Issue 19, Summer 1958
I never knew her real name and it is quite likely that she did have one, though I never heard her called anything but Gold Teeth. She did, indeed, have gold teeth. She had sixteen of them. She had married early and she had married well, and shortly after her marriage she exchanged her perfectly sound teeth for gold ones, to announce to the world that her husband was a man of substance.
Even without her gold teeth my aunt would have been noticeable. She was short, scarcely five foot, and she was fat, horribly, monstrously fat. If you saw her in silhouette you would have found it difficult to know whether she was facing you or whether she was looking sideways.
She ate little and prayed much. Her family being Hindu, and her husband being a pundit, she too was an orthodox Hindu. Of Hinduism she knew little apart from the ceremonies and the taboos, and this was enough for her. Gold Teeth saw God as a Power, and religious ritual as a means of harnessing that Power for great practical good, her good.
I fear I may have given the impression that Gold Teeth prayed because she wanted to be less fat. The fact was that Gold Teeth had no children, and she was almost forty. It was her childlessness, not her fat, that oppressed her, and she prayed for the curse to be removed. She was willing to try any means — any ritual, any prayer — in order to trap and channel the supernatural Power.
And so it was that she began to indulge in surreptitious Christian practices.
She was living at the time in a country village called Cunupia, in County Caroni. Here the Canadian Mission had long waged war against the Indian heathen, and saved many. But Gold Teeth stood firm. The Minister of Cunupia expended his Presbyterian piety on her; so did the headmaster of the Mission school. But all in vain. At no time was Gold Teeth persuaded even to think about being converted. The idea horrified her. Her father had been in his day one of the best-known Hindu pundits, and even now her husband's fame as a pundit, as a man who could read and write Sanskrit, had spread far beyond Cunupia. She was in no doubt whatsoever that Hindus were the best people in the world, and that Hinduism was a superior religion. She was willing to select, modify and incorporate alien eccentricities into her worship; but to abjure her own faith — never!
Presbyterianism was not the only danger the good Hindu had to face in Cunupia. Besides, of course, the ever-present threat of open Muslem aggression, the Catholics were to be reckoned with. Their pamphlets were everywhere and it was hard to avoid them. In them Gold Teeth read of novenas and rosaries, of squads of saints and angels. These were things she understood and could even sympathize with, and they encouraged her to seek further. She read of the mysteries and the miracles, of penances and indulgences. Her scepticism sagged, and yielded to a quickening, if reluctant, enthusiasm.
One morning she took the train for the county town of Chaguanas, three miles, two stations and twenty minutes away. The church of St. Philip and St. James in Chaguanias stands imposingly at the end of the Caroni Savannah Road, and although Gold Teeth knew Chaguanas well, all she knew of the church was that it had a clock, at which she had glanced on her way to the Railway Station nearby. She had hitherto been far more interested in the drab ochre-washed edifice opposite, which was the Police Station.
She carried herself into the churchyard, awed by her own temerity, feeling like an explorer in a land of cannibals. To her relief, the church was empty. It was not as terrifying as she had expected. In the gilt and the images and the resplendent cloths she found much that reminded her of her Hindu temple. Her eyes caught a discreet sign: CANDLES TWO CENTS EACH. She undid the knot in the end of her veil, where she kept her money, took out three cents, popped them into the box, picked up a candle and muttered a prayer in Hindustani. A brief moment of elation gave way to a sense of guilt, and she was suddenly anxious to get away from the church as fast as her weight would let her.
She took a bus home, and hid the candle in her chest-of-drawers. She had half feared that her husband's Brahminical flair for clairvoyance would have uncovered the reason for her trip to Chaguanas. When after four days, which she spent in an ecstasy of prayer, her husband had mentioned nothing, Gold Teeth thought it safe to burn the candle. She burned it secretly, at night, before her Hindu images and sent up, as she thought, prayers of double efficacy.
Everyday her religious schizophrenia grew, and presently she began wearing a crucifix. Neither her husband nor her neighbours knew she did so. The chain was lost in the billows of fat around her neck, and the crucifix was itself buried in the valley of her gargantuan breasts. Later she acquired two holy pictures, one of the Virgin Mary, the other of the crucifixion, and took care to conceal them from her husband. The prayers she offered to these Christian things filled her with new hope and buoyancy. She became an addict of Christianity.
Then her husband, Ramprasad, fell ill.
Ramprasad's sudden, unaccountable illness alarmed Gold Teeth. It was, she knew, no ordinary illness, and she knew too that her religious transgression was the cause. The District Medical Officer at Chaguanas said it was diabetes but Gold Teeth knew better. To be on the safe side, though, she used the insulin he prescribed, and, to be even safer, she consulted Ganesh Pundit, the masseur with mystic leanings, celebrated as a faith-healer.
Ganesh came all the way from Feunte Grove to Cunupia. He came in great humility, anxious to serve Gold Teeth's husband, for Gold Teeth's husband was a Brahmin among Brahmins, a Panday, a man who knew all five Vedas; while he, Ganesh, was a mere Chaubay and knew only four.
With spotless white koortah, his dhoti cannily tied, and a tasselled green scarf as a concession to elegance, Ganesh exuded the confidence of the professional mystic. He looked at the sick man, observed his pallor, sniffed the air inquiringly. “This man,” he said slowly, “is bewitched. Seven spirits are upon him.”
He was telling Gold Teeth nothing she didn't know. She had known from the first that there were spirits in the affair, but she was glad that Ganesh had ascertained their number.
“But you mustn't worry,” Ganesh added. “We will ‘tie’ the house — in spiritual bonds — and no spirit will be able to come in.”
Then without being asked, Gold Teeth brought out a blanket, folded it, placed it on the floor and invited Ganesh to sit on it. Next she brought him a brass jar of fresh water, a mango leaf and a plate full of burning charcoal.
“Bring me some ghee,” Ganesh said, and after Gold Teeth had done so, he set to work. Muttering continuously in Hindustani he sprinkled the water from the brass jar around him with the mango leaf. Then he melted the ghee in the fire and the charcoal hissed so sharply that Gold Teeth could not make out his words. Presently he rose and said, “You must put some of the ash of this fire on your husband's forehead, but if he doesn't want you to do that, mix it with his food. You must keep the water in this jar and place it every night before your front door.”
Gold Teeth pulled her veil over her forehead.
Ganesh coughed. “That,” he said, rearranging his scarf, “is all. There is nothing more I can do. God will do the rest.”
He refused any payment for his services. It was enough honor, he said, for a man as humble as he was to serve Pundit Ramprasad, and she, Gold Teeth, had been singled out by fate to be the spouse of such a worthy man. Gold Teeth received the impression that Ganesh spoke from a first-hand knowledge of fate and its designs, and her heart, buried deep down under inches of mortal, flabby flesh, sank a little.
“Baba,” she said hesitantly, “Revered father, I have something to say to you.” But she couldn't say anything more and Ganesh, seeing this, filled his eyes with charity and love.
“What is it, my child?”
“I have done a great wrong, Baba.”
“What sort of wrong?” he asked, and his tone indicated that Gold Teeth could do no wrong.
“I have prayed to Christian things.”
And to Gold Teeth's surprise, Ganesh chuckled benevolently. “And do you think God minds, daughter? There is only one God and different people pray to Him in different ways. It doesn't matter how you pray, but God is pleased if you pray at all.”
“So it is not because of me that my husband has fallen ill?”
“No, to be sure, daughter.”
In his professional capacity Ganesh was consulted by people of many faiths, and with the licence of the mystic he had exploited the commodiousness of Hinduism, and made room for all beliefs. In this way he had many clients, as he called them, many satisfied clients.
Henceforth Gold Teeth not only pasted Ramprasad's pale forehead with the sacred ash Ganesh had prescribed, but mixed substantial amounts with his food. Ramprasad's appetite, enormous even in sickness, diminished; and he shortly entered into a visible and alarming decline that mystified his wife.
She fed him more ash than before, and when it was exhausted and Ramprasad perilously macerated, she fell back on the Hindu wife's last resort. She took her husband home to her mother. That venerable lady, my grandmother, lived with us in Port of Spain, in Woodbrook.
Ramprasad was tall and skeletal, and his face was grey. The virile voice that had expounded a thousand theological points and recited a hundred puranas was now a wavering whisper. We cooped him up in a room called, oddly, ‘the pantry’. It had never been used as a pantry and one can only assume that the architect, in the idealistic manner of his tribe, had so designated it some forty years before. It was a tiny room. If you wished to enter the pantry you were compelled, as soon as you opened the door, to climb on to the bed: it fitted the room to a miracle. The lower half of the walls were concrete, the upper close lattice-work; there were no windows.
My grandmother had her doubts about the suitability of the room for a sick man. She was worried about the lattice-work. It let in air and light, and Ramprasad was not going to die from these things if she could help it. With card-board, oil-cloth and canvas, she made the lattice-work air-proof and light-proof.
And, sure enough, within a week Ramprasad's appetite returned, insatiable and insistent as before. My grandmother claimed all the credit for this, though Gold Teeth knew that ash she had fed him had not been without effect. Then she realized with horror that she had ignored a very important thing. The house in Cunupia had been tied and no spirits could enter, but the house in Woodbrook had been given no such protection and any spirit could come and go as it chose. The problem was pressing.
Ganesh was out of the question. By giving his services free, he had made it impossible for Gold Teeth to call him in again. But thinking in this way of Ganesh, she remembered his words: “It doesn't matter how you pray, but God is pleased if you pray at all.”
Why not, then, bring Christiantiy into play again?
She didn't want to take any chances this time. She decided to tell Ramprasad.
He was propped up in bed, and eating. When Gold Teeth opened the door, he stopped eating and blinked at the unwonted light. Gold Teeth, stepping into the doorway and filling it, shadowed the room once more and he went on eating. She placed the palms of her hands on the bed. It creaked.
“Man,” she said.
Ramprasad continued to eat.
“Man,” she said in English, “I thinking about going to the chu’ch to pray. You never know, and it better to be on the safe side. After all, the house here aint tied—”
“I don't want you to pray in no chu’ch,” he whispered, in English too.
Gold Teeth did the only thing she could do. She began to cry.
Three days in succession she asked his permission to go to church, and his opposition weakened in the face of her tears. He was now, besides, too weak to oppose anything. Although his appetite had returned he was still very ill and very weak, and every day his condition became worse.
On the fourth day he said to Gold Teeth, “Well, pray to Jesus and go to chu’ch if it will put your mind at rest.”
And Gold Teeth straight away set about putting her mind at rest. Every morning she took the trolly bus to the Holy Rosary Church, to offer worship in her private way. Then she was emboldened to bring a crucifix and pictures of the Virgin and the Messiah into the house. We were all somewhat worried by this, but Gold Teeth’s religious nature was well known to us, her husband was a learned pundit and when all was said and done this was an emergency, a matter of life and death. So we could do nothing but look on. Incense and camphor and ghee burned now before the likenesses of Krishna and Shiva as well as Mary and Jesus. Gold Teeth revealed an appetite for prayer that equalled her husband's for food, and we marvelled at both, if only because neither prayer nor food seemed to be of any use to Ramprasad.
One evening, shortly after bell and gong and conch-shell had announced that Gold Teeth's official devotions were almost over, a sudden chorus of lamentation burst over the house, and I was summoned to the room reserved for prayer. “Come quickly, something dreadful has happened to your aunt.”
The prayer-room, still heavy with the fumes of incense, presented an extraordinary sight. Before the Hindu shrine, flat on her face, Gold Teeth lay prostrate, rigid as a sack of flour, a large amorphous mass. I had only seen Gold Teeth standing or sitting, and the aspect of Gold Teeth prostrate, so novel and so grotesque, was disturbing.
My grandmother, an alarmist by nature, bent down and put her ear to the upper half of the body on the floor. “I don't seem to hear her heart,” she said.
We were all somewhat terrified. We tried to lift Gold Teeth but she seemed as heavy as lead. Then, slowly, the body quivered. The flesh beneath the clothes rippled, then billowed, and the children in the room sharpened their shrieks. Instinctively we all stood back from the body and waited to see what was going to happen. Gold Teeth's hand began to pound the floor and at the same time she began to gurgle.
My grandmother had grasped the situation. “She's got the spirit,” she said.
At the word 'spirit', the children shrieked louder, and my grandmother slapped them into silence.
The gurgling resolved itself into words pronounced with a lingering ghastly quaver. “Hail Mary, Hara Ram,” Gold Teeth said, “the snakes are after me. Everywhere snakes. Seven snakes. Rama! Rama! Full of grace. Seven spirits leaving Cunupia by the four o'clock train for Port of Spain.”
My grandmother and my mother listened eagerly, their faces lit up with pride. I was rather ashamed at the exhibition, and annoyed with Gold Teeth for putting me into a fright. I moved towards the door.
“Who is that going away? Who is the young daffar, the unbeliever?” the voice asked abruptly.
“Come back quickly, boy,” my grandmother whispered, “Come back and ask her pardon.”
I did as I was told.
“It is all right, son,” Gold Teeth replied, “You don't know. You are young.”
Then the spirit appeared to leave her. She wrenched herself up to a sitting position and wondered why we were all there. For the rest of that evening she behaved as if nothing had happened and she pretended she didn't notice that everyone was looking at her and treating her with unusual respect.
“I have always said it, and I will say it again,” my grandmother said, “that these Christians are very religious people. That is why I encouraged Gold Teeth to pray to Christian things.”
Ramprasad died early next morning and we had the announcement on the radio after the local news at one o'clock. Ramprasad’s death was the only one announced and so, although it came between commercials, it made some impression. We buried him that afternoon in Mucurapo Cemetery.
As soon as we got back my grandmother said, “I have always said it, and I will say it again: I don't like these Christian things. Ramprasad would have got better if only you, Gold Teeth, had listened to me and not gone running after these Christian things.”
Gold Teeth sobbed her assent; and her body squabbered and shook as she confessed the whole story of her trafficking with Christianity. We listened in astonishment and shame. We didn't know that a good Hindu, and a member of our family, could sink so low. Gold Teeth beat her breast and pulled ineffectually at her long hair and begged to be forgiven. “It is all my fault,” she cried. “My own fault, Ma. I fell in a moment of weakness. Then I just couldn't stop.”
My grandmother’s shame turned to pity. “It's all right, Gold Teeth. Perhaps it was this you needed to bring you back to your senses.”
That evening Gold Teeth ritually destroyed every reminder of Christianity in the house.
“You have only yourself to blame,” my grandmother said, “if you have no children now to look after you.”