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Category: International Date: 27 Sep 04


"There are worse things than suffering and death it is worse to lose one's self-respect. Self-respect is the irreplaceable foundation of our humanity. Wound it, and the hurt, the damage, is so scalding that not even death can ease the torture. Vanity, you say. Yes, Vanity and yet self-respect is what gives a person his or her intrinsic value."

Sandor Marai's Embers.


"Haiti Storm Death Toll Could Reach 2,000" was the headline of the AP story telling of Haitians digging new mass graves for corpses littering a flood-ravaged city, how health workers feared an epidemic from unburied bodies, how raw sewage and corpses polluted the drinking water, giving people unspeakable infections, how people were increasingly distressed from lack of food and drinkable water, how at least 250,000 people are wandering homeless from Tropical Storm Jeanne.


Yes, in Trinidad we have our daily bitter doses of senseless murders by empty headed, pig-headed (that combination of vacuous mind and aggression is deadly) drivers who seem to see their cars as an extension of their virility, and drive them into innocents; we have the periodic stalking by kidnappers who brutalise and murder children and adults at random; we have our gang and drug-related murders; we have the extreme poverty that subsists side by side with shameless wealth. There is that.


But now our own poisonous lives are little sting bites, relative to the palpable turmoil in our hemisphere.


In one short season we have witnessed Grenadians moving between ports like flotsam and jetsam, their remnants of possessions higgledy-piggledy bungled together with string; we are so close that we can almost smell mounting, rotting bodies in Haiti, (it was poverty that took them of course-what chance did those houses made of wafer thin planks of wood stand against a hurricane?).


This hurricane season has ended our long sleep, prised open our shut eyes about ourselves and our region. Now that we have started looking we can't stop. We see the hopeless in Guyana ("our professionals are leaving-all the brain is being drained out of us," said one Guyanese woman, disbelieving that she met so many in one room-businessmen, scientists, educators in a social gathering in Trinidad).


Now we are left (despite the fact that dirt poor children run about naked and unfed just five minutes away from the biggest Methanol plant in the world, despite the obscene disparities) marvelling at our luck, that relatively, just relatively, we are safe. There is no rubble here, nor rotting corpses. There is electricity and water, and roads that haven't cracked in half.


Our basic needs-electricity, water, food-are met. Hospitals and health centres, despite their appalling deficiencies, still exist to put a band aid here and there. The biggest storm we had recently was one over a teacup between two grown men representing us.


Like whores we have always abandoned our own people to grab at a luscious piece of bait flung at us from the real hyenas, the multinationals, from First World countries. But now, our third eye is so brutally opened we are shamed into thinking about our region.


Like a scattered crew of estranged family members we are well intentioned instead of competitive, cobbling together help (planning and efficiency under a united central command will never be our way, no matter how many officious "umbrellas" we form).


Coincidentally while watching this tragedy of loss and death unfurl in our islands I was reading Sandor Marai's Embers, an intricate and intimate book written by a brilliant Hungarian writer in the 1930s.


Much of the book centres around ruminations by an old man whose best friend betrayed him with the wife he doted on and trusted some 41 years ago. His wife is long dead, but his friend is returning to see him from his self-imposed exile in the tropics for one last meeting.


In this quiet but explosively revealing book about the human condition the writer, born into the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 1900, mingles his profound grasp of the deepest pores of the human heart with observations about the "tropics" made by his errant friend.


Like great art this book is timeless, and although some of the author's observations on the tropics may appear dated, colonial, foreign, the racist language of conquerors, yet... yet, there is something in what he says, some despair that finds an answering echo in the Caribbean in 2004.


The two old men are dining in a castle in Europe. The cheating best friend has returned after a long self-imposed exile for a final dinner with his host in his fading aristocratic world. It must be the 1930s.


"It's like this," said Konrad after the trout. "At first you think you can get used to it." He was speaking of the tropics. "I was still young when I arrived, thirty-two, you remember. I went straight out into the swamps. You live out there in little huts with tin roofs. At night you lie in bed and it's like lying in a warm mist. By day the mist is thicker and scalding hot. Soon you become quite apathetic. Everyone drinks, everyone's eyes are bloodshot. In the first year, you think you will die. In the third year you realise that you are no longer the person you were, and that the rhythm of life has changed. You live faster, something inside you burns, your heart beats differently and at the same time, you become indifferent to everything. Absolutely everything, for months at a time. Then there comes a moment when you no longer have any idea what is happening either inside you or around you. Sometimes that takes five years, sometimes it happens in the first few months. That's when the rage comes. A lot of people become murderous, others kill themselves."


It hit me like a slap in the face, this European perspective on the "tropics" in general. Mostly because some of it rang true. If I were honest it has happened to so many of us-the indifference, the apathy, the permission we give others to chart our course. The rage. We are so many of us guilty of it. Just last week I wrote that the Americans should come and help out Grenada. Stupid, Stupid, I realised while speaking to a (still) energetic and passionate Trinidadian after I wrote the piece. He was saying it was time we took charge of ourselves in the Caribbean, that we should set up several disaster response posts throughout our region, because obviously the island that is hit is going to be the last to be able to respond to itself. But what he was most passionate about was the very thing Marai was saying. That we should have self-respect. That we should help ourselves. That we are apathetic, that we are full of rage. That we wait for someone else to do our dirty work. If we wanted to put a photograph to the tragedy of our souls, it would be the rotting corpses in Haiti, and us watching on helplessly, with rage. The third eye is rolling open. Look through it or go blind.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur