Eulogy for a dying country


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Category: Trinidad Society Date: 18 Sep 05


“Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars.”


—Excerpt from Derek Walcott’s Nobel Lecture, 1992


There was one conversation in Derek Walcott’s musical, STEEL that resonated palpably with his packed Trini audience, descendants of Syrians, Chinese, Indian, African, European and their various permutations—the people he has immortalised in his body of Nobel Prize-winning works. It made us laugh anyway.


A steelband man is delighted to see that his friend, a former pan player who had migrated to the US, had returned.


“So, why did you come back?” he asks.


The US-returned Trini replies with a note that only Trinis can hit, the lilt that says a thousand things, and states the obvious: “Roti.”


The laughter dies slowly as the packed audience savours a recognition of the casual word of “roti” as a password to the deep attachment we have to the hodge-podge of our shared lingo, customs, food and language. To hell with those who say this African headpiece is not “authentic” or that Hindi phrase is unrecognisable in India. It’s ours now. We fashioned it. Take this crab and dumpling. Take this doubles. Take this roti: The Trini roti is regarded as a curiosity by expatriate Indians, used to their small, round rotis made without baking powder, or their pooris deep fried in oil, or their baked Nan bread. It’s roti but not roti as the Indians know it.


Adapted by uprooted Indian immigrants, this dough of white flour and oil flattened and rolled into a large circle, cooked and flipped on a huge thawa, neatly stuffed with curried meats and vegetables, folded and wrapped in paper, for the consumption of descendants of five continents, bears little resemblance to the original but has contributed to our sense of selves, to who we are.


Trinis have patented and claimed the roti. And so reconnected a shard of Walcott’s broken vase. Each race in this island, newly-inhabited by uprooted, transplanted people from old continents, built it together. African, Indian, Chinese, Syrian, European people gluing their own remembered past, then standing back and claiming it all.


Walcott’s Steel exhibits bits of the vase.


The history of Steel, the magic of Calypso, a love affair between an Indian girl and an African boy, where old prejudices are parroted and blame is apportioned to the East Indian or the African during a crisis, but which for the most part doesn’t count; an European music teacher, who idealises the Europe he left behind, relegates the pan to the dustbin and ends up conducting a steelband; an Indian whore in Port-of-Spain, who dreams of the cane fields in Caroni and wants, above all her daughter to get an education; young men who are willing to leave home so they could keep beating pan; a great calypsonian, who almost drinks himself to death and out of work; a rumshop with a Chinese proprietor, who is fed-up of giving a drunken calypsonian credit: we recognise these pieces well.


They are ours. But for how much longer?


Walcott’s STEEL, pure magic at times, stilted and disjointed at others, was a bitter sweet experience. I wanted to tap the author who sat one row in front of me and say: “This simple place you’ve recalled for us, reflected back to us, to which we are so attached, is crumbling, may soon be dust.


“Contemporary Trinidad is laced with the menace of having one of the highest murder rates in the world, unending unsolved kidnappings, lawlessness to the point where we can’t tell police from thief, soldier from murderer, rampant illiteracy, a dependency syndrome of catastrophic proportions, dumb leaders.


“STEEL may well one day be a fine eulogy for a dying country. Your vase, Mr Walcott, lies in shards, with no loving hands to mend it.”

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur