A QUESTION OF SELF-CONTEMPT

He asked me to spare him a moment.

“Comrade,” he said sententiously, shaking hands, shrewd eyes sharp behind gleaming gold “rimmed spectacles. I knew him to be a dispenser and I smelt cough medicine.

“I knew your father very well,” he continued, “we used to work in the Civil Service together.”

“Thank you.” I replied, not knowing what else to say,

“Are you working Comrade?” he asked, cocking his head like a hawk, shrewd eyes suddenly suspicious behind gold rimmed spectacles.

“I am a Civil Servant.” I told him shortly. I was getting bored.

“A Civil Servant!” he exclaimed, shocked.

His lip seemed to tremble.

“What are you doing in this thing?” he demanded. The lenses of his spectacles seemed to contract.

“What thing?” I asked, wondering what his questions could possibly mean.

“Dis ting”, he ejaculated, pointing with a crooked thumb over his shoulder.

“Don’t you know the white people watching everybody what belong to this party?”

I waited. He measured me coolly. Theodolite spectacles. A whole face frowning.

“Don’t you have any ambition?” he finally exploded. I do not remember how I responded to his shattering logic. But as I walked through the choking night of the city I remembered the story I had heard of a man, who, applying for the post of hangman, had written the Superintendent of Prisons to say that since he was a little boy, it had been his ambition to become a hangman one day. I even wanted to turn back and tell Mr. Singh of it. But I was apprehensive of his possible comment.

In the early days of the People’s Progressive Party, funds were always scarce. In order to collect as much as we could, we had developed the practice of placing an old tin, with a slot in the cover, on a table in full view of the members, so that anyone who attended could make a contribution. If, for instance, one member could afford only a penny, then that member could slip the penny into the tin without anyone knowing how much he or she had contributed. This way there would be no embarassment. The system worked well.

One evening, however, after a meeting was over, I saw a middle aged woman of African descent approach the table. I knew her. Often had I seen her pushing her handcart selling starch in the streets of the city, in broken shoes, on hard feet, through a long walk.

She approached the table confidently. Then she reached into a pocket of her worn dress, took out a sixpence and dropped it into the tin. She did it ostenstatiously and that was why it was possible for me to see the size and silver glint of the coin.

As she turned away I went up to her.

“Many thanks, comrade,” I said. She nodded. “Don’t misunderstand me.” I continued, “but I saw you put a sixpence in the tin just now. We need it. But 1 know how hard things are for everybody now­adays. You must not strain yourself.” She understood me immediately.

“Comrade,” she said, looking straight into my face,

I know you see me put twelve cents in the tin, and you wondering if I can afford it.”

1 nodded, glad to see that she had understood so easily what I had been trying to convey.

“Comrade,” she continued, “you think if was like you so, or Dr. Jagan so, I would put a whole twelve cents in that tin?”

“Never,” she said, emphatically.

“But you want to know why I put so much?”

She was smiling.

“I put all that twelve cents because of Mrs. Jagan.” I was puzzled.

“That big, nice, great white lady come all the way from American to help we, comrade. That nice white lady. That’s why.”

She spoke triumphantly, and I knew she felt that all who belonged to the organisation thought and behaved in the self same way.

She had enunciated the theorem of situational equality.

She had, in her own terrible words, told me part of the story of her way of life and of mine too — ugly history of the movement from slavery to parasi­tism. Not indeed the obvious slavery of some wretched African tribesman captured in a jungle and transported to a Guyanese plantation. Not the obvious parasitism of the urban middle class which consists of being always on the right side of power, imperial or native. Not even the parasitism of the so-called intellectual elite, whose representatives hide in offices, enjoy the benefits of non-commitment, and claim specific rights.

What the seller of starch had implied for me was more than all of this. She had indicated the existence of spiritual parasitism, the dynamic principle at work in the very groin of the land.

That night I went for a long walk, and when 1 reached home at last, 1 looked at the books which had helped to keep me alive. I examined the shape and structure of the house in which I had lived since I knew myself, noting the disposition of kitchen and bedroom, back step and living space.

I thought of my father’s face and tried to guess the face of the original slave ancestor, as it lived and died. Useless. No matter how I surrendered mind to association and symbol, the imaginary plantation I summoned yielded not one of the secrets 1 knew existed. Between me and them was silence, broken by the sound of voices I invented out of desperation, and continuing converse with those I kept hearing in nightmare.