Poverty of the spirit


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Category: Reflections 22 Jan 12


“The image of the Prime Minister bowing to the feet of the President of India was both ridiculous and revealing. The gesture has a specific genealogy: anyone subjected to Bollywood torture—forced to watch the movies— knows what it signifies: an ostentatious display of peasant virtue which is neither humble nor innocent. Anyone not schooled in this sign system would misunderstand this.”—Raymond Ramcharitar

Columnist at the Trinidad Guardian

“If you go there in your personal capacity you can do that but when you represent all the people of Trinidad and Tobago, do not go and kiss anybody’s foot on my behalf. Its the ultimate subservience..superiority, inferiority being demonstrated.”—Opposition Leader Dr Keith Rowley

I hold both these men in high esteem but I absolutely disagree with both Dr Rowley and Mr Ramcharitar in their assessment of the 30-second gesture of the Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar bending down to touch the feet of the Indian President, Pratibha Patil when she was being awarded the Pravasi Bhariya Samman award. It was absolutely correct. To do otherwise would have been rude. In fact, the gesture endeared this country to all of India. And no, I am not a Kamla boot-licker, don’t belong to any political party, no, I do not want a ‘wok’ in the PP Government, and no, it’s not because I was born in India. But let’s go back before we go forward.


Years back, like many students studying abroad, I was very politically active as a student in Canada and the UK. The world was much more black and white then. There were right and left wing ideologies, there was the cold war, and there was labour, the conservatives and the liberals. There were parties who believed that the state needed to provide a huge safety net for the vulnerable and there was Margaret Thatcher. There were marches against nuclear weapons and against apartheid. There were the communists, socialists, and capitalists. At least you knew who was who. And what you could expect. And who, by voting for a party, you yourself represented. Back home, the political debate was not about how we could free ourselves of our colonial wounds, how all our people could realise their full potential through development and education. The ideology of development was absent in the corridors of power. It’s as if we were suffering from post traumatic stress and locked ourselves into the safety of the politics of protest and race. Your vote was never free. It was tied to the race you happened to be born into. As a journalist you become a kind of a confessional and people everywhere said they felt they belonged to the downtrodden race including the French Creoles (who feel invisible.)


Our brightest stars, the late economists Lloyd Best, Frank Rampersad, William Demas, with UWI, LSE, Oxford and Cambridge degrees, and a deep sense of what it meant to be West Indian, could have led us into development but we were too busy protesting. Massa day was done. Indian would rise one day. Oddly, on the ground, there was peace. Abroad, the Indian, African and European collectively owned the roti, the steel pan and the magnificent seven flew the same flag at the Oval. Wined with the same gestures for Carnival. Still, no development of fundamental values. The conversation on every political platform, from every political party, stayed the same, how corrupt they were, and how we needed to get them out. Whoever came into power was going to have to deal with the IMF or the boom, or the slump, and just changed the name of the dependency programme they were going to put in place. There are four generations of people in this country who have worked in previous incarnations of Cepep and Colour Me Orange. There was no development. Go back.


In 2002, when Winston Dookeran, then governor of the Central Bank, got economist Prof Jeffrey D Sachs to speak at the bank’s lecture series he had already been pronounced by The New York Times “the most important economist in the world”. “What is globalisation? Simply this,” said Sachs. “The way countries and people are interlinked. HIV/Aids is a far more tragic effect of globalisation than September 11. “Three million people die of HIV/Aids every year; 9,000 people die every day from it; 25 million are dead; it has affected over 65 million people. It has left Africa isolated, drowning in the cycle of disease and poverty. One-sixth of the world, led by the US, is doing well with globalisation. Everyone else is being left behind. “The premise that globalisation creates equal opportunity is false because some countries haven’t even had a chance to join the world economy.


Geography, climate and history have already decided which countries have a head start. For example, countries in which slavery was practised, where there has been a wanton devastation of natural resources, are absent in the globalisation process. Brain drain, disease, social instability, geographical isolation, have left a fifth of the crippled world out of the race.” What of Trinidad? He warned us then that despite our oil and gas, our per capita income (US$8,000) is roughly half that of Barbados (US$15,000) which invests far more in health and education. Development will come not by hanging on to oil prices, but by investing in our people. He thought it “dismal” that 30 per cent of our secondary students dropped out, that only 10 per cent make it to university, compared to US’s 85 per cent, Europe’s 50 per cent.


I looked around the auditorium then at Crowne Plaza and scarcely anyone was listening. The next day’s news carried more scandal, and with our impotent rage went after another scapegoat which allowed us to bury our heads in the sands while pretending we were dealing with serious stuff. As a people we continue to give our power away to politicians and public figures. What Sachs didn’t say was that slavery and indentureship destroyed our most important resource. By stripping a people of dignity, separating families, coercing them to change religions, forcing them to neglect their native languages, forget their villages and cities by geographically cutting them off from their ancient histories and oral traditions we were virtually shorn of our humanity.


As it is the neglect of education (400,000 among us are functionally illiterate) has left us without a voice. Powerless, dependent on hand outs, bereft of the soul of ancient civilisations, or oral traditions that could comfort us, make us self reliant, humanise us, we turned blank, harsh and empty giving us among the highest murder rates on the planet in a non warring country. That’s why a country like Spain could have up to five million unemployed but is practically murder free because the people still have intact families, a solid sense of their identity, and a broad education where shame is not working as a cleaner, (especially when one is qualified as an engineer) but depending on someone’s handout. Back to the gesture. We need more. We need more humility. We need more respect for elders. We need to see joy in service. We need to be able to say please, thank you, sorry, after you, keep our word; keep time, without feeling small. It could be a boost to our entire tourism and service industries. Service should make us feel tall, not small.


She was not “kissing” someone’s “foot”. She was bending down, as perhaps millions of Indians were doing all over India, and some in Trinidad (my son, on leaving for university bent down to touch his grandfathers feet and was blessed) not to put herself and her country down, but to show that we have respect and ask for blessings from the most highly revered, non political woman in India today, the President, Pratibha Patil. The PM was at the time being awarded with the Pravasi award for her achievements in the Indian Diaspora as a “great grand daughter” of India. The tradition is that no one touches anyone’s feet. The younger person shows respect for the wisdom, love and sacrifice of the older person. The elder immediately holds the bowing younger by the shoulders, and hugs them in a gesture of blessing. There are many similar African and Asian greetings. Indians also put their hands on their hearts when being complemented or thanks. Humility is humanity.


That there is not just grace in humility in that gesture, but economics that allowed the world’s largest democracy to break out of poverty through its ancient values of hard work, humility and sacrifice to become one of the most powerful in the world, then we will understand the true meaning of that gesture. The real poverty we are battling now is the poverty of the spirit which stands ready to destroy us. We have to regain our humanity from somewhere. Why not here with a Prime Minister’s gesture?


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur