Sometimes in order to preserve what we have, we have to go back and back
and back. This is what I’ve learned from Naipaul.
“I can give you that historical bird's eye view. But I cannot really
explain the mystery of ... inheritance. Most of us know the parents or
grandparents we come from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back
all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we
carry the memories of thousands of beings ... We cannot understand all
the traits we have inherited. Sometimes we can be strangers to
What does this mean to us this Independence? Are we strangers to
ourselves? What does your country mean to you? What can it, to a new
world people like ourselves?
One reviewer of Naipaul offered this up:
“With this passage Mr Naipaul announces what he’s about: an archeology
of the colonial impulse, the thing that spun Columbus, Raleigh and
countless others out of their easy chairs into the great dark unknown,
on missions of discovery to the New World. Partly it was the myth of El
Dorado, the city of gold that Raleigh and Columbus never found and the
quest for which was partly responsible for ruining both of them. Partly
it was a certain ‘madness and self-deception’ that permitted these men
to cause and endure horrendous suffering, even when it was apparent that
they'd mischarted the course. But beneath these forces, Mr Naipaul
writes, lay the simple urge of these men to create themselves anew.”
The reviewer was bang on.
What do you feel as a citizen of these islands, this Independence? I’m
not talking about your view about Keith or Kamla, the Constitution or
crime. All of this matters, yes, but only in the context of your
identity, your feeling about this land of ours.
I have consistently bemoaned our lack of ideology, or issues based
politics, our creaky institutions and spectacular failure, despite our
wealth, to move towards “first world” ideals of health, education or
But I also know the other side. Our people who stood up for democracy in
1990. Our people who are wounded, felled, murdered and messed up by
gangs, dependency, drugs, neglect, and lawlessness still vote peaceably
in race-fired elections. Our people who have a massive four-day festival
celebrating the intertwining of races and remnants of old continents.
We have to go into our subconscious and think of what we feel rather
than what we see.
On anniversaries such as these I feel a queer mixture of pride, loss and
gratitude to these islands which have been home to me since I was a
child. The blast of humid ocean breeze when the aircraft doors opened
and I clattered down the steps into the indigo bronze dusk with my
mother, brother and sister was a heart-racing sense of wonder,
possibility. I hadn’t heard then of Sam Selvon, or VS Naipaul or Derek
Walcott, or CLR James. I had only ever known India, but later I saw,
through their books, what I felt.
My father’s familiar face greeted us. His smile whiter with Tobago sea
sun blast, strange without his Indian Army uniform, eyes gleaming with a
sense of adventure.
A former Indian army officer who emigrated here to work as chief
engineer on the Tobago highway in the late 70s, he recalls his enduring
feeling for these islands. “ I came with a small attaché, holding my
passport, work permit, some precious US dollars, a letter of appointment
to the Ministry of Works in Tobago. With that in my hand as I was
descending the steps of the aircraft, I felt a strong island breeze, my
briefcase opened—scattering everything. It was night time. There was a
person ahead of me. He said to everyone: ‘Wait. This is my brother.’ He
was an Afro-Trinidadian. He ran down the stairs, retrieved everything
for me and disappeared.”
Sarah Beckett, a European, came here also in the 70s. She was soon on
her own with three small children. She says of this place: “I was lucky.
I met worldclass painters encouraging me on this small island almost
from the very start.
“Trinidad formed me. It’s the contradictory nature of the country. The
physical beauty, the light, the birdsong, the dumps that will not be
landfills. It won’t go away. It’s fun, volatile, yet brutal, awful, yet
lovely, and forces you to pay your dues.
“Here on a metaphysical level you live close to the randomness of
existence. Things don't work. There is no plan. Everyone says ‘God
willing’ and relaxes. This is engrained in the national temperament.
There are no plans like European countries. People don't work when it’s
raining; the plumbing or electricity goes.
“Things don't work and that is enraging, but it all teaches you to live
in the present. It teaches you a sense of possibility, so very often we
say: ‘Let’s try a ting,’ let’s see if you can make this or that work.
This random, flyingclose- to-the-sun way of living seduces people. Like
some spell. It allows people to breathe and define and redefine
Today I want to pay tribute to my adopted land. It’s frustrating at
times, but always beloved. It’s cast a spell on me.
Happy Independence Day, T&T.