The X Page: A Storytelling Workshop
My younger brother and I were bored. We had come from Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. We had been whisked away from our toys, our books, our TV shows, to the village of California in Central Trinidad for a family wedding. The name California sounded glamorous to my nine-year-old imagination. I had visions of luxurious mansions and expensive cars.
It was not glamorous. We sat at the edge of a dirt driveway which stretched out from Great Uncle Nello’s purple, two bedroom house. It was one of the more upscale houses in California with white metal security bars over the windows and a grey sheet metal roof instead of thatch. The car and the jeep in the driveway were dusty and scratched and dented.
The sun was high overhead in a cloudless sky. Port of Spain was hot, but the heat was nothing compared to the oven of Central Trinidad. The land surrounding California was flat: ideal for planting sugar cane. There were no hills, no valleys, no rivers to take the edge off the heat.
Men from the village were constructing the wedding tent. They lashed fresh green bamboo poles to the window bars on the outer wall of the house, building into the grass lot next to it. The men cut the bamboo lengths with machetes, sweat pouring down their hairy bare brown chests. They worked silently, and the rhythm of the metal blade against cracking bamboo was their conversation.
I heard the clanging of pots and metal tawahs. That morning, Uncle Nello had shown us his precious tawah – a circular cast iron pan with no sides to make the buss-up-shot. It was gigantic, bigger than me with my arms stretched out. It could not fit on a regular stove, so Nello had set up an outdoor kitchen in the backyard. The tawah rested over an open flame cradled in a mud stove. He spread the flatbread dough and turned it around bit by bit to cook it evenly.
He flipped the giant bread over and greased it again with the brush. The bread was browning and bubbling and blistering. Another dousing of butter and he swished the bread, still flaky and warm into a tablecloth. He clapped the cloth vigorously and “buss it up” until the bread was like strips of a distressed cotton shirt. He took two pieces out and gave them to us to sample.
“Best buss-up-shot in Trinidad! Now, go in front and play. My son who getting married coming any time now and I have plenty more to make.”
This how we found ourselves in the front yard. There was nothing interesting there except the prayer flags on the small patch of grass in front. The flags were faded red and orange pennants attached to dry brown bamboo poles erected from past prayer ceremonies. The pennants hung listlessly in the hot air. We saw pebbles close to the edge of the road. I held a smooth one between my thumb and my forefinger and tried to launch it like a marble but it skittered unpredictably to the right. My brother, in the meantime, had collected a handful and piled them on the driveway.
“Let’s build Mount Everest!” he shouted.
“Bigger than Mount Everest!” I challenged. We continued the hunt for pebbles and added to the mound.
Great Uncle Nello’s sister Chan was helping him plan the wedding. She had a high-pitched voice and we could hear her clearly from the driveway even though she sat back on the front veranda. She talked non-stop in a mix of English and Hindi and it was all about the wedding.
“How much people coming to this wedding? I don’t have enough plates. Eh, you, yes, Mukesh,” she flagged down an unsuspecting victim who was working in the yard. “Go in the back and chop down banana leaves and cut them into four pieces. Wash them down. People have to eat off of them. And do it properly – you have a reputation for being dutty at times.”
She turned her attention to the leader of the tassa drum band. “You telling me you want another five hundred TT dollars because of the recession?” she sucked on her teeth loudly making a “steups” sound to show her disdain. “You don’t even beat your drum in time, it does be all ‘kilkatay.’ Alright, I will give you an extra two hundred because I am a kind and generous person.”
She conferred with a lady on the veranda with her. “I don’t know why Nello insisting that we serve curried chataigne at the feast. It go make everybody gassy. Chatainge, my foot, more like “shit”-aigne. Deffy-nightly not.”
Her anxiety then turned to panic, “We need a virgin to rub de saffron.”
“What about Indra?” the lady offered.
“Ah said a VIRGIN, Parbatee,” Aunt Chan retorted and the others on the verandah burst into laughter. “Nello son go be here any time soon, and we need a virgin to rub de saffron.”
A white Crown car pulled up to the edge of the drive, kicking up the dust. We scampered back, abandoning our Mount Everest of Pebbles project. Chan called to Nello, “Look, your son Deo reach! Leh we start de prayers.”
Uncle Nello ran up to the car, opened the door and embraced his son. As he turned to take Deo into the house, his eyes rested on me. His face lit up. “Come, girl. We need a virgin to rub de saffron.”
I knew the Virgin Mary from Religion classes at school and could not see how she would be involved with Hindu wedding prayers. I had no idea what rubbing de saffron was.
Aunt Chan took me to the partially constructed wedding tent. She filled a brass cup with water and then arranged green mango leaves, stalks of pink ginger lilies and a puff of red ixora in them. She smoothed my hair back and straightened the straps of my blue cotton sun dress. “Take off your sandals,” she commanded and I obeyed. In the meantime, family and neighbours gathered in the tent and sat on mats on the ground.
Uncle Nello led his son Deo into the bamboo tent and seated him under a curtain of coconut fronds. Cousin Deo had changed out of street clothes and now wore only a white dhoti loincloth. Uncle Nello, holding a brass plate, dipped his pinky finger on the edge of the dish and drew a red dot on Deo’s forehead. He sang a Hindi prayer and took one of the mango leaves out of the cup, shaking drops of water off the leaf over Deo and then over me.
He handed me the plate, which was filled with glittering, yellow paste.
Uncle Nello whispered very loudly, “Rub up de saffron on he chest. He is the bridegroom.”
I wanted to obey. But I didn’t want to touch a strange man. He was a cousin — one that I had never met. He was naked from the waist up.
Uncle Nello grew impatient. He took my free hand and guided it to the plate. “Take a handful and rub it up on he chest!”
The saffron paste was golden and shimmering on my fingers. I wiped one dollop on Deo’s chest and stopped, hoping my mission was fulfilled.
“Yes, yes. Rub it, girl, rub it good! Both hands now!”
He held the plate for me and I plunged both hands in. A cloud of gold dust rose.
I rubbed the paste on his chest, his shoulders, his upper back, in circles and spirals. Deo’s expression never changed and nor did mine. Uncle Nello and Aunt Chan nodded approvingly.
Everything was yellow. Besides my hands and his body, there was gold dust in my hair, on Deo’s cheeks, flecks on the white cotton trim of my sundress and in streaks on Deo’s loincloth where it nestled in the folded fabric.
Aunt Chan led me out of the tent into the blinding light of the noonday sun. She gave me a sideways hug, careful not to get saffron stains on her new pink sari.
“You did good, Anandi. I was really worried we wouldn’t find a virgin to rub de saffron today.”