Licking the spit of politicians


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Category: Trinidad Society 27 Oct 13

“Humanity must perforce prey on itself. Like monsters of the deep.”

—William Shakespere


Coincidentally, I hear two similar stories on the same day from India and Trinidad. The first, a news report from the Times of India: In a backward village in India (there are 600,000 villages in India) a man attempted to molest a young girl. Her parents demanded justice at the panchayat (local selfgovernment). It was decided by the villagers that his punishment would be licking their spit off the ground. The villagers spat on the ground.  The man was forced to lick this spit.  That night he committed suicide, unable to deal with the humiliation.

The other, a story from a policewoman: A woman from Chaguanas is brutalised by her husband.  She has a black eye from being bashed in the head. He hammers her and then urinates on her. The woman wanders somewhere in Trinidad, humiliated.  The next day this happens to me:

A woman driver appears from a side street and hits my bumper hard.  My car gets a scratch. I am shaken up but not damaged otherwise. She’s a bank worker in some kind of wellpressed uniform. Not management. Thirtyish. Long hair tied up in a ponytail. Boxy frame. Not from Port-of-Spain. Nasal voice. Brown skin. Round face. We eye one another warily. I check my car. There’s a scratch. I say to her: “It’s fine. It’s a scratch. Let’s forget about the police station.

I’ll handle it. I am shaken. Just say sorry, and let’s be on our way.” She refuses to apologise —“I am not saying sorry” —even while she walks off, jumps in her car and drives off; I stare disbelievingly. Asking her to say sorry was like slapping her in the face.  The stony set of her face reminded me of many such moments. People actually flinch when asked to say “Please,” “Thank you” and “Sorry.” As if they are being abused. Between the damage of arrival and the fat off the oil boom, the words humility and humiliation became interchangable. So saying “please” feels like begging. “Sorry” feels like self-immolation.  “Thank you” is about feeling beholden. The words don’t equate with empathy, gratitude or remorse here.

I have to remind myself why I live here. We live amidst perpetual sunshine, rapacious laughter, an Eden of green, endless childish diversions: a string of public holidays, Christmas, Carnival, cricket. We are at heart, a hugely talented, a deeply damaged people not given to introspection. We are intuitively democratic— tolerant over religion, political allegiances, race, colour, size. We are Zen-like, innately peaceful. The daily murders have more to do with the temper tantrums of entitlement than a studied hate crime. The woman with the poom poom shorts and hijab sit side by side at a concert with equanimity.  We are that.

Then there is the elephant in the room.  Outsiders observe primarily that we find the idea of service humiliating (we fail to see the link between good business and service); that our people (when not partying) are generally angry; that obese and ill, we have turned towards ourselves.

Foreigners find us fascinating:

• Why are traffic laws not enforced?

• Why are some 40 per cent of you still functionally illiterate?

• Why is there no confidence in public health institutions?

• Why is the judicial system so slow?

• Why don’t the police enforce laws?

• Why don’t you recycle?

• Why are your obesity figures among the highest in the world?

• Who brings in the drugs and guns and puts them in the hands of the illiterate?

• Why don’t people keep their word, or time?

• Why do you not have building codes despite the fact that you are at risk of hurricanes and earthquakes?

• Why in such a rich country with free tertiary education do so few of you, proportionately, attend university?

• Why do you not have a proper museum?

• Why do you only have statues of entertainers around your city?

• Why don’t more people read?

• Why don’t things run on time?

• Why isn’t there a proper plan to fix roads (other than texting a minister when there is a problem)?

• Why is there no accountability across the board?

And finally, the most cringe-worthy question:

• Why are people in this country so easily diverted from the real questions by the spectacle of costumed politicians who are clearly in the middle of a feeding frenzy?

Coming back to the woman from Chaguanas whose husband urinated on her, the man in India who committed suicide after licking the spit of the villagers and the woman who would rather die than say sorry: It’s a treble analogy for the state of our country. The first is: we are a wounded, humiliated people, urinated on by indentureship and slavery.

The second is: our wounds, combined with loss of Old World civility and easy oil money, have made us simultaneously arrogant, insecure and ignorant of the fact that humility is a sign of great economic strength.

And finally: we, the people, who have been made to lick the spit of politicians for some 50 years, are so rigid with anger and humiliation that we have shut down.

That’s why men feel it’s nothing to urinate on a woman they’ve beaten up. And that’s why women find it impossible to say sorry when they are wrong.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur