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Raffique Shah


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Christmases I remember

December 26, 2004
By Raffique Shah

THAT Christmas morn', 1970 it was, I was awakened from my slumber by the prisons officer's key grating on my cell-door lock, and a faint sound of music coming from somewhere. I couldn't quite figure out what was happening, just coming out of a deep sleep, and it being my first Christmas in jail. Rex Lassalle and I had, a month or so before that, been removed from the C-Block where all the other detained soldiers were, and plunked into the E-Block, the top security division in the Port of Spain prison. We were the only two prisoners in a block of 18 cells, other dangerous criminals having been removed from there to make way for the "renegades of the decade".

That block was where escapees, murderers and other deadly felons had been kept prior to our occupation. It was a time when the nation's jails were overcrowded by that year's standards. But the authorities, deluding themselves into believing they could "break" us in isolation, tried and failed. The "cell block" or "dark hole" as it was known, had the opposite effect on us. After all, we were Sandhurst-trained, steeled to cope with harshness.

But back to that Christmas morning. I will have emerged from my cell bleary-eyed but intrigued by the sounds of music-or what passed for it. I couldn't believe my ears. Music in jail? So after a brief wash, I made my way to the bench where we used to sit and communicate with prisoners from what was called the "main prison". As I approached, the sight and sounds that greeted me were unbelievable. It took me some time to adjust, in between returning greetings from prisoners, many of whom I did not know by name.

Hundreds of prisoners, most of them in the regulation denim blue shorts and shirts that convicts wore, were singing and dancing with delight as officers kept watch. Some had fashioned "cuatros" out of heaven-knows-what, and they strummed the crude instruments as others sang along. They danced, too, in instances men holding men, a not unusual sight in jail. Soon the prisons hierarchy turned up. They mingled with the convicts and the mood was jovial. It was almost as if what I looked on at with a degree of amazement was normal. It could have been a scene from somewhere in Woodbrook or St James but for the participants' attire and the heavy steel doors that kept them confined to that section of the prison.

You might ask, as I did, what was there for prisoners to celebrate on a Christmas day in jail? If anything was different or special, it was the fare for the day. They were actually given a few cigarettes each. At the time, cigarettes were "jail currency", which could buy a convict anything from a decent meal or jockey shorts to sexual favours. Then there was actually a choice of "cocoa tea" or "coffee tea". There will have been cheese on their bread instead of the "tip" of margarine that was the norm. And lunch would include chicken-on this special day, not just necks and feet. For some strange reason, chicken served to prisoners never came with breasts, legs or the other choice cuts! And I think some sweets were also included.

But prisoners were allowed out of their cells for a longer period than usual, and there was no hard labour that day, except for those who worked in the kitchen. That scene from 34 years ago remains etched in my memory for many reasons. Here were men, some of them condemned to spending the rest of their natural lives behind bars, others serving terms from, say, three-to-20 years, having what seemed to be a great time in jail? For the remainder of the year they would walk around under the watchful eyes of their keepers, who often barked after them, or would risk being beaten with batons for the mildest of infringements. Today, though, was different. Even Deputy Commissioner Phillip, an Indo-Trini much feared because it was his duty to read the death warrants to condemned prisoners days before they were hanged, smiled and engaged in light banter with the prisoners.

It was then that I understood just how deep this Pagan-turned-Christian festival had permeated our society. It did not matter to those men that they were estranged from their families, away from their loved ones. What mattered was it was Christmas. And there, as I sat alone on that bench, isolated from the main prison population, I realised how this festival had become universal. And that in turn triggered some childhood memories, when Christmas was celebrated at home.

My father was a relatively poor man, a low-level sugar worker who earned barely enough money to feed his family, educate and clothe his children. Poor Haniff had acquired exquisite tastes (he had worked as a "yard boy" for some White overseer), so for Christmas we could look forward to one bar of Cadbury's chocolate (one block per child!), Jacob's biscuits (yummy!), dates, prunes. My mother would bake the finest sponge cake ("egg cake" at the time) in a "barrel oven", and a few apples and grapes were added to the grand meal we'd get that day. The toys were few and cheap, because he could not afford better.

Others, and these included devout Muslims and Hindus, would celebrate with more fanfare. They had Christmas trees, grog, duck, and their kids sported complete cowboy outfits or "crying" dolls that we envied. Today, look around and see how the same Muslims and Hindus outdo their Christian brethren when it comes to making merry for Christmas. The fanciest-lit mansions are owned and decorated by Indians. The most and best liquors could be found in their homes. And their foods they prepare are fit for royalty. Yet some deviants, including self-styled "holy men" who once were drunks or thieves, want to go to war over the Trinity Cross!

Christmas is a unifying festival. That's a fact, a reality we all have to face. Unlike the prisoners who had little choice but to enjoy the occasion, we do have choices. Yet every household, from the rich to the very poor, Hindu, Muslim and Christian, will mark the occasion with as much pomp as they can afford. Even in the flood-hit Caparo Valley, lights will outshine the flood waters. So what's all this fighting about? Where's the "race" in Christmas? Or, for that matter, the religious differences? Hell, even the bandits will take a holiday! A peaceful season to all. Eat. Drink. Make merry. And forget the "dividers" who will have us believe that there are two distinct "Trinidads" when that's farthest from the truth.