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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 09 Sep 99

Criticism, no matter how warranted, is a bitter pill. But swallowing and digesting it can do more for your work than the fullest of praise.


One letter in particular pulverised my work to a pulp. The essence of the message was something I am very familiar with by now: “Who the ass she feel she is?” I’ve lived with that for years because I know Trinidadians (Tobagonians are family) are people who do not let in foreigners easily, and are quick to put you in your place at any real or perceived slight against their country. So for those who say we are not nationalistic, take note.


In Trinidad I discovered quickly that once you swim away from the collective personality and state an interest in something as commonplace as books or other cultures, you are the enemy.


But the reward of writing is the discovery of kindred spirits, who would otherwise have remained in hiding. People who dare to yearn for, or value, something beyond their own complex and many-veined shores.


My critic forced me to question both the quality and content of my writing. I came up with many shortcomings of my own including that I don’t represent sufficiently the interests of the vast population of this country.  Part of the reason for that is that I am a prisoner in my own house, on the street I live in. I dare not, after dark, venture out for a stroll. I dare not let the children play on the street.


In the last 24 hours I have come across three people who have been burgled. One distraught middle-aged woman who said “they” stole everything while she slept - her precious wedding rings, the trinkets her mother gave her, her CDs and television. But the worst part of it all is that she feels “they are coming back for more.” She is shaking, in shock. Being burgled is a kind of rape; a private sanctuary is defiled.


The other woman I heard of was held up at night by men with guns and cutlasses who not only forced her to give up all her valuables but also slashed her furniture on their way out.


The third was burgled at knifepoint on the highway in the middle of traffic. The men from the pits of the Beetham stole three suitcases, while commuters rolled their glasses up and locked up their doors. Not one person reached for their cell to call the police or made any attempt to help. We don’t blame you - you were saving your own skin.


In the last 12 years, I’ve been burgled in St Ann’s, Fairways, Maraval and St James. No matter where you live, there are no guarantees. The night we forgot to set the alarm “they” came through two sets of burglarproof and dead-bolt locks. They came into our bedroom and robbed us while we were sleeping. They stole things of great value to me personally, but in the end, only things. Anyway, that was not the point. I was grateful that I had something they could rob. Grateful that my husband was safe, and that my children and I were not raped or, worse, killed. I silently thanked “them” for not traumatising us.

You, too, have your stories.


Despite all the talk of the rise in the price of oil, you and I have personal knowledge that the gap between rich and poor is gaping wider, mocking us like the bleeding, toothless mouth of a beggar. Some people are born wicked, but most are forced to be wicked to survive. Oh, don’t give me your old stories about how you, too, were poor, but look at you now in your mansion. These men and women are so wretched that they didn’t even have a voice that said to them when they were growing up: “Being poor is not a crime, you have a lot. Your hands and brain and, most of all, your will. You can make it honestly on your own.” Nobody told them that, as they got carelessly tossed about from mattress to mattress.


Forget the police. Forget their limp reports. From the time one officer coveted my Vogue magazine after a robbery, and the other said, lustfully, “Are you sure you didn’t feel anything while you slept?” my worst fears were confirmed. They’re all made of the same mould.


At my gate, on an ordinary street in Trinidad, have stood helpless, hungry children whose parents are dying of AIDS. At my gate crouched a bleeding, half-dead, homeless man, speaking the Queen’s English, weeping for a meal, bath and hope.


At my gate leaned a mother with bruises under her eyes, and a thin, dirty child squirming on her hips. At my gate I have seen dozens of young, wasted men whose glazed eyes only show a cold hate.


I have felt obscene for having a roof over my head and clean clothes. I have felt obscene for the simplest of pleasures, like driving out in my own car to the gym. Desperation and the accumulated rage of a lifetime from having car windows turned up in their faces, doors slammed shut, or exploited for 14 hours for $30 a day by clean shaven men and perfumed women can make anyone kill for a box of chicken and chips.


Conscience and fear battle. Fear wins. After the fourth burglary I stopped answering the doorbell. Don’t go as far as your gate. Come in to our businesses and homes. Sales girls, cleaners, domestic workers, drivers, secretaries, yard-boys, assistants in doctors’ offices. After working faithfully for 25 years for you they don’t have enough money to travel home at the end of the month. Their toddlers sleep in mattresses with only neglected children to take care of them, vulnerable to floods and fire, cockroaches and hunger. Every day they see you blow a month’s salary, or earn that much in a minute. Justice laughs at them, slaps them on the face.


As I write, a young man, quietly boiling rage in his eyes, sits in front of my gate, just watching, waiting. Another sells corn by my side gate looking at me. I shudder at his menace. I drive in and out. The bells toll and toll.


I want to do my job, give the silent sufferers a voice. I want to dissect their lives and find out what went wrong and how to make it better for their children, to petition the government, but I’m frozen by my own fear.


Every time an employer, be it domestic or commercial, exploits someone, underpays and overworks them, or simply takes advantage of their poverty by ill-treating them, they are sewing the seeds that create men who wound.


At the macro level, our national treasury is being bled by greedy, power-grabbing, corrupt people posing as good citizens, leaving nothing to share for the wretched bell-ringing men, women and children. But when revenge comes from the wounded, it strikes to kill, it strikes randomly at the innocent and guilty. The victims have turned into aggressors. The iron gates clang shut even louder between us and them. But look! Who’s that clambering over the gates?


PS: Last week I failed to pick up an error pointed out by several discerning readers. I meant to write “paean of praise” instead of “peon”. The former is a hymn of praise, the latter a serf.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur