Mathur talks with Basdeo Panday
interview with the Prime Minister was fixed for the Friday before he
complained of chest pains. Not being too familiar with the PM’s house, I
swung in at the posh entrance where guards brusquely told me to “go
round to the back.” In the grounds, hundreds of children were being
taken out of the rain into the enormous striped tents. Speakers blared
Christmas music. Sticky ice-cream cheeks were offered to Mrs. Panday for a
kiss in return for a gift. A cup of orange fizzy stuff went flying across
a table. A flushed Prime Minister, was kneeling down smiling broadly at a
little boy in a wheelchair. They had come in bus loads from homes across
the country, St. Dominic's Children’s, Home Penal Special School,
Princess Elizabeth Home ...in their best clothes for their Christmas party
hosted by the Panday’s.
set up inside the drawing room - festive, overwhelmingly peach, the
ribboned flowers matching the fat ribboned Christmas tree. The doors
thrown open to reveal a very English arcade wound with flowers and leaves.
On the other side, we could see the swimming pool. Big enough only to
paddle. The Prime Minister came in as exuberant as the children he was
entertaining, ready to do the interview. I asked if he’d had a look at
the questions. He barely glanced at the crumpled faxed paper and said
“ask me anything” and then wandered off to find his jacket. As he
settled down in front of the camera, he said “I don’t know how the
Manning’s lived here. It is too hot to entertain in this room,” adding
“positively plebeian.” Then in a lower, confidential tone, “Uma
doesn’t want to move you know. She much prefers our home in the
fielded questions on the parasitic oligarchy and alienation and his
meeting with the Jamaat with ease, in a series of usable sound bites. He
is by turn complex and blunt, cliched and earnest. But you can’t pin the
man down to say he is this or that. He eludes categories. Even as you
shoot a question in one direction he spins into another. This is
frustrating and interesting - kind
of like the CD rom computer game Mist. It comes with no rules. It leads to
all kinds of places and we click the mouse, not quite knowing where we are
being a dramatist, he never fails to provide comic relief - even if it is
at your expense. Half way through the interview, while a minor change in
lighting was taking place, I began to sweat. It really was hot. Trying to
cover up my discomfort, I said patting my shiny face “You must forgive
me - it is not everyday that I interview a Prime Minister.” The silver
fox pounced, “Well, you never had that problem when I was Opposition
leader.” Who tell me to say that? The television interview over, I asked
him if he minded answering a few personal questions. He was amenable. It
went something like this. What kind of teenager were you?
cantankerous, all kinds of bad things...”
were your ambitions, dreams?
was born in 1933 in extreme poverty and dreamed of going to England and
studying. In those days you did either law or medicine. I had done
humanities: Latin, French, Spanish, and the natural choice was law.”
did you feel about England?
didn’t feel anything. I just wanted an education. I arrived in England
with 20 pounds in my pocket, a hundred dollars. I worked as a labourer,
electrician - worked and studied. Nine years later I had done the bar, had
a degree in Economics and one in Drama. I was coming home to see my
parents because I had a Commonwealth scholarship to do my Ph.D. in
political science in the Delhi School of Economics. I really thought I
would end up an academic.
I returned Stephen Maraj and C.L.R. James were engaged in a struggle over
the Industrial Stabilization Act. I got involved with them and plunged in,
feet first, where angels fear to tread, and never turned back. Strangely
enough that very act led to the formation of an Industrial court. With my
background in law and economics, I became legal advisor to the Oilfield
Workers Trade Union in 1956. Being the kind of character I am, I
couldn’t help but become personally involved with workers’ strikes. I
marched with them, got arrested and so began to develop a reputation as a
labour leader myself.”
a youthful kind of idealism and rebellion lead you to the Trade Union
thought I was doing the right thing, that’s all. I was involved,
struggling and fighting, being beaten up with workers. So I ended up as
leader of the All Trinidad and Sugar Workers Union. It just happened I
did you enter Politics?
1966, I contested elections in the Workers and Farmers party led by C.L.R.
James and Steve Maraj. The object was not to support the racism of the DLP
and the PNM because we thought that was ripping the nation apart. So we
formed this party which we thought would appeal to people across the
racial board, a party based for workers - along class lines. We fell flat
on our face - we lost our deposits because the country was steeped in
how do you think your parents would react today? You being Prime Minister?
would have been happy. I’ll never forget my dear father who told me in
1966 (he lights up the way older people do when they remember their
parents, even now revelling in his father’s humour which he obviously
inherited), ‘I will vote for you but only because you are my son’.”
me about your relationship with Dr. Eric Williams.
first time he called me was 9.00 in the night. I got a message saying the
Prime Minister wants me to contact him. I called him back and said,
‘What is it?’ He said, ‘I want to see you on a certain matter.’ I
left San Fernando and came to Port-of-Spain, and in this very house, Dr.
Williams said, ‘I want to reestablish the constitutional convention of
discussions with the leader of opposition on matters of national
concern.’ I replied that I would see him whenever he wanted to see me,
only if he would agree to see me when I wanted to see him. He agreed. So
whenever anything bothered either of us we would meet here, or in the
parliament tea room. I think he realized that his job was to run the
Government and mine was to replace him. I would do my best to get him out
and he would do his best to stay there. We had a tremendous
went wrong with Hulsie Bhagan?
think Hulsie had great potential. But she had the weakness of
over-ambition, and was misled by people who told her she was Prime
Ministerial material after being in politics for two years. I’ve been
there for 30, like Williams and even Manning who has been in it for a long
time. Somebody blew her head and told her she could be PM after two
hope of a reconciliation?
he was exasperated, expostulating the way he does, “I don’t know the
future. I’m not God.”
the child in you sometimes wake up in the morning and say, “I’m Prime
when I was leader of opposition I’d go to bed at different times - but
once I hit the sack, the grass could grow on me.
I find myself waking up at 2:00 a.m., worrying about unemployment,
vagrancy....and my nights have become sleepless.”
hours later he was taken to Mount Hope for angina pains.
lights were taken off, The Prime Minister hugged the camera-woman,
daughter of the late George Weekes Genieve, asked after her mother, shook
hands with the rest of us, looked around and inquired, “I could go?”
Then he tiptoed across the room as we wound up