To most old timers recalling the period of the 1930s through to the early 1960s, the name Mahal was enough to conjure up pictures of a lone “pedestrian-motorist”’, if there is such a term to describe one who mimes or pretends to drive a car, while he, in fact, walks, trots or runs.
For miles and miles, the man Mahal walked bare-footed and untiring, from village to village, small towns and through the city of Port-of-Spain.
The Creole-Spanish man, or ‘cocoa pahyorl’, wore an old, weather-beaten police cap on his head, long pants with legs rolled up to just under his knees unveiling sinuous calves. Around his waist he wore a thick, broad leather belt like that of the cocoa workers of that period, and across his shoulders hung a ham sack with a hand-stick or baton and other unknown objects.
With one hand clutched to an imaginary steering wheel, the man was ready to begin his long journey.
The free hand played the gear lever into the first gear position. He released the hand brake and jerked off to a start. “Beep! Beep!” he voiced the warning horn.
Again the free hand geared up to the second and third gears. Mahal was on his way, to where, no one could predict. So precise and true his act appeared, that to him, there was no doubt that he was in fact, driving a car.
He was viewed with suspicion, as the most unusual and questionable character in this country.
Long before World War II, people stared curiously out of windows from little houses, big houses and barracks throughout the country to see Mahal as he “drove” past, along the roads.
Schoolchildren gaped with curiosity and fear as the “driver” went by, making appropriate hand signals and blowing horns as a true motorist.
It was early in the 20th century, when dirt roads cut through forests, dark cocoa and coffee plantations and open sugarcane fields; the period when motorcars were few, monstrous curiosities, and when children hid under beds and sugar bags at the noisy approach of a car.
It was a time when drivers were hailed as heroes and masters of the moving machines or horseless buggies. There was at that time a little boy called Hose Gonzales of humble parentage in Siparia.
He was passionate with the dream of becoming a car or bus driver, and so, he often shied away from school, intent on fulfilling his ambition. He frequently wandered around a bus garage, whiling away his time in daydreaming; seeing himself as a bus driver. In those far-off days the bus owners gave their buses names. One of the buses in that garage was named, “Taj Mahal,” after which, he was supposedly nicknamed.
He played car, as he went on errands for his mother. Up and down George Street in Siparia, he babbled his lips to the sound of the engine, as he trotted along, togging at his imagined steering wheel and changing gears while on his errand to the parlour and back home
At the early age of ten years, he started “driving” away from home. As he grew up, he expanded his route out to De Gannes Village, then further away to Syne Village, Charlo Village and Penal in one direction.
And gaining confidence, he later “drove” through villages in the opposite direction as far South as Erin.
As a young man he added more miles exploring new destinations beyond the then borough of San Fernando.
For many days and nights he stayed away from home until the time came when being at home, was unusual. His mother missed Hose, who was by that time, well known as Mahal the driver.
From then on, there was no stopping, as he drove along roads and tracks to scattered places across the island. He was seen driving in places as far apart as Port-of-Spain, Arima, Sangre Grande, Manzanilla, Mayaro, Guayaguayare, Rio Claro Princes Town, Tamana, Cumuto, Blanchisseuse, La Brea and Cedros. A woman of Sangre Grande claimed to have seen Mahal driving through the streets of Caracas in Venezuela.
Some folks from south Trinidad related how Mahal was encouraged to enter a walking race from Charlie King Junction in Fyzabad to San Fernando, one Easter Sunday. He recalled:
“Dat morning wen Mahal line up foh de walking race in Fyzabad, well dat was de best ting foh ah long time. We fool him an’ tell him dat it was ah car race. Man Ah tell yuh! Fellahs betting big, big money orn de great Mahal, because dey know dat he is de best walker in de whole island. Wen dey buss de pistol so, Mahal screech out like de bullet from de pistol. By de time de odder fellahs mek t’ree corners, de ole Mahal done goin’ up Tito Hill in Oropouche, bat-outa-hell!
“Ah fellah who bet orn he, t’row ah bucket ah water to cool dong Mahal. Well Mahal mash he brakes one time. He watch de fellah cross-eye and bawl, ‘why de hell yuh t’row water orn mih car foh! Yuh want to flood mih cabaratah o’ wha!’ He put he mout’ one side so, and start to chug chug like he goin to shut dong. Soon after, he pick-up speed again.”
A crowd of supporters followed on foot and on bicycles urging the man to the winning post. On reaching the middle of the Mosquito Creek, Mahal began to limp and bounce, soon coming to an abrupt stop. He scooped the sweat off his forehead. He pulled up his hand brake, opened the car door and walked out; and throwing up his hands in despair, he said,
“Oh shucks fellahs! Is like ah get ah flat tyre! It go tek about two hours to patch up de chube!’” Of course, that was a regrettable loss; not only to Mahal, but to the scores of angry men who had so faithfully placed their bets on him as their winner.
In another interesting incident, an old, bearded fish vendor from Princes Town related,
“Mahal drive into Princes Town cool, cool, one day. He park up he car near mih fish cyart and buy ah long king fish from me. He open de trunk orf his car and pelt de fish inside, den he close de trunk and drive off. Buh he really leave de fish orn de road, because he ent really have no darm car atorl! As he bend de corner, Ah tek back mih fish and sell it. I wish he come and buy fish from me every day!”
The continuing drama occurred in far-off Sangre Grande, when Mahal steamed into Cunapo. An old timer recalled with a broad grin,
“Mahal drive he imaginary car an’ park it up in front ah Marlay shop in Cunapo. Everybody crowd roung to see Mahal open he car door an’ come out. He gone in de back ah de shop in Marlay sweet drink factory to drink ah sweet. W’en he come back, he see ah mash-and-leggo Ford car park up on top ah he good car. Boy, well hell roll dat day! Mahal tek out he big stick
from he hamsack, an, start to beat up de man car an’ cuss! Man, Ah nevah see ah mash-and-leggo tek off so fas’ yet!”
There is, however, yet, another intriguing slant to the Mahal story which stands as a challenge to the international world, and the question of believing or not. If the legendary Mahal had carried an odometer to record the total mileage of his driving (walking) career, it would have registered a mileage of approximately 163,800 miles. If it were possible for a person to travel around the earth on a continuous road along the circumference, which is approximately, 24,902 miles, Mahal’s mileage would have been the equivalent of a conservative six and a half trips around. Or if a path were stretched out in a straight road to the moon, (238,857 miles) he would have travelled more than half the journey to that planet.
The humble Mahal, however, had never won a medal for his country, or a reward for himself. He never heard the thundering applause for his feat; singular and unparallel in the history of walking. Instead, he departed silently, and as a pauper, was laid to rest without a verse or an inscribed headstone. But maybe some day, our values will change and his neglected grave may be sought and written as an historical monument, Mahal the Walking Legend of Trinidad and Tobago.
e-mail – alramsawack@live,com