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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 22 Oct 98

‘It’s crucial to keep ourselves, as a species, interested in ourselves. When that goes, we tip into the void, we harden to rock; we blow away and disappear’


It’s depressing seeing the same pious gaudy supplements on every religious festival, every year. The same recipes, same headlines same bylines. Nobody but the very religious or very bored or very guilty-for-not-being-religious read them, and yet we are all subjected to these tedious permutations of ten facts of the festival or holiday of the day.


We don’t know if we are in last year or ten years ago; it doesn’t make any difference because nothing has changed. No wonder inertia hits us. We walk slowly, respond heavy-eyed to requests, sleep for recreation. Indian Arrival Day, Divali, Emancipation Day, Eid, Baptist Day, Christmas, Easter, and all the others are all very nice but should be kept private so we can get beyond the boring ritual of chewing the same cud, and talk about something interesting.


The other thing we go on about is politics. The faces change but the sameness is also depressing. As a cub reporter, I once asked VS Naipaul to comment on politics in TT. He replied arrogantly: “The politics of a country of 1.2 million people does not interest me.” But having put up with seven summers of repetition, I see his point.


Let’s tax our brains and use this brief time given to us to ask the question why? Why are we here? What is the most important thing to us in the world? Why? What have we always wanted to do? Why? Why don’t we do it? Will there be a Hilton hotel on the moon in 50 years? What happens when all the icebergs melt, as one six times the size of Tobago is melting? What will e-mail do to the postal system? Why do men kill? What kills tenderness? What is love? What have the thinkers and philosophers and artists throughout the centuries and across continents made of our existence? Let’s also talk about the role of whores in society, of the secret lives of gay men and women, of sculpture, and sea, and the way a child’s mind works, of the eternal themes of men and women. We have, through the written word and technology, the means to inherit the earth; and yet we are afraid to venture out of this tiny area where we have been forced to pitch up tent. God must be so angry with us. Let’s see us in the context of islands in the sweep of the Caribbean Sea. As part of the Americas, as part of a huge New World.


I have a suggestion of how we can do it. Newspaper publishers could use the space used for supplements in various holidays to serialise Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, or CLR James’s Beyond the Boundary or Walcott’s Omeros instead of Christmas/ Divali/ Eid/ Emancipation supplements.


Advertisers, men and women of business, could support this in the interest of national development. It’s odd how in a country where we boast of 98 per cent literacy nobody reads. Why not? I would like to see a study commissioned on the subject. I think the savagery that David Rudder and Raoul Pantin sing and write about would diminish here if people read quietly in maxi taxis, while queuing up for rotis and doctors, or after an honest day’s work splayed out in a sunny canefield or the Brian Lara Promenade.


Then instead of using cutlasses, men would use jargon like “I feel passive aggressive towards you because I feel threatened” or “I feel your hostility. Can you tell me where it’s coming from?” or “That’s very Martin Amis.” Relationships would improve. In bars and homes, we could argue over whether Naipaul would ever make the Nobel Prize, grumble about how long books take to get down here, how expensive they are, how it would be good to have a coffee shop in a book store. We could use books to examine the human condition, marvel at the genius of so many West Indian writers, learn a new recipe from Turkey, shed light on a local issue. We would have things to talk about, but with width, depth, a large generous perspective.


Back to religious supplements. Yawn. I once did a television documentary showing Indians from India celebrating Divali by gambling, drinking, eating and setting off dangerous crackers all night, and the programme was taken off the air since it offended the more pious amongst us. We are not bitter, I told a visiting Nigerian friend; mostly, we are bored senseless. We live the same day over and over again, every year, afraid to try something new because that would threaten us.


Carnival is the biggest example. We save our energy all year so that we can spend it in two days, and for the rest of the 363 days slink into inertia, the national psyche. The root of our boring-ness is that having rejected colonialism (and justly - they stripped us of our language and way of life and exploited us shamelessly) we kept on many of its trappings - school systems, legal systems, libraries, the civil service. We hated the colonisers, but didn’t have any alternatives to their systems. We got stuck. So we sulked. We ran “their” institutions down to the ground. We made the systems even worse than we inherited them.


We also threw the baby out with the bath water. We shunned the books they shipped here. (They did have some redeeming qualities.) The books lie dusty, yellowing, untouched for 30 years and more in dim libraries run by people who never read them. We were disinherited but we also banished the only Old World we had received intact.


And as a fledgling country we know that old worlds do offer more than brutality: They are layered thick by centuries with the essential question that all art asks. What does it all mean? Books disclose worlds through literature, history, poetry, religion, language, science. It has been done for us. A universe waiting to be seized while we sleep. That is horror and waste.


Why does it ultimately come down to books? It’s crucial to keep ourselves, as a species, interested in ourselves. When that goes, we tip into the void, we harden to rock; we blow away and disappear. Art has been given to us to keep us interested and engaged - rather than distracted by materialism or sated with boredom - so that we can attach to this life, a life which might, otherwise, be an unbearable one.


I hope for the next religious festival the light conquers the dark and we get to read excerpts of the new book out on Naipaul.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur