The real Trinidad


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 17 Apr 97

Sometimes, when you live on a small island such as this (I had a hard time explaining why it is not on the world map that hangs in my five-year-old son’s room) it is useful to look at it from the outside in.


So when this foreign film crew asked me to show them around, I saw Trinidad through the eyes of a 38-year-old male producer, a man who had lived all his life in England. Prior to his visit, we spoke on the phone on the places and people he wanted to film for an education documentary for children. One of these was “buildings”. What sorts of buildings are there here?” he asked. Of course I joked - you can juxtapose the huts and tapia houses in the country with the “concrete houses” in the “town”. To my surprise he did not laugh. OK, he said, and I could picture him jotting down “huts” under the title “buildings”.


I’d arranged with Mark on weekends to visit certain prototypes of families for his shoot. In any event Mark turned out to be refreshing, easy company during our long drives. I actually enjoyed bumping along in a jeep in rural Esperanza, San Rafael, and Siparia in the hot sun on my precious weekends and later wondered why.


He was relatively good-looking, but not earth shattering, there was no physical chemistry between us but it was invigorating. Why? Well, for one he walked fast (so I didn’t feel like a freak as I do sometimes on Frederick Street), was quick, driven, razor sharp, his curiosity infectious. I didn’t have to play shadow boxing as you do in Trinidad when you first meet people. By that I mean there was no automatic defence mechanism that clicked into place. No gentle feeling out of “where the other person was coming from” and responding accordingly. No stereotypes to protest against, nothing to gain or lose by stating your political affiliations. There was no speculating on which of the really wealthy are drug barons, and who is a racist, and who is a political chameleon and shaker, who has how many millions from how many bribes, and who was horning whom.


I found myself telling him things I had never even admitted to myself. “NGOs and unions, of course, serve a purpose. As a young idealistic journalist I really wanted to interview these people but quickly and with painful disillusion discovered the awful rot in many of these organisations. They too have autocratic leaders, sycophantic followers. You wouldn’t believe the pettiness, intrigue and jockeying for positions that goes on in the most innocuous sounding women’s groups, for instance.”


I told him I couldn’t remember the last time I had an open discussion about homosexuality, the real reasons as to why so many men feel emasculated enough to bash their wives’ heads in, the self censorship we practice everyday because we are a small society and someone may use something against us, the fact that we are a “matriarchal” society because so many fathers don’t give a damn, and about my belief that marriage is one of the most unnatural institutions even though I practice it.


Mother’s Guilt


I spoke a bit wistfully about his luck that he had access to foreign and experimental arty films and theatre. Perhaps pretentious to some but certainly stimulating. I had to admit that the most popular films here are Kung Fu and third class films of mindless sex and violence. I admitted I wasn’t too impressed with Madonna in Evita but was also disappointed that people walked out of the musical, that they’d come to see Madonna of leather mini-skirts and whips but found Madonna’s portrayal of Evita Peron boring.


Books. I admitted that people with money can sometimes have taste with well appointed establishments equal to anywhere. But some, although they may have a lamp from Tiffany’s, don’t have a book in sight to read by its light.


And he talked to me about England. How the cold gets depressing, how it takes so long to get anywhere after work, that although the money is good you are sometimes too tired to spend it. That it is true 16-year-olds get pregnant simply so that they can qualify for free housing, that the economy was too tied up with the property market.


He couldn’t believe how roomy our homes were, even the most roughly constructed ones. Mark informed me that property worth £75,000 consists of a tiny flat. Here, for that price, you can live in a mansion.


I told him about my awful guilt as a working mother - the times I was not there for sports day, the nights I couldn’t read to the children and tuck them to sleep, the homework I never did with them, the frenzied activity with them to make up for it, my need for time and space and how crowded I sometimes felt. And he said he wished his mother had more of a life, which was unrelated to him. Her life. It would have been better for her and he would have felt less guilty when he wanted to go off and do things. That helped.


He made me laugh. He imitated the rubbery languid slow-motion attention executed by an army officer at the Prime Minister’s residence. (He could see them from his room at the Normandie.) And when he looked on with astonishment at the slow movement of the buttocks of a man or woman crossing the road in front of our vehicle (not by a traffic light). I told him about “bounce me na!” In a couple of weekends we covered the island.


We met the brightly precocious “town” boy from Jamaica who played the piano, and told his examiners the format he preferred, and his wonderful warm mother who loved nurturing her sons to excellence. And visited the “country” boy in San Rafael who still danced on cocoa, swam in the river nearby, and helped harvest his father’s crops. All around watermelon vines, plump hot peppers, spinach, orange, and banana trees.


We helped roll buss-up shut (burst up shirt, I explained to Mark to guffaws of laughter from the “country” boy’s father) and lolled for a moment in the back verandah, a hammock whose occupant keeps the parrot company. No fences or burglar proofing. Your seasoning and vegetables in the garden outside. Tranquillity.


African Wear


Then there was the church service in Siparia with Sister Marie Therese which was totally unlike any Catholic service Mark had seen in England. There were the all-children choir playing steel-pan and the boy doing fancy notes on the piano, and the guitar and shack shack, and the tapping and the hymns, the interlocking of hands of the entire congregation. The Hindus who sat in front of the Black Virgin with their bright Salver Khameez and Orhinis. Mark said he wanted to convert to Catholicism.


In the Baptist church in Sangre Grande the dazzling sight of women in bleached, starched petticoats and headdress walking down this rural road flanked by the green foliage under the midday sun stopped us. It was a Gauguin painting in motion. And this, I pronounced triumphantly to Mark, is what Minshall put on the stage in Atlanta. It won his heart, he whose father was a “non-practising” Baptist Jamaican living in England, his mother Polish communist.


There was Mother Viera, hugging and welcoming us (Mark later told me he felt a world of comfort in that buxom seemingly all-enveloping bosom), the “service”, clapping of hands, a spontaneously harmonious choir, the high and low notes blending in, the surprisingly formal continental embrace during the service. Now Mark was a Baptist.


That evening I was to take him through tall cane fields - scaring him about the rapes, murders, and stolen cars there - to Esperanza village. A pundit’s home - little India - where joint families live together, the tinsel bright decorations in their temple at home, the bright-eyed children secure with their place at home in the village, praying the way their grandfather taught them, and then getting on to surf on the Internet. This is old India and modern Trinidad. A visit to the temple. An explanation of all the Gods. Mark had converted. He was now a Hindu.


In the Muslim school, I enjoyed Mark being incredulous that Hindus and Christians also attended because it was “a good school.” That religious instruction drew from all religious. And the girls and boys (for this mingling you could possibly be stoned to death in Islamic countries, and even in India you would never find a Hindu child in a Muslim school).


In the Orisa home, Mark did not see bare-backed savages but an articulate, elegant and wealthy family which had chosen to follow the Orisa religion, wear African clothes at all times and live in an African style compound. Four sets of siblings and children next to each other in large roomy two-storey flats. Africa in Trinidad. The elders explaining to us as we exclaimed over this arrangement: “We believe in providing completely for our children so they can get a head start and do the same for theirs.” Could you adopt asked Mark’s colleague?


But too much religion makes me nervous. It makes me brood, ruminate how by its very nature, it requires the absolute faith which translates into “mine is the only true way” and so creates intolerance and dogma and cults, many of  which lead to bloodshed or suicide like the Hale-Bopp one.


The yellow, white afternoon glare pierced through the curtains (I had to shut it out with black muslin) when the images of Trinidad came at me - Mother Viera and her Baptists embracing and dancing with me, the Hindus in a Catholic church, the Muslim school educating Hindus, the pan at the home of the Orisas.


After looking at Trinidad from the outside in, I knew that it can’t happen here. This is the new world and because we struggle for our own identity we are able to take bits from the worlds we came in - and leave behind the baggage of ancient “civilisations” of Palestine and Israel, India and Pakistan which are divided by hate and blood.


The phone rang. Would I “cover Jain prayers at a temple?” Enough I thought finally. Shake out of this. It is time to let in the light and the breeze. It was around 5.30 pm. I went to move the black muslin and the entire curtain rod and curtain came crashing down. “That’s what happens when you let the world in” was my first thought. And then a sharp intake of breath as the breeze rushed in. Here is the living art Minshall teaches us. A coiling fog over the Northern Range and the smell of sweet damp earth after a shower.


Here then is the real Trinidad. And it took an outsider and an accidental fall of a curtain rod to show it to me.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur