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Caribbean virgins, Caribbean whores: Unlacing goodness/dismantling perversion

A row of Poui trees at the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, Trinidad, not far from which the body of Japanese steel pan player Asami Nagakiya was discovered on Ash Wednesday 2016. Photo by Georgia Popplewell, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Editor's note: January 29 will mark one year since 23-year-old Andrea Bharatt went missing; her body was discovered nearly a week later. Though she is not the only woman to have been brutally murdered in Trinidad and Tobago, her death seemed to touch a nerve with the public. Writer and poet Shivanee Ramlochan dismantles why, even as she hopes for justice for all women. This essay was first published in the regional online literary magazine Pree; an edited version appears below with permission.

If a girl tumbles down a ravine in the Trinidadian mountains, does she make a sound? What about each of the moans she made in the advent of her falling? If a girl cries out into the muffling of her strangulation, does the voice emerge as music or mourning?

Though I left my parents’ house when I was 18, I still live in Las Lomas, Caroni. The connection is spiritual more than geographical, though I deeply love and treasure the verdant, ungovernable land. ‘Home’ has never been my series of apartments in the urban development hubs of St. Augustine and Tunapuna. No. Home is the smell of cow shit, freshly cut grass, the silhouettes of trees flanking the narrow and pockmarked roads leading to the two-story house where I grew up, the lower floor of which is a still-functioning village rumshop. Las Lomas was first colonized by the Spanish who gave it its name of ‘the hills,’ then predominantly settled into by East Indian indentured labourers. The place has shifted in its agrarian origins, acquired a semi-rural, as opposed to full-donkey-cart signification, largely because of its proximity to the country’s national airport.

As an oily-plaited schoolgirl attending a Roman Catholic Convent in Port of Spain, I’d often hear my white or white-aspiring classmates bemoan the long distance it took to get to Piarco International Airport from their suburban domiciles in western Trinidad. The insult of being so far past the lighthouse [located in the capital, Port of Spain] that you could actually see cows placidly chewing cud and tethered goats bleating in the flat pastures was an astonishment at best, a cheap vulgarity at worst. For me, it was my daily commute. So it’s remained. Whether I visit Las Lomas once a weekend, or once a month, I am there every day, as indivisible from the landscape as its brown big-bellied bovines and their odorous shit.

The first time I can remember being physically afraid of a man was at my Las Lomas home, during a Hindu puja. The man in question was our family pundit. I will not name him, though I’ll say that any one of my paternal relations reading this will be able to identify him from my descriptions. I was less than 10, and the occasion was either a thanksgiving or a funeral. I remember being dressed all in white, dutifully sitting cross-legged with my two plaits falling into my lap like tamed or dead snakes. The pundit gestured towards me to come closer, the nail of his littlest finger grown out and curling. I felt an illness in my stomach, not unlike the menstrual cramps I had recently begun experiencing: I first bled when I was nine. Sitting, garlanded in the aromas of Lord Shiva incense sticks, cheap red perfume and gobar (cow dung), I began to wish I truly were bleeding so I could absent myself, run to my bedroom filled with things I could hide behind: abridged classics, stuffed animals, and a solid wooden writing desk. Yet it would have been impolite and worse, defiant, to run away during the middle of a puja. So I stayed where I was folded for the chanting, the aarti, the doling out of parsad and enduring cheek-pinching from distant aunties wearing thick, artfully applied swathes of too-light foundation.

This recollection has no dramatic teetering point, no showdown between barely pubescent girl and grown man of the cloth. The truth is that I don’t remember whether or not I obeyed. Sometimes I believe I deliberately occluded the facts from myself, but clearly I haven’t been able to suppress everything. As the years and pujas rolled onwards and that particular pundit returned, the sensation of dread never lessened. My spine became acquainted with teenage underpinnings of a true terror: not at the thought of anything the pundit had actualized against me, but of everything unspoken in the glint of his eyes. The curl of his smile beneath a thick moustache. The crook of that elongated and slightly yellowed fingernail, a grotesque elegance demanding focus. Of all the components of this man, I found that nail the most difficult to look away from; I confess it has slivered its way into my most amorphous and confusing nightmares. It was impossible and remains so to associate the pundit with holiness. He is poised to return for a significant religious celebration at Las Lomas very soon. I already know I will be conspicuously and yes, defiantly, absent. Let anyone say what they will. I am now too old, too fat, and too queer to care. At least, that’s the song I sing stubbornly to myself.

On February 4, 2021, in the Heights of Aripo, Trinidad, the body of Andrea Bharatt was found at the base of a precipice. A scrap-iron vendor, looking for the discarded and abandoned materials of his trade, saw the partially-clothed corpse while on his route. Bharatt had been missing since January 29th, when as was her custom she entered a taxi headed homeward after work, and never made it in safely. This taxi, we later learned, was bearing fraudulent plates. Those who engineered that deception never intended Andrea to return home, at all.

The country had been in a nervous state of anxiety, dwindling hopefulness and ratcheting dread over Bharatt’s disappearance for a week. Countless prayers were offered to all the deities our melting pot nation possesses — and likely to other supernatural forces whose names are less openly invoked, but no less powerfully incanted. Radio stations’ call-in lines rang incessantly, mounting cash rewards were advertised for anyone with information that could aid the police in their investigations; talk show evangelists and snake oil salesmen beat their chests on privately-paid-for primetime air, bemoaning the state of affairs. This machinery of concern and consultation over gender-based violence in Trinidad and Tobago was nothing new: a brief look at our femicide and sexual assault statistics is telling and beyond the scope of what I find I can bear to say in this space. Yet something was markedly, particularly different about the public furor and fear over 23-year-old, University of the West Indies graduate, Andrea Bharatt.

It was that she was a good girl. And girls who are markedly that industrious, that loyal to their elders and diligent in their studies, that slender of form and fresh of face, deserved to die less than the scores of disappeared and dismembered prostitutes, married women, hot bad gyal in pum-pum shorts with tattoos splayed across their thighs. Very few were saying it, but the feeling was there, ripe and redolent as a rotting fruit. You felt it wherever you went, from almost anyone with whom you talked; you heard it preached from the pulpit and temple, repeated in whispers in supermarkets and Starbucks. And it only increased its sotto voce rhythms when Andrea’s body was found, like a stretched-out cassette tape that still carries a melody the crowds want to hear. Insist on hearing.

Even the death of 18-year-old Ashanti Riley, whose beaten and knife-punctured body was found in a watercourse exactly two months earlier on December 4, 2020, did not garner nearly as many candlelit vigils, expressions of solidarity, full-page ads of condolence from the corporate community. Was it because there was no corresponding photograph of Ashanti in graduand’s blue and white robes to show? Or because she was Afro-Trinidadian, while Andrea, lighter-complected and straighter of hair texture, was Indo-Trinidadian? Again all of this might not be spoken aloud in what passes for polite society. Such transcripts might be absent, for example, from a civil discourse at the President of the Republic’s dining table, or on the official ledgers of the Houses of Parliament. Yet you can depend on it: this conversation slithered through its usual channels, the almost-silent ones: the hushed speculation between security guards, the auditory eavesdropping in high and less high places alike. You can be certain that these are not new whispers, either. As old as racial division and class warfare have existed in the 868, is where you’ll find the head of that specific snake, slithering its forked tongue in animosity, malice, and separatist ire. The creature, an indolent and fat mapepire, is well fed. We sustain it daily in the lies we tell ourselves, and the ways we demand that our daughters of the Caribbean Sea be good, be obedient, be quiet and rigid and bright.

Maybe it was the pundit who inculcated in me a certainty that I would never, never, date or marry an Indian man. True to form, my romantic attachments in their most active years covered several mixtures and classifications and genders, none of them Indian. I’d decided, pre-eighteen, that no Prashants or Viveks or Anils would grace either my doorstep or the guarded walls of my vagina. My grandmothers would simply have to resign themselves to it — at one point, I was in a four-year relationship with someone they’d both have had wait on their porches like hired help or alms-seeking vagrants. At another, I courted and wooed someone whose very existence might have, might still, compel either of them to jharay me back to my senses, or introduce me to fresh sanity. 

In my immediate circles, it wasn’t that I had any cause for complaint: my father and two younger brothers weren’t monstrous, never gave me intimations of extreme unease, kept their fingernails reasonably tidy and short. Not even in my extended family could I pinpoint male aggressors and abusers, so what reason did I have for my, it might be said, self-racializing proclivities? To answer this, you must consider the village rumshop. From the balustrades of the balcony above, I spent much of my childhood observing the effects of alcohol excess in drunk, incoherent, braying men, most of them Indian. Fortnightly contract labourers, big-time moneylenders, high-rollers cruising the cow-shit countryside from out of town: every single one of them could be rendered insensible by puncheon rum. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the sharp lilt of a broken bottle smashed against a concrete tabletop as a fight over a rowdy game of All Fours, a gambling bet or a big-breasted woman broke out. It’s not uncommon now. More than the casual and reckless aggression, the volume of raised angry baritones slurring with cheap and copious drink, the rare but harrowing sight of someone’s wife, girlfriend, or side piece stumbling out of the bar with a reddened cheek and a sonorous wail; more than all these facts of my fear and mistrust were the responses to their inevitability. 

I came to understand, right around the time my nine-year-old panties filled up with thick menstrual blood, that men, markedly Indian men, could do what they liked to their own bodies and the bodies of those they controlled without consequences. Motilal the mechanic might break a barstool, cuss out one of the proprietors of our bar, and slap up his woman on the government road, a hawk and spit’s distance from our shopfront, but he’d be allowed back in without any furor the next week … and if there were complaint, it’d be for the smashed chair, not his lady’s purpling jawbone. Maybe, I reasoned to myself, clutching my copies of The Call of the Wild and Treasure Island close at night, there were ways men dealt with these things in-house, a private council of testosterone, fisticuffs and the faint but persistent odour of piss. If these secret tribunals of masculine dignity and fairness were being carried out in mysterious locations, I certainly didn’t see any effects of their protocols in the living world of Las Lomas or beyond it. Women still turned up outside the bar, weeping.

In some parallel dimension, I am a better girl. An obedient woman who wears pressed pantsuits and sensible heels, who drives her three fully Indian children to school in a minivan, who has sex with her dark-haired, brown-skinned Indian husband every night except Sundays which we reserve for post-mandir meditations and visits to both sets of grandparents. In this world, I can make perfect sweets for Divali, I know how to hem school clothes and how to fix my husband’s ties. This version of me saved myself for marriage, never watches pornography with my hand under the covers, and definitely didn’t put my mouth between a redhaired girl’s athletic legs, avidly and with the full intention of writing ghazals about what I tasted there. She prays. She never slays. So maybe in that other world, I’m good enough not to be hurt.

This is the agony haloing Andrea Bharatt, still and perhaps forever: that a young lady so ineffably decent, so morally upright, could be dispatched with as much disregard as if she were ‘lesser,’ somehow: less imbued with a virtue we’d decided she had, without her living seal of approval. Is this the reward, Trini women asked ourselves in our WhatsApp groups and Facebook forums, for doing everything the proper and society-approved way? This sweet, angelic-faced girl had a vision for her life that never included its abrupt end, but so too did the less-publicly-mourned Ashanti Riley. So too did every woman and girl abducted, abused, raped, dismembered, damaged and newspaper headlined, or swept-under-rug-sidelined, in Trinidad and Tobago, no matter how many men they took or beers they necked, how many panties they’d ripped during sex or how many times they’d sinned against themselves and their beloveds.

Maybe in some world, an even more distant and improbable one, there are no virgins and no whores. No Good or Bad Girls. Only survivors. Only women rendered unkillable through respect and constant affirmation, as solid and reliable as the Antillean sun shining on your face, beaming with the knowledge that you are loved, you are loved, you are loved. In that world, Andrea Bharatt and Ashanti Riley are alive. Maybe they’re even best friends. I picture them at Carnival with Asami Nagakiya, poui trees laden with yellow music, pealing in every laugh, echoing between linked arms and feminist camaraderie, bouncing off the rhythms of each unrestrained footfall.

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