Thursday, April 20, 2006

Imaginary Roads 1:7

He was sitting in the lounge of the Georgetown Club with another of the guests, an Indian man, perhaps fifty or fifty-five, who was born and had grown up in Georgetown but left thirty years before. He had lived in Canada all those years and now he had returned to Guyana for the first time since he was a young man. He had a nervous, ascetic manner; he was thin and his hair was graying, and until now he had kept to himself, not chatting with the other Club guests. But perhaps something had happened to him that day, perhaps he had seen something that revived old memories, and he wanted to talk about the past. They had been sitting in silence; then the man made a small gesture with his hands as if to suggest that preliminaries were unnecessary, and began speaking.

"You wouldn't believe it now, but Georgetown used to be such a beautiful place," the man said. "Forty, fifty years ago. They used to call it the Garden City of the West Indies--you know that? And it was true, every house had a garden, trees, flowers--hibiscus, frangipanis. And trees along all the streets, the main streets. And water-lilies in the canals--they never used to be full of dirty water like you see now. People used to paint their houses every year, with fresh white paint.

"In the dry season people used to have garden parties. I went to so many parties when I was a boy here."

They were sitting in low armchairs near the Demerara windows that looked out onto Camp Street. Dusk had fallen as they sat there; cars sped past and through the open windows came music and loud voices from the small bar across the street. The man was speaking softly.

"I used to ride my bike everywhere. It was safe, it wasn't like now. I used to ride up to the Sea Wall, and in kite season we used to fly kites there. Hundreds of kites all along the Sea Wall on a Sunday afternoon. You ever saw those kites? They used to make them with a little flap of paper they called the tongue, and the tongue would make a noise in the breeze. It would sing. Hundreds of kites, flying and singing, all different colours, all down the Sea Wall as far as you could look. I used to wish I could go out in a boat and see the kites from the sea. And people used to dress up and come out walking to see the kites--families, children. Everybody friendly, everybody gentle. Not like the people now. I don't know what happened to this place.

"More than thirty years since I left. All that time I didn't want to come back. I didn't want to see what happened to this place. I used to hear from my family here, and my friends, hear about all what was going on. Even after Burnham died"--Guyana's first president, Forbes Burnham, died in 1985 after ruling for two decades--"even in the last election, they beat people in the street and burned down houses. I didn't want to see all of that.

"But I had to come back at least once. I'm not young anymore, I don't know how long I will still be able. So I came back now, for three weeks, to see what the place looks like, see who I still know here. I told my children I didn't want them to come with me. They're grown up now, no reason for them to come here. Most of my family left over the years, some came to Canada where I live.

"But the things I'm seeing-- You wouldn't believe what Georgetown used to look like, you can't look at this place now and imagine. It was the most beautiful place. And in the dry season when all the plants were flowering, and the sea breeze you used to get--the place wasn’t dirty like you see it now. Georgetown was like a garden."

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