By Anthony Deyal
I am starting this column by beating around the bush a bit-not any ordinary bush like the ones my Caribbean friends use for “tea” or medicine, or even the ones prescribed by Obeah practitioners to get rid of an illness or a prolonged period of bad luck, but one that flourished in Washington DC, at the same time that Trinis experienced their first coup attempt. In Trinidad, the word “fatigue” which in the rest of the English-speaking world denotes “extreme tiredness” stands for “jokes made at the expense and embarrassment of any individual, the higher ranked the better.”
The Trini sense of humour is an extreme and unique condition of “Beard Disease” or “chronic fatigue syndrome”. It is as perplexing a mixture of cynicism and callousness shared and viciously applied without fear or favour by everyone regardless of race, colour, creed or age. It is reflex, response and reaction, flourishing when the times are hardest, the news at its worst, or the tide irrevocably turned. It was like that during the 1990 attempted coup in Trinidad and Tobago. There was the story of the old lady who grabbed a fancy digital television, took it home, plugged it in and pressed the “on” button. The light came on but no picture. She pressed all the buttons and nothing. Just the light.
Upset at having gone to so much trouble for a damaged and defective television, she threw it in the garbage bin. Then her friend and a next-door neighbour complained angrily, “You are something else. You didn’t have to throw it away, you could have given me the microwave.” Then there was the reporter who told me that prime minister Robinson wanted to kill all the pigeons in the parliament. I was surprised. She replied with a smile, “Yes. Any time he goes into the parliament the pigeons see him and say ‘Coup. Coup. Coup’”.
I became Robinson’s chief Information officer right after his return from the US and immediately one of his colleagues, who had selected me for the job, without any beating around the bush told me this story. Shortly after the hostage crisis when the prime’ minister paid a courtesy call on the US president and was waiting to be summoned into the oval office, a person came up to him and said, “Hi. Ah’m Baker.” The prime minister stood, said, “I’m Robinson” and sat down again. Another man came up and said, “Hi. Ah’m Sununu.” Robinson got up, said, “I’m Robinson” and sat down. Then this other man came up to him and said, “Ah’m Bush.” And Robinson dived under a table.
When my former schoolmate, Patrick Manning, became prime minister he, too, paid a courtesy call on the US president and immediately afterward met with some appreciative Trinis at Howard University. “The last time I was here I faced a barrage of questions so I decided when I return I would wear a ‘flak”-jacket,” Manning said. “However, instead I am wearing a bush-jacket.” He added, “I have just come from a meeting with president Bush.”
What I knew from our school days was that Patrick was a “fatigue” expert and was never tired of inflicting his wit on the unfortunate. We were talking about my days in Ottawa when Andrew Rose, an old crony of the country’s first prime minister, Dr Eric Williams, was the ambassador. I told Patrick, “When Andrew Rose came to the office in the morning all the staff members in the High Commission had to stand up and salute him.” Patrick smiled, “That is nothing. When he went home in the evening his wife had to do the same thing.”
It was in Patrick’s time and class that the Beard Disease struck. There was a student named Patel whose attempt to grow the combination of beard and moustache was a struggle which led to a scraggle, something like the one a present government minister in Trinidad has as his facial adornment. While it might give the minister a misplaced sense of security, both personal and national, Patel had none. The boys went after him and came up with the nickname “Toon-Toon” which, in Trinidad, is one of the many dialect terms for the female sexual organ, especially one covered with pubic hair.
While fashion front-runner Mary Quant predicted in 1970, “pubic hair will become a fashion emphasis, if not necessarily blatant”, in those days of the early 1960s, Patrick and the rest of the Form 5 boys blatantly and loudly shouted “Toon-Toon” wherever and whenever they saw the unfortunate Patel. In these days, “Toon-Toon” is the name of a TV platform for teaching children the English language, an Indian singer and even a calypso “I love Toon-Toon” supposedly celebrating his crush on the singer by the recently deceased calypsonian, The Mighty Power. In those days, it was a mystery to us why Patel would want to hang on to the beard and nickname when a razor would have put him out of his misery, temporarily or permanently. I think it was Jonesy who diagnosed, “That feller sick. He like the nickname.” But that made things worse rather than better for poor Patel.
There is also, in Trinidad, a hard, chewy, dark brown candy made from sugar, coconuts and ginger called “Toolum” which is also known in the region as buss mi jaw, busta, Bustamante backbone, staggaback and tableta. One day, Patel walked into our class when Brother Gabriel, a Trini by birth but a member of the Irish Presentation Brotherhood by choice, was holding sway. Immediately loud shouts of “Toon-Toon,Toon-Toon,” announced Patel’s arrival and Brother Gabriel tried to shut us up but the low whispers of “Toon-Toon,” continued, even in the neighbouring classes.
Then, succumbing to what he thought was a blast from a very distant past, Brother Gabriel, looking at Patel and, trying to figure out the appropriateness of the nickname, asked, “Toon-Toon? Isn’t that a sweet, black object? I remember eating it when I was young.” This is when the principal came, upbraided Brother Gabriel for not controlling his class and singled out a few of us to be caned and the others to a week of detention for disturbing everyone in the school and even the entire city.
*Tony Deyal was last seen contradicting Absalom who, in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, insists that a woman has no beard. He insists, “It’s in their jeans.”