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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 08 Jul 01

It happens when you’re not looking, like a kind of cancer.


Foreigners arrive here, and those who initially rebel and sulk, sweating in the hot sun down the islands or on their back porch, muttering how there is nothing to stimulate their minds here, no films or books, no conversation or libraries, a stale museum, no coffee shop where you can quietly read a paper or meet someone fresh and interesting, eventually find that they’ve been sucked in.


They can’t leave, they say. They don’t want to, and if they do, the colour in their lives, like the Scarlet Ibis, seems to fade once they leave our shores. It’s too comfortable. It’s like being allowed to be a slob all day long every day of your life. So they return.


They pack up their Naipauls because it is uncomfortable to be reminded how both Vidia and Shiva (the one with lip curling disappointment at his country, the other dead) have escaped the sheer monotony of this place, where you can project what you’ll be doing ten years’ time; which doctor will treat you when you begin going downhill; even speculate over where you will be buried and who will come to your funeral.


But it has its compensations. Like returning to the womb. A safe cocoon where the highs and the lows mesh into the drone of a rusted air conditioner. It could be they are drawn in initially by the perpetual drama with which we live our lives - the talk tent type of politics that daily unfolds its drama in the media, or the soap opera tabs we keep on the lives of the two or three dozen public personalities who appear to run this small, hot island. It could be the sun and beer and the glint of women at Carnival.


The best way to get yourself kicked out of every social circle in this country is to bring up the boring GDP, the battered women’s hotline which is ringing off the hook or the quality of health care in this country.


Then there is the comfort of course, of the warmth, of the frequent holidays and many distractions which allow you to fall into a greater stupor - the long, long lunches, the languid and frequent limes where the same people swirl around the same fishbowl repeatedly -some fish out, others in, being the only point of interest.


The foreigners and public figures, however, have something in common. They are equally unaware of what really goes on in the bowels of this country. At first this puzzles you. After the hundredth sound bite or socio/political/religious commentary, you realise that’s part of the structure. The only way a small portion of this country can inherit it and share it with rich, influential foreigners is to turn away from the rest, to mystify the workings of the machinery that runs this country so as to maintain their power/authority and prestige without being questioned.


The masses are not supposed to understand what they are saying; not supposed to relate it to our lives. If public figures running the country, be they politicians, academics or members of the hundreds of NGOs even ask the question “What is this going to mean, to the man struggling to keep up with his mortgage payments,” or “what is this going to mean for working mothers, the unemployed, the uneducated, elderly,” then are they slowly eased out for being spoil sports?


What matters is the process, the endless meetings, the minutes of the meetings, the salaries and the question of foreign travel, and how a particular kind of maneuvring can advance someone’s career, but what does not matter is how, at the end of the day, does it affect (and I loathe this phrase but people seem to know what you mean when you use it) John Public.


If you bring context into the way developing and “third world” countries are run then we’d be dead. In an edition of India Today, I saw, without irony, a headline story about starvation in India on one page, and on the next, a proud article on India’s advancements in nuclear technology and how many billions it cost.


If sloppy thinking gets worse over time, it also makes life easy. You get angry once or twice when people fail to keep their commitments, when they show up an hour late to a meeting, when you quickly realise that it’s not merit but contacts and mutual back-slapping that will get you anywhere, but once you get the hang of things - oh boy, this is the life.


No wonder Trinis and Tobagonians will inherit the inertia and corruption of public figures who can literally by now, spew out a sound bite in their sleep, and foreigners who happily join us, thinking we, too, don’t have to be above board, or even think further than who’s who to get by very nicely.


No wonder everyone, be they home-grown or foreign, loses their colour like the Scarlet Ibis when they leave these shores. Those who are wide awake, and vigorous, and energetic are soon chewed up and spat out the system, leave or become irretrievably wounded.


Third World mentalities of drooping self-indulgent languor requires an ejection of intellectual stimulation, depth, fresh ideas, drive, most of which comes with the dulling of the senses, which must happen in a nation where people in general don’t read widely or deeply, where curiosity is quickly slapped down because it is threatening to those who lead us.


It is this that separates us from the “first world” exemplified in our “no hope” ghettoes where dull-eyed, angry men kill and women weep because they are beaten or can’t feed the baby.


Colonialism belongs to the past, but soon, it will be part of our future, because it is easy to take over a country that is perpetually taking a little shut-eye.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur