carter  in the poem 'Till I Collect'. Afraid at first at what he might "resurrect to light", he eventually takes courage: 

My course I set, I give myself the wind
to navigate the island of the stars 
till I collect my scattered skeleton
till I collect...

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