Freeing the mind


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Category: Reflections Date: 10 Dec 95


Dear Mario,

Your letter lies in front of me. The paper resembles the kind you find in children’s exercise books, yellow lined paper. On the right hand corner in mangy print it says “Prisons.” Lower, bolder in bigger type “Trinidad, WI.” Underneath that the date. Across it is stamped Port-of-Spain, Prisons. I see your letter left five days after you wrote it.


There are dotted lines on the left hand side in which you addressed your letter to me care of the Trinidad Guardian. Old people, the physically handicapped, and the very poor would empathise - they, too, are often treated if they were half-witted, so there it was - the letter form all set out for you. But what I found most touching was that underneath the date, defying the institutionalised paper, you made yourself a person. You ruled three short lines in pencil underneath the date and wrote in your own hand, your name and address, in your black ballpoint pen.


You wrote: “My name is Mario, a condemned prisoner at the above address... I have some time before the determination of my appeal. And in an attempt to alleviate the existing agony and preserve the (sic) vestige of my sanity I have decided to occupy myself with writing... perhaps a lot of it.

“Ms Mathur, you being the journalist I admire for elaborate punctuation, lyrical vividness and other characteristics that have made you my English teacher (please don’t feel offended), would you be so kind as to send me in a letter some directions about the uses of the various punctuation marks?”


Now here is where I stopped short. Punctuation is a terrible weakness of mine - my editors at the Guardian would testify to that. As for your other compliments I feel humbled because I always read books which I know I could never write. But you interested me because you want to write. So do I. “Perhaps too much” was the line that made me want to sing. I say this because although I am not a condemned prisoner I know that writing alleviates agony, that you were “freeing your mind.”


Out here in Trinidad and Tobago many of us are imprisoned. We clock in and out of jobs, we shuttle children to and from school, we battle for that promotion, that recognition, that contract, that pair of sneakers. You serve time, but we have none to serve, to sit or read or write quietly. Our minds are padlocked into yearning. More than that, we are all condemned to death. But the difference between us, the “free” and you, is that you have looked mortality in the eye and we refuse to acknowledge it.


Out here, men will kill for $80 to see a show, shoot a woman dead for her car. It’s a business to them. The other day when I realised, at midnight perhaps, that I had left my house keys in the car which I couldn’t remember if I had locked, I asked myself, “Should I risk going into the garage now and getting held up, or should I leave the keys and risk having someone break into my car and house with the keys?”


In this culture where the gap is growing daily between the rich and the poor, the rich flaunt their wealth in new cars and homes, the poor only see rich and beautiful people on TV. Wealth, artificial beauty and power are shown as the norm. So that if you are a 16-year-old boy or even a 27-year-old man from a household where neither of your parents is employed, if you live even modestly you think you are not normal. If you don’t possess material things, that you are deviant.


So these men who we the society call “deviant” are really people who are trying to acquire more material things to become part of the “normal” society... which is now very sick, it’s dying. You see we are imprisoned in this deadly agitation for acquisition. Even as we play golf, we worry about a wrong move at the office. While we wring the clothes dry, we think of the new curtains, we play Play Whe and Lotto, we agitate. If not this time, the next. No freedom here. We are locked up till the next number comes. And then again.


Your interest in writing is not a coincidence. It is an exercise in liberation. It is the writers and the thinkers who have kept us from going totally cold - saved from being the undead. They are able to tap an ocean in themselves in which life is so interesting, so absorbing, so wide that they are impatient of the acquisitive fever for power and wealth that imprisons us. Writers can emanate warmth, and draw out the stuff that differentiates us from the cold people we occasionally encounter.


This week, around 11 in the morning in a corner of Maraval where a vegetable and - fruit vendor couple have their stand festooned now with some Christmas decorations. The sun was shining and large drops of rain began to fall. Devil and wife at it again. A woman from the bank, straight backed petite, prettily minced across the road. A Grenadian and a “Chinee” good humouredly exchanged insults under the vegetable canopy.

 Chinee: Why you do go back to Grenada if you don’t like how we get on.

 Grenadian: Only after you go on a slow boat to China.

 Chinee: Well you go reach before me.

Plump drops of rain stood on Christmas apples and pears. Nearby two school boys hollered with laughter as they shook drops of rain water from a wet branch. Those are scenes that take place everyday. And this laughter, the round drops of rain quivering on crimson sorrel shells can’t be bought. But it can be crushed easily. So the writer is given the burden of safeguarding this.


Can you imagine how difficult it is to safeguard a woman’s passion, to teach young people, or laugh with a sister; and how easy it is to crush it to pulp with a crude gun and a mind empty of life’s real offerings. Can you see how easily the soul can be crumpled and seduced with the allure of cars and videos, with sneakers and guns, with things? Writing liberates. It was around 330 BC when the greatest general of the world Alexander the Great came across the Corinthian philosopher Diogenes lying in the sun.

 “I am Alexander the Great King,” said the ruler. “I am Diogenes the dog,” said the philosopher. “Ask of me any favour you choose,” said the King. “Stand out of my sun,” answered Diogenes. Life in prison must be horrible but you have the time to read, write, and think and live. After Socrates was sentenced to death, he began learning how to learn to play the lyre. He said he wanted to learn it before he died. He squeezed every drop out of life. Nehru spent 13 years in prison when he wrote his books, including the famous letters to his daughter Indira Gandhi, “Glimpses of world history.” Napoleon, the great general, wrote his memoirs when he was imprisoned. Mandela spent almost all his life in jail - it couldn’t crush him. He has removed the humiliation and degradation of millions, gave them back their birthright, their dignity. That is power.


I don’t know what crime you committed, but I hope you write about life in prison and your trajectory from criminal to seeker of correct punctuation - so you might help to liberate young criminals who only understand the power of a gun, or gain pleasure from a video. Tell them of its power and how it counters your agony while you await your appeal. I told you already I can’t punctuate. But Undine Guiseppi can, I’m sure she would be delighted in your interest.


You are now more liberated than most of us. Keep reading, keep writing.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur