On being a Firefly

 

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Category: Profiles 13 Apr 14

 

On the very day ANR Robinson, the former prime minister and president of this country, died, I was due to give a lecture to UWI students on multimedia. It was one of those crazy weeks when the deadlines had come crashing. My brain was a knotted jangle jungle. All that I could think of was a warning. An exclusion clause. It’s a big high and a big low blow.

It’s the high of being a firefly, illuminating, however briefly, injustice and corruption in public life, and the low of bad pay, crazy hours, nerve-wracking deadlines, coffee and cigarette and alcohol-fuelled adrenaline. It was about regret. I didn’t get to cover the big wars worldwide. A friend reminded me that we are all fighting a war here. It came to us with the attempted coup in 1990.

Actually, the war began long before that. And we are losing it. Our war is not about money. Not about more guns, soldiers, equipment to fight crime. Not about schools, shinier labs, another hospital or highway. Money hasn’t bought us literacy (400,000 of us are functionally illiterate), or humanity (among the highest rates of murder in a non-warring country), or institutions (opaque, increasingly corrupt), or infrastructure (50-yearold rotting WASA pipes), or a work ethic (a rage-fuelled dependency), or environmental awareness (we are among the worst offenders worldwide).

We didn’t know what to do with the oil money because we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. It seems as if we never got over our collective post-traumatic stress disorder of being dragged or coerced here from India and Africa and being put to work. Even when the captors went away, we kept hacking away with our cutlasses, and now guns, blindly beating at our pain.

When I came here as a young adolescent to Tobago and a young adult to Trinidad, I was so curious about this country, I set about exploring. I figured out that when Eric Williams said, “Massa day done,” he didn’t mean stop working. He said: start being authentic. Don’t ape the trappings of the First World. Dare to be ourselves, whatever we are.

Through Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners and Ways of Sunlight, I discovered the wit and glittering bravery behind the bravado of the West Indian man. Through VS Naipaul’s Mimic Men (who can forget Guerrillas, written as starkly as sun beating down on fresh concrete over a white dead woman?) there is the wound of a chaotic New World. Through Walcott, an atavistic recovery of our essential selves, with rhythm, movement, the way we put our arms around one another in unguarded moments; the beauty of the faces that could be painted by Gauguin; the access to many continents in pinhead tiny islands.

I saw us in our landscape, the incline of the mountain range, daubed with whispers of yellow and pink, the strain of a steel drum from the hills, the cricket pitch. Through Peter Minshall, our essential selves of Tan Tan and Saga Boy, our bloodied rivers and our fire.

I discovered Eric Williams— prolific, introspective, earnest writer, orator, manoeuvrer. I discovered the quick wit of the silver fox, Basdeo Panday, even when he outwitted himself. I saw us in Kamla Persad-Bissessar, the woman who dared to outfox the foxes.

Then there was the father of our Constitution. Sir Ellis Clarke’s glittering mind was always in the horizon of these islands. Some ideas I saw over his famous Brandy Alexanders, always with laughter shot with a deep compassion for this country, and with the serious understanding of the responsibility we all have—to build up our islands, piecemeal.

How foolish we’ve been to ignore the contribution of the points of light in our country simply because they are human, flawed. We are dying here with ignorance of ourselves. After hearing of the death of our former president and prime minister ANR Robinson, my mother spoke not of his politics but his origins. She remembered Granny Robinson, ANR Robinson’s mother, as a “refined, hospitable woman who never gushed over anyone,” adding simply: “She knew who she was.”

On Robinson’s last birthday, a few of us were invited to celebrate with him: among them, my parents, Selby Wilson, Jennifer Johnson, the late Karl Hudson-Phillips. We understood it as a family gathering of sorts. It was separate from politics.

I felt a huge sadness as I held his hand for the last time on his bed, because he represented a dead promise, a losing war. Now, as we lose the war, can we fight back? Can we please let every schoolchild know that it was never about the money and the wining? Can we please have a museum of Minshall, a steelpan musical literacy school, a nationwide literacy drive, a transparent health system, a museum of the works of Eric Williams, ANR Robinson, CLR James, and compulsory reading on all national luminaries? The fireflies are being extinguished in droves.

Rest in peace, ANR Robinson.

In your memory, may we attack the dark with full force.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur