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.”
from Derek Walcott’s Nobel Lecture, 1992
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
steelband man is delighted to see that his friend, a former pan player who
had migrated to the US, had returned.
why did you come back?” he asks.
US-returned Trini replies with a note that only Trinis can hit, the lilt
that says a thousand things, and states the obvious: “Roti.”
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
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.
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.
Steel exhibits bits of the vase.
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.
are ours. But for how much longer?
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.
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,
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.”