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Wednesday 21 November 2018
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Schoolbooks and Mr Biswas

GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN
GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN

Diary of a mothering worker

Entry 298

GABRIELLE JAMELA HOSEIN

WHILE CHILDREN play over these holidays, school is on many mothers’ minds. You see these mothers, going extra distance to find the store that sells books at a cheaper price, double-checking stationary lists against the contents of their purse, and carrying heavy plastic bags of school supplies while pulling one or two children along by the wrist in thick High Street or Chaguanas Main Road heat.

I was in a bookstore, buying just-deceased Vidia Naipaul’s great novel, A House for Mr Biswas, a big, big book by any measure and one that forever defined my life-long obsession with having a house of my own. It is the essential Trinidadian ambition, shared by everyone from the wealthy oil families of the South to the squatter next door.

Like Mr Biswas, I was combing the country looking for affordable housing materials, discovering commitments such as rates, interest, repairs and debt at the same pace, and the risks and costs of it all, from hollow bricks to pitch pine beams to tiny leaks in roofing.

I was thinking, like Naipaul, of what could be hidden, by bookcase, glass cabinet or curtains, what could be accommodated until Ziya’s whole life was comfortably ordered and her memories made coherent by this odd-shaped house in Santa Cruz.

At the same time, as I stood in line to pay, I was thinking of motherhood, listening to a woman portion out her life story with the young assistant helping her tick off items for purchase. For every ruler, eraser, copybook and text, there was that time she had to tell the children this and how she had to manage to make ends meet then, and how hard “it does be” throughout.

When all was added up, she decisively handed over a thick fold of blue money, like the CEO of a company that for another year weathered rain, robbery and recession. I thought I knew exactly that feeling and how I’d seen it on other mothers’ faces in bookstores and in-between aisles with school shoes. Most important, I knew that not one soul really knows what you go through when those responsibilities fall unfairly and ultimately on you.

One woman, a survivor of her partner’s violence, went to the credit union every year with her book list and its itemised amounts to borrow money. Others hold on for their sou-sou hand just at this time. Everywhere, mothers are planning and calculating, scraping and saving in time for September, like unheralded characters in a great Trinidadian barrack yard novel.

Indeed, in the 1970s, the Housewives’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago started a schoolbook exchange, first in Hazel Brown’s house, later in the ONR’s office on Albion St and, finally, in East Side Plaza, precisely for these reasons.

Hazel herself, who was taking care of ten children, would sort all their books by subject, see what could be handed down, and then call up everyone to see what others had and what could be exchanged.

As she told me, at one point, the book exchange was taken up by some schools and parents would bring their used books and their book lists and exchange what they needed, buying at a fraction of the original cost.

HATT began to make a small profit, in what we would now call social entrepreneurship, by buying at 25 per cent and selling at 50 per cent of the store price. In Albion Street, women would iron the dog ears flat, make sure books were in good condition and could be sold at an affordable price, and that the right editions were the ones available.

It meant that children were told not to mark up their textbooks or simply throw them away. A stigma associated with second-hand books was pressed back, giving mothers and families collective solutions to their challenges in making ends meet while preparing for the new term, and giving what they already had in their hands greater dollar value.

As I walked out of the bookstore with Mr Biswas’ dream of a house in my hand and hope to manage the expenses of both renovations and the new school year on my mind, I thought of the mother in the store, taking her school supplies home, and how Naipaul became a writer because his family valued books.

I thought of HATT and how women can help each other fulfil hard-earned dreams, and I thought of Mr Biswas and the list of compromises his family continually navigated in the hope that their circumstances would one day improve.

motheringworker@gmail.com

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