The Phoenix speaks again


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 23 Sep 99

‘His light blinds, fades out the growing divide between rich and poor. He invites the darkness into light. He shows people their humanity. But how much longer can he do it from a cup that is being emptied faster than it is filled?’


“Dear Ira,

Thank you for your article on Thursday entitled “Wanting to make it better”. I was the third person in your story that was robbed on the highway. I am taking my son and I am leaving the country and making a life for him elsewhere. I am leaving not because I want to. I love it here. I have family here. However, I no longer feel safe and the beauty of this country is outweighed by the risks.

I can withstand the loss of my personal effects. I can’t live with the images of being surrounded by five youths, them throwing me around, kicking my companion, and pulling a knife. I truly believe they came from nowhere and they will go nowhere and that is sad. It’s hard to hate someone that has nothing.

However, I cannot live with the image of being stuck in gridlock traffic, surrounded by dozens of cars and people who ignored what was going on.

Not one horn was blown. No one called the police. No one yelled. No one helped. I am someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s daughter, someone’s aunt and for those of you who sat and watched in silence, if this happens to your aunt or sister or mother or daughter, better hope they are not surrounded by people like you. If you don’t care, who will?

A friend of mine was outraged when I feared we were becoming like Jamaica. The poor are getting poorer, the rich, richer and no one seems to care. He howled that we were 20 years behind Jamaica. I think he missed the point and I cannot wait 20 years to see if I am right.

Yours truly,

Debra.” (Not her real name.)


She loves it here. She can’t live here. Before she leaves, I want to tell her of a man who might restore her faith. The night I received her letter, I did something I do when I don’t want to think: switched on the TV. Flick-flick-flick, past forgettable American images.


A familiar and arresting face filled the screen. It was the man in the gym - the one who sometimes talks to me while I gasp for breath while doing leg presses and sit-ups and what not. The man who becomes so absorbed in pouring out his soul that he forgets to exercise. Who once, with his familiar gesture of humility and intensity - the cupped hands, the hunching of his back - held up his hands and nearly wept. “What is happening to us? Can’t they see the tassa and the steelband are intertwined?” And nearly wept: “There is no mother India, no Africa, only Trinidad and Tobago.”


The man whose back I once stroked in an inchoate, dumb gesture, unable to find a suitable response to his poetic passionate language of - dare I use that embarrassing word - caring for our people, and our fate.


Being a latecomer, I’ve never quite understood how this white man with an upper crust English accent could year after year breathe a theatrical liturgy - art - into rivers of spontaneous, flamboyant, anonymous people.


However, now I understood. Peter Minshall was telling Morning Edition’s host, Josanne Leonard, why this year he couldn’t come to the Morning Edition on this Independence Day. On August 31, 1962, he was a fledgling radio announcer. Thanks to the generosity of the young Ken Gordon, who although assigned to this broadcast, handed the mike over. It was Peter Minshall’s lone voice which announced triumphantly, across this country and throughout America, the lowering of the British flag and the raising of the T&T one. Imagine the weight of announcing a new country’s aspirations - to announce it, is to carry it.


What does this have to do with your loss of faith, letter writer? Wait. Divide tribes into African and Indian, Syrian and Chinese. We keep forgetting, he said, that our tiny country populated by people of three continents and everything in-between is the great experiment of showing the world how to live. (I thought of the 44 tribal wars around the world.) We’re failing ourselves, said this man with the elfin face and sad eyes, and that was why he couldn’t face the country on Independence Day.


Every year, just when you think Minsh has been overcome by our darkness (our men who wring our theatre from us, grow stout and remote with power, lead tribe against tribe) he emerges, four days before Ash Wednesday with a flaming, sky-sized, gilded mirror - showing us the tapestry, the river, our profanity, our sacredness.


His light blinds, fades out the growing divide between rich and poor. He invites the darkness into light. He shows people their humanity. But how much longer can he do it from a cup that is being emptied faster than it is filled? He forced me once again to see mas - not diminished with banal obscene “tunes”, grotesque displays of profanity and bits of tinsel but as the giant mirror against which we can hold ourselves. “The mas” which Minsh intones with the passion of a religious zealot is our true gauge. And if every year you see more division in class, in race, in fetes, then that is what we are becoming - uglier.


And if more people in cars watch indifferently as a woman’s life is threatened, without so much as honking their horns, then that is the scrappy tinsel we will wear.  And if our lyrics dwindle to single sordid words, then that’s what neglecting our education system, and our culture does. (That’s what not building a library does.) And if the vast Savannah, the grassland in the middle of our teeming city, is turned into a car park, then our movements will become as sterile, as unimaginative, as hard, as that cement. However, the leader of the band, the “mas man”, did it again. Being Minshall, he poured back beauty into our outstretched hands.


There it was, in the humanity of the voices of ordinary people who called him from all corners of the country, voices of solidarity who gathered him to themselves as one of their own. Not the politicians, nor the men in the news, but the real people of our country. They gave to him one another, and those who were watching and listening. They reminded us that humanity is not defined by the newsmakers. And Minsh gave back.


“Stop,” he said, “don’t praise me, don’t make me weep. It’s yours. All that beauty belongs to you. Take it back,” he said, quoting Federico Garcia-Lorca.  “The poem, the song, the painting, is but water drawn from the well of the people, and it must be given back to them in a cup of beauty so that they may drink from it and, in drinking, understand themselves.”


Here was a mas man and he wasn’t talking costumes. His familiar face will one day be carved in stone. For now, immortality exacts a price. In his lifetime he will be reviled and worshipped, ridiculed and loved. Only time will smoothen out the creases and accurately mark in stone, book or tablet the sum of his genius and - as we like to say with understatement - his contribution.


When I took that television off, my cheeks were wet. I knew I was not alone. That’s what I mean about Trinidad and Tobago. The way the sacred and profane, agony and ecstasy link arms. The way it makes you want to stay.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur