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Creating Ourselves Anew

Sunday, August 31, 2014

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 ourselves.”—VS Naipaul

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 employment.

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 world-class 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, flying-close-to-the-sun way of living seduces people. Like some spell. It allows people to breathe and define and redefine ourselves.”

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.


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