Seventeen-year-old Samuel, naïve and inexperienced, leaves his home in Trinidad for Canada following the death of his mother. He hasn't seen his father since he was six years old and now, thrust into a new life together, Samuel soon realizes that he is considered a burden. Undaunted, though still wide-eyed, and propelled by a comic book sensibility, Samuel begins to explore the vast foreign landscape that is Toronto. There he encounters molemen, super-villains,
chimeras, trolls and a host of sidekicks.
With his fourth novel, Rabindranath Maharaj gives us his best work yet, a powerful and funny story of a naive young immigrant who is wise in the culture of comic books, and a portrait of big-city Canada we have never seen before.
About the author
Rabindranath Maharaj, a Trinidadian teacher and journalist, wrote several of the stories in The Interloper during the year he spent in Fredericton. He now writes and teaches in Toronto.
- Winner, Toronto Book Award
Excerpt: The Amazing Absorbing Boy (by (author) Rabindranath Maharaj)
When my mother died four months after my sixteenth birthday, I felt I had already received glimpses of all that would follow. Like if I was once again sitting on a dusty, silvery asteroid and could see through lanes of swirling space dust and dark, puffed-up clouds, right through the samaan tree in our front yard where the shadows of our Mayaro neighbours cast a crooked picket fence on the coffin. I could even make out Uncle Boysie still looking funny in his black suit, staring again at the road as if in this replay my father would suddenly appear in a big puff of sulphurous smoke. But my father was not Nightcrawler the teleporter, and I was not Doctor Manhattan who could see into the future.
Yet, until that morning in June when her life passed away and Uncle Boysie held my hand and pulled me out of the house— as if it was suddenly a dangerous place— I always expected my mother to recover. I say this even though she had been sick for the last four months with all her wavy hair falling out so that instead of looking prettier than all the Mayaro women, she began to resemble the caged monkey inside Lighthouse rumshop. I held on to this faith even when she returned from the clinic in Rio Claro walking so tiredly that I had to support her into the house; when a few of the neighbours began whispering nonsense about obeah and maljeaux; when we both moved in with Uncle Boysie and he began to treat me more kindly than any time before.
I think my mother was responsible for these thoughts because three weeks before she died, we returned to our house on Church Street, just a quarter mile from the beach. I was relieved and felt that everything would soon get back to normal. She would stop vomiting and become stronger and the kitchen would once more smell of shadow-beni, ripe plantain and cassava pone. And the dripping sink would sound like faraway cymbals for the high-pitched Bollywood songs she was always humming.
I was convinced of her recovery when, during those three weeks, she began dressing up in fancy clothes I had never seen before. Each afternoon when I returned from the Mayaro Composite School, I saw her in a new and unfamiliar dress. They looked expensive, with sashes, embroidered collars, and frilly hems. She appeared paler too, though whether this was from the powder on her face or from her sickness, I could not say.
Some evenings Moolai, the village midwife who doubled as a nurse, would be there forcing my mother to drink some nasty-smelling potion. Whenever Moolai saw me, her small eyes would get lost in the loose skin, making her look like a spiteful river turtle, a moroccoy. Uncle Boysie came each evening and stayed with my mother for an hour or two. Except for the day Auntie Umbrella, my father’s sister, turned up. That evening he took one look at my aunt and left in a hurry. She had come armed with her prayer book and her old umbrella strengthened with bicycle spokes. From my bedroom, I heard her preaching about salvation and rapture and Abraham’s bosom.
The following day my mother was in bad shape and when I saw her vomiting into an enamel bowl held by Moolai I really did not want to go to school. All day I thought of her but in the afternoon she was dressed up even more than the last few days. She was wearing rouge that made her cheeks look bonier— like a wrinkly lady taking a deep drag from a cigarette— and instead of the veil tied tightly around her bald head, she had on a wig with the hair plaited just like in the picture of her that used to be above the front door. She had recently replaced this picture together with all the other happy ones removed over the years.
She was sitting by the window as usual and as Moolai was not there, I pulled up a chair from the kitchen. She put her hand on mine and I looked out of the window, trying to match her view. I saw the breadfruit tree with leaves like huge moth wings, and scattered all around, sword-shaped balisier with sickly yellow flowers. In the field of balisier, there was a path that led to the main road and I wondered whether my mother was watching and waiting for someone to turn up. With her fancy dress and powdered face and new shoes and plaited-hair wig. I got distracted by the cornbird nest swinging from the breadfruit tree. About two years earlier, when I was fourteen, my mother had spotted me with a slingshot and asked from the window if the birds had ever done anything to me.
On my way from school the next day, I wondered whether it was the same family that had been living in the nest for all these years or whether the baby birds had grown up and had their own children. Uncle Boysie’s station wagon was parked in the yard and when I opened the door, I saw him and Moolai supporting my mother. “Where all you going?” I asked them. My mother was wearing a completely white dress with bows by the collar and she smelled of some strong perfume.
“Help, boy.” Moolai sounded grumpier than usual. I held my mother’s arm and supported her to the steps and into the station wagon. Just before they pulled off, Uncle Boysie, as if the question had now registered, said, “To Liberty cinema. Sylvie, your mother, want to look at a show.”
“I could come?”
My mother closed her eyes and leaned her head against the seat. Uncle Boysie told me, “Better you stay home, boy. See the house.”
“I could come the next time?”
My mother’s eyes opened weakly and she seemed to smile a little.
Three days later she died, and I moved back to Uncle Boysie’s place, alone this time.
The day after the funeral, Uncle Boysie asked me how I was holding up. He must have seen me staring at the boys around my age in his Anything and Everything shop gathering fishhooks and corks from the lower shelves and women stretching to reach some kitchen gadget strung on nails on the wall. I told him I was okay because I didn’t know what else to say, and his eyes got watery and he started to cough to hide whatever was going through his mind.
He began to quarrel even more, though never to me, and whenever I heard him I wondered if he felt that Cockort, the short, spongy postman whose oversized shoes were always flapping as he walked, or Latchmin, the “sign-lady” who claimed she could predict all the deaths and births in the village, were responsible for my mother’s death. “Damn pussyahs,” he would say, managing to make this rude word sound like a pet. But as one week passed, then two, I realized that in my uncle’s eyes this position was reserved for my father. He never said anything point-blank and at first, I wasn’t even sure who he was talking about. One night as he was closing up, dragging the heavy bolt against the door, he said, “You would expect that he would at least show up for the funeral. You would expect this.” A couple days later, while he was searching for some plumbing part in one of the cardboard boxes stacked with unions and valves, I heard him saying, “Useless! Completely kissmeass useless nowhereian.” That was the word he used most often to describe my father—nowhereian.
The box crashed to the floor and when I went to help him he said, “Keep a eye on the door before any of them blasted locho walk out with a whole box of fish hook.” As his temper got shorter, I began to wonder at this arrangement with Uncle Boysie.
It was strange not having my mother around. A few boys from my fourth form had one parent missing, but none as far as I knew were complete orphans. That was the word my English teacher, Miss Charles, used and her texts made it seem as if I had a horrible life waiting for me, eating gruel and treacle and just waiting for someone named Sid or Mano to introduce me to a life of pickpocketing. I think Uncle Boysie was afraid of this too as he soon began to shoot off little proverbs like, “Birds of a feather frock together” and “Rolling stones gather in the mosque,” and I never bothered to correct him because most evenings he seemed quite tipsy, drinking from the bottle of Johnnie Walker on the shelf behind the counter. Like all the adults in Mayaro, he normally drank on weekends at one of the bars close to the beach but this everyday drinking was new and a couple times, I saw him gazing right in front of him as if he was in a big empty space.
When I began coming to his shop later than usual he seemed not to notice and so I didn’t have to explain that I now took a roundabout route from school that bypassed our house. It meant walking along the beach and cutting into the track next to Plaisance where the dead mangrove crabs looked like birds that had lost their feathers and pitched to earth. The evening high tides usually washed ashore dozens of silvery fishes but their eyes shone so brightly it seemed as if they didn’t want to die. Sometimes there were families from the town gathered around their cars with the women hiding behind towels and the men drinking beer from their coolers. They glanced at me with my bookbag and school uniform and always asked the same questions: “Which school you from, sonnyboy?” and “How come you walking all by youself?”
Because I am a nowhereian, I thought once, and immediately the word seemed flavoured with recklessness. Like an adventurer moving from place to place with no friends or family to hook on to him. Like the Silver Surfer but with no Galactus to command him. Uncle Boysie would have been shocked.
I believe it was three weeks after the funeral that I first went into our old house. As was the custom following a death, the curtains had been removed and there were drapes and doilies over all the pictures. On the first evening, I sat on the chair facing the window and looked out at the road. I must have fallen half-asleep there and when I heard a sound from the kitchen, I bolted up and ran straight down the road, not stopping until I reached Uncle Boysie’s shop. The next day at school, I had to share Pantamoolie’s textbooks, and I believe it was only because I had left my bookbag in the house that I decided to return. I pressed my ear against the door before I nudged it open. I saw my bookbag on the floor and took a few steps forward, keeping my eyes on the kitchen door. I heard the sound again, a gentle tapping, different from the breadfruit leaves scraping the galvanized roof or the wind blowing through the jalousie.
I must have stood there in the middle of the living room for about three minutes, convincing myself that no one would dare come into the house to steal because they knew Uncle Boysie had contacts with all the drunkard policemen from the station on the junction. I didn’t think it was my mother’s ghost or anything, and even if it was, she would not harm me. Soon after the illness had weakened her I overheard her telling my uncle that although I was getting a bit ownway I helped her in plenty ways. I think she meant I had stopped liming around after school with my friends and now came home early to assist around the house and run to the grocery for little kitchen items. Some of my friends called me a “housey-bird” because of this.
In a way, I would have been happy to see her floating above the stove but when I went to the kitchen, I heard the tap dripping into the kitchen sink. I turned it off and walked around the house. Everything looked exactly the same apart from the missing curtains and the drapes on the pictures.
I removed these and gazed at the photographs, one by one. I believe my mother was proud of the big one that hung over the bureau in the living room as I had often seen her watching it while Moolai was massaging her. Her wavy hair was around her shoulders and the way she was looking up at the photographer made her eyes look big and mischievous. It was hard to connect her with that picture. She was more normal in the old black-and-white picture with a wooden frame that stood above the doorway to the kitchen. There, she was standing next to Uncle Boysie and they seemed to be going to a function or something because her hair was plaited and Uncle Boysie was wearing a tie and a jacket that surprisingly did not push against his belly. When I went into her bedroom, the first thing that struck me was the smell of camphor and Limacol and I wondered whether this was the odour of death some of my school novels mentioned. On her dresser was the tree-shaped picture holder. It was not covered, maybe because there were missing pictures from some of the branches. The tree looked as if it was dying. I was in two of the branches though, one as a baby with my mother holding me up and the other for my fifth birthday.
Over the years, most of the pictures had been removed from the walls and whenever I asked my mother about it, she would say it was to repair the frames. In one, my mother and father were sitting together and the only thing I could remember was that his shirt was unbuttoned and she was staring sleepily at his smoke rings. I believed she removed it after Matapal, the old half-crazy fisherman who delivered moonshine, bonito, and carite every other Friday, made some joke about it.
I don’t think my mother ever liked Matapal, because he smelled of rum and dropped a trail of fish scales from the front door to the kitchen. She always left the kitchen while he was scaling the fishes and during that time, he would tell me nonsense about how he had discovered gold chains and necklaces inside some of the fishes. Once he said there was a picture on every scale and he held up one against the window and said he could see a scene of my mother there. “Funny little scene, boy. Never imagine you mother like this.” When he was describing these pictures, he would stretch his arms like a big seabird and his beard would seem to get longer and his face blacker. One night during a storm, he went to untangle a boat’s anchor and no one ever saw him again. I have to say that I missed his stories but more than that I missed the newspapers in which he rolled up his fish, for it was there that I first saw the comics of the Phantom passing on his secret to his only son and Mandrake discovering a whole race of people who lived behind mirrors and the miserable little girl who was always pulling away the ball from Charlie Brown.
After Matapal drowned, it was my job to buy fish from the Mayaro market. I enjoyed going to the market because it was always packed with caimite and sapodilla and soursop, and vendors who sold doubles and pone and pickled pommecythere. Some of the vendors still referred to me as “Danny’s boy,” which was strange, as I had not seen my father since I was six and even then he was always leaving home to go on his trips. Once, Pantamoolie’s father, who sold dasheen and cassava, called me “the nowhereian son,” which was the first time I had heard the word.
Uncle Boysie always used the word in an insulting way so I was surprised when a month or so after the funeral he too said, “It look like you will come a nowhereian soon, boy.” We were about to close up the shop and I felt then he had found out about my evening trips along Plaisance but a couple days later he asked me, “So what you think about Canada?” Like everybody else in Mayaro, he pronounced it as Cyanada.
“I think it have bears and thing.” I couldn’t tell him about Captain Canuck and Wolverine because I was sure he didn’t know about superheroes.
He looked at me suspiciously before he said, “Oho. You mean the hairy kind.” After a while he added, “You know it have a lotta people who does go up there. Picking apple and grapes.”
The next day at school, I asked Pantamoolie, “So what you think about Canada?”
“These Cyanadian people have a special gland below they armpit which does keep away the cold.” I was about to laugh when he added, “Shave ice does fall from the sky. In all different flavour and colour. Lime and orange and chocolate.”
“Who tell you that?”
“Reader’s Digest, man. You don’t read or what?”
I should have known better than to ask Pantamoolie, as he was a big liar. For years, he tried to get us to call him Panther but nearly everybody chose Panties instead and he soon grew resigned to it. He claimed that his father who sold in the market was really an undercover agent, and that he had once seen Mr. Chotolal fingering Miss Charles in the staffroom. In form three, he tried to convince the class that Hanuman, the monkey god, was the world’s first superhero as he had super strength, could fly, had a mace as his weapon, and his name ended in “man.” But Pantamoolie’s picture of shaved ice stuck in my head and during the lunch break, I went into the school library and pulled out a really old book with pictures of Eskimos spearing seals and dogs pulling people in sleds. Some of the names of places like Ottawa and Toronto reminded me of our local Carib ones like Arima and Mayaro.
I think it was maybe four or five days after Uncle Boysie asked the question that he told me he had written my father.
His face hardened a bit and I thought he was going to say something about how my father was a useless nowhereian but instead he said, “About you.”
“Is time he take on some responsibility.”
I wondered if my father was coming from Canada to live in our house. I pictured him wearing one of these white gowns like a crazy scientist as he tried experiments from The Wonder Book of Wonders that was packed with directions for making magnets and flashlights and water clocks, and crystals from ordinary cupboard items. Soon after he had left for good, I discovered the book in the closet in my mother’s room. It was hidden beneath neatly folded jeans and overalls, and the minute I opened the book I knew it had been my father’s.
But why would he come now? When I was in primary school, my mother used to make up stories of him soon sending for us, but as the years passed and he did not show up, she began repeating some of Uncle Boysie’s criticisms. He was “a dreamer” and “was always running away from his responsibilities” and he “made promises he could never keep.” I stopped asking her about him as it was sure to put her in a bad mood, so I never mentioned The Wonder Book of Wonders or his drawings of strange, triangular fishing boats, and seines with bulbs instead of corks, and lawnmowers with wings, or even the fancy Timex watch he had sent for me on my tenth birthday.
One day after our term exam in July, I told Pantamoolie my father would soon be coming to live with me. Immediately he asked, “He will bring down any of these Cyanadian gadgets?”
“Yeah, man. Some that he invent himself.”
“You think he might bring a motorbike?”
“I don’t think that will fit in a suitcase.”
“He could fold it up. A German Lugie then?”
“Same thing. Or a Gatling gun like the one Django the movie badjohn had.”
“I really don’t know. Might be illegal.”
“What about one of these gadget that could see where it have fish below the water? Tell you exactly where to fishen.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I believe he might.”
During the following weeks while I was packing away small tools in Uncle Boysie’s shop I sometimes imagined my father and myself together on a boat, riding the breakers until we were past the Bocas and could see Venezuela. Sometimes in these scenes we actually landed on Venezuela and chatted with the Warahoon Indians who were so impressed with all my father’s gadgets that they loaded us up with tattou and ’gouti and rainbow-coloured macaws and playful baby monkeys. Each day I waited patiently for Uncle Boysie to tell me, “Well, boy, he coming tomorrow.” But as the months passed, I began to feel that my uncle’s promise was no different from my mother’s, when I was much younger. Just ole talk.
I soon began to see myself living my entire life right in Mayaro. Maybe I would inherit Uncle Boysie’s shop, as he wasn’t married and had no children of his own. I would also get a big belly and sit behind the counter quarrelling with the children for interfering with the stocks and appliances. I might even go to Lighthouse rumshop by the beach every weekend for a nip of Puncheon rum. One Friday after school I did exactly that but for two beers instead and when I arrived at the shop trying to fight my drowsiness, my uncle glanced at me, pushed his hand beneath his shirt and began scratching his belly. He usually did that when he was thinking of something. In the following weeks, I saw him scratching, too, whenever I took down one of the comics fastened with clothes clips to a line of polyester twine across the haberdashery section, and when he saw my shoes muddy from searching for Loykie, my sick friend who lived in the mangrove with his mother. To tell the truth, I soon forgot Uncle Boysie had ever mentioned my father but exactly nine months after my mother’s funeral, he told me, “He sending for you.”
“For me? Who?”
“You father, boy.”
“You mean to go up to Canada?”
“Righto pappyo. Cyanada.”
This was too much to digest. I had imagined my father would be joining me in Mayaro so Canada was the furthest thing from my mind. “What I will do there?”
Uncle Boysie reeled off a list of jobs he had most likely picked up from his rumshop friends. He made the place seem only slightly different from Pantamoolie’s crazy land. And he kept this up during the four weeks before I left, joking about “white chicks” and some Canadian wrestler before getting serious with warnings about ownwayness. On the night before my departure, he gave me a long speech that sounded as if he had crammed it from a book, because it didn’t resemble any of his previous advice. But I was really not paying him too much attention as my mind was already far, far away. I was on a plane zooming through fluffy patches of clouds to a land where flavoured shaved ice fell from the sky. A nowhereian, at last!
WINNER 2011 - Toronto Book Award
WINNER 2010 - Trillium Book Award
CBC Canada Reads - Ontario Top Ten Nominee
“Maharaj is a sensitive observer who renders the familiar new and strange in this bittersweet tale of an everyday hero navigating a new land.”
— Camilla Gibb
“An immigrant’s tale unlike any we've been told, The Amazing Absorbing Boy walks our streets with fresh eyes, taking us to places we’ve been many times and show us what we’ve missed. This is a book Canadians have been waiting a long time to read.”
— Steven Galloway
“The Amazing Absorbing Boy is an amazing, absorbing read, one that opens a door on a strange new world called Canada. In prose that is filled with wonder and gentle humour, Maharaj ushers us through this culture from the perspective of one who has just landed in this cold, liberating, frightening and heavenly country, which is made of many countries, this place we all call home. To read Maharaj’s novel is to laugh at ourselves, to wonder at ourselves, and most importantly, to understand ourselves. If you haven’t yet discovered Rabindranath Maharaj, discover him with this novel.”
— Gail Anderson-Dargatz
“Robin Maharaj’s novel, The Amazing Absorbing Boy, is a funny/tender book, to my knowledge an entirely new way of surveying the urban landscape and finding not just the unguessed at, unvisited parts of Toronto but of the Modern City. Highly original in its premise, it is in part an homage and in part a spoof of the sub-genre of super hero comic books — a highly intelligent, roaringly funny homage. Put aside the sombre ‘I must read this book because it might be a form-of self-betterment’ notion that’s been drilled into you about CanLit. Be amazed. Be absorbed. Have fun. It won’t hurt a bit.”
— Wayne Johnston
“Maharaj . . . offers an exhilarating interpretation of immigrant experience. . . . Maharaj superbly articulates the longing for home, on the one hand, and the dream of success in Canada on the other.”
— The Globe and Mail
“Think you know Toronto? Then try getting another perspective. You won’t find a fresher one than in The Amazing Absorbing Boy. . . . Highly recommended.”
— NOW (Toronto)
“Maharaj’s comic-tinged fantasy serves as a particularly apt metaphor for aspects of the modern immigrant experience. . . . Maharaj expertly captures the varied carols of [Toronto’s] urban multiculture.”
— The Walrus
“The language has a charming, natural ease. . . . But it is also a novel with deeper layers. At heart it is a rich exploration of the immigrant psychodrama of attraction and repulsion, welcome and paranoia, perception and misunderstanding.”
— Toronto Star
“Line for line, Maharaj is a superb stylist.”
— Quill & Quire
Praise for Rabindranath Maharaj:
“For the record, [Maharaj] is a more accomplished writer than Vassanji and a livelier novelist than Mistry.”
— Philip Marchand, Toronto Star