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Category: Reflections Date: 19 Jul 04


"So much angst" is one comment I've overheard about this column, begun some ten years ago, and which made its recent shift from the Guardian to the Express.


"Is it true?" I obsessed, going over my work that I have privately thought of as my weekly Trinidad diary?


Why was there so much material slitting, dissecting this tiny society of 1.2 million people? Why go on about illiteracy, poverty, HIV/Aids, self-serving politicians? I admit it. It's tiresome even to me.


The pieces on the landscape, on Carnival, on the vexing question of how men and women relate, do offer some relief. But couldn't my work be pure entertainment? Billion-dollar industries--film, music, dance-have been fashioned out of the human impulse towards a spectacle, towards escape from squalour, boredom.


After all this is an absorbing place. There is material here. Perhaps there is something in that myth of the foreigner who, having been fed this fish (the cascadura) by his local lover, is compelled by its magic to return to these islands. The pattern in people who come here on short business trips from Europe, Asia, America, Africa, India, wherever, is similar.


The ex-pats from the West, here on plush one- two-or three-year contracts, begin by shuddering with distaste at the lack of bookshops, the barren intellectual life, the ignorance of wines, classical theatre, art, literature, language. They moan at the sameness of the landscape, at the smallness, insularity of the islands, the globally disconnected people (always the circuit of Carnival, Christmas, Cricket, a whirlpool of nothingness).


As the months go by there are subtle changes. They feel the freedom of rubbing mud and paint in someone's face at dawn. Their eyes adapt to the endless green and begin seeing varied shades and textures in plants and trees. When they hike through rainforests brilliantly coloured butterflies brush past them, they pick their way across paths strewn with mangoes, guavas, splitting with ripeness. They notice subtleties, poui at Easter, dry dust at Carnival, dark, breezy evenings in December.


They come to expect spectacles appearing like mirages from a distant past.


They may come across a crush of animated people in East Indian kurtas throwing coloured water on one another. Or glimpse a circle of Baptists dressed in starched white petticoats knee deep in water. Or watch the rhythmic movement of a band of men and women with ruddy Spanish complexions and Amerindian eyes, perhaps playing instruments, singing parang.


Goats rush across the road, long grasses sway in the city, people still parade around the Savannah.


There is an assault on the senses. Where to look first? How to make sense of it? How did this Creole-sounding word, mamaguy-flatter-get here? How did that Bhojpuri word dulhar -get here?


Who has the power? The red, the black, the brown? Who is who? In the process of puzzling over the hodge-podge of this country they find they can't stay away.


They go home. It's predictable there; too stable, perhaps. They come back.


They long to stay. Many do. They leave again, wanting "a bigger life". They return. For good. If they can't stay, they leave heartbroken. It's the most unusual love story.


While they were trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle, these islands wrap themselves around them.


As for Trinis living abroad no number of prestige jobs, schools or homes, no Eiffel Tower, or St Paul's Cathedral or 20-lane highway can make up for home. Yes, this is a compelling country all right.


But in the hundreds of columns I have written there was angst. Blame a kind of youthful idealism in the earlier pieces. When you are convinced that you can change the world.


Ten years later, you know better. Maybe you can make a dent here and there. The lines blur; black and white zigzags into grey. There are fewer absolutes. You don't leap up to respond to every real or perceived slight.


You don't demonise a man for making a sexist remark. Races will be separate at some level. Capitalism has grown, the horns of globalisation are stretching the rich and poor further apart, but that system is preferable to dictatorships.


Some people will always remain poor, ignorant, and left out. But I fret because the essentials remain the same. The rosy smoke of the spectacle never obfuscates reality for those of us who have made it our vocation to observe, dissect and be the watchdogs for the voiceless. That's my defence anyhow.


The saddest change is that in the earlier years I believed these islands had possibilities - the human, natural, cultural resources to achieve the kind of prosperity and peace we find enviable in some countries in the West.


You were spurred on to write, to point out injustices, because we were, with our oil money, with Caricom, with our proximity to trading blocs, with our education, going somewhere. Despite the fact that we were (and are) a toddler society we had tremendous potential.


We would get there as soon as our politicians got over the novelty of playing with treasury money, (spending it, stealing it, squandering it) like it was Monopoly, as soon as we recognised we are a tiny country of (let's face it) displaced people (for whom there is no going back), as soon as we recognised that we needed to be less dependent on oil.


But that didn't happen. Instead, we began to hack ourselves to bits, from our bowels out. We began by making the fatal mistake of neglecting education, with a system where teachers are minimally educated and paid, and schools are overcrowded.


With the result that over 600,000 people can only read headlines and signs, and 300,000 people can't read at all. Now take illiterate young people (and our schools are churning out thousands more each year) and make them jobless. Now take some 400,000 people and make them so poor they live below the poverty line.


Add to this bilious brew "make-work" programmes where these unemployed, barely literate people are shoved into a corrupt system of patronage, not for a year or two, mind you, but tragically for generations, passing down the tradition of standing around with a cutlass in their hands staring at the hot sun, waiting for the day to be done.


Pour in more poison with our dread health institutions. Where the HIV/Aids epidemic lets rip, and a government too coy to begin a much-needed massive nationwide awareness campaign against the scourge, which will eventually kill many of our most productive people.


Throw in a political system that no longer works, the menace of crime and kidnapping (which is linked to the illiteracy, poverty and the fact that crime has developed into a high tech business). Make us a major drugs transshipment point, a country manned by a corrupt and lethargic police service and voila, "possibility" changes to "resignation."


There is angst and there is despair. And that's what you see now. Vision 2020 is a burlesque masquerade in the face of all this. As the years amble on, instead of "possibility", of being a vibrant secure country, we sadly say, "well at least we are not like Jamaica (we're getting there) or like Guyana (going there too) or like Haiti (give it time, with the brain drain)."


In another ten years I expect I will be saying "at least there is no famine here, like Zimbabwe." Progress to "at least there is more democracy here than Pakistan. At least there is no genocide, like Rwanda. At least there are no terrorists attacks, like America." Until the oil dries up in 60 or 70 years from now and there really is no hope when we'll say "at least we were once a country of possibility- back in the days when the cascadura still worked its magic and reality wasn't swallowed by the spectacle."


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur