Thu | Dec 13, 2018

Tony Deyal | Back to Africa

Published:Saturday | October 13, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Every family has at least one secret to hide, one black sheep to stay far from, and one skeleton in its capacious cupboard, most likely built with materials from the family tree.

Since the days of Old Mother Hubbard, cupboards have developed into cabinets, closets, sideboards, buffets, presses and even wardrobes. Over time, they have become more transparent, with lots of glass so there is nothing left to rumour or the imagination.

The last refuge of what Sir Lancelot, the calypsonian, having found out that his daddy was not his daddy but his daddy didn't know, referred to as "shame and scandal in de family" is DNA, the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms.

My grandmother, who all of us called 'Ma', the child of Indian indentured immigrants, was blond with green eyes. It was rumoured that her father, who was dark-skinned, wanted to drown the baby since it in no way resembled him in features or complexion. Anyhow, she survived and lived to bear many children, including my father.

I was eight years old when she died, and in those days, the Hindu ceremonies, traditions and superstitions included spreading ashes on a tray and placing it outside the doorway overnight. Whatever imprints you found in the morning would tell you the form the person took in the reincarnation cycle.

My aunt, who shared the house with my grandmother, used to rear chickens, and yet was convinced that the footprints found in the ashes were her mother's next step on the reincarnation roundabout. Ma had become a fowl.

Even at that age, I was less concerned about where Ma went to and more intrigued about where she came from. My father was extremely light-skinned and, despite working in the cane field for much of his life, never had a tan. Instead, his skin got increasingly red. When some red hair sprouted on my chin, I thought that Ma's 'real' father had to be Scottish, partly because of the beard but more because there were a lot of Scot engineers working in the sugar factories. It took my big son, George, using DNA, to find out the truth.

He took a DNA kit from a company called 23andme and found out that while the combination of my genes and his mother's made him 96 per cent South Asian, he was 3.6 per cent Irish. It seems that even before the British took over Trinidad in 1797, there were already Irish here. In fact, Sir Ralph Abercromby's troops landed at a place called Mucurapu, which historian Gerard Besson says "was then a sugar factory called Peru, which belonged to an Irish family named Devenish". So, as another Calypsonian, this time Gypsy, sang, the Irish were here for cane.

There was another question from my grandmother's birth that grew in importance to me, and I shared with George and my other children. My mother had told me that Ma's family came from Nepal. In truth, my father and I both looked Nepalese - short legs and stocky build. When I was a Hubert Humphrey Fellow, the Nepalese students initially thought I was one of them. What interested me most was my bloody-mindedness and aggression. It had to come from the Gurkhas, and while it may be self-made myth or wishful thinking, I still cling to that part of Ma's story.

 

LESS THAN FOUR PER CENT

 

George's DNA report showed that South Asian could be Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghan or, for that matter, Nepalese. Anxious to know more, George and his wife, Sara, gave me a DNA kit from 23andme for my 73rd birthday. Anxious to learn more, I spit several times in the bottle that was part of the kit and sent my DNA sample on a voyage of discovery waiting for the spit to hit the fan.

I am less than four per cent Neanderthal, and because of that, I am less likely to sneeze after I eat dark chocolate. My maternal haplogroup (common ancestry on my mother's side) makes it clear that I descend from a woman who lived approximately 8,500 years ago and she came from a long line of women who can be traced back to Eastern Africa more than 150,000 years ago.

My father's haplogroup goes back 250,000 years to East Africa and the key person is a man who lived 33,000 years ago. The group includes gypsies, and my having lived in so many places during my lifetime seems to verify this. The fact that we are all descended from Africans is well known, but what I didn't know is that I am 89.2 per cent Asian and 9.9 per cent European, with the Irish in me being about 6.9 per cent, but with a little Iberian thrown into it, but not enough for me to write in Spanglish ? No?

What I found out is that there are a lot of diseases I am not carrying, including agnesis of the corpus callosum with peripheral neuropathy, or Herlitz junctional epidermolysis bullosa (LAMB3-related). My sigh of relief ended with my slightly increased risk of late-onset Alzheimer's disease, the detection, but not greater risk, of age-related macular degeneration and a variant of hereditary haemochromatosis.

The good news is that I am more likely to be able to match a musical pitch and smell asparagus, can taste things that are bitter, and am not likely to be afraid of heights. The bad news is the little upper back hair and bald spot. There are a lot of other things, but because of the Alzheimer's, I forgot them all.

- Tony Deyal was last seen saying that the 23andme people found 1,032 relatives for him and will probably find many more if he ever wins the lottery, something they ignored in his DNA.