To be or not to be.. an island


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Category: Reflections Date: 16 Jul 95

(This is a fictional letter)

My friend,

I have just put the phone down exhausted, hoarse and defeated at the end of our lengthy conversation. I could not change your mind. You will leave Trinidad. I can’t believe it. Admittedly, when you first returned here a full-fledged architect after a long spell abroad, you were terrified of society. You said its contours were too harsh. People minced their gait but not their words. Sensibility was unheard of.


Conversation was nauseatingly banal, provincial. You reeled with boredom. You tried to protect yourself by not hearing, but bits of what you privately called “slogan talk” was enough to seep through your consciousness ... “Indian people this”; “Black people that”; “Them Syrians”; “White people”; “Poor people this”; “Rich people that”; “All of them thief”; “Drug money”; “NCC bacchanal”...Blah blah ...


Of course, you were a bloody snob. You had only recently been introduced to the world through ancient architecture and you were dazzled. You were a thousand years old and as wide as the world. High Corinthian and slender Ionic columns, minarets, domes, tombs, basilicas, cathedrals, chateaus, court facades, palazzos, chapels, libraries - they shaped you, gave you depth, colour.  Perhaps because you still knew so little, you came across as an elitist.  You said they came at you with a who-he-feel-he-is attitude. How you raged. You said you “daily felt pecked by a thousand corbeaux who wanted you not dead, but hollow.”


You found out quickly that insouciance was de rigueur. Your energy and sponge-like curiosity was seen as gauche, self seeking, even vulgar. So you blocked out. You lived in the past, with your letters and books, in rooms where daylight was forbidden. You tried to recreate that cold dark ornate Florentine basilica in which you claimed one day to have had an uncharacteristic moment of spirituality. You lit a candle and sat in peace, marvelling at a dusty slanting ray of light splitting the old darkness in half.


The other day, we laughed together because somebody you’d met when you’d just returned said that he initially thought that you belonged to a cult. He was convinced by your dazed expression, haunted eyes, and the fact that you didn’t notice or remember people you saw everyday. But for years you were happy here, reasonably fulfilled. But more of that later. Lately, you seemed more preoccupied than usual. And Sundays were the worst, you said. Those solitary Sunday mornings when the sun’s long rays climbed over furniture and walls, staining coffee cups and the day’s newspapers. Those Sundays - heavy and congealed under the weekend’s unrealized expectations along with undone household chores and the sense of the futility of this circular week - Sunday to Sunday, week after week, month after month, year after year.


Fear pokes at you through the printed word. The newspapers are relentless - bullets crashing on skulls, assassinations, mindlessness. Powerlessness slaps you. You start at a sound outside, look over your shoulder, behind you. Jumpy. You read, “Trinidad gone through”, and eagerly scan for hope. In this mood you’ll take anything. But it hits you again. “The Empire has fallen, the darkness is down.”  “The wheel comes full circle,” you say, “a giant ponderous machine that swallows innocent babies, processes them into disillusioned adults, chews them up, and spews out their ashes.” We giggle, despite ourselves. Why are you so dramatic? You reply with the plaintive appeal of a spoilt child. “I know I have to die. I know I am, we are, mortal. But why do I have to be reminded of death everyday? Why do I have to know all the murdered people. I’m tired of funerals.” You sound as if you are pouting. “I can never be myself. I am linked to too many webs and I am positively claustrophobic. Each time I move or speak I carry with me all my friends, family and people who work with me. There’s no separation between them. This is one facade I am sick of, I can see you grinning at your little joke.”


Heartened, I prepare to launch a defense, but you interrupt in that bursting way people have when they have been obsessively weighing a conflict and have come down on one side. You pick up a heavily underlined opinion on Graham Greene (in the thin pages of the UK-based paper The Guardian Weekly.) “The characteristic movement is usually towards a confrontation with brutality or despair. As often as not, the outcome is a gesture of affirmation so sodden and futile that it is indistinguishable from collapse or resignation - but it is also recognition that, to keep alive the tormenting possibility of consolation, is the final curse of the inconsolable.” It was after you quoted that to me in your sepulchral voice that I felt cornered. You glibly anticipated (and dismissed) my efforts to affirm Trinidad as sodden and futile even before I started. Clever, but dear friend, you have not yet been doomed to that curse of the inconsolable.


Let me reread a letter you wrote to me. After a vacation home, Carnival and the prospect of a job helped you decide to come back to Trinidad. “The ritual tumble in the mud was good for the soul... I revel in the madness which tosses an island in the air and openly worships sensual abandon. It’s an elemental necessity.” And then: “I miss living near water. In Trinidad, I am cosseted with family and friends, but retain a wide sense of space, because there is no edge. I can sit in an office in Port-of-Spain and see Venezuela, with the knowledge that the next land east of Trinidad is all of Africa, that a ten minute drive to the sea will take me to the Gulf of Paria. “I can make my home here without limiting myself to being here. Work will be only a short distance away. As an architect I will be able to move ahead faster than anywhere else in the world with complete and utter freedom because existing laws are so primitive, nobody enforces them. Although I have noted the caveat that I will catch my tail to find clients to pay. “And then I won’t be lonely because like everywhere else in the world, you find like minded people, people you want to lime with. And no one will think me out of place at home. If we are the mimic men, thank God we are still only mimic racists. Our hearts aren’t in it.”


Do you admit that much of what you said then still holds? You used to mock people who studied abroad, returned home, and did nothing but looked back to glory days. Aren’t you now doing what you abhor, upset because you have failed to transplant a dream, that, by its very nature, will not survive here? You used to say that the intellectuals are a failure of this country. The only way we can change anything is to participate; to join the NCIC and Muslim Leagues and Pentecostal Churches, the Lions Club and the Maha Sabha, The Wildfowl Trust and the Bureau of Standards. And then you mocked the wince your remark elicited in our friends, those intellectuals. But now, aren’t you running away, not participating? Had you forgotten that time when you pulled me out of withdrawal and disillusion by waving Edward Albee’s words at me (from that same thin Guardian Weekly). “You can’t have a community if people are isolated within themselves. One of my concerns is that if we do isolate ourselves we end up not participating in our own lives.”


And finally, can I quote back to you the lines that followed? “A Delicate Balance (Albee’s latest play) is about the realization that if we deny our social responsibilities long enough we find we’re no longer capable of doing anything when the time comes.” I ask you, has Trinidad “gone through” or is it you? What are you running from?


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur