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A Day in the Country

Written by Keith Jardim for Trinidad Guardian on no date provided

THERE is a gentle, deep love of the land in these stories, the fourth published book by Ismith Khan, author of The Jumbie Bird, The Obeah Man and The Crucifixion - all novels. Most of the stories in A Day in the Country are about young boys confronting the flawed world of their parents.

The fathers are major actors in these dramas: they are abusive, alcoholic, and sometimes idle; they complain; they are poor. And I found it interesting that in the city, usually Port-of-Spain - the Port-of-Spain of the 1940s and 50s, the time when most of the stories occur - the young boys, away from country life, away from the land so beautifully described and celebrated in the title story, suffer hardships that those still in the country do not.

In one of the city-set stories, ‘The Magic Ring’, a young boy, one eye crossed because of a bow his father had inflicted on his pregnant mother, believes he can make everything right in his world by buying a good luck ring, which works hard for. He believes that through the ring his eye will be corrected and the crushing poverty will cease. When he buys the ring, his father loses his temper and strikes him brutally, saying his son has wasted money. The boy’s eye is magically set right by the blow, but he loses his voice - and here the story ends. The ending is unconvincing but the writing is good, engaging, and filled with seductive cadence.

In a story clearly written later than ‘The Magic Ring’, Khan still hasn’t solved the problem of finding an ending, but the piece survives. In the wonderfully written ‘Shadows Move in the Britannia Bar’, a story whose opening page and a half stirred my curiosity about Trinidad’s past further, he relies on a twist I think O’Henry made famous. This involves the protagonist’s revelation of himself as the victim, as the one whom he has been telling the story about. All of it, apart from the opening, is delightfully told in Trinidadian dialect, with a stubborn refusal to spell correctly nearly every word uttered from the protagonist’s mouths.

Despite the ending, ‘Shadows Move in the Britannia Bar’ is a memorable pleasure. Sookoo is a tremendous talker, and most West Indians will be charmed and thoroughly entertained by his story.
‘The time dat I talkin bout, all yuh didn’t dream to born yet. Dem was the old time days. People uses to have a kind of belief in dem days, a respec for all what they see happen with they own two eye. What I mean to say is dat tings still happen, but is people like all yuh young fellars, is people blind, they eye shut, it half-close. But it have something. Where? Up in the sky! Inside your belly! A man! God! It have something!’

One of the problems Khan touches on is the violent way adults communicate to children, and men to their wives, often in front of the children. His descriptions of these outbursts are accurate, and many, many West Indians will recall similar experiences regardless of race and class. It is a behaviour that has come a long way with us indeed. Will we ever change? Khan might well be asking. The brilliant short story ‘A Day in the Country’ has a home in my heart. It reminded me of the intense, uplifting genius of Thomas Wolfe’s (1900-1938) short story ‘Circus at Dawn’. In both stories the concentration on life, on living, on things seen, heard and felt, is so full and rich that plot becomes unnecessary.

But ‘A Day in the Country’ is much more than a generous slice of life, and it does much more than revel in secure country childhood, or celebrate boyhood in the countryside. It makes a moving, ominous communication about the unsheltering of Trinidad, about its unprepared journey, from the ‘Drinking Rum and Coca Cola’ years of the ‘40s and ‘50s to the bewildering, homogeneous brutality of the 20th century.

‘The full moon had come out in the sky now and the country road lay like a pale ribbon in the night, as though all the people all over the world had gone to sleep forever. The people in the film, the people who made the safety pins and eau de Cologne, the people in Port-of-Spain - and the policeman. But the man with the shining cutlass? Where was he sleeping now?’

This is a review of A Day in the Country

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