Time to rip off the masks


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Category: Trinidad Society 22 Feb 15

My daughter who came to visit me in London from university in another part of the UK was on the phone to her father. “It’s not good for Mummy to live on her own. She is dressed in shocking pink sneakers which look very strange with a lime green winter jacket.” While they were discussing the problem of me, I was thinking I would look good in a J’Ouvert band. I saw from Facebook that Carnival was grinding down our people into their essential selves, mud, base, steel, paint, thousands of bodies, hearts, feet moving to a collective beat.

Pretty mas had moved from bikinis into a 50 shades of grey bondage, lingerie and fishnet stockings. Sex in our cities. I didn’t tell my daughter, but in the cold of London, sometimes the gloom of the sky, people hunkering down from the rain, cold and wind made time seamless. If I was indoors, writing, I wouldn’t know if it was morning, noon or night. Sometimes, an uncontrollable urge for caffeine, something to startle the quiet comes over me. Then I would pack on track pants on top of my pyjamas, pack on two sweaters, and venture out, breathe in coffee beans served by briskly efficient servers (who, intent on their next order, barely spared me a glance).

I love that about big cities. There is a freedom, a safety in being yourself and you don’t have to wait for J’Ouvert to feel that. Just last week, in my creative writing course we were asked to leave the warm classroom and “kidnap a character”—that is walk on the street, find someone who looks interesting, follow them for two hours without getting arrested for stalking, make notes, return and write a story about them.

I panicked on the street in Bloomsbury Square. If I followed men, they may think my interest prurient,  families with children predatory. Finally, I “kidnapped” a tall woman dressed in black. A woman alone on Valentine’s Day. What’s she going to do? She headed for the African art section. I followed her around the pottery, shields and masks section. I wasn’t a good stalker. I fibbed. “I’ve lost a contact lens. Could you please read explanation of the pottery to me?”

In fluted tones, which revealed a solid middle class education, she read. Thinking me blind, alone, possibly lonely, she was uncommonly forthcoming. Call me Louise she said, as she guided me from room to room, in that vast marbled interior, into an exhibition of eight Egyptian Mummies, 600 BC; through Bonaparte and the British; through continents of discovery, through the Greeks and the Moguls. She talked. Her parents were teachers.

It was normal for her to learn four musical instruments and three languages, to travel cheaply, to absorb theatre, and the arts. She was open, she was kind. She was the CEO in an advertising company and did part-time charity work. She was not a spectacle.

She was in between relationships. She was looking to the world to feed her soul. She wasn’t especially sexy but I suppose she could be if she found the right man for her. She wasn’t out there.

Meanwhile in Trinidad, people were showing outrage at a teenage girl wining on our sexy opposition leader. Let’s not baulk at “sexy.” Let’s not be hypocritical just because we’ve given up alcohol this month. The PM too, was tut tutted over her sexy tights. Yes, they are leaders. Yes, they are sexy. It’s their human right. The real travesty is that the defenders of the PM and the opposition leader saw their sexiness as “culture.” Now THAT made me feel ‘shame.’

We have a tapestry of history, writers, calypsonians, mas makers, artists that is culture. But stockings and back backing is not culture. It’s exhibitionist, but not culture. It’s a human attribute, like lust, hunger, anger, but not culture. It’s entertaining, but not human endeavour, not culture.

It’s freeing up, but not challenging intellects and bodies to be all we can be. On Ash Wednesday, during Lent, when we get thin lipped, dryer than salt prunes, we are filled with a prurient self loathing for that very culture of lingerie and fishnet stockings, of imported soft porn.

Culture at Carnival is closer to pan, J’Ouvert, extempo, calypso, when we tap into our souls, when we attempt at a truth, at an aesthetic, at an art.

We won’t know you know, what our culture is, not until we’ve read Naipaul and Walcott, and Williams. We won’t know until our children flock to museums, and academies of music literacy, arts, literature and science that we’re yet to build.

We can in the meantime borrow from every continent. The permutations are different, but the result is the same. Every continent from which we’ve been plucked creates culture from education, institutions, history, science, technology, industry, commerce, architecture, literature, art, music, sport. Culture is a value created from excellence.

It’s Lent, it’s time to rip off the masks, to be honest, if to nobody else, to ourselves. And in the privacy of our bedrooms, in old clothes, we need to stand in front of the mirror and ask our souls “what is my culture?”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur