Thursday, April 25, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: The ‘illegitimate’ code


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IF A CHILD is born of parents who were not married at the time of birth, Dulhaime’s Law Dictionary says it is born out of wedlock. People other than Dulhaime say worse things about children produced by such people under such circumstances. 

But there are other variations of being born out of wedlock. For example, if an unmarried woman is caught by her parents entertaining a young man with a sexual favour or two in her bedroom, and the said parents then threaten the young man with various dire punishments, not the least of which is castration, unless he marries the young lady, one can say he was married out of bedluck. If he refuses he would surely end up, like the young lady, bedridden.

Take another case not covered by Dulhaime. One of my neighbours had built a small shelter in the backyard and used it to store his gardening implements, supplies and junk. Not being a trusting soul, he always kept it locked.  One day he found the lock missing and when he tried to enter the building discovered that it was locked from the inside. 

Help was summoned, police were called, neighbours armed with various agricultural implements surrounded the place and when the door was forced open, he found his daughter cowering inside with the son of one of the neighbours, a man who minutes earlier had threatened to dismember whoever was inside the outbuilding with a fork and who used language consistent with what he would do to the miscreant with that particular piece of equipment. 

Needless to say, the girl’s father rejected instituting the charge of breaking and entering and was insistent on immediate matrimony or imprisonment for carnal knowledge. Perhaps because of the fertiliser stored on the premises, a baby was duly born out of shedlock and the father did not go straight to Yale.

In Siparia one of my female neighbours was impregnated by a young man with a Rasta hairstyle.  The father of the young lady, a carpenter, threatened to use his entire tool collection on the now bereft young man who had used up his entire stock on the young lady.  Needless to say, after he saw what was coming down the track, the Rasta and father hammered out an agreement and the inevitable baby was born out of dreadlock. 

Another father out in Peyton Place, Siparia, caught his daughter in flagrante with a young man, grabbed the man by the upper part of his body with one hand and with the other held a knife to the young man’s throat threatening to slit it from ear to ear if the young man did not agree immediately to marry the young lady. The healthy baby, which came after the customary period, was born out of headlock. 

In another incident, while the parents were trying for a long time to hammer out a negotiated agreement for the future of the son of one family and the daughter of another, their having been caught enjoying each other’s company without the impediment of clothing, finding that the resolution of the matter was taking too long, the couple eloped, got married and eventually had a child beloved by his maternal and paternal grandparents. 

Nobody argued, however, that the child was not born out of deadlock.  I suppose the baby which was born in a car during the day when the police in Trinidad and Tobago used their power to keep all the traffic from moving was born out of gridlock but that doesn’t count.

Being born out of wed – or any other lock, bolt or security device – is not the only way to describe the offspring of parents not married at the time of the birth of an infant produced by their joint endeavours. In Trinidad, initially, children born to parents who were married under “bamboo” or “Hindu Rights” were not recognised as legal offspring and so had on their birth certificates the term “illegitimate male (or female) child”. 

Many of the indentured immigrants and their children kept up the religious and community traditions of their homeland and, because they were unable to read and had not really settled down as yet in the new society, their priests or pundits officiated at their weddings.  All of us born to those unions were, to use the English words, bastards, by-blows or, to use the Latin phrase, “Nullius Filius” or “son of nobody.”  At twelve, a “country-boy” from Siparia, I entered Secondary School in San Fernando. 

I am not sure now why I had to produce a birth certificate, but I brought the one I had used since elementary school and handed it to the class prefect to pass on to the teacher.  Immediately, the boy, pointing at me, started a chant of “illegitimate male child” and continued this until the teacher stopped it.  I was not embarrassed because, as I tell my children, I was not alone.  For example, every Good Friday we had a “Bachelors versus Benedicts (married men)” cricket match in the Siparia Savannah and several of my friends, stalwarts of the team, regardless of race and religion, had many “wives” and children.  

The phrase that gets me about illegitimacy is “being born on the wrong side of the blanket”.  “Being born on the wrong side of the tracks” denotes poverty, “getting up on the wrong side of the bed” means starting off the day out of rhythm, but blanket?  I thought of asking someone I know from Tobago who had inflicted that stigma on his first two children but he was holidaying in Los Angeles so I asked one of my cricket colleagues whose children are also scattered throughout several countries.  “Were your children born on the wrong side of the blanket?” He answered, “Boss, we was too poor to have a blanket and because we was hiding to do we thing we was lucky to be on the wrong side of the ‘picka’ patch.”

• Tony Deyal was seen repeating the one-liner about a person born under circumstances similar to his, “A man in New York gets stabbed every 52 seconds. Poor bastard…”


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