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Fat Always Floats to the Top (standard:travel stories, 4150 words)
Author: JuggernautAdded: Nov 18 2010Views/Reads: 1598/1114Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
A short biographical sketch
 



Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story

short stocky man in tight clothing, dropped her in front of the 
laboratory and again picked her up in his small Morris Minor, a 
British-made car, in the evening. Ms. John in her regular uniform, a 
leaf green or rusty brown skirt, slowly climbed the steps to get into 
our laboratory carrying a big bag containing an assortment of things. 

Almost every day, she left a fruit such as banana, orange, sapodilla, or
mango in a wrinkled brown paper bag on my desk for me. This she did for 
almost four years while I worked as a graduate student. Other students 
in the laboratory always asked me, “ How come Ms. John gets something 
everyday for you and not for us?” 

My only answer was, “I don't know,” and then I placed my hand on my
heart and said “ perhaps good heart.” Frankly, I really did not know 
the answer myself. 

Ms. John was a kind old lady and I was not even a native of Trinidad. I
came from overseas as a graduate student and yet within a few days 
after I arrived, we developed a fondness for each other. She sometimes 
sat on the laboratory stool to rest her head on one end of the 
broomstick to relax. She suffered from blood pressure or some kind of 
ailment for which she took some medication. I always took time, even 
few minutes, to talk to her; inquiring about her health or something 
like that, unlike other graduate students. 

Once, she left a few pieces of circular-shaped, thick round white flat
bread in a plastic bag on my desk. In a hurry, I tried to take a bite. 
It was hard and unpalatable. I knew it was something edible but needed 
some preparation so I asked Ms. John what it was. 

“Oh, I thought you would know it, it is baamy, made from cassava flour;
first you soak it in milk for few minutes prior to frying on a skillet, 
and eat with bulljol (fried salt fish and tomatoes), it tastes good, I 
tell you,” she said, with a smile showing her loose dentures. 

“You don't have to bring every day something for me, Ms. John,” I said
fondly. 

“I don't bring anything fancy, just a fruit once in a while,” she said,
walking slowly with her broomstick. 

A few years after I left Trinidad, I was told that she died from chronic
illness. I always remember her saying to me, “You work hard naah, you 
don't skylark like others.” Skylark is a local expression for playing 
the fool. Ms. John figured out that I was different, I was not sure in 
what way. Perhaps unlike other students, I acknowledged her presence 
and treated kindly. And, she reciprocated. The result was mutual 
affection and respect. 

Tom White, a student from England, and I were both post-graduate
students in our department, and both applied for a job supported by 
grants from Tom's native country. At the time of job interviews, I had 
completed my graduate work and The University Academic Committee had 
already approved my thesis whereas Tom was still working on his. Though 
we were equally qualified, since my thesis was approved and immediately 
available for the job, I expected to be selected. After the interviews, 
Tom was offered the job. 

After Tom accepted the contract, the University Academic Committee
rejected his thesis and he was asked to repeat some portions of his 
work for re-validation. The project for which Tom was selected could 
not get off the ground since Tom had to continue his graduate work. The 
selection committee had no choice but to give Tom a year of absence 
from the position even before he started the work. 

It was absurd that I was sitting unemployed with sufficient knowledge to
do the work in the department, and yet the person selected for the job 
was on leave even before he started. The selecting committee members in 
selecting the candidate for the job were highly educated, no non-sense 
professionals and yet used simple reasoning in decision making; the job 
went to the person from the country of origin of the funding agency. 
Here, the well-trained minds acted in a simplistic manner to arrive at 
a decision that was too obvious. It is like throwing a piece of fat 
into a pail of water. What did anybody expect? The fat flowed to the 
top of the water. 

Dr. Kumar came to the campus as a senior research scholar from
Minnesota. Everybody noticed that he was working hard to maintain his 
American accent acquired during his short stay in the United States. He 
was originally from a Province in India known for droughts, floods and 
bandits. The bandits had abandoned their business since they couldn't 
compete with bureaucrats and politicians in the local government. He 
told me once that he was a Brahmin but married a Christian girl since 
he didn't believed in caste or religion as did many Indians. His 
tolerance and broad-minded approach toward inter-religious marriage 
forty years ago was commendable coming from the Province known for 
religious prejudices. 

At the beginning, for some reason, Dr. Kumar expected a special
treatment from the department staff, perhaps because of his American 
education. Some technicians called him “Yankee” behind his back. He 
made his technicians work very hard. Trinidad society for the most part 
was laid back and liked to fete (dance and be merry) throughout the 
year. The Calendar year in Trinidad had three seasons, Cricket, 
Christmas and Carnival; in short 3 C's. Most visiting staff to the 
campus quickly joined the local crowd to celebrate the 3 C's throughout 
their tenure, though some leave on their own or get fired or stay put 
for ever. 

Dr. Kumar was one of a kind, who resisted joining the crowd to his
peril. He became a loner, working harder and harder in the lab and 
drinking rum, harder and harder at home. During one summer, he took a 
short sabbatical out of the country. He asked Jim O'Brien, a graduate 
student from Ireland to take care of his car, a Ford Escort in his 
absence. Crazy Jim went wild with that opportunity. 

One evening, crazy Jim invited me and Ramoutar, a Trinidadian student to
go with him to Maracas beach, one of the better beaches on the northern 
coastal areas of Trinidad. We traveled in Dr. Kumar's car with Crazy 
Jim at the steering wheel. I sat in the back seat scared of Jim's 
driving shenanigans particularly when he was drinking and driving at 
the same time. It was almost midnight at the beach. Crazy Jim and 
Ramoutar were drinking rum and coke while I settled for plain coke. In 
the moonlight, two or three girls splashed water in provocative way and 
challenged us to join them. Both Crazy Jim and Ramoutar saw an 
opportunity but I smelled a rat. 

“ Let me and Ramoutar check out those girls first, if we get lucky, then
you can follow us,” said crazy Jim and without giving me a chance to 
reply, they both undressed and ran into the water. 

I was sitting on the sand with their wet clothes strewn around me. Then,
I heard some loud cuss words coming from the bushes not too far away. 
Three rough looking East Indian men with long hair and beer bellies, 
apparently drinking in the bushes behind us, went running toward the 
water hurling obscenities at Jim and Ramoutar to get away from their 
women. 

It was a set up. I didn't expected lonely girls swimming at midnight and
asking strangers to join them. Both Crazy Jim and Ramoutar, 
embarrassed, muttering something, crept back toward me, dripping water. 
They felt stupid for running like that and exposing their selfish 
instincts to grab the half-naked girls for themselves. On the way back, 
they begged me not to mention this episode to anybody in the 
department. 

I sat in a crouched position in the back seat while Jim drove on and off
the pavement. The back seats were stained with food and liquor. The 
floor was littered with empty beer cans, bottles, cigarette butts and 
condoms. The seat belts were torn apart. At one stage, Ramourtar 
steered the car away from hitting an electric pole and kept shouting at 
Jim to calm down and get a grip on himself. That was the last time I 
went out with Crazy Jim. During the next few weeks, Jim wrecked the old 
car by driving everywhere with his friends, on the beaches, on and off 
the pavements, hilltops and through dangerous slopes. The car was 
beyond recognition by the time Dr. Kumar returned from the vacation. 
The funny thing was, Dr. Kumar hardly knew crazy Jim before he handed 
over the car keys for safekeeping. Dr. Kumar knows me as a compatriot 
since we were both originally from the same country, though for some 
reason, my relation with him started on a sour note. 

Twenty years after leaving Trinidad, I accidentally met Dr Kumar in
Chicago and I mentioned crazy Jim and the car-wreck incident. Dr. Kumar 
looked at me suspiciously with a smile as if he learned something from 
that even though he never revealed what it was. What had surprised me 
was Dr. Kumar, a highly educated man for his simple thinking process, 
left the car with Jim because of his nationality. 

“Doc” was not a real doctor but a cabdriver and a part-time mechanic in
rural Eastern Trinidad. When I was introduced to him as “doctor,” he 
asked if was a real doctor and could treat his sick wife Drupathi, a 
pale woman standing next to him. I tried to explain that I was not a 
medical doctor but a doctor of science, but his wife kept pointing to 
her stomach complaining how it hurt all the time and the doctor at the 
local hospital was of no help. I sidestepped her questions politely and 
asked Doc, “How come everybody here calls you Doc?” He scratched his 
head and said sheepishly “I fix cars naah, and people down here call me 
Doc” 

Drupathi, Doc's wife, in a hurry prepared Roti (Indian flat bread) and
curry- chicken for me, and gave me sorrel, a slightly sour-tasting and 
yet pleasant drink. Their house was a typical rural Trinidad home build 
with concrete blocks. The ground floor had no partition walls, and was 
a multipurpose area used as a car garage and workshop, for washing and 
drying clothes, a gathering area for drinking rum, feasting and 
partying, and sometimes conducting Hindu religious ceremonies. The 
upstairs was the living quarters and the galvanized metal roofing also 
served the purpose of collecting rainwater for storage to use for 
bathing and all-purpose washing. 

Doc's eldest daughter kept staring at me; perhaps my accent attracted
her attention. The other three children were livelier and kept asking 
questions about Indian movies. One of the Doc's sons, with bright eyes 
and his hair cut close to the scalp asked me why the movie stars were 
always fair skinned though most Indians are brown or dark. It was a 
clever observation. “They put on lots of makeup to look pretty, you 
know,” I said. “But the villain is always dark-skinned, like you and 
me, yes?” They all laughed. 

Doc was so honored meeting me, he said, I should go hunting with him
that night and have a “late-night cooking” at Roy's rum shop. I had 
never been hunting in my life, let alone shooting an animal. Roy, an 
East Indian owner of a small grocery and liquor store nearby, was one 
of those Indians with fair skin, walked sideways in slow motion 
carrying his short, fat body as if he was walking on skis. “Daddy,” 
another member of the hunting team that night, was in his late 
twenties, but for some reason everybody called him “Daddy”, and when I 
did, I can see he was happy from his broad smile and he shook hands 
with me at every opportunity. 

The hunt started after 10 PM. I asked Doc, “what we were hunting?” 

“ Manicou, the meat is sweet, sweet, you know, all we have to do is stew
it with tomatoes and some soy sauce, and Roy is the best cook around,” 
replied Doc with a twinkle in his eyes. 

Was “manicou” a large animal or what?” I was curious. 

“ Naah, it is small animal that climb trees using its tail and preys on
poultry you know, that's why it's meat taste so good,” said Daddy 
licking his lips with tip of his tongue. 

Doc's two mongrel dogs came along with us to track the “manicou.” After
walking in the bushes for a few hours, the two dogs started barking at 
a tree. The men, using flashlights searched the tree. Doc was excited 
to find the animal and without any prior notice gave his gun to me and 
shouted, “shoot it”. 

“Doc, never before have I held a gun in my hand, if I miss the animal,
it might escape and the entire evening would be ruined,” I said and 
gave the gun back to him to shoot. He fired only one shot. 

When “manicou” dropped to the ground, I realized the animal was a large
ugly- looking opossum, I would never touch that either living or dead, 
let alone eat it. With a knife, Daddy ripped the animal stomach and 
threw the inner organs to the dogs. He threw the meat into a plastic 
bag for cooking at Roy's place. We all walked back to Roy's store. 
Somehow, I managed not eating the “manicou stew” in Roy's storefront 
house. As a Brahmin, it took me several years to break the taboo of not 
eating regular meat like poultry and lamb, but I could never bring 
myself to eat opossum. That was my first and last hunting trip. 

Apparently Roy inherited the shop from his uncle who had no children of
his own. Roy never attended high school, was soft-spoken, and very 
friendly. People suspected that he was impotent since he never married 
nor had a girl friend. He started drinking rum early and developed more 
of a liking toward rum than women. Nobody knows whether impotence made 
him drink hard or hard drinking made him impotent. His small shop at 
the street corner catered simple groceries such as rice, flour, cooking 
oil, sugar, salt, salt fish, canned food, and liquor to the people 
around the area. 

Whenever I visited Roy's store, I made myself comfortable sitting on a
stack of hundred-pound rice or flour bags. Roy either stood with his 
fat hands resting on the wooden worn-out greasy counter on the other 
side, or sat on a wooden stool, but always with a drink in one hand, 
even while serving his customers. Over ninety percent of his customers 
were east Indians and the rest were of African decent and mixed race or 
dougla people. An old Native Carib Indian woman often visited the 
store. Young people provoked her by calling her “Agouti” just to hear 
real cuss words from her. I understood from Roy that “Agouti” was a 
large rodent, hunted for meat in the area. She begged for free drinks 
of rum or beer from the shop customers and I suspected she entertained 
them with her real cuss words, from easy provocation from people around 
her. 

During one of my subsequent visits, “Daddy” once showed me lyrics for a
calypso he was working on. This was how it read: 

Caroni Women 

Your kiss is sweet like cane juice, Caroni Women. 

Your sweaty hug is sweet and sticky like dark molasses, Caroni Women. I
love your dark dangling long hair, Caroni Women. 

I like the way you look when you bend down to plant rice,Caroni Women. 

I love your Roti and Bigan Baaji, Caroni Women. 

Pullori, jellabi, kachori, I love everything you cook,Caroni Women. 

Getting out of Caroni swamp is easy than breaking up with you Caroni
Women. 

No matter what anybody say your are cool, Caroni women. 

“That was good, Daddy. But, the lyrics and melody sounds familiar to me,
may be I heard it before,” I said hesitantly, not to disappoint him. 

“Well, the melody is the same in any calypso, you know. It is work in
progress; I am still working on the lyrics. Once it is played on the 
steel band, this will be good for the Road March competition next year 
you know, I am telling you,” said Daddy and shook my hands as a promise 
of assurance. 

I visited Doc, Daddy and Roy a few times during the end of my student
career, and before I left Trinidad for good. I had a feeling that these 
men with limited formal education felt honored liming (going around) 
with me because of my university education and I being from India, the 
country of their forefathers. I enjoyed their fellowship and downright 
honesty. I was grateful to Doc and his family for their hospitality and 
Roy for offering me free drinks in his store and Daddy for his kind 
friendly gestures. 

Several years after I left Trinidad, I returned to attend a scientific
meeting. I couldn't wait to meet my old friends only to discover that 
Roy died from cirrhosis of liver, Daddy managed to leave for Brooklyn, 
New York and currently operates a small Roti shop serving East Indian 
dishes. Doc died from natural illness and his family moved away. The 
corner store where Roy spent his short-lived life was abandoned and 
dilapidated. Tropical vegetation took over the wooden building. When I 
asked about Agouti, the old carib woman, people laughed and said, “Man, 
she dead long time ago.” 

I worked in Jamaica for some years, a great place to live particularly
in the interior regions. The Civil Supplies Department in Kingston was 
in charge of providing furniture to overseas visiting specialists as an 
incentive. One day I went to Kingston to meet with Mr. Lafayette, a 
brown-skinned Jamaican of mixed race, in charge of delivering 
furniture. After going through the list I needed, we waited for the 
truck to arrive to haul the furniture to my home, which was just over 
two hundred miles away. Lafayette asked me whether I could go with him 
to a nearby parlor or a street corner shop for a sandwich. 

As we sat down, he said, “would you please order a drink of white rum
and milk, that goes well with corned beef sandwich for me.” 

I brought him a drink and sandwich and I brought myself a soda and
sandwich. 

“White rum is good you know, brown rum gives me headaches,” said
Lafayette and gulped the entire contents in one shot. 

He ate large chunks of sandwich for each bite saying “Ya mon, milk is
good you know, it will tone down the hot liquor,” and then looked at 
the bottom of his empty glass as if expecting me to order more. 

I ordered a few more drinks of rum and milk along with the sandwiches.
He swallowed the drink and ate the sandwich, alternatively; liquid and 
solid. His cheeks bulged and fell flat like waves at a coastline as he 
took big bites anxiously. 

There was a pool table and a skittles table in the parlor. “You know how
to play skittles?” Without waiting for my reply, he rushed to one end 
of the table and started explaining how to play the game. 

It took some time to understand while he was beating me in every game.
Once I understood and started playing skillfully, Lafayette got 
animated and started yelling “You scamp, you know how to play the game 
from the beginning, you just pretended as if you don't.” I was 
embarrassed while other bystanders were looking at our game. 

The liquor was working on him. So, I intentionally lost games to cheer
him up. I had no choice but to bear with him until the truck arrived 
that evening. By that time Lafayette got a grip on himself and came to 
his senses, and started addressing me “Bossi.” I paid some money to 
Lafayette for later drinking and left with the furniture truck. 

I remembered Lafayette the other day, when my daughter read loudly
“Government of Jamaica” on the handle of a butter knife in our house in 
Iowa. When we left Jamaica several years ago, the butter knife was 
inadvertently packed with our own cutlery. I never noticed it until, my 
ten-year old read the vanishing words on the knife with her good 
eyesight. I doubt Lafayette is still alive, but he impressed me with 
his animated actions and words while playing skittles. I didn't mind 
when he started cussing me under the influence of white rum. He was a 
simple man with simple thoughts. 

Outwardly, intellectuals or highly educated people may present
themselves differently than common folks but inwardly they are all 
simple-minded and act accordingly. This would become apparent in some 
situations like a physical simple phenomenon of fat flowing to the top 
of water. For me, it took some to understand this human psychology from 
my experiences with highly educated professors, colleagues in graduate 
school or rum shop owner, car mechanic and an old janitor full of 
affection. 


   


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