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African Writing Archives


Vahni Capildeo

Vahni Capildeo

Capildeo (b. 1973, Trinidad) lives in Oxford. Her work includes No Traveller Returns (Salt, 2003; and Person Animal Figure (Landfill, 2005). Current projects include finishing Dark & Unaccustomed Words (poetry) and finding a publisher for One Scattered Skeleton (non-fiction). She has worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and Girton College, Cambridge. She is a Contributing Editor at the Caribbean Review of Books.

The previously unpublished extracts that follow are from One Scattered Skeleton (completed 2004), a non-fiction memoir on the palimpsestic nature of place, time, and memory, moving between three islands, Trinidad, England and Iceland. The title is from a phrase in the poem 'Till I Collect' by Martin Carter. Other extracts from the memoir have appeared in Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances anthology, Stand Magazine (Leeds), The Caribbean Review of Books, and The Arts Journal (Guyana). It is quoted by Patrick French in his authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul.


 One Scattered Skeleton


“Pig! Pig! You dey, Pig! Open up, Pig! Pig dey? We come to bathe! De back, de front, doesn’t matter! Open up, Pig!” Roshni turns to me, her high voice soft now. She speaks an aside. “Pig lives alone.”

Pig appears.

Roshni strides into his house as of right, towel over her arm. Pig wavers in the background. I am surprised to see how young Pig is: my age, give or take five years. Under his thick black hair his eyes are trapped and apologetic.

I am sorry for Pig, who in some way is our host. Roshni and her family are his neighbours. I am just their visitor, a stranger to the district, who has to come to use Pig’s house to bathe. I try to greet Pig with some formality – he is so ill at ease in his own home. Roshni starts to laugh. She turns to me

“Pig is embarrassed because of what he’s wearing,” she says quite loudly, again as if we were on stage. This is natural. Pig duly pretends to be unable to hear us.

“Oh no, that’s all right, it doesn’t matter . . . it’s very kind . . .” I direct my words halfway between Roshni and the resolutely distant Pig. By the light of the several sixty-watt lamps affixed to the pinkish wall, I finally notice Pig. With desperate modesty, Pig, old-fashioned, is clutching a towel around him. It is a patterned towel, oleander-pink. There is not a lot of it. Pig’s grip does not help much. It wraps like a mini-sarong.

Pig disappears in quest of privacy.

Roshni goes through into a sort of alcove. Sounds of bathing ensue.

Roshni’s little brother and sister, Rudra and Rudri, come tumbling in. Pig had not expected us; we were not expecting them. They have cut between the houses across the strip of grass that, wet with night dew, marks off lawn from forest. They rip and roar around the living room.

It is a pink room. Pig lives alone, but someone has fixed up the place nicely, in Indo-Trinidadian country style. There are artificial flowers, pictures of the gods, and a low-backed living room suite covered with patterned fabric. All these features have a lot of pink. There is a state-of-the-art sound system. Flanking this two china ladies languish bluish-grey and elongated. The lone Pig’s house is something like a home.

Rudri and Rudra switch the sound system on and off, volume turned up high. They hold up CD cases with a critical eye. They flump across the sofa and take possession of Pig’s narrow, shiny diary. It is filled with entries in biro. The writing is neat and not joined up.

Roshni emerges, glittering, refreshed. She does not find anything untoward. She rounds up the children, who have damaged nothing; we are going home. The harmless Pig has not reappeared. Everything has been done with good will. This way of doing things is understood.

As we return in the forest dark, I remember that these are Pandit’s children, though their father is no longer alive. Even to a Brahmin like Pig, whose real name is polysyllabic in the most orthodox way, it means a lot if someone is ‘Pandit’s child’.

This is Cunaripo. The nearest big town is Sangre Grande. Sometimes Roshni catches a taxi in Sangre Grande to go to the school in Tamana where she teaches. If her schoolchildren ever took a trip to Sangre Grande, it would be an occasion. They might dress up in the kind of frilly dress that I do not see English children wearing and that someone in England told me nobody wears nowadays: Sunday best white socks, nylon net skirts, organdie.

How could Sangre Grande be anybody’s big town? Our mother Leila had grown up there in a wooden house. Sent to bed early because she was young (the sixth of eight children), through the slatted wood she overheard stories that kept her very much awake, about the nearby Valencia Forest. Little of that forest has been left standing but what remains has not lost its density. Leila re-told these stories to us in our air-conditioned, burglar-proofed Port-of-Spain house.

As far as my brother Kavi and I were concerned, Sangre Grande was long ago and far away. Its name was romantic and Spanish, meaning ‘Big Blood’. What massacre had happened there – the Arawaks eaten by Caribs, the Caribs raped by Spaniards, the enslaved Africans poisoning their own families when they felt that death was the only escape? We were not informed, at school. It was years before I found out that the name describes the river that runs ferruginous red through iron-rich ground. So nearby Sangre Chiquito, ‘Little Blood’, did not commemorate the site of a skirmish . . .

The Trinidadians took up ‘Sangre Grande’, ‘Big Blood’, as a way of talking about Spanish ancestry. “And the people there have big blood, every lassie, every lad!” the parandero sang.

Back at Roshni’s house we are getting ready for bed.

“You want to use the washroom?” Roshni asks.

“You want to use it?” I answer.

Roshni starts to laugh. “You want to use it?”

We can go round like this for minutes.

“How will we manage?”

She calls her brother in a sharp tone. Roshni’s brother Roshan gets a bucket. He goes to fill it – where from, I am not sure – maybe the water tank? I lock myself into the bathroom for as short a time as possible. I feel ashamed that Roshan, Pandit’s son, will have to pour a bucket of water into the toilet tank so the flush will work. He will go and do this and flush when I am done. Roshan drives all the way to the west coast and back every day for work, and has returned not long ago.

I come out and go into the concrete shower room next door, where the soap is kept. A ledge is built up on the floor to separate the shower area. There is no shower curtain. Two cakes of royal blue soap sit one on top the other on this ledge.

I come out again to the washbasin that is fixed to the corridor wall between the two bathroom areas. This sink projects out openly, useful for the mandatory Brahminical hand washing before food or books can be handled. Roshni stands beside me with a stainless steel tumbler. She pours water for me as I wash my hands and face and clean my contact lenses. This is her grace to her guest. She does not expect me to do the same for her.

Every time I need water during this visit, I feel bad. I feel worse because nobody makes me feel bad. Just suppose I had declared a wish to do a forty-five minute aerobic workout. With typical hospitality, Roshni’s family would have given me all the water I needed to rehydrate and to wash my hair. Of course I don’t do anything like this; I do my best to kick my five-litre-a-day habit, and am astonished at how the body seems to adjust at once, extracting moisture from fruit and mauby, keeping my head clear on one and a half glasses of water for the day, stopping my bowels painlessly. Good faith communities are dangerous to themselves. When the visitor is uneasy, they offer yet more kindness. Somehow Roshni’s family manages to manage, bearing no grudges.

What happened is that the water truck man drove to the top of the slope. He looked down to the house. The dry track that covers the distance between the real road and the house is not so long. But the water truck man shouted across that distance. He wasn’t taking his truck down there. He had a heart condition. He wasn’t going to carry their water down there. He drove away again. The Pandit’s young widow had no chance to offer to carry her household’s water herself from the truck. The family’s water tank got no top-up. The track is dry as chalk, with the grass around it crisping.

Little Rudri is observing us. A look of the quieter person she may grow up to be has slanted across her face, acute and grieving.

“I liked you but I don’t like you any more.”

“But I spent all afternoon with you, until Roshni came back from school!”

The child looks unconvinced.

“Sleep by me. Why you going to sleep by her? Sleep by me!”

“I came to visit her as well, you know.”

There is no way of telling bright children anything but the truth. That afternoon, when my attention had lapsed for less than a minute over the colouring book, Rudri rejected my praise as false and deliberately spoiled the picture. Up till that lapse of mine, Rudri had been using her Crayola crayons to pick out the individual flowers in Vasudeva’s garland, red, blue, green, like Indian enamel work.

I know that sleep would be a long time coming if I shared the children’s room, and there has not been a minute to have a real conversation with Roshni. There is no way that I am going to sleep by Rudri.

She will not be consoled. Her skill at reading people is far beyond her years. Her desolation has the absoluteness of the young. Words will not work with Rudri. I move to hug her, but she half puts me from her. She still likes me too much, and is too well brought up, to push me away.

Sleep may have the power to soothe her.

I have never wished to be a child again.

Now Roshni and I have gone to bed. Both of us are undersized enough to share a double bed with plenty of space in between. She is near the window; there is no air conditioning but I actually find the air cold. The forest has cooled it.

It should be easy to stay awake. We have a lot of conversation to catch up on. It is more than a year since last we met.

The night sounds of the house percolate over the spaces at the top of the dividing walls between this room, the corridor and bathroom. There is no ceiling. We can see the metal roof, built at angles that allow the rain to run off. Orange light glows along the spaces: the television is clearing Roshan’s head of the weary day. The mother is doing something in the kitchen. The younger children are as restless as bananaquits.

Roshni has fallen asleep.

Cunaripo air is so much cleaner than the air in Port-of-Spain that it feels heavy to breathe. There, coming for me, that – that is sleep –

Next morning, without surprise, I go over to Pig’s to do ablutions, standing on the lawn to brush my teeth and spitting into the gutter.

Roshni is going to take me to spend the day at her school in Tamana. She threatens to enlist me to help teach her class. It is a primary school. No pupil is older than eleven or twelve. There are nine children in Roshni’s class. To get to school, some of them wake up at three in the morning. They set off along the forest road (real forest still, where they live) and hitch a ride to some place from which they can walk the five miles to the schoolhouse that sits in a clearing close to where the cocoa begins. Roshni tells me about a troublemaker she had in her class, a four-foot-high ten year old from a very poor background. When an occasion came around for the class to give presents to Miss, he gave her a brown paper bag. The bag was fluttering. Inside was a live bananaquit. He had caught the tiny bird for Miss. She thanked him. He looked up and sideways, having no language for niceness. At the end of the school day, after the child started his route back through nameless places, Roshni let it out. It vanished, a sixty-millimetre flash of yellow.



In July 1990, on our way back from Oxford where I had been casting about for a choice of college, my mother and I caught what turned out to be the last flight in before the airport was closed. There was a Muslim fundamentalist insurrection. A friend called us and told us to turn on the television. In disbelief, we turned it on, and saw a man in white robes announcing that he was our new leader.

There was next to no food in the house; we had left ‘the boys’ to themselves for about ten days.

We carried on as normal and tried to stay below window level, where Kavi sometimes entertained us by quoting Martin Carter’s poems. There was shooting and there were people thudding up and down the street.

The insurrectionists had control of television broadcasting for a short time only. They declared that Trinidad was now a Muslim state, and that there was to be no looting and burning. Looting and burning was proceeding apace in downtown Port-of-Spain. We did not know this, though there were a couple of explosions nearby that shook the house. As the Muslimeen had not got control of the hills, just of the central station, some enterprising people with a mobile unit jammed their broadcasts. These heroes had nothing to jam with – they had to rely on their children’s videocassettes. Pretty soon we had Walt Disney’s Little Mermaid 24/7 on T. V., accompanied by the sounds of a coup meeting with violent resistance. We watched some of the Little Mermaid some of the time. There is great tedium in being indoors like that.

Kavi rigged up an extra long radio aerial (he explained that by convention radio aerials are vertical, but a horizontal one will do just as well) and we listened to broadcasts from other countries to try to find out what was happening.

Utilities were not cut off. Rumours spread. One night everyone telephoned everyone else to say that the Americans were going to liberate us and that they would start by bombing Port-of-Spain. We thought a little about what to do. Then we figured that there was nothing we could do. We went to our beds, fell asleep, and did wake up the next morning. So nobody had liberated us.

Leila defrosted a turkey that had not been used for at least one Christmas (this was August now) and found that it was still good or good enough. A few days further into that week and we had to eat the potatoes that had green bits on them. I ate one of the green bits. Bad idea. I had five minutes of retching with my head held below window level.

We listened to the shooting in the streets and the hills as if it were a kind of broadcast. We could tell the guns of the police because they fired single rounds. The insurrectionists seemed to have some super weapons.

Not long after order was restored but Port-of-Spain was still on twenty-four-hour curfew, my brother had to go back out to work, because he worked at the hospital. The problem with having a medical sticker on your car is that it may not be in view of anyone who wants to shoot on sight. For quite a few weeks after order was said to be restored, there were trucks of people not in uniform or not in recognizable uniform, some dressed all in red, some all in green, carrying big weapons, and the sound of shooting continued in the hills. The army trucks were not a lot more reassuring. It was strange to see Trinidadians with totally serious looks, not a scrap of humanity to spare for a casual-formal hello.

We also had to drive into town as a family, and then we were extra glad of the sticker on the car. A short time into the insurrection and its noises, our grandfather, the political one who all those decades ago had co-founded the Democratic Labour Party and worked for Trinidad’s independence from Britain, had had a heart attack, which was to prove fatal. We visited him in the hospital where Kavi worked.

We heard about the smell of corpses in the streets of Port-of-Spain, but there was nothing of that in the area where we lived; just the absence of feet thudding and crackling air.

The effects of all this were not so much felt in the countryside. Our live-in Guyanese maid, who had been out of Port-of-Spain, came back to us as soon as she could, while the streets were still dangerous. She sensibly brought food: an incredible gesture of charity, though less so than her presence.

Years later, visiting Cunaripo, I thought to myself how it must have been for these people, who live near the forest in a community where the texture of life changes at such a different rate and in such different ways from life in Port-of-Spain or Chagaunas or San Fernando. How must it been for them, to switch on the radio and hear this news without having a single sign? And I wondered what would have happened to that way of life if change had been imposed up and down the country.




Trying to explain had not been associated with hopelessness, at school in Port-of-Spain. Trying to explain why, for example why I differed from my Catholic classmates about abortion in cases of rape, felt like the way that we got to know one another, not like an explanation. To my mind, an explanation was something complete in itself, not necessarily to do with communication. It was something that trailed fewer human expectations – like a truth. Trying to explain what began in England. I undertook it in good faith and did not feel alienated or homesick, just exasperated when my own powers of explanation seemed to fail.

There was a knock at my door in my second year at college, when I was ill in my room. The friend stood outside, just two inches taller than I was but a lot sturdier, her crop of bleached hair less red these days. Trinidadian-formal, I asked how she was, not “how’s it going”, the phrase that many of the English used and that I did not know how to answer, therefore did not think to ask.

She laughed and swung her shoulders. She was fine. She had been home for the weekend. She slapped the knapsack slung on her back.

“My parents have loaded me up with food.”

She asked how I was.

I was developing dengue fever from a bite from an Ædes Egyptii mosquito back home. Dengue is one of those intermittent fevers where a day of exhaustion can be followed by a day of relative energy.

The nurse had explained to me that I could not have meals brought to my room because I was capable of walking around; I had been seen. I told her that some days I was too tired with the fever to be able to get out of bed. She and the doctor conferred. She told me that there were many days, especially in winter, when she did not feel like getting out of bed.

I did not try to explain to the nurse that winter was not depressing, that winter was an adventure. I tried to tell her about the fever, which goes away if the patient can have food and rest, or turns hæmorrhagic, sometimes fatal, if not. Blood had started appearing where it shouldn’t and each joint in my body seemed to bring in a separate complaint. I knew what I had. To the nurse and doctor, I was a case of fantasy, hysteria, seasonal depression, exotic and lifeless, the unrealistic Creole.

Light from an upper landing made a cube around my friend on her way up the stairs with oranges and bananas bulging from her bag.

How was I?

“I’m thinking of going home.”

She stopped in such a way that it could only be called stopping dead. It was a caricature halting. Her faint eyebrows went up and stayed up. I felt sharp. I felt packed with explanations.

“Isn’t that a bit defeatist?” she asked, with an end-of-tether gentleness.

“But you’ve just been home,” I stupidly pointed out.

Left to myself, naturally I got worse. There was the night when I hallucinated great big snakes, vicious fighters like anacondas but larger, writhing all over the main quadrangle.

I went the four thousand miles home, which was normal for me going home, to a dark room and bed rest and a term off. After the fever, I developed neuritis with the post-viral syndrome, and printed words squeezed themselves up or spread themselves out like the water jug I had tried and failed to draw so many years ago, unreadable. My father, permanently ill and almost ostracized by Trinidad macho society, sat with me and talked quietly, telling me to listen to little things, like the birdsong in the pine trees and guava tree outside. He wrote an angry postcard of explanation to the nurse, and taped an Ædes Egyptii mosquito to it. The card with its cargo arrived safely in the post.

Later, the nurse would speak of it without understanding, as something bizarre.

“Your father sent me a mosquito!”



“They say informal, but you still have to dress well,” said the welfare woman at college, gazing at me anxiously. She seemed anxious a lot of the time. I thought that went with being a welfare officer. It did not occur to me that I looked like a problem. “If you feel nervous about going into dinner, I’ll come in with you.”

“I don’t feel nervous about going in to dinner.”

“I’ll still come with you.”

Informal dinner was at 6.30. I supposed it would not be like dressing for an Indian wedding, which required seven yards of Benares silk and twenty-two carat gold jewellery; or like dressing for New Year’s at the Trinidad Hilton or Eid-ul-Fitr at President’s House, where a more Western elegance was the norm. Nothing too farfelu, I told myself. I was not a cosquelle dresser by West Indian standards, but I had started to notice English style, though I was at the early stage of noticing it as a lack, not as a set of more or less tubular characteristics. I put on an ankle-length black skirt with a dull sheen and an Italian black jumper with a fine pattern in amber and pine green. I met the woman outside Hall. No other girl was dressed like me.

“Is this all right?” I asked, using an anxious mode to elicit a sincere response from my companion.

“Yes, yes, you’re fine,” she said. She took in how I was all neat and long and different from the others. A pleased expression momentarily stained her face.

The vegetarian option read, ‘Beef tomato.’ I had not heard of any such thing. Tomatoes were tomatoes. They were red and round. Dad bought them early from the vegetable lady. Sometimes we grew them at home. Tomatoes were useful to people who grew ganja because their leaves resembled marijuana leaves, so you could interplant. We did not grow ganja; though, being traditional, the great-grandmother (dead before my time) had smoked the aromatic things that Indians smoked, illiterate in the language that declared Hindu marriages illegal, unable to incorporate English law into family beliefs.

I hoped that ‘Beef tomato’ did not mean a tomato from which we would have to pick the beef because the chef could not be bothered with herbivores, as in the cliché about eating the cheese and leaving the ham in tainted airport sandwiches. In the event, the cuisine of 1991 produced one fat tomato sitting in the centre of a plate, with some dry-looking mushroom slices arranged upon and around it.

Was this food? I was staring at it, trying (as taught at home) to think of some conversation and not just stare. The welfare woman was staring at me. It did not occur to me that silence looked like dumbness. I felt impolite. I did not have long to feel this. A load of huge, bellowing athletes in thick, sweated cloth were doing standing jumps into their seats on the benches. They sat down near to us, and expanded. So this was informal dinner for which I had to dress well?

Enisled in the all-too-familiar feeling of contempt, I gave up on my welfare host. She did not seem to mind. I hated having this feeling. It reminded me of my father’s family, their craving for gratitude, and how they handed out money to coerce an inferior world. I thought I had left behind the trap of gratitude. Again it did not occur to me that withdrawal could be read as passivity, participation as bewilderment.



The number of so-called East Indians in Trinidad and Tobago varies on the census but does not fall below forty percent. I guess the number does not depend on purity of blood so much as self-description: whether or not the girls put coconut oil on their head, whether the family lives in an agricultural area, whether they have a Lord Vishnu calendar above the plastic Virgin Mary, that sort of thing. East Indians do not trace their ancestry to the East Indies but to India.

I disliked the expression ‘East Indian’. It seemed to be shoving us off the map. All the landmass: South America, North America: happened to the west. East of Trinidad was the Atlantic Ocean, the black water – kala pani, into which my ancestors had refrained from jumping unlike so many of their fellows who preferred death to the conditions on the ship.

The notion that ‘East Indians’ help one another means that the largely rural ‘East Indian’ poor tend to be overlooked in schemes for national welfare and improvement. Positive stereotypes of the community can be found in West Indian literature. ‘Indian people’ exist in families, however dysfunctional; they have access to ancient lore and are subject to strange fits of unworldly, even interracial kindness; and there is always some spare relative to look after the young and the sick. Even these positive stereotypes are not widespread.

‘Western’ was no better, but I gave up struggling against that expression after five years of hearing people in England explain to me that I differed from them on this or that point of behaviour or belief because I was not ‘western’. I told them that I had grown up four thousand miles west of them. The kinder ones brushed this off as a joke. Slowly I came to realize that ‘non-western’ had nothing to do with physical geography. It meant ‘off the map of reason and modernity’, just as ‘the modern world’ referred to countries where deaths counted internationally and lives could be memorialized, not to populations with widespread Internet access or grammatical speech. Such absurdity allows no protest. Contradiction resembles bewilderment.

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