Neighbor Ramlall’s Wife

• February 2014

He who abuses his guru will turn into a crow.
—Hindu Scripture

He called out to a strange god, this man with a tangled knot of hair on his head like wires and with eyes that were a veritable hawk’s. Look carefully! Naira kept looking at him from the window on the upper storey of her house across the alleyway. “Why he calling heself a prophet for?” she scorched. Is he a true prophet? “Who’s a prophet anyway?” And the word prophet niggled her in areas of her brain she never thought existed before. Suddenly afraid, she bawled out to her husband, Ramlall, to come and look at the man next door—the same prophet who had a brazen expression on his face.

But Ramlall was attending to his shop in the lower flat of the high-house, since the town customers kept demanding his attention. “Man-Ramlall, come hey!” Naira fretted, louder. “Yes-yes,” he hurled back at her. Naira kept looking from across the terrace and felt light-headed.

She and Ramlall had only recently moved to the town, after they’d been married and lived with the in-laws on the familiar seaside Corentyne district, an East Indian place, as it seemed on the coastal belt. Here now in the town, the asphalt and concrete seared in the heat, since hardly any wind blew. Yes, Ramlall had insisted that they try living in the town among “other people.”

“Wha’ other people?” Naira had snapped.

“You will see.”

“See wha’?”

Stuuupps! He sucked his teeth at her, his familiar response.

Naira still looked over the yard at the Prophet’s gaunt face. There was arrogance in his eyes, and she grew more alarmed. “Is he a true prophet?” she asked, as Ramlall busied himself with the women customers. And the Prophet stared back at her. He did? Getting a good look at her, with her long, jet-black hair adorning her oval face. Naira’s heart beat faster. “Ramlall, come . . . look!

“Look fo’ wha’?” he hollered back and simultaneously wrapped salt-fish with newspaper for Dulleen, whose breasts jutted out across the shop’s counter. Like an afterthought, Ramlall rasped, “Is who, eh?”

“Who you t’ink?” Naira screeched.

WHO?

The Prophet swatted flies round him and swore; his lips quavered, and he felt a gnawing grind in his stomach. Would Naira grudgingly send him the regular fare of rice and curried alloo with scraps of fish after she and Ramlall had eaten in the upstairs flat? Imagine the Prophet gulping down the fare and asking for more.

Real prophet-like, eh?

“Maybe is Moses he think he is,” Ramlall said later that evening, and grinned.

“Who’s Moses?” Naira grated, wiping fish-curry stain from her mouth. Ramlall humoured her by saying Moses was the greatest prophet.

“Greater than Jesus . . . or Muhammad?”

“Eh?” Ramlall was amazed at Naira’s quick-mindedness.

And would she mention the names of other seers, prophets, from the Hindu pantheon? Maybe living in the town was making her become like this, Ramlall figured. But the image of Dulleen’s jutting-out breasts entered his mind once more, and he soon after ran down the stairs, leaving Naira to contemplate the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu with their many arms and legs—the pictures mounted on the wall of the upper flat. Kali’s image, too, she mused.

Then she walked towards the window to look at the man across the yard. The Prophet looked back at her, menacingly. He did? “Real prophet, eh?” Naira breathed in hard. Did he still give her a malevolent look . . . bad-eye? But she kept thinking that their fledgling shop-business would fail if she didn’t give him his daily fare. These townspeople, she lamented. Ramlall, with prescience, hollered back to her: “G’wan, send him more food cause is good luck we gettin’.”

“Yes, luck,” she echoed.

Indeed, Ramlall saw everything as auspicious, with his ingrained Hindu sense. “Some people are like dat,” he snarled.

“Like wha’?” Naira shot back, as she imagined the Prophet smiling as he ate the usual fare. But he never thanked her and Ramlall, did he? “Ingrate!” she let out.

“You should stop lookin’ at him like dat,” Ramlall said, coming back up the stairs.

“Eh?” Naira touched the red tikka on her forehead. But now a new feeling of restlessness entered her . . . maybe from worrying too much about the “Prophet.”

In bed later that evening, Ramlall fidgeted as he thought how different life was for them in the town, far from the Corentyne coast. Naira merely twisted her body next to Ramlall’s, then hissed, “You not asleep yet?”

“Na,” Ramlall rattled. Then, “Wha’ is it?”

Naira said they shouldn’t have left the Corentyne to come and live in the town and meet people, these no-gooders like the Prophet, some who called themselves Rastafarian, with their knotty hair and smoked spliff. Who’re they anyway?

Not like Hindus either? Imagine the goddess Kali looking at this man across the yard, smoking ganja. Indeed, the Prophet’s gaunt face flitted into her mind. In Ramlall’s mind, too? Then, deliberately, with eyes wide open, Naira harangued, “Ramlall, he starvin’.”

“Who starvin’?” he asked, sleepy-headed and all.

“You know who I mean.”

“He not starvin’.”

“Ow, man.” Naira felt empathy go through her.

“Black people never starve,” Ramlall growled, thinking they survived, even if they lived on other people’s beneficence.

Naira kept being riveted to the gaunt face. Really prophet-like?

Ramlall nattered, “Don’t give him more food an’ see how long he go live!”

“No more food?” Naira was aghast. She moved her heavy weight on the bed, and the mattress springs protested. Now, was it a threat . . . or a sinister game Ramlall wanted to play on the man next door? Once more she turned on the bed, wondering if this “neighbor” was a true prophet.

Ramlall growled, “You want to make him get fat? No prophet’s ever fat, Rastafarian or not,” and he almost laughed. Then he tried putting an arm round his wife’s thick waist.

Immediately Naira pulled away. Ramlall resorted to thinking of his shop again and giving special attention to Dulleen, East Indian as she was but with her distinct afro hairstyle. So demanding life was, he moaned. Naira kept thinking.

About the prophet . . . who else?

The house next door was bare looking, not built with concrete like her own, which was a true high-house. Now Naira wanted to tell Ramlall the Prophet was calling out about the “Israelite Nation” . . . and about how the Day of Judgment was at hand. Oh? Naira also listened to heckling sounds with voices coming from the wayward youths across the street.

“Prophet! Prophet!” Then, “Prophet, whe’ you deh?”

“Is you really a Rastaman-Prophet?” drilled another.

The Prophet raised a fist, as Naira watched from the window. And the youths skittered away, but not without letting out more taunts.

“You see how deh torment he,” Naira grated to Ramlall.

“Yes-yes,” he replied, indulging her.

“He still we neighbor,” she entreated.

“Eh?”

Ramlall hurried back down the stairs, leaving Naira to think again about their living in the town . . . so far from India, eh? Why did they have to encounter the likes of the Prophet? And the youths’ taunts grew louder.

“Prophet, is you really a Jordanaire?”

“Come from the Israelite Nation, ha-ha!”

Then, “Why you not become Hindu like Naira an’ Ramlall?”

Did Naira really hear that? The gaunt man stretched out his neck, and squirmed, then pulled his body straight. His ribs jutted out. Naira felt a bulge in her own waist. Then the man turned his hawk-like gaze once more in her direction, but soon after, slowly shifted it to the horizon. He did? Looking into the wilderness, was he?

But he quickly turned and pointed his fingers. At her?

“Oh Gawd,” Naira let out, feeling a strange pain in her stomach.

Ramlall ran back up the stairs, then rushed back down again, Dulleen’s laughter still in his ears. Later Ramlall asked Naira, “Is real belly-ache you have?”

“Yes, man.”

“Why, eh?”

“Why?” She flickered her eyes at him.

Ramlall figured Naira was preoccupied: always listening to the gaunt man talking to his god named Jah, come from a place called Ethiopia, wasn’t she? Yes, town-life was exposing her to the likes of the Prophet, see.

Now belly-ache, eh? What if the Prophet was starting to have this effect on her, he considered, as Naira moaned again. But Ramlall’s thoughts drifted back to their Indian tradition; he kept wanting to live a religious life, which Naira had teased him about. Yes, become a sanyasi. Even the town kids had teased Ramlall about wanting to become a sadhu, didn’t they? Heh-heh-heh! Somewhere Dulleen’s blackguarded laughter rose.

Naira’s thoughts drifted back to what she and Ramlall argued about last night, about the Prophet really coming from a place called Ethiopia. Impulsively she held her hands to her stomach. And did she imagine the gaunt man swimming across rivers to get here? Maybe he really came from a lost tribe in Africa. Not India?

She repeated this to Ramlall, who scoffed, then muttered something about the Ganges River as he invoked the deities Shiva and Vishnu . . . and Kali . . . didn’t he? Naira still held her stomach; would Ramlall invite the pundit to come and say prayers? Unconsciously she moaned, “Wha’ for?”

“Wha’ for?” Ramlall snapped.

See, a puja would bring blessing into their lives; it would help them prosper in their shop-business, Ramlall thought. Maybe, too, it would help Naira cope. “Eh?” Naira rasped, feeling her stomach tighten in knots. “Wha’ now?” Ramlall hissed.

“Nothin’ man.”

When he again ran down the stairs, the customers’ cackles and laughter filled his ears. Yes, real laughter.

Coins clattered, as Varshnie’s and the other women’s voices grew louder, these same women who wore red lipstick and mascara. Naira remained upstairs . . . feeling alone, and she looked across the terrace as before. She listened for the youth’s taunts.

“Prophet, is whe you really come from?”

Then, “Is a Day of Judgment really at hand?”

But what if the Prophet wasn’t the gaunt man’s real name, as Ramlall had said? Naira wasn’t sure what to think anymore. But surely not a name sounding like . . . Garvey. Who’s Marcus Garvey?

“Heh, Mr. Garvey, you’s a real prophet?” another youth trumpeted.

“You t’ink you’s de Lion of Judah?” sang another.

Immediately Naira clutched her stomach. Oddly, she thought of a Day of Judgment at hand. Ramlall hurried back up the stairs and saw his wife’s strained expression. “What’s wid you?” he barked.

“Nothin’.”

“Looking at dat crazy man outside only, eh?”

“He not crazy.”

Ramlall indulged her mood . . . their coping with living in the town.

“Ow, man,” Naira cried in a beseeching voice.

Ramlall twisted his lips. But unconsciously Naira laughed, as she thought of the food she would send to the Prophet—to fatten him up!—as Ramlall muttered to himself about inviting the nasal-sounding Pandit Ramchari to officiate at the puja.

“Wha’ for?” Naira grated.

Ramlall snapped, “You not Hindu anymore?”

She sucked her teeth. Stuupps!

“Because we now live like town-people, eh?” he smirked.

Naira chose the best fried ochra, plantain, and rice to send to the Prophet. Imagine the gaunt man now acknowledging her, though he still figured the town belonged to his Rastafarian sect. And yes, the Day of Judgment was at hand! Again Naira felt her stomach tighten. A shrill wind blew. The genip tree’s branches rustled across the terrace as the Prophet’s eyes bore through the leaves . . . about to jump out at Naira.

All the while the youths kept haranguing. “Prophet, you deh? Yuh still thinkin’ you’re from Israelite Nation?”

“Or you want to start yuh own religion cause Naira feedin’ you well? Heh-heh-heh! When’s the real Day of Judgment comin’?”

To Ramlall, Naira heard herself pityingly say, “We must give him plenty food. If not, skin an’ bones he will become. Look at he, eh!”

Ramlall’s own plate was primed with rice and fish-curry.

Now Naira wanted to remind her husband of the time when indentured laborers—coolies, as their forefathers were called—had been brought to these shores, and how they’d struggled to avoid starvation, didn’t he know?

Ramlall bit into a wiri-wiri pepper, and it stung the tip of his tongue. “Everyone must work hard,” he cried irritably. And he conjured up the nasal-sounding pundit reading from the Ramayana and invoking the deities in this far corner of the world in Guyana. . . as Naira closed her eyes, thinking.

What, really?

Naira walked across the yard to meet the strange-looking man—the Prophet—with his straggly hair going down to his neck in knots. Dread, eh? More of the ache in her stomach she felt. What if this man had special powers—healing powers . . . because he was indeed from the Israelite Nation? All the while, Ramlall stayed in the shop attending to Dulleen, then to Varshnie. Oh, he was ready to meet the pundit, too. And once more Naira felt a niggling sensation . . . the knot in her stomach. But she was determined to meet the gaunt man, and she carried the best fare, like arti, food for the gods. Let Ramlall dwell on the pundit reading from the Ramayana: about Shiva, Vishnu, and Kali. She steadfastly walked across the terrace.

The pundit’s ohms rose. Naira inhaled burning wood and ghee; she walked faster. Ramlall, sitting before the pundit, kept his eyes closed, she imagined. Instinctively, Naira closed her own eyes. The youths’ taunts rose, though the Prophet might have put fear into them about the Day of Judgment. Not the pundit’s nasal whine about fearsome goddess Kali?

Flies flitted about the Prophet’s face; he blinked upon seeing Naira. “Is you?”

“Yes.”

“Why you come?”

“I bring . . . food.”

“I ain’t hungry.”

Naira looked at the man’s mahogany-colored skin; she focused on his long straggly hair in thick knots. “You want to be skin an’ bones, eh?” She forced the words out.

“Let me be,” the Prophet said, then laughed, his teeth white-white.

Naira blinked.

The man stiffened. “I’m a prophet, is why you come to see me?”

“Wha kind o’ prophet?”

He focused on the tikka on Naira’s forehead. And he didn’t want the food because he was proud? But he inhaled the food’s inviting aroma. Naira no longer felt the ache in her stomach, did she? Soon she would return to the high-house to tell Ramlall about her “meeting” with the Prophet. Nasal sounds rose . . . the pundit kept invoking more deities and rang a bell, ritually. And was the Prophet now looking at Naira with askance . . . as the pundit’s ohms grew louder. Sandalwood burned . . . the aroma floating in the air; and the Prophet got a whiff of it across the yard. He quickly opened and closed his eyes.

What kind o’ prophet is yuh? Really from the lost tribe of Israel?

Naira shifted around, still anxious.

The gaunt man lifted his body, and his eyes softened; his long arms appeared limp. The trees shook across the yard. Oh? The Prophet intoned, “Live Clean and Let your Works be Seen.”

“Eh?”

“You hear wha’ I say? I and I . . .” he intoned.

Naira folded and unfolded her arms.

The Prophet repeated his mantra, eyes closed.

Naira also closed her eyes . . . with the pundit’s ohms in the air.

“Live Clean and Let your Works be Seen,” the Prophet kept it up.

Africa . . . itself?

India somewhere, too, with the deities . . . and more ohms resonated in the air. And the knot in Naira’s stomach, well . . . disappeared. She slowly started walking back to her high-house, the Prophet’s eyes following her, it felt like.

Faster she walked.

“Whe’ you been?” Ramlall drilled.

“Nowhere.”

“Eh?” He fidgeted . . . thinking they shouldn’t be living in the town any longer, but should return to the Corentyne Coast where he would read the Ramayana all he liked and live a life of devotion. Would he really?

Naira turned her head, looking across the yard to see if the Prophet was eating the special fare with relish.

Ramlall snickered, “See, he gettin’ fat.”

“Yes, man.”

Dulleen’s laughter floated up from the shop below, inevitably.

Naira merely said what the Prophet had said, about Live . . . Clean.

But Ramlall sprinted back down the stairs. “Busy-busy,” he sang, as Varshnie’s voice crackled in the air. Yes, they were indeed far from the Corentyne Coast. And Naira felt the ache once more.

Trees fluttered their leaves. Naira kept looking . . . for the Prophet, didn’t she?

Naira twisted and turned in bed that night, with the Rastafarian’s words still in her ears: “You treat me wid respect, and I will respect you.” Impulsively she got up and went to the window to see if the Prophet was at his usual spot. A whirring noise . . . wind blowing across the tall flamboyante trees, she heard. Ramlall, half-asleep, murmured about their needing to have a baby. Dreaming . . . or awake? Naira whirred. Like a forewarning?

Ramlall again turned on the bed, then tried putting an arm round his wife, but emptily. “He a real prophet maybe,” he let out, absent-mindedly. Naira kept looking across the terrace. She silently invoked Shiva, then goddess Kali. Then she hummed, “Prophet, you could be a Hindu too, eh?” And, “Will the Day of Judgment soon come?”

She returned to the bed. She let out a moaning sound, hoping that everyone would heed the Prophet’s warning, including the youths. Not the women too, who regularly came to the shop . . . if for her husband Ramlall now to start heeding the Prophet’s warning? Oh, again Naira thought of a lost tribe somewhere in Africa . . . or India? Ramlall tightened an arm round his wife’s waist, with Varshnie’s and Dulleen’s, laughter in his ears.

Yes, once more he turned on the bed, as Naira closed her eyes tightly . . . in darkness.

 

Cyril Dabydeen’s recent books are My Multi-Ethnic Friends and Other Stories (Guernica, 2013) and The Short Stories of Cyril Dabydeen, in the Guyana Classics Series (Caribbean, 2011). He edited Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (TSAR, 2011). A former Poet Laureate of Ottawa, he has published in over seventy literary magazines, including the Critical Quarterly, World Literature Today, Prairie Schooner, Canadian Literature, and the Warwick Review. He is with the University of Ottawa.