In rural Guyana, palm trees mingle homogeneously with wooden houses on stilts and open green fields. The idyllic countryside beckons, enticing us to delve deeper as village after village is overtaken by the whizzing automobile on the highway going east from Georgetown to New Amsterdam.
When we cross an innocuous little colony called Buxton, our cab driver Harun Khan, an Indian Muslim who is unaware of his roots back home, tells us how he never comes here in the night because it is a place inhabited by “Blacks”. “I don’t want to be mugged and killed,” he sneers, perhaps letting out his own insular bias in a country divided by those of African and Indian origin.
After about 45 minutes we go off the concrete artery, turning left onto a muddy tributary that leads to our destination. Unity Village, slightly more affluent and roomy than those around, is the home of Bharat Jagdeo, the President of the country and a symbol of Indian pride who has been in power for seven years now. But politics is not what brings us here.
This is a purely cricketing expedition for, in the depths of the tiny settlement, squeezed from both side by smaller wooden structures, is the elaborate white bungalow where Shivnarine Chanderpaul, former captain of West Indies and the best-known Guyanan cricketer of this generation, grew up. The house wasn’t so large back in his younger days, and neither was the family afforded celebrity status by the staunch fellow-Hindus who live on the same mud-caked street. The story of Shivnarine’s rise from rural poverty to urban celebrity — he now lives in Miami with his glamorous second wife, Amy — is not unique in the Caribbean.
Khemraj Chanderpaul, his father, standing bare-chested in blue shorts that slip slowly down his beer belly, tells us proudly about the high-profile neighbourhood. “Colin Croft used to live down there in Lancaster, at the end of that road going right,” he says, making all the turns with flicks of his wrist. “Jagdeo’s house is down this way, at the end of the street,” he adds, turning. “The families have known each other for long.”
Khemraj is a simple man, a fisherman by profession, but what set him apart from his peers perhaps was his intense passion and understanding of cricket. That’s what led him to invest his youthful energy in teaching his only son everything he had ever learnt about the game. “I once saw BS Chandrasekhar bowl when he came here with a club side. He was the quickest leg-spinner I ever saw,” he says, making a goggle-eyed expression that we’ve often seen on his son’s face. A natural inheritance.
At one corner of the courtyard lie two tiny Shivlings on a raised platform. In the passage that stretches beyond are objects that manifest the other religion the Chanderpauls believe in — a batting net, a couple of bats and wooden stumps. Shivnarine started playing cricket right here and now the space is occupied several times a week by his 11-year-old son Brandon, who is grandpa Khemraj’s latest project.
RIGHT TO LEFT
Brandon is a right-hander by birth but, on instructions from Shivnarine, has converted into a left-handed batsman, who even on initial examination looks a lot more elegant than his dad. His stance is open, the right foot is slightly side-on, and his shuffle is congenital – the back foot moving backwards and across before his bat addresses the ball slightly later than normal.
We throw a few balls at him, and he drives fluently through the off-side even though he’s unable to pick up the incoming delivery from one of our colleagues who once played for a consistently beaten St Xavier’s College side back in Mumbai.
Brandon has been making the local papers for his tiny exploits in local cricket even at this young age. “He played a Police B team and got 60,” said a pleased Khemraj. “He has a lot more shots than Shiv had when he was this old.”
Cricket is a symbol of Indian pride in the Caribbean – just like it was once a symbol of Black pride during the years of British colonial rule. Khemraj, quite like the other Guyanese from Berbice – Rohan Kanhai, Alvin Kallicharan, Mahendra Nagamootoo – understands the social importance of cricket for their community.
“Unfortunately we’re not producing quality spinners in the Caribbean,” he complains. “No one after Lance Gibbs.” The Indians here are mainly batsmen and spin bowlers. The only quick bowler from the community of any repute is Trinidad’s Ravi Rampaul.
Two streets away, in the same village, is the house that Shivnarine built – an even more elaborate white structure which has a small ‘beer garden’ run by his first wife Anna Lee, who is Brandon’s mother.
In the corner by a pool table, Anna Lee stands in a SA Rugby t-shirt and a pair of loose pyjamas as she spoke to us shyly about the husband who abandoned her. “I'm going on Sunday to watch West Indies play,” she says in a sing-song accent. “Shiv doesn’t talk to me anymore. It’s the truth, why should I hide it?” The two were married in the mid 90s, when Chanderpaul was just about 20, but he drifted away. As they grew older, they grew further apart, the left-handed batsman taking a fancy to the younger, more alluring, Amy Christina.
“I’m still very close to my in-laws,” says Anna Lee, who is half Portuguese and half White. “Brandon’s grandfather takes very good care of him. He takes him to school, gets him back and spends a lot of time on his cricket. Brandon’s doing well in school too. It’s all good,” she adds with a touch of sadness.
Life in the Caribbean is very different from what it is back home. This is, by and large, a maternal society. The Indians, who came between 1840 and 1916 as workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, are the exception to the rule. Anna Lee, however, is not.
As we leave Unity, it’s hard to tell what is preying most on our minds — finding the immediate roots of a leading current cricketer, having seen the future of West Indies cricket batting before he entered his teens, or having delved into the way people live their lives in the villages of a land far, far away. The palm trees stop swaying as we enter Georgetown. The national highway merges into other concrete pathways. Night-clubs line the streets rather than tiny hamlets. “You’re safe now,” says the cabbie Harun. We hope he’s joking, but we’re sure he’s not.
Ahead of us, a Guyanese flag with ‘Clive Lloyd’ printed above it is fluttering on a lamp post. The next one carries the legend ‘Shivnarine Chanderpaul’. The greats are all one in the Caribbean. But the masses are still divided. It’s just like home.
Copyright 2008 Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved.