It all started when the government decided to invade Friendship Village to make a highway. The Professor, at the time, taught Caribbean History at the local university in Trinidad. He made a good salary and had enough time off to take one vacation abroad each year with his wife and daughter. He and his family lived in an affluent neighbourhood in the western part of the island. To the average outsider, the Professor had done well. However, the Professor was dissatisfied. Seriously dissatisfied.
He had always loved history. As a boy, he found heroes in dusty manuscripts at the library. Their lives followed perfect little narratives of conflict, climax and resolution. Most of all, he revered the father of all political movements, Mahatma Gandhi. His life, on the other hand, seemed pale and drab. He wanted excitement. No, he needed excitement in his mediocre, middle-class existence.
One night, he was looking at the evening news on television. Residents of Friendship Village, a small settlement on the eastern coast of the island, were protesting against a government decision to relocate them. To get to Friendship Village, you had to hire a private Jeep down a narrow, pockmarked estate road. The village was really a cluster of about forty or fifty wooden houses at the end of this road. The government had already started clearing acres of abandoned state land to build a new highway that would connect the east and the west of the island. The government said that Friendship Village would benefit because it was behind God’s back and therefore was often neglected. Almost everyone from the village worked on the coconut estate or caught fish in the river. Life was hard. The village’s representative was Ramu, a fisherman who spoke terrible English. The Professor had an idea.
The next morning, he emailed his students, saying that he would not be able to attend classes that day. Many of his students were perplexed. The Professor never missed a class. He was one of the most down to earth professors on the campus. Although educated at Harvard University, the Professor asked his students to call him Vinod. His students adored him because he always sought their opinions about current issues. He never ate food from the university cafeteria and instead brought his wife’s roti and bhaji for lunch every day. He could switch from the Queen’s English to Trinidadian Creole before you could say crapaud smoke yuh pipe. Best of all, he could talk to the big man and the small man.
By the time his students realised that he wasn’t coming, the Professor had arrived in Friendship Village. He went to Last Stop Bar, sat down and ordered a soft drink. Ramu eyed the Professor’s crisp white shirt and polished, black leather shoes. He walked up to him. “Mornin’ pardna. Yuh doh look like you from around here. What bring yuh to Friendship Village?”
The Professor turned to him. “Ah come to make a lil proposition.”
Ramu’s ears suddenly pricked up. “Sure, lemme hear yuh nah.”
“I does listen to de news regular and I notice that de government does treat allyuh real bad.”
Ramu listened carefully. “True, true. But how you go help poor people like we?”
The Professor held his gaze for a few seconds, smiled and said, “Doh worry, when I finish here, Friendship Village go make history.” Ramu laughed and shook his head.
Next Monday morning, the Professor emailed his students again. Some of them were worried. He wasn’t answering their phone calls or messages. Over the weekend, he had pitched a tent on an empty acre of land. At 6:00, the backhoe approached to clear the field. The driver spotted the faded blue tarpaulin tent. He steupsed. Damn squatters. Feel they so high and mighty, holding the government at ransom. He opened the window and shouted, “Ey! You in there! Yuh better move yuh ass quick sharp. I have de people wuk to do.” The Professor peered out of the tent. He looked at the driver coolly and said, “No.” The driver hooted. He eyed the man’s expensive leather shoes. This was no squatter.
The sun’s rays were stabbing him in the eyes. He shifted his stance, planting himself more firmly on the ground and folded his arms. “Look here. I doh have time for fools like allyuh. You and me know this is government property so yuh better haul yuh tail if you know what good for yuh!” he said. The Professor did not budge. The driver cursed loudly and angrily pulled out a mobile phone. He called Mr. Daly, his boss, who instructed him to deal with the troublemaker. The driver smiled smugly, jumped into the backhoe and proceeded to maul the tarpaulin tent. The Professor quickly called his friend at the local media house. “Johnny, I have a story for yuh. Come quick,” he said.
That evening, the Professor watched the news. Johnny had done a good job. Although the top story was about the murder of a toddler, the Professor’s eyes widened with glee when he saw that he had made the second news slot. The cameraman had zoomed in on his face, crumpled with anguish, then quickly cut to the driver destroying the tent. Ramu stood nearby, tearing his hair and shouting, “Leave de man house alone! Alyuh too blasted wutless! Allyuh doh care about poor people like we!”
The next Monday, the Professor decided to change tack. He told Ramu to spend the morning in the rum shop. This time, he did not pitch a tent. Instead, he sat on the plot among the weeds and waited for the driver. The driver came on time. “But what de jail I seeing? This fool come back! He eh learn he lesson de first time or wha?” He drove closer to the Professor. “Ey! You! Jackass!” he shouted over the engine. The Professor sat in the lotus position with his eyes closed and chanted.
Although baptised in the Catholic church, he felt that Christians were never taken seriously on the island. “Om, om, hari om,” he chanted, his eyes shut tightly against the blinding sun’s rays. The driver switched off the engine, got out of the vehicle and grabbed the Professor’s arms. “I eh fraid yuh. Yuh hear me? Bossman tell me I could deal with yuh if yuh make trouble. Nobody go hear yuh in de bush. Clear off or you go be sorry eh!” he threatened.
The Professor had known this would happen. Johnny and the cameraman were already secretly filming the whole scene. He slowly opened his eyes, smiled serenely and said, “Today I will begin a fast. You shall not victimise the people of Friendship Village anymore. They will not move. The government cannot build a highway here until the people have spoken,” he said in a clear, biblical voice. Johnny grinned. This was bound to make headline news that night. Today, the Professor had even looked different. Instead of his white shirt and leather shoes, he wore a loose white kurta and dhoti. Already, he was looking the part of a freedom fighter.
The next Monday, the Professor skipped his lectures again. He didn’t need to email his students because they had already seen him make the top story the night before. A few of them decided to go to Friendship Village and support their favourite teacher. When they got there, they saw a small figure squatting on the sun-baked dirt, naked from the waist up. Below his navel, he wore the same white dhoti. He had shrunk visibly. “Vinod, we’re here to support your cause,” one student said, her eyes brimming with tears. The Professor did not answer. A clan of village women surrounded him, fanning him with old magazines. They wept and wiped his dry lips with a wet cloth. He continued chanting. Some students broke down after seeing how their beloved Professor had changed. He had lost his athletic figure, his ribs now protruding against the papery skin of his chest.
The villagers had started to call him Swami. Some of the women had even joined him in his fast. Every week, they held a puja to ask their gods and goddesses to strengthen Swami in his fight against the enemy. Every morning, they garlanded him with freshly picked marigolds. They sent crocus bags filled with dried coconuts and bottles of coconut oil to the Professor’s wife and daughter. Sometimes, the wife and daughter came to Friendship Village to support Swami but often remained silent.
The charade lasted for several weeks. “I will continue to abstain from food and drink until this government sees the light and consults the people of Friendship Village,” Swami said while seated on his dirt pulpit. The Prime Minister began to take notice. “See if we could buy off this Swami fella,” he told the Transport Minister. But Swami was no mercenary. He just wanted to help the poor and dispossessed. It was his sacred duty to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves. Weeks had passed without food and water touching his lips. Miraculously, Swami was still alive.
Some people began to doubt whether he was really fasting. Some said that every night, he went back to a friend’s house in the West and swam in a pool of Gatorade to rehydrate his wasted body. Others scoffed, “That’s not fasting! Who he feel he is? The Friendship Village Gandhi? Gandhi never swim in no pool!”
Swami did not listen to the naysayers. He continued to sit and fast on his pulpit while the highway took shape around him and stretched further and further into the west. The road shone just like when Charlton Heston parted the sea to rescue the Jewish people and lead them to the Promised Land. Swami continued to chant while Friendship Village slowly disappeared. One by one, families succumbed to the generous compensation offered by the government for their feeble acres. Some agreed to relocate to more affluent areas in the west, to houses blessed with running water and electricity. Others even moved overseas to start a new life. Many bought second hand Japanese cars. The children who sat in the backseat often waved at Swami as they passed him on their way to the Promised Land of cineplexes, shopping malls, American chain restaurants and coffee shops.
The group of villagers who supported Swami slowly dwindled. The highway had brought prosperity to Friendship Village. It meant that their children could now get good government jobs instead of working the land and gaining nothing. Others were proud because their children had become the first in the village to attend the local university where Swami once taught. When the university realised that the Professor had not shown up for any of his lectures for a whole semester, they promptly dismissed him. Wealthy donors were threatening to pull funding unless the university got rid of that black sheep. Even the village women eventually abandoned him. They retreated to new houses in the West, where they sat in air-conditioned living rooms and watched Indian soap operas on their flat screen televisions. Even the pujas had ended.
Swami, however, remained on the land. Although his family pleaded with him to return home, he continued to live in another faded blue tarpaulin tent. Swami no longer resembled the university professor who wore crisp white shirts and polished leather shoes. His skin became leathery and darkened after hours of sitting under the blazing sun. The marigolds around his neck had long rotted leaving behind a thin, dirty string. His lips were cracked and sometimes bloody. His hair became tangled and matted; his nails grew long and gnarled like the chicken hawk’s talons. His dhoti was now caked with dirt and shredded in many places. When he shifted his pose, sometimes his genitals fell out. Even his eyes lost their worldliness. Instead, his gaze seemed to stretch far beyond the temporal world around him to a hazy dimension of ideals and abstractions. Johnny abandoned the story and Swami soon became the main subject of calypso satire and laugh festivals.
One day, he found a baby agouti abandoned by its mother. He looked at its mousy face and saw his daughter’s eyes staring back at him. “Don’t worry, Priya. I will take care of you. You hungry?” he said. The agouti looked startled but soon grew accustomed to Swami’s tender fingers feeding it bits of mango. His wife and daughter stopped visiting. He didn’t seem to recognise them. They were ashamed. The neighbours laughed behind closed doors whenever they heard jokes about the professor who fell from grace. Swami, on the other hand, was beyond their mockery. Like a snake moulting, Swami had sloughed off his old skin: his family, his home in the West, his university career. His new self glittered under the sun. He no longer yearned to teach history because he had finally become a part of it. Now he would be written about in the history books of his small and stifling island. He had attained sainthood like his hero, Gandhi. The legend of Swami would continue for generations. As he fed the baby agouti, he said, “Daughter, when you have children, always tell them about their grandfather, the freedom fighter.” The agouti looked at him with its innocent eyes and nibbled the sticky orange pulp he offered.
Suzanne Bhagan is a Trinidadian born writer and blogger.