Crumbling from within

 

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Category: Reflections 08 Jun 14

 

“Somebody is contributing to the fact that in ten years T&T has moved 40 places in the wrong direction in the corruption league table. Some people are responsible.

Will we name them, shame them, or keep quiet because we don’t want to upset our chances of future business? And even those who, hand on heart, know they have never made a dodgy payment, never paid a bribe: have you contributed to the problem in other ways?

“Who here has given an internship to their friend’s child and in so doing denied an opportunity to a more talented, more deserving candidate who lacks the family connections?

“And who here sits quietly as they benefit from an economic system that appears designed to offer a wonderful lifestyle to those above a certain line: minimal tax, cheap electricity, cheap fuel for your boat, all the while tut-tutting that it is unsustainable.”

Arthur Snell, British High Commissioner,

speaking at the Port-of-Spain Rotary Club luncheon last week.

 

My grandmother told me a story about a magnificent 50th-wedding anniversary cake baked for her parents. It was stiffly iced, many layered, richly textured, brandy saturated for months, nutty, piquant. She knew because she and her teenage siblings tasted it as it stood under a net in the dining room a week before the party. One midnight, the children, unable to resist it, made a cunning incision with a compass and each of the five siblings had a taste. They did this every night with a surgeon’s precision, emboldened each time they got away with it.

On the night of the party, surrounded by guests, my great-grandparents stood ceremoniously to cut the cake. At the touch of the ribboned knife, it fell apart. It was hollowed out. I thought of that cake at the Port-of-Spain Rotary luncheon last week, to which I’d been invited, to hear British High Commissioner Arthur Snell speak. I’d been told by my host he would speak of responsibility and the killing of two boys, nine and 15, who were executed in front of their mother in their living room by gunmen.

The mood was sombre—unusual for a Rotary event, where successful people (mostly men) slap one another on the back with a “hail fellow well met” bonhomie, mixing picong with serious charity work. When business and professional men in groups go very quiet, you know something is wrong. They glue countries together. Without the middle classes, a country buckles.

As I guiltily picked at the cake at lunch, businessman Gregory Aboud was saying that 90 per cent of the gang murders, domestic violence and road deaths had to do with a nation suffering from poor self-esteem. People around the table agreed. With 400,000 functionally illiterate, you don’t have an education; if, as well, you don’t have a family life or social workers around—absent fathers, hustling mothers—and your role models are men in public office who kick ass and flout rules, then you don’t have hope. But you have a gun. You use it.

I thought of how inured we are to everyday horror as Snell was speaking of his outrage at our collective response to the death of this child, as we dismissed him, felt he deserved it for being a “terror” (as absurd as a journalist deserving a death threat for “inaccuracies”). Snell reminded me of the conversation I had with a ruggedly handsome white man from my yoga class in a leafy neighbourhood— a man who, here, would get a knee-jerk reaction yo-yoing from sycophantic deference (presupposing economic and social clout) to a jealous loathing. He had trouble with his knee during class.

I thought he had injured it playing squash with the boys. When we walked out, I realised he was limping badly, and that his speech was impaired. ”What happened?” I asked. “Oh,” he said, casually: “One Carnival, a decade back, a bandit smashed my skull on the ground. I went into a coma. I had several mini-strokes. I’ve never recovered.” A casual horror.

As Snell spoke of how we continually devalue life to children by publishing macabre photos of the murdered—a severed head as headline—I thought of the woman I met earlier this week. We were in smart dresses at a lunch, drinking chilled wine, when she reminded me that she was the widow of a man who had his head cut off. Nonchalant horror.

The middle class can make its walls higher, and sharper with barbed wire, but we are jittery because the inhumanity we’ve created is not just destroying itself, but turning on us. Our cake is crumbling from within. We’ve eaten at the Treasury, kept our people illiterate, dependent, unhealthy, soporific.

Snell reminded me how we all “prey upon ourselves, like monsters of the deep.” This intrepid diplomat challenged us to “stop blaming one another” and take responsibility: “How many more little boys must die as gangsters before we realise it might be too late?”

The cake that is T&T is being hollowed. It’s time we stop the pillaging before it falls apart, gives off an empty toxicity, and before a casual terror engulfs us entirely.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur