Atma was still getting used to his new name, though it had been several weeks since he had visited the ombudsman. He had even taken to thinking in the third person to try to become accustomed to it, but it hadn’t worked. It would have been easier if he had any occasions to answer to the new name. But his parents and friends ignored it completely and continued to refer to him as Arthur. His mother was especially critical of the change.
“Why you going and change your name for?” his mother said, when he informed her of his decision. “What wrong with the name we choose for you? The Prime Minister when you was born name was Arthur. And he wasn’t no waste of time like what we have now. Any of them now if they have a coup them doing anything a man with a gun tell them to do. When them bandit tell Arthur in the Red House to call the Army and tell them stop shooting, Arthur call them and tell them, “Shoot more with full force”. They shoot he and they beat he for that but he wasn’t fraid. That is the kind of name you have.”
She loved talking about the coup as though she was an active witness, though at the time she was eight months pregnant and could barely stand without being tired, according to his father. Atma thought it a bit sad that her most regularly repeated stories were of an event that occurred more than twenty years ago which she was not at all involved in.
“But mommy, that is just one man,” Atma said.
“Yes, but that is the one man I name you after.”
His mother, as always, ignored the need to be logical. Many mothers had the same selective ignorance.
As with most of Atma’s actions, his father had no interest at all.
“Arthur, Atma. Same thing. You wasting time and money to change a spelling for no reason,” his father said. “Is only one letter people go have to say different and for one letter, nobody go bother call you nothing else.”
His father, like everyone else, pronounced Arthur as “Atta”. And unfortunately, his premonition had proved right. No one used the new name.
He had tried explaining his frustration to the neighbor who had driven him to the ombudsman. His neighbor, Anil, would drive him anywhere as long as Atma paid for gas. Atma had worked out that it would have been cheaper to take public transport but he factored in the convenience of having transport right next door as well as the pleasure of having someone to talk to.
“Man, you know nobody care what your name is, right?” Anil said.
“Yeah but I care,” Atma said.
“But if you alone care and nobody else going to bother, then you could have call yourself whatever you want and everybody else go continue to call you Arthur. And then you didn’t have to waste time changing all your documents.”
Arthur had to concede that there was logic in that. He also realized belatedly that he still was thinking of himself as Arthur.
“Nah man, is the principle of the thing. I have to be serious,” Atma said.
“You could be how serious you want to be. Just cause you name Atma now don’t mean just so everybody go feel you is Indian. That don’t come with name, you know,” Anil said.
Atma’s “Indian-ness” was a subject that would have provoked a furious rebuttal if anyone else but Anil had mentioned it. Atma was not Indian, neither by nationality nor by descent.
Most Trinidadians of Indian descent imagined they could tell Indians from India apart from Trinidadian Indians. Atma couldn’t see any way to tell but when he had said that to Anil the response was that it was something that couldn’t be explained.
Yet, despite having no historical link to India, Atma deeply loved Indian culture. The response to a person of African descent attending temple or learning classical Indian dance varied from confusion and teasing (usually from others of African descent) to outright disgust (usually from the older generations of Indians but unfortunately, in Atma’s experience, not exclusively them).
A black man learning Indian classical dance was something that could not fail to attract comments in Trinidad and perhaps in many other countries as well. In fact, any man learning dance in Trinidad could expect to receive regular commentary on his perceived homosexuality. Or, occasionally and contradictorily, the same people who questioned his attraction to women would state that he was only there to talk to girls.
He had never convinced Anil to come to dance classes with him. But it didn’t stop him from continuing to try every time registration for classes came around.
“Time to sign up for dance,” Atma said.
“What you telling me that for? You ever know I go tell you I ready to come and dance?” Anil replied.
“This time could be the time. I don’t understand what more you need. Is a basic class so you on the same level as everybody. I go pay the fee so it wouldn’t cost you nothing,” Atma said.
“Man, you just want a drop to the place and to come back.”
“If that was what I need I dancing real real long just to get a drop,” Atma said. “Come through nah. It does have real girls.”
Atma said this because it was both true and the most likely reason Anil would ever go to a dance class, though he felt slightly disingenuous about speaking about his future students that way. But he didn’t feel too disconcerted because he knew Anil, if he ever came, would never speak to a single one.
“I done meet all the girls in this place already. I tired of them,” Anil said.
Anil liked to pretend he was a ladies’ man and had been with a number of women. No one believed him but he had been keeping up the pretense so long that it was impossible for him to speak truthfully on the subject.
“Nah, man. You never meet none of these girls. Nobody meet none of them. Them don’t go nowhere. Only dance class and in lecture you finding them, otherwise them home studying.”
“So, what I go talk to them for? To go home and study with them?”
“Alright nah. Don’t bother. Is only you go lose out, you know,” Atma said.
Though Anil was older, Atma always felt responsible for him. This feeling of responsibility came out of snobbery as Atma knew he was smarter than Anil. They had gone the same primary school and had lived next door to each other for most of their lives. But while Atma had hope of eventually leaving the village, Anil seemed resigned to living in his mother’s house and occasionally earning money by doing simple computer or phone repairs.
As Atma prepared himself for his first class of the year, he couldn’t avoid the nerves that came with teaching. Despite it being his third semester of teaching dance and although it was only a beginner’s class, he always felt out of his depth prior to actually teaching. Only when he began explaining the history of Kathak or started demonstrating movements was he able to feel somewhat competent.
His mother came into the room. He knew it would not help his anxiety.
“I don’t know why you don’t stop going that place, you know. What that doing for you?” his mother said.
“Again we have to talk this talk? Is not what it doing for me, I teaching. Them already do plenty for me so now I want to help them out and give back a little something,” Atma said.
“But them don’t have no professionals to teach that class? Is waste your time wasting there.”
His mother always tried to state her displeasure in a way that made it seem that her primary concern was of his interests and progress. And it was in a limited way, true. The problem was that her ideas of what was best for him left him with no room to make any decisions for himself. She considered almost all activities except academic and professional education as wasting time.
“So, how I can’t be a professional?”
“If you was a professional they go have a paycheck for you. And anyway, you can’t be no professional dancer. You ever hear about any professional dancer from Trinidad?”
Atma could name several but his mother would have ignored the information.
“So what you want me do?” Atma said.
“You do what you want. I just don’t want you come back and tell me I was right and you wish you did spend the time better,” his mother replied.
“Don’t worry. If I feel so, I wouldn’t come and tell you.”
“Watch how you talking. I is not your friend to be talking so to. All I saying is careful in a few years you realize you fed up try to be Indian. But you go can’t vex and say nobody tell you before to stop wasting your time.”
She left before Atma could make any reply.
Atma was tired of telling other people he wasn’t trying to become Indian. He was tired of rationalizing that Indian culture was part of Trinidadian culture and he was just trying to embrace a wider variety of life on the island. He knew he couldn’t be Indian any more than he could be Native American (perhaps slightly more as he could be Indian by nationality) but he didn’t feel that descent should exclude him from participation. And to the credit of his dance teachers, it didn’t. But most others couldn’t accept it. It didn’t stop him from going to dance or watching Bollywood films, but it did sadden him that so many people were close-minded.
The turnout for the class was large but Atma didn’t expect to see many of them in a month’s time. Attendance always dropped to about a third of the initial two weeks very quickly and by the end of the semester, perhaps just a quarter would remain.
After the end of his class he went to register for the advanced class. It was the most advanced and final class that could be taken for Kathak in Trinidad. He was taking it for the second semester in a row, not because he thought he needed to repeat it but because of the uncertainty of what he would do next. He had no clear idea of how to go further with dance. Or even if he should, although dropping out would prove his mother right and that was something he would go to great lengths to avoid. The secretary who took his form told him that he would need the institute’s principal to sign the form, but he wouldn’t be there until next week.
In the reception hall, he noticed that the Institute was offering a class in Hindi. They had been speaking of offering one for a long time, ever since the last Hindi teacher had returned to India more than eight years ago. But every semester passed without a replacement being found. Atma had enjoyed Hindi classes and was quite sad when he had found out he would no longer be able to progress with the language. He took two blank forms and gave one to Anil when he got home.
“Why you bring me this for?” Anil protested. “Man, I done tell you I not doing no dancing.”
“This is not for dancing. I mean, I still find you should come to that. But that is something else,” Atma said. “They finally starting back Hindi class. Let we go in that. You know you want to learn.”
Anil had been speaking of his desire to learn Hindi for a long time. It was Anil who had introduced Atma to Bollywood films back when video rental clubs still existed and VHS tapes could be borrowed. The Bollywood films were available on VHS even before Trinidadian cinemas released them but those advance copies came without English subtitles. Atma and Anil would watch the films with Anil’s grandparents who would occasionally translate or explain. But they mostly said nothing as the plots were often self-explanatory.
Recently, when torrents and broadband became widespread, Anil once again began to speak to Atma about his desire to learn Hindi. Mostly it was because the torrents available came without English subtitles. But also because he had found Bollywood films which were not the usual masala films. The discovery of parallel cinema was a life-changer, according to Anil.
“Alright, that I don’t mind doing,” Anil said. “But what you mean let we go? You done know Hindi already. You can’t learn it twice.”
Atma had always tried his best to not forget the Hindi he had learnt and sometimes even felt he had done a good job. He was sometimes guilty, as most people who are only partially fluent in language are, of embellishing his ability. When watching films with Anil, he translated the stock phrases present in all Bollywood films immediately, before the subtitles even rolled onto the screen. However he knew better than anyone how far he had to go to be considered even competent in the language.
“Nah, man. Is twice self I have to learn it cause is only halfway I learn it the first time,” Atma said. “I mean I can’t remember how to write nothing except my old name. So if I only learn how to write Atma in Hindi, then for that I go come the class.”
“Alright, we going. To tell you the truth, if it was me alone I probably would have just go a few and when it get too hard leave it. But once you staying, I staying.”
“Well, I always there till the end.”
The afternoon before the first Hindi class, Atma and Anil watched Lagaan for at least the twentieth time. In the years since that movie had first been released they had watched it at least once prior to every cricket season, as a motivator. They had both long since given up any aspirations of playing professional cricket or even being regulars in any Second Division squad of the local club cricket league but the movie remained inspirational. On that afternoon it was an inspiration for Hindi. They had watched it enough to know all the lines but it was the translation of those lines that they really knew. Atma didn’t bother listening if the subtitles were there. For the first time they looked at the film and really listened.
Atma was the last person to enter the class, as he had gone to get his form for advanced dance signed. He also had a discussion with the principal and he was eager to speak to Anil about it. But he was distracted when he entered the class as he noticed he was not the only black person in the class. There were two others sitting at the front desks. They resembled each other enough that it was almost certain they were brother and sister. This was the first time he had seen another person of African descent in any class at the Institute. Atma felt a curious mix of elation and disappointment in the fact other black Trinidadians would come to learn Hindi. He was not unique in this sense anymore.
Atma was well aware that someone who looked black could easily be mixed with Indian (and probably lots of other races as well) but usually people who looked black, even if they were of partial Indian descent, didn’t involve themselves in Indian culture.
The class passed by quickly for Atma, as he already knew most of what the teacher had to say. The teacher was a short man with a large moustache who spoke with a neutral accent, unlike the other teachers who sounded quite stereotypically Indian. Atma hoped he would actually learn something in the beginner’s class but even if he didn’t, it was still worth it just to get Anil there. He couldn’t explain why he felt it was his job to get Anil to care more about Indian culture, other than that he felt a sadness that Anil didn’t. Atma spent a lot of time trying to find ways into the culture yet was regularly met with apprehension, while Anil ignored his open route.
“Aye, go talk to she brother a little bit nah,” Anil said to Atma, gesturing unsubtly to the pretty girl.
“Help me out a little bit. Block the man a little bit for me. I sure I don’t need plenty time.”
“Is only cause you dropping me home I going,” Atma said.
Atma attempted to sound annoyed but really he was quite eager to talk to the girl’s brother. He already knew they had at least one interest in common and he was eager to find out his motivation for attending.
Going up to talk to anyone he didn’t know was something Atma had always found to be difficult. When approaching a woman the weight of expectation and fear of rejection was the difficulty. When approaching a man, it was the unexpected that made the approach awkward.
“You consider coming a dance class too? I teaching the beginners Kathak,” Atma said.
“If you watching me and think I is a dancer, is either you could real teach or you blind,” the boy replied.
“But I don’t look like no dancer either. Is not how you looking, is if you could dance.”
“Nah well, with me is really how I looking,” he said.
“Once you could feel the music the rest is practice. If you can’t feel it then that is the problem.”
“Well, alright nah. But I still not no dancer,” the boy said. “So, how a man like you teaching dance.”
“I like dance and I learn dance and I learn enough to teach. Simple,” Atma said. “How a man like you come to learn Hindi?”
“Is only she I here with,” the boy said, pointing to his sister who was by now chatting with Anil. “It had plenty fellas from India who I went to school with and who I play cricket with and all of them could talk good English. As far as I see it, unless I want to work in India, it have no reason to learn the language.”
“You want to work India?”
“I don’t even want to go India. With them kind of scholars there and so much of them too, I sure to pump gas there. You might need a degree and they go still take a man with better marks than you. She only here cause she watching Indian movie whole day.”
“My neighbor who talking to she there, he and all only come cause he like to watch Indian movie,” Atma said.
“Well, I hope two of them go make friends fast and then watch movie and learn Hindi and I could free up my time again,” the boy said laughing.
The girl came up at that moment. Anil wasn’t with her. She didn’t say anything but just stood there.
“Yeah, well. We moving now. Next week nah.”
“Yeah, nice to meet you.” Atma said. It was only after he walked off Atma realized he hadn’t actually found out his name.
“I take she number but I feeI I can’t go out with she,” Anil said, disappointedly.
“What you mean you can’t go out? So why you take she number for?” Atma replied.
“I had to take it. But I mean, if anybody see two of we, it go be real talk. And somebody must see you anywhere you go in this place. It too small.”
“But what talk you worried about? A man your age still worrying if anybody see you talking to girl? If people never see you talking to girl and only man, then that is the kind of thing that go give them something to say.”
“Nah man. Is if the talk reach back home, and is there self all talk does reach, cause you know my mother does hear everybody business. You know how she go get if she find out I with one of them.”
Atma was immediately offended while understanding exactly what Anil meant by “one of them”. He had been through the same thing with his last girlfriend. The relationship had died under parental pressure.
“What you mean one of them? So we is not people too?” Atma said.
“Come nah man. You know I don’t think nothing racial. I mean is I self went and talk with she. But you can’t tell me my mother go just smile and say do what you want.”
“Man, you thinking too far ahead. All you have is a number. For all you know when you call she, she say she have no time with you again.”
“That go never happen. Is me. She must want to lime. Once me and she lime a little bit, it only have one way thing go end up,” Anil said confidently.
Atma loved hearing Anil talk about himself as if he was the sweetest man on the island. It was some of the best fiction he’d ever heard. This was one of the few times he’d ever seen him talking to any girls at all. And already it looked like it wasn’t going any further.
“Yeah, well, forget all that nah. Is every week you seeing she,” Atma said. “If anybody see you, say she in Hindi class and teaching you. And you shame she have to teach you so that’s why you didn’t say nothing. Problem solve.”
“Let we see if it go be so easy,” Anil said.
As they arrived back to Anil’s yard, the sound of the television could be heard even from the road out front. That meant that no one was actually watching it. Both of Anil’s parents liked the television to be on and even if they weren’t in the room, they liked to be able to hear what was happening so they could rush back for the important bits.
Atma wondered about that for a moment, as Anil’s mother was a huge fan of Indian soap operas.
“How your mother does know when to go and watch the tv if she outside the room, once the volume loud?” Atma asked.
“But you just answer your own question. If the volume loud she go hear when anything good going on and go.”
“But she don’t talk Hindi, how she go know when anything to see happening?”
“With them shows, the same music does play when anything going to happen. Is that she go be listening for,” Anil said.
Atma listened for music but as they got closer it was apparent by the sound of Michael Holding’s voice that it was Anil’s father who had the television on.
“Remember back in the days when we used to play real cricket?” Anil reminisced.
“Them was good days. I used to real feel I could have play for West Indies,” Atma said.
“Even them who playing for West Indies don’t want to play. That strike last year go cause we to have to keep paying India board all the money we make until long after them same players who didn’t want to play can’t even hold a bat.”
“Remember when they strike and they pick a set of university men to play Bangladesh?” Atma said. “I feel I could do as much as them. Because half of them didn’t do nothing anyway. That was the chance for me and cricket there. Then I was going places.”
“Is because of cricket you went any place. All the time you spending with a set of Indian fellas, that is how you come and watching Bollywood and want to talk Hindi. I don’t know about the dance though. You didn’t pick that up from none of the fellas.”
“We used to real want to go India,” Atma said.
“That was madness. I don’t know why we ever wanted to go there for,” Anil said. “If it was a place to be, all my family would have still be there. They wouldn’t have bother and come here. Nobody jumping on no boat to a place they never hear about unless where they is, is place to run from.”
“But that was then. Things better now.”
“Things better if you have money. But life was nice if you had money back in the days too. You don’t have money here, how you go make money in India where it have twenty people for every job?”
“Yeah, but none of them is me. If Robin Singh could go India and make the team when he couldn’t even get in West Indies, anything could happen,” Atma said.
“Robin Singh is ah Indian who went India. It not so easy but I feel he was blending in easier than you,” Anil said.
“During IPL I go blend in easy. And Viv manage alright in Bollywood.”
“Unless you find cricket talent overnight, I don’t feel that option working for you. Twenty four late to now start the professional career,” Anil said. “What you pushing all this India talk for? We not going nowhere. Two of we here in this place till we dead.”
Atma knew Anil believed that and wasn’t happy about believing it. But he also knew Anil had no idea how to ever leave the island, despite having spent hours every week considering the topic with the help of the internet, until he finally resigned himself to a life in Trinidad.
“They offer me scholarship,” Atma said.
“Who offer you scholarship? To do what? Since when you studying and thing?”
“Indian Government. Is to study dance. The Institute know I reach as far as I could reach here so they push for me to further myself. Is only today I find out,” Atma said.
“And you didn’t tell nobody? I thought two of we is friends.”
“I didn’t even know they put me forward for it until today. All I know was they say the scholarship exist and that was it. And is you I telling first. Before my mother and father and anybody.”
“Them not going to like that you going India at all. Your father mightn’t care so much. He like free thing. But your mother go be real vex,” Anil said.
“Not even a little bit. But I have to go,” Atma said.
“Yeah, no question, for sure you must go. Any chance to get away is something you can’t let pass you. I go see you in a Bollywood movie one day.”
“This go be real madness, you know,” Atma said.
“It was madness from the day you start dancing.”
Shastri Sookdeo is a Trinidadian writer, born in Toronto and now living in Paris. His fiction has been published in the magazines Saltfront and Thoughtful Dog. He was a participant in the 2012 Cropper Foundation’s Creative Writers Workshop in Balandra, Trinidad.