I never knew her real name and it is quite likely that she did have one, though I never heard her called anything but Gold Teeth. She did, indeed, have gold teeth. She had sixteen of them. She had married early and she had married well, and shortly after her marriage she exchanged her perfectly sound teeth for gold ones, to announce to the world that her husband was a man of substance.
Even without her gold teeth my aunt would have been noticeable. She was short, scarcely five foot, and she was fat, horribly, monstrously fat. If you saw her in silhouette you would have found it difficult to know whether she was facing you or whether she was looking sideways.
She ate little and prayed much. Her family being Hindu, and her husband being a pundit, she too was an orthodox Hindu. Of Hinduism she knew little apart from the ceremonies and the taboos, and this was enough for her. Gold Teeth saw God as a Power, and religious ritual as a means of harnessing that Power for great practical good, her good.
I fear I may have given the impression that Gold Teeth prayed because she wanted to be less fat. The fact was that Gold Teeth had no children, and she was almost forty. It was her childlessness, not her fat, that oppressed her, and she prayed for the curse to be removed. She was willing to try any means — any ritual, any prayer — in order to trap and channel the supernatural Power.
And so it was that she began to indulge in surreptitious Christian practices.
She was living at the time in a country village called Cunupia, in County Caroni. Here the Canadian Mission had long waged war against the Indian heathen, and saved many. But Gold Teeth stood firm. The Minister of Cunupia expended his Presbyterian piety on her; so did the headmaster of the Mission school. But all in vain. At no time was Gold Teeth persuaded even to think about being converted. The idea horrified her. Her father had been in his day one of the best-known Hindu pundits, and even now her husband’s fame as a pundit, as a man who could read and write Sanskrit, had spread far beyond Cunupia. She was in no doubt whatsoever that Hindus were the best people in the world, and that Hinduism was a superior religion. She was willing to select, modify and incorporate alien eccentricities into her worship; but to abjure her own faith — never!
Presbyterianism was not the only danger the good Hindu had to face in Cunupia. Besides, of course, the ever-present threat of open Muslem aggression, the Catholics were to be reckoned with. Their pamphlets were everywhere and it was hard to avoid them. In them Gold Teeth read of novenas and rosaries, of squads of saints and angels. These were things she understood and could even sympathize with, and they encouraged her to seek further. She read of the mysteries and the miracles, of penances and indulgences. Her scepticism sagged, and yielded to a quickening, if reluctant, enthusiasm.
One morning she took the train for the county town of Chaguanas, three miles, two stations and twenty minutes away. The church of St. Philip and St. James in Chaguanias stands imposingly at the end of the Caroni Savannah Road, and although Gold Teeth knew Chaguanas well, all she knew of the church was that it had a clock, at which she had glanced on her way to the Railway Station nearby. She had hitherto been far more interested in the drab ochre-washed edifice opposite, which was the Police Station.
She carried herself into the churchyard, awed by her own temerity, feeling like an explorer in a land of cannibals. To her relief, the church was empty. It was not as terrifying as she had expected. In the gilt and the images and the resplendent cloths she found much that reminded her of her Hindu temple. Her eyes caught a discreet sign: CANDLES TWO CENTS EACH. She undid the knot in the end of her veil, where she kept her money, took out three cents, popped them into the box, picked up a candle and muttered a prayer in Hindustani. A brief moment of elation gave way to a sense of guilt, and she was suddenly anxious to get away from the church as fast as her weight would let her.
She took a bus home, and hid the candle in her chest-of-drawers. She had half feared that her husband’s Brahminical flair for clairvoyance would have uncovered the reason for her trip to Chaguanas. When after four days, which she spent in an ecstasy of prayer, her husband had mentioned nothing, Gold Teeth thought it safe to burn the candle. She burned it secretly, at night, before her Hindu images and sent up, as she thought, prayers of double efficacy.
Everyday her religious schizophrenia grew, and presently she began wearing a crucifix. Neither her husband nor her neighbours knew she did so. The chain was lost in the billows of fat around her neck, and the crucifix was itself buried in the valley of her gargantuan breasts. Later she acquired two holy pictures, one of the Virgin Mary, the other of the crucifixion, and took care to conceal them from her husband. The prayers she offered to these Christian things filled her with new hope and buoyancy. She became an addict of Christianity.
Then her husband, Ramprasad, fell ill.
Ramprasad’s sudden, unaccountable illness alarmed Gold Teeth. It was, she knew, no ordinary illness, and she knew too that her religious transgression was the cause. The District Medical Officer at Chaguanas said it was diabetes but Gold Teeth knew better. To be on the safe side, though, she used the insulin he prescribed, and, to be even safer, she consulted Ganesh Pundit, the masseur with mystic leanings, celebrated as a faith-healer.
Ganesh came all the way from Feunte Grove to Cunupia. He came in great humility, anxious to serve Gold Teeth’s husband, for Gold Teeth’s husband was a Brahmin among Brahmins, a Panday, a man who knew all five Vedas; while he, Ganesh, was a mere Chaubay and knew only four.
With spotless white koortah, his dhoti cannily tied, and a tasselled green scarf as a concession to elegance, Ganesh exuded the confidence of the professional mystic. He looked at the sick man, observed his pallor, sniffed the air inquiringly. “This man,” he said slowly, “is bewitched. Seven spirits are upon him.”
He was telling Gold Teeth nothing she didn’t know. She had known from the first that there were spirits in the affair, but she was glad that Ganesh had ascertained their number.
“But you mustn’t worry,” Ganesh added. “We will ‘tie’ the house — in spiritual bonds — and no spirit will be able to come in.”
Then without being asked, Gold Teeth brought out a blanket, folded it, placed it on the floor and invited Ganesh to sit on it. Next she brought him a brass jar of fresh water, a mango leaf and a plate full of burning charcoal.
“Bring me some ghee,” Ganesh said, and after Gold Teeth had done so, he set to work. Muttering continuously in Hindustani he sprinkled the water from the brass jar around him with the mango leaf. Then he melted the ghee in the fire and the charcoal hissed so sharply that Gold Teeth could not make out his words. Presently he rose and said, “You must put some of the ash of this fire on your husband’s forehead, but if he doesn’t want you to do that, mix it with his food. You must keep the water in this jar and place it every night before your front door.”
Gold Teeth pulled her veil over her forehead.
Ganesh coughed. “That,” he said, rearranging his scarf, “is all. There is nothing more I can do. God will do the rest.”
He refused any payment for his services. It was enough honor, he said, for a man as humble as he was to serve Pundit Ramprasad, and she, Gold Teeth, had been singled out by fate to be the spouse of such a worthy man. Gold Teeth received the impression that Ganesh spoke from a first-hand knowledge of fate and its designs, and her heart, buried deep down under inches of mortal, flabby flesh, sank a little.
“Baba,” she said hesitantly, “Revered father, I have something to say to you.” But she couldn’t say anything more and Ganesh, seeing this, filled his eyes with charity and love.
“What is it, my child?”
“I have done a great wrong, Baba.”
“What sort of wrong?” he asked, and his tone indicated that Gold Teeth could do no wrong.
“I have prayed to Christian things.”
And to Gold Teeth’s surprise, Ganesh chuckled benevolently. “And do you think God minds, daughter? There is only one God and different people pray to Him in different ways. It doesn’t matter how you pray, but God is pleased if you pray at all.”
“So it is not because of me that my husband has fallen ill?”
“No, to be sure, daughter.”
In his professional capacity Ganesh was consulted by people of many faiths, and with the licence of the mystic he had exploited the commodiousness of Hinduism, and made room for all beliefs. In this way he had many clients, as he called them, many satisfied clients.
Henceforth Gold Teeth not only pasted Ramprasad’s pale forehead with the sacred ash Ganesh had prescribed, but mixed substantial amounts with his food. Ramprasad’s appetite, enormous even in sickness, diminished; and he shortly entered into a visible and alarming decline that mystified his wife.
She fed him more ash than before, and when it was exhausted and Ramprasad perilously macerated, she fell back on the Hindu wife’s last resort. She took her husband home to her mother. That venerable lady, my grandmother, lived with us in Port of Spain, in Woodbrook.