Breaking the Silence


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Category: Trinidad Politics 03 Mar 13


After 17 years of writing a column almost every week, something happened six months ago. Silence. It descended, a shrouded grey mist. This is what purgatory must feel like I thought, and gave in and instead just looked. What I saw felt surreal.

It was like a canvas reminiscent of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I saw last year in Madrid in the Prado museum, and which depicts paradise, earthly delights and gruesome punishments. It is covered with small detailed white naked figures. It’s difficult to look at because it shows naked humans without masks of civility, or clothing, humans without a soul, the same as animals.

In these last few silent months the canvas came together. And it was ugly. A large canvas, with a queen, sycophantic courtiers jostling for favour, attention. Her army of supporters, an enemy camp, desperate for a lost kingdom but with no plan of how to recapture its former glory.

Then I saw the masses, the wretched of our tiny patches of islands. If we look at “them” we would have to look at ourselves. And if we looked at ourselves we would find a hollow space where we don’t know who we are.

We would find a people who try on costumes and describe our sense of self in a morsel of doubles, in a game of cricket, in bikini and beads, in the distinction of those among us who can afford to go down the islands in a boat and those who get shot in the crossfire in Laventille, licked down by a drunk driver, or live in the completely forgotten villages where teenagers play with donkeys for pleasure, grown men who watch porn with six-year-olds, and the long forgotten cane areas now rabid with incest and alcohol.

I saw the culmination of the thousands of teenagers who emerge functionally illiterate from our schools, numbers which must have swelled over the years if university and Alta figures are right, to up to 500,000, almost half our people. I saw principals who complained that funding for remedial teaching had been slashed to accommodate laptops which are loaded with porn.

As a journalist I did what is anathema to my profession. I stopped buying newspapers. Then I stopped listening to the news. But the blog posts flew one after the other into my phone, each one the sound of a whip. There was pure vitriol. The politics of personality, punishing, crucifying, offensive, berating, jarring. It was impossible to walk around without seeing. If you live here you see it.

In silent desperation

Through my grey shroud of silence I witnessed every day, young boys who should be in the school hustling a dollar at traffic lights, their mothers’ milk still on their faces, steely readiness to die and kill in their eyes as they forcibly cleaned the windscreens of million-dollar cars. Their faces say: You live there, I live here. The difference is, I don’t care if I die or if you die, so pay the .... up.

I saw the truck drivers throwing KFC boxes out of their windows, plastic bottles hurled carelessly by boys into ditches. I saw the wretchedness of a woman, child hoisted at her waist at the grocery, not bothering with a basket which she could not fill, looking to see what her $100 would buy.

And there was the inescapable brutality, humans like Bosch’s painting indistinguishable from the dead dogs on the road, run over again and again for days and days, by rage-saturated drivers; children being shot, the mortuary piling up with corpses of the dead.

I saw warnings on Web sites for tourists; I saw our “developed” status ranking part of the big lie we tell ourselves as we become known world over for having one of the highest murder rates worldwide. Why else do all the tourists get off in St Lucia from London? There was no point in writing. No one was listening.

How many times over how many years can any writer observe that illiteracy is the root of crime—some 500,000 functionally illiterate people—along with deadbeat absent fathers? That there is a desperate need for centres to supervise children with working mothers after school? That cutting out the three generations of the cancer of make-work jobs and creating sustainable jobs for the educated is the way to go?

Instead, half a century after independence we invite in the drug trade, talk of death squads, hangings, army gun talk, and fill the hollow spaces of brutality of the slave trade and indentureship with more brutality. Instead of using our native talents to create a brand new, unique world, and marvelling at the convergence of continents in this tiny space, the power-hungry have created a dependent and illiterate society without investing in teachers who would help us fill up our empty selves with history, culture and critical thinking.

Instead of learning music literacy, the languages of the world, investing in art, our people are encouraged to fornicate on the roads as part of a weird hubris of “the greatest festival on earth.” My rage that turned into silence isn’t at the people, or our landscape—there is much that is lovely here, including religious and ethnic tolerance. It’s at the politicians who now more than ever are systemically creating a brutish failed state.

I was to write of India in this first column, but I would have failed in my duty to my profession and the people of my adopted homeland if I didn’t break my silence by speaking out.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur