Living in La La Land


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Category: Trinidad Society 12 June 11


I got a mixed response to my column titled “T&T invented globalisation” last week. Many liked it, some loathed it and the comment above was among the latter. I want to address the ones who loathed it as I think they had valid concerns. For the readers who wrote that mine is a perspective from “La La Land” or a “privileged upbringing” when I write of the absence of ethnic warfare and tribal hatred here, the casual mingling of races and religions, the freedom of our stripped selves slipping identities on and off with a sari, dashiki or jeans, claiming many continents, I say sometimes we need a bird’s eye view. We need to pull back from the harsh reality of living on these islands until we are looking at a region, a tiny shape in the continent of the Americas, a dot in the world. As a dot in the world we are not doing badly. We may have among the highest murder rates in the non-warring world, but at least we aren’t killing one another over race and religion. Our freedoms are not muzzled. People aren’t slaughtered with the change of governments. Our people are killed like dogs on our lawless roads but there remains just enough of a semblance of the rule of law for us to get by. To the reader who wrote (with some wit, I admit) that I was “trapped in some fairy tale time warp where everyday reality has somehow morphed into some kind of Kumbaya La La Land” I ask, aren’t we all doing just that?

From spectacle to spectacle

What does he/she think we do every day of our lives, if not live in La La Land? From the saucy flick of the skirts from the buttocks of the Shiv Shakti Dancers during Indian Arrival Day celebrations, to the Jack Warner soap opera. From India vs WI cricket at the Oval where the crowd remained riveted long after the game, roaring at the antics of two men seen through sheets of rain, sliding across the tarpaulin, playing to the gallery, being chased by police across the field, to the leadership battle in the COP, just these past few weeks. We have been (as always, as always) swivelling from spectacle to spectacle in these tiny islands. The endless diversion, averting our eyes from the reality of our lives and our country, this fear of the quiet… What is it?

Filling each moment with la la

It is la la. We fill each moment with la la. We cannot survive without the incessant noise, of the radio and TV (sometimes simultaneously) to talk shows (where people speak broken English devoid of grammar as if we were never taught any language at all in schools). To soca, chutney, rock and Bollywood music, the endless ole talk, the insistence upon making the TV the final frame of our day before we switch off the light and exhaustion takes us out for a few hours. We are afraid to look ourselves in the eye. It’s understandable. How much abuse can a people take, after all? And you want to talk about the real Trinidad; I can tell you, I am no protected Buddha. I have seen, read, and researched this country, experienced it, as have we all. Most of you reading this will have had a bad experience with crime. I have, too—three—as have all the people close to me. You know it, too. Let’s look in the mirror unflinchingly together. The rule of law is weakened at almost every level so as to appear, at times non-existent. So that whether you are Calder Hart, a hit-and-run driver responsible for murdering people with your driving, a doctor responsible for a patient’s death, a man throwing plastic bottles out of the window, or quarrying in the hills to build your mansion, you can almost be sure that no one is looking, or for the right price, will look away.

Low on transparency, high on corruption

We are low on the transparency index and high on the world corruption index. Over 200,000 of us live below the poverty line. You may have, as I have, seen in squatter settlements children who have never been registered, people living in a slum with mothers who are forced by their circumstances into prostitution. We have among the highest murder rates in a non-warring country in the world. Recently, I met 15 mothers whose sons have been murdered in gang warfare. Gunshots ring out regularly in Laventille. I was there earlier this year talking to residents about the neglected boys who will be tomorrow’s criminals. Yes, neglect! Many of them left school unable to read or write despite the much touted “99 per cent literacy” by politicians. Up to 500,000 of us according to a UWI and Alta study could be functionally illiterate, unable to read more than signs. And we must link hopelessness to crime. The numbers can be debated but you have to live in La La Land if you deny that the way our people express themselves on the streets, on talk shows, in the maxi taxis points to low literacy levels.

The low literacy (alarmingly high in rural areas) has led to a general ignorance which has meant that we have among the highest rates of preventable lifestyle diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, cancer and heart disease in the world. Paw Paw grows on our trees and dasheen bush has heaps of iron but we prefer to line up for the heart destroying KFC, to remain sedentary, to die of ignorance. If you are a teenager you feel trapped because your parents are so anxious about crime that they don’t let you walk down a quiet street at night, which should be a basic freedom. I see a country, I see T&T, despite its oil wealth rank way below our neighbour Barbados in the UN’s development index because we spend far smaller percentage of our GDP on health and education than they do.

Squandered oil and gas funds

I see squandered oil and gas funds and no aggressive plans to prepare for the day we run out of oil and gas. We are among the most polluted small island states in the world with unknown toxins affecting us in unknown ways. We chase after the Jack Warner motorcade spectacle, endlessly talk about what Rowley say, what Wade say, what Kamla say, meaningless words. Few hands are being raised to call for accountability in education, health, poverty, the rule of law. So dear reader, you still feel I live in La La Land? I may not drown out the panic I feel as a citizen for my adopted country with noise. I may do the opposite. Switch off the TV for days, and refuse to look at the newspapers because I am disillusioned by our people encouraging the spectacle politics of personality instead of calling for real change. And so disappointed that the dull eyes of forgotten will remain lifeless or rage with neglect. I may choose to look up at the hills, smile at a tiny boy in a starched shirt outside a church on a bright Sunday morning holding his grandmother’s hand, marvel at the changing fruit and the moving quality of the light at dusk and be warmed by a stranger’s unexpected kindness. But I certainly do not live in La La land.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur