Authors: V. S. Naipaul
Tags: #Literary, #Boys, #General, #Bildungsromans, #Historical, #Fiction, #Port of Spain (Trinidad and Tobago)
HIS CHOSEN CALLING
After midnight there were two regular noises in the street. At about two o’clock you heard the sweepers; and then, just before dawn, the scavenging-carts came and you heard the men scraping off the rubbish the sweepers had gathered into heaps.
No boy in the street particularly wished to be a sweeper. But if you asked any boy what he would like to be, he would say, ‘I going be a cart-driver.’
There was certainly a glamour to driving the blue carts. The men were aristocrats. They worked early in the morning and had the rest of the day free. And then they were always going on strike. They didn’t strike for much. They struck for things like a cent more a day; they struck if someone was laid off. They struck when the war began; they struck when the war ended. They struck when India got independence. They struck when Gandhi died.
Eddoes, who was a driver, was admired by most of the boys. He said his father was the best cart-driver of his day, and he told us great stories of the old man’s skill. Eddoes came from a low Hindu caste, and there was a lot of truth in what he said. His skill was a sort of family skill, passing from father to son.
One day I was sweeping the pavement in front of the house where I lived, and Eddoes came and wanted to take away the broom from me. I liked sweeping and I didn’t want to give him the broom.
‘Boy, what you know about sweeping?’ Eddoes asked, laughing.
I said, ‘What, it have so much to know?’
Eddoes said, ‘This is my job, boy. I have experience. Wait until you big like me.’
I gave him the broom.
I was sad for a long time afterwards. It seemed that I would never never grow as big as Eddoes, never have that thing he called experience. I began to admire Eddoes more than ever; and more than ever I wanted to be a cart-driver.
But Elias was not that sort of boy.
When we who formed the Junior Miguel Street Club squatted on the pavement, talking, like Hat and Bogart and the others, about things like life and cricket and football, I said to Elias, ‘So you don’t want to be a cart-driver? What you want to be then? A sweeper?’
Elias spat neatly into the gutter and looked down. He said very earnestly, ‘I think I going be a doctor, you hear.’
If Boyee or Errol had said something like that, we would all have laughed. But we recognised that Elias was different, that Elias had brains.
We all felt sorry for Elias. His father George brutalised the boy with blows, but Elias never cried, never spoke a word against his father.
One day I was going to Chin’s shop to buy three cents’ worth of butter, and I asked Elias to come with me. I didn’t see George about, and I thought it was safe.
We were just about two houses away when we saw George. Elias grew scared. George came up and said sharply, ‘Where you going?’ And at the same time he landed a powerful cuff on Elias’s jaw.
George liked beating Elias. He used to tie him with rope, and then beat him with rope he had soaked in the gutters of his cow-pen. Elias didn’t cry even then. And shortly after, I would see George laughing with Elias, and George used to say to me, ‘I know what you thinking. You wondering how me and he get so friendly so quick.’
The more I disliked George, the more I liked Elias.
I was prepared to believe that he would become a doctor some day.
Errol said, ‘I bet you when he come doctor and thing he go forget the rest of we. Eh, Elias?’
A small smile appeared on Elias’s lips.
‘Nah,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be like that. I go give a lot of money and thing to you and Boyee and the rest of you fellows.’ And Elias waved his small hands, and we thought we could see the Cadillac and the black bag and the tube-thing that Elias was going to have when he became a doctor.
Elias began going to the school at the other end of Miguel Street. It didn’t really look like a school at all. It looked just like any house to me, but there was a sign outside that said:
. (London, External)
Passes in the Cambridge
School Certificate Guaranteed
The odd thing was that although George beat Elias at the slightest opportunity, he was very proud that his son was getting an education. ‘The boy learning a hell of a lot, you know. He reading Spanish, French and Latin, and he writing Spanish, French and Latin.’
The year before his mother died, Elias sat for the Cambridge Senior School Certificate.
Titus Hoyt came down to our end of the street.
‘That boy going pass with honours,’ Titus Hoyt said. ‘With honours.’
We saw Elias dressed in neat khaki trousers and white shirt, going to the examination room, and we looked at him with awe.
Errol said, ‘Everything Elias write not remaining here, you know. Every word that boy write going to England.’
It didn’t sound true.
‘What you think it is at all?’ Errol said. ‘Elias have brains, you know.’
Elias’s mother died in January, and the results came out in March.
Elias hadn’t passed.
Hat looked through the list in the
over and over again, looking for Elias’s name, saying, ‘You never know. People always making mistake, especially when it have so much names.’
Elias’s name wasn’t in the paper.
Boyee said, ‘What else you expect? Who correct the papers? Englishman, not so? You expect them to give Elias a pass?’
Elias was with us, looking sad and not saying a word.
Hat said, ‘Is a damn shame. If they know what hell the boy have to put up with, they woulda pass him quick quick.’
Titus Hoyt said, ‘Don’t worry. Rome wasn’t built in a day. This year! This year, things going be much much better. We go show those Englishmen and them.’
Elias left us and he began living with Titus Hoyt. We saw next to nothing of him. He was working night and day.
One day in the following March, Titus Hoyt rode up to us and said, ‘You hear what happen?’
‘What happen?’ Hat asked.
‘The boy is a genius,’ Titus Hoyt said.
‘Which boy?’ Errol asked.
‘What Elias do?’
‘The boy gone and pass the Cambridge Senior School Certificate.’
Hat whistled. ‘The Cambridge Senior School Certificate?’
Titus Hoyt smiled. ‘That self. He get a third grade. His name going to be in the papers tomorrow. I always say it, and I saying it again now, this boy Elias have too much brains.’
Hat said later, ‘Is too bad that Elias father dead. He was a good-for-nothing, but he wanted to see his son a educated man.’
Elias came that evening, and everybody, boys and men, gathered around him. They talked about everything but books, and Elias, too, was talking about things like pictures and girls and cricket. He was looking very solemn, too.
There was a pause once, and Hat said, ‘What you going to do now, Elias? Look for work?’
Elias spat. ‘Nah, I think I will write the exam again.’
I said, ‘But why?’
‘I want a second grade.’
We understood. He wanted to be a doctor.
Elias sat down on the pavement and said, ‘Yes, boy. I think I going to take that exam again, and this year I going to be so good that this Mr Cambridge go bawl when he read what I write for him.’
We were silent, in wonder.
‘Is the English and litritcher that does beat me.’
In Elias’s mouth litritcher was the most beautiful word I heard. It sounded like something to eat, something rich like chocolate.
Hat said, ‘You mean you have to read a lot of poultry and thing?’
Elias nodded. We felt it wasn’t fair, making a boy like Elias do litritcher and poultry.
Elias moved back into the pink house which had been empty since his father died. He was studying and working. He went back to Titus Hoyt’s school, not as pupil, but as a teacher, and Titus Hoyt said he was giving him forty dollars a month.
Titus Hoyt added, ‘He worth it, too. He is one of the brightest boys in Port of Spain.’
Now that Elias was back with us, we noticed him better. He was the cleanest boy in the street. He bathed twice a day and scrubbed his teeth twice a day. He did all this standing up at the tap in front of the house. He swept the house every morning before going to school. He was the opposite of his father. His father was short and fat and dirty. He was tall and thin and clean. His father drank and swore. He never drank and no one ever heard him use a bad word.
My mother used to say to me, ‘Why you don’t take after Elias? I really don’t know what sort of son God give me, you hear.’
And whenever Hat or Edward beat Boyee and Errol, they always said, ‘Why you beating we for? Not everybody could be like Elias, you know.’
Hat used to say, ‘And it ain’t only that he got brains. The boy Elias have nice
So I think I was a little glad when Elias sat the examination for the third time, and failed.
Hat said, ‘You see how we catch these Englishmen and them. Nobody here can tell me that the boy didn’t pass the exam, but you think they go want to give him a better grade? Ha!’
And everybody said, ‘Is a real shame.’
And when Hat asked Elias, ‘What you going to do now, boy?’ Elias said, ‘You know, I think I go take up a job. I think I go be a sanitary inspector.’
We saw him in khaki uniform and khaki topee, going from house to house with a little notebook.
‘Yes,’ Elias said. ‘Sanitary inspector, that’s what I going to be.’
Hat said, ‘It have a lot of money in that, I think. I hear your father George uses to pay the sanitary inspector five dollars a month to keep his mouth shut. Let we say you get about ten or even eight people like that. That’s—let me see … ten fives is fifty, eight fives is forty. There, fifty, forty dollars straight. And mark you, that ain’t counting your salary.’
Elias said, ‘Is not the money I thinking about. I really like the work.’
It was easy to understand that.
Elias said, ‘But it have a exam, you know.’
Hat said, ‘But they don’t send the papers to England for that?’
Elias said, ‘Nah, but still, I fraid exams and things, you know. I ain’t have any luck with them.’
Boyee said, ‘But I thought you was thinking of taking up doctoring.’
Hat said, ‘Boyee, I going to cut your little tail if you don’t shut up.’
But Boyee didn’t mean anything bad.
Elias said, ‘I change my mind. I think I want to be a sanitary inspector. I really like the work.’
* * *
For three years Elias sat the sanitary inspectors’ examination, and he failed every time.
Elias began saying, ‘But what the hell you expect in Trinidad? You got to bribe everybody if you want to get your toenail cut.’
Hat said, ‘I meet a man from a boat the other day, and he tell me that the sanitary inspector exams in British Guiana much easier. You could go to
. and take the exams there and come back and work here.’
Elias flew to
., wrote the exam, failed it, and flew back.
Hat said, ‘I meet a man from Barbados. He tell me that the exams easier in Barbados. It easy, easy, he say.’
Elias flew to Barbados, wrote the exam, failed it, and flew back.
Hat said, ‘I meet a man from Grenada the other day ’
Elias said, ‘Shut your arse up, before it have trouble between we in this street.’
A few years later I sat the Cambridge Senior School Certificate Examination myself, and Mr Cambridge gave me a second grade. I applied for a job in the Customs, and it didn’t cost me much to get it. I got a khaki uniform with brass buttons, and a cap. Very much like the sanitary inspector’s uniform.
Elias wanted to beat me up the first day I wore the uniform.
‘What your mother do to get you that?’ he shouted, and I was going for him when Eddoes put a stop to it.
Eddoes said, ‘He just sad and jealous. He don’t mean anything.’
For Elias had become one of the street aristocrats. He was driving the scavenging carts.
‘No theory here,’ Elias used to say. ‘This is the practical. I really like the work.’
Everybody in Miguel Street said that Man-man was mad, and so they left him alone. But I am not so sure now that he was mad, and I can think of many people much madder than Man-man ever was.
He didn’t look mad. He was a man of medium height, thin; and he wasn’t bad-looking, either. He never stared at you the way I expected a mad man to do; and when you spoke to him you were sure of getting a very reasonable reply.
But he did have some curious habits.
He went up for every election, city council or legislative council, and then he stuck posters everywhere in the district. These posters were well printed. They just had the word ‘Vote’ and below that, Man-man’s picture.
At every election he got exactly three votes. That I couldn’t understand. Man-man voted for himself, but who were the other two?
I asked Hat.
Hat said, ‘I really can’t say, boy. Is a real mystery. Perhaps is two jokers. But they is funny sort of jokers if they do the same thing so many times. They must be mad just like he.’
And for a long time the thought of these two mad men who voted for Man-man haunted me. Every time I saw someone doing anything just a little bit odd, I wondered, ‘Is he who vote for Man-man?’
At large in the city were these two men of mystery.
Man-man never worked. But he was never idle. He was hypnotised by the word, particularly the written word, and he would spend a whole day writing a single word.
One day I met Man-man at the corner of Miguel Street.
‘Boy, where you going?’ Man-man asked.
‘I going to school,’ I said.
And Man-man, looking at me solemnly, said in a mocking way, ‘So you goes to school, eh?’
I said automatically, ‘Yes, I goes to school.’ And I found that without intending it I had imitated Man-man’s correct and very English accent.
That again was another mystery about Man-man. His accent. If you shut your eyes while he spoke, you would believe an Englishman-a good-class Englishman who wasn’t particular about grammar-was talking to you.
Man-man said, as though speaking to himself, ‘So the little man is going to school.’
Then he forgot me, and took out a long stick of chalk from his pocket and began writing on the pavement. He drew a very big’s in outline and then filled it in, and then the
. But then he started making several
’s, each smaller than the last, until he was writing in cursive,
When I came home for lunch, he had got to French Street, and he was still writing o’s, rubbing off mistakes with a rag.
In the afternoon he had gone round the block and was practically back in Miguel Street.
I went home, changed from my school-clothes into my home-clothes and went out to the street.
He was now halfway up Miguel Street.
He said, ‘So the little man gone to school today?’
I said, ‘Yes.’
He stood up and straightened his back.
Then he squatted again and drew the outline of a massive
and filled that in slowly and lovingly.
When it was finished, he stood up and said, ‘You finish your work. I finish mine.’
Or it was like this. If you told Man-man you were going to the cricket, he would write
and then concentrate on the
until he saw you again.
One day Man-man went to the big café at the top of Miguel Street and began barking and growling at the customers on the stools as though he were a dog. The owner, a big Portuguese man with hairy hands, said, ‘Man-man, get out of this shop before I tangle with you.’
Man-man just laughed.
They threw Man-man out.
Next day, the owner found that someone had entered his café during the night and had left all the doors open. But nothing was missing.
Hat said, ‘One thing you must never do is trouble Man-man. He remember everything.’
That night the café was entered again and the doors again left open.
The following night the café was entered and this time little blobs of excrement were left on the centre of every stool and on top of every table and at regular intervals along the counter.
The owner of the café was the laughing-stock of the street for several weeks, and it was only after a long time that people began going to the café again.
Hat said, ‘Is just like I say. Boy, I don’t like meddling with that man. These people really bad-mind, you know. God make them that way.’
It was things like this that made people leave Man-man alone. The only friend he had was a little mongrel dog, white with black spots on the ears. The dog was like Man-man in a way, too. It was a curious dog. It never barked, never looked at you, and if you looked at it, it looked away. It never made friends with any other dog, and if some dog tried either to get friendly or aggressive, Man-man’s dog gave it a brief look of disdain and ambled away, without looking back.
Man-man loved his dog, and the dog loved Man-man. They were made for each other, and Man-man couldn’t have made a living without his dog.
Man-man appeared to exercise a great control over the movements of his dog’s bowels.
Hat said, ‘That does really beat me. I can’t make that one out.’
It all began in Miguel Street.
One morning, several women got up to find that the clothes they had left to bleach overnight had been sullied by the droppings of a dog. No one wanted to use the sheets and the shirts after that, and when Man-man called, everyone was willing to give him the dirty clothes.
Man-man used to sell these clothes.
Hat said, ‘Is things like this that make me wonder whether the man really mad.’
From Miguel Street Man-man’s activities spread, and all the people who had suffered from Man-man’s dog were anxious to get other people to suffer the same thing.
We in Miguel Street became a little proud of him.
I don’t know what it was that caused Man-man to turn good. Perhaps the death of his dog had something to do with it. The dog was run over by a car, and it gave, Hat said, just one short squeak, and then it was silent.
Man-man wandered about for days, looking dazed and lost.
He no longer wrote words on the pavement; no longer spoke to me or to any of the other boys in the street. He began talking to himself, clasping his hands and shaking as though he had ague.
Then one day he said he had seen God after having a bath.
This didn’t surprise many of us. Seeing God was quite common in Port of Spain and, indeed, in Trinidad at that time. Ganesh Pundit, the mystic masseur from Fuente Grove, had started it. He had seen God, too, and had published a little booklet called
What God Told Me.
Many rival mystics and not a few masseurs had announced the same thing, and I suppose it was natural that since God was in the area Man-man should see Him.
Man-man began preaching at the corner of Miguel Street, under the awning of Mary’s shop. He did this every Saturday night. He let his beard grow and he dressed in a long white robe. He got a Bible and other holy things and stood in the white light of an acetylene lamp and preached. He was an impressive preacher, and he preached inanodd way. He made women cry, and he made people like Hat really worried.
He used to hold the Bible in his right hand and slap it with his left and say in his perfect English accent, ‘I have been talking to God these few days, and what he tell me about you people wasn’t really nice to hear. These days you hear all the politicians and them talking about making the island self-sufficient. You know what God tell me last night? Last night self, just after I finish eating? God say, “Man-man, come and have a look at these people.” He show me husband eating wife and wife eating husband. He show me father eating son and mother eating daughter. He show me brother eating sister and sister eating brother. That is what these politicians and them mean by saying that the island going to become self-sufficient. But, brethren, it not too late now to turn to God.’
I used to get nightmares every Saturday night after hearing Man-man preach. But the odd thing was that the more he frightened people the more they came to hear him preach. And when the collection was made they gave him more than ever.
In the week-days he just walked about, in his white robe, and he begged for food. He said he had done what Jesus ordered and he had given away all his goods. With his long black beard and his bright deep eyes, you couldn’t refuse him anything. He noticed me no longer, and never asked me, ‘So you goes to school?’
The people in Miguel didn’t know what to make of the change. They tried to comfort themselves by saying that Man-man was really mad, but, like me, I think they weren’t sure that Man-man wasn’t really right.
What happened afterwards wasn’t really unexpected.
Man-man announced that he was a new Messiah.
Hat said one day, ‘You ain’t hear the latest?’
We said, ‘What?’
‘Is about Man-man. He say he going to be crucified one of these days.’
‘Nobody go touch him,’ Edward said. ‘Everybody fraid of him now.’
Hat explained. ‘No, it ain’t that. He going to crucify hisself. One of these Fridays he going to Blue Basin and tie hisself to a cross and let people stone him.’
Somebody-Errol, I think-laughed, but finding that no one laughed with him, fell silent again.
But on top of our wonder and worry, we had this great pride in knowing that Man-man came from Miguel Street.
Little hand-written notices began appearing in the shops and cafés and on the gates of some houses, announcing Man-man’s forthcoming crucifixion.
‘They going to have a big crowd in Blue Basin,’ Hat announced, and added with pride, ‘and I hear they sending some police, too.’
That day, early in the morning, before the shops opened and the trolley-buses began running in Ariapita Avenue, the big crowd assembled at the corner of Miguel Street. There were lots of men dressed in black and even more women dressed in white. They were singing hymns. There were also about twenty policemen, but they were not singing hymns.
When Man-man appeared, looking very thin and very holy, women cried and rushed to touch his gown. The police stood by, prepared to handle anything.
A van came with a great wooden cross.
Hat, looking unhappy in his serge suit, said, ‘They tell me it make from match-wood. It ain’t heavy. It light light.’
Edward said, in a snapping sort of way, ‘That matter? Is the heart and the spirit that matter.’
Hat said, ‘I ain’t saying nothing.’
Some men began taking the cross from the van to give it to Man-man, but he stopped them. His English accent sounded impressive in the early morning. ‘Not here. Leave it for Blue Basin.’
Hat was disappointed.
We walked to Blue Basin, the waterfall in the mountains to the northwest of Port of Spain, and we got there in two hours. Man-man began carrying the cross from the road, up the rocky path and then down to the Basin.
Some men put up the cross, and tied Man-man to it.
Man-man said, ‘Stone me, brethren.’
The women wept and flung bits of sand and gravel at his feet.
Man-man groaned and said, ‘Father, forgive them. They ain’t know what they doing.’ Then he screamed out, ‘Stone me, brethren!’
A pebble the size of an egg struck him on the chest.
Man-man cried ‘Stone,
me, brethren! I forgive you.’
Edward said, ‘The man really brave.’
People began flinging really big stones at Man-man, aiming at his face and chest.
Man-man looked hurt and surprised. He shouted, ‘What the hell is this? What the hell you people think you doing? Look, get me down from this thing quick, let me down quick, and I go settle with that son of a bitch who pelt a stone at me.’
From where Edward and Hat and the rest of us stood, it sounded like a cry of agony.
A bigger stone struck Man-man; the women flung the sand and gravel at him.
We heard Man-man’s shout, clear and loud, ‘Cut this stupidness out. Cut it out, I tell you. I finish with this arseness, you hear.’ And then he began cursing so loudly and coarsely that the people stopped in surprise.
The police took away Man-man.
The authorities kept him for observation. Then for good.