Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sundariah R. (1933-2006) (Life in Trinidad)

By Nicholas Stix

Saturday, January 07, 2006
Revised on January 20, 2010
Last revised at 5:43 a.m., on February 23, 2011.

On Saturday, Sundariah R. died of renal failure at the age of 72 in Trinidad. Mrs. R. is survived by her husband of 55 years, Ramrakha, by one son, six daughters, twelve grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Although Mrs. R.’s husband and children traveled halfway around the world in variously seeking work and visiting relatives, she only left the island of Trinidad once, as a young woman, to visit the sister island, Tobago, of the two-island nation. (When three of their daughters moved variously to New York and London in search of fortune and husbands during the early 1990s, Mr. R., who is at home in both cities, periodically traveled to them to look after his girls.)

During Mrs. R.’s life, Trinidadian culture and politics utterly changed.

At the time of her birth, some Indians had only recently been freed from indentured servitude by a 1917 British decree. The majority of Indians (as opposed to blacks, who spoke English) still spoke only Hindi; that began to change, thanks to Presbyterian missionaries, who in the 1920s taught Indians English … and converted more than a few to Christianity.

Mrs. R. and her husband wed in 1950 in an arranged, Hindu marriage; conversely, only two of her seven daughters were wed by arrangement.

When Mr. and Mrs. R. wed in 1950, Trinidad was still a colony of Great Britain; in 1962, the nation gained its independence from the Crown, and was renamed the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, which remains its name to this day. (Note that the Rs were devoted to each other, proof that an arranged marriage can be a most felicitous union.) Amidst such social upheavals, the Rs managed, through backbreaking work, to rise from poverty to a relatively prosperous life. They had no luxuries, but were able to meet all of their needs, and to purchase and extend one house, and then sell that home and move into [and extend] a second house that they had had built new.

Mr. R. planted fruit and vegetable trees, bushes, and vines on their property, so that their children grew up with a cornucopia of mangoes, avocados, coconuts, oranges, Mandarin oranges (Portugal, pronounced "pottigoll"), chestnuts, sugar cane, bananas ("figs"), cocoa, cherries, corn, peas, cassava, pigeon peas, tomatoes and eggplant.

In a traditional West Indian household, in addition to having a house built for his family, it was the father’s job to arrange marriages for his daughters. Mr. R., however, found himself caught betwixt and between changing customs, and failed to arrange marriages for five of his seven girls. Thus, some fifteen years ago, when he referred to one of his daughters as an “old maid,” Mrs. R. retorted, “And who she should marry—woman?!” (In today’s Trinidad, that retort would still be understood as a joke, and not as a real possibility.)

Mrs. R.’s town recently gained its first “hospital” (really a clinic). By contrast, when Mrs. R. gave birth to at least one of her children in the 1960s, she had not so much as a doctor or even a midwife to rely on. All alone, while her husband was off driving a gravel delivery truck as a subcontractor, she delivered the baby herself.

But some things have not changed. In the rural, predominantly Indian South, running water is still a sometime thing, and Mrs. R. and her family had to work their water use around the practice of the authorities often having it “locked off” during the day. Thus, she would have to fill (or have one of her children or grandchildren fill) buckets (up to 18) and bottles with cold water from her shower in the morning, for use for bathing and washing hands. And hot running water is still unheard of in her town. But then, it is a model of progress compared to villages farther south, where people get their water from government trucks that fill huge plastic water barrels.

And yet, apparent backwardness can have its virtues. The land that Trinidadian Nobel Laureate V.S. (or “Vidia,” as he is known to “educated” Trinidadians) Naipaul repudiated, is home to a substantial proportion of self-reliant people who can fix almost anything. (Naipaul is most famous for his Trinidad-set novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, which won him his Nobel Prize. [Biswas was a loving, thinly veiled biography of Naipaul’s father, Seepersad Naipaul, motivated, I believe, by the author’s grief and guilt over having been in England, studying at Oxford, while his father ailed, died, and was buried, and revenge for the way his father had been treated as a penurious, young man.]) A proportion of those self-reliant “Trinis” are Indians such as Mr. R., who are ardent, self-taught students of history and politics, and who snort at the pretensions and misrepresentations of the black nationalist academics who hold court at the Trinidadian campus of the University of the West Indies (UWI--pronounced “you-wee”) and on TV. (Unlike pretentious Indian school teachers, who are in awe of Mr. Naipaul, such “primitive” Indians are typically unimpressed with him.)

Trinidad, unlike the “progressive,” more socially stratified U.S., is also a land where one might grow up down the road from a future prime minister, as Mr. R. grew up near, and knew future Prime Minister (and current head of the United National Congress party) Basdeo Panday, and the rest of the Panday family, and the future Mrs. R sometimes babysit and bathed (though not taking pay for this) Bas' younger brother, Subhas.

Although Mrs. R. received a minimal education [and never learned to read or write], she and her husband encouraged all of their children to gain an education. [Mrs. R. was somehow able to teach her children the alphabet and numbers.] In a nation where few students went beyond primary school, all but one of the R.s’ children finished high school (“O” levels, which at the time in Trinidad, where less than ten percent of people attended college, had a status equivalent to at least two years of college in the States), with most of them entering various allied health professions, and one running her own business.

The R.s’ son, Nanram, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming a subcontractor delivering truckloads of gravel to builders. Mrs. R. outlived two of her children – a second son who was born the last of her nine children, and who died at six months of age of an undetermined illness; and a daughter, Tauti, who died in 1998, at the age of 28. [I’m still not clear on the cause of Tauti’s death.]

Although she only occasionally spoke of them, Mrs. R. mourned her dead children 'til her dying day. Although Mrs. R.'s mother lived to be 103 years old, and her maternal grandmother reached the age of 106, the 4'11" woman was less hardy than her forebears. Having so many children surely exhausted her body, and may explain why her last child was born so sickly. And yet, aside from the lack of availability of medical procedures such as tubal ligation, which might have extended Mrs. R.’s life through her having fewer children, she wanted and loved all of her children unconditionally. Having fewer children was never a consideration for her.

In recent years, Mrs. R. suffered from diabetes, heart disease, and arthritis, yet until recently, no matter how painful it was for her to walk, she got up every morning to do her house work.

(When I originally published this obituary, I mistakenly wrote that my mother-in-law was 75, at the time of her death.)

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