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Death In Paradise

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Attitudes to death, here in paradise, are different from those back home.


In England, we struggle to cope with painful realities. Grieving is part of the national psyche and it goes on and on, sometimes indefinitely in cases like the Hillsborough disaster and on Remembrance Day for the fallen of both world wars. We like feeling sad because in great sadness and sobbing we find catharsis. 


Stoicism, once the reserve of the English, seems now more of a characteristic of England’s former colonies. Like the hotelier and manservant in Walcott’s play Pantomime, the roles have been reversed. It’s the Englishman whose stiff upper lip quivers and the Caribbean man who tells him to pull himself together. 


I’ve been to more funerals, in a professional capacity, here in Trinidad than I’ve even heard about back home. A British funeral is extremely private (except state funerals, of course). Here, they seem to operate more of an open-door policy. They are more visible and visual. Open caskets are a norm. 


As a reporter approaching bereaved families, like Sheilah Solomon’s, for example, I am constantly impressed at their courage and willingness to share private memories with me and the people of Trinidad.


At the funeral of theatre stalwart Stanley Marshall last year, I fought back tears as the rain fell and the wind clattered the shutters. I was there as a reporter, I’d never even met the man. 


Last week, I attended an evening dedicated to the memory of Norman Girvan. Again, it was only the distraction of my notebook and pen that prevented me from dissolving into tears. 


“It’s very sad,” I said to a friend about Girvan’s death. 


“Why?” he replied. 


It was a uniquely Trinidadian response to a passing. 


I explained that Girvan and his wife were the first people I met in Trinidad. His wife, the brilliant artist Jasmine Thomas Girvan, by lucky coincidence, sat next to me on my migratory transatlantic flight from my homeland. We talked for the entire ten hours, and then, when we landed, Jasmine said they would give me a lift to my new home. Girvan turned up in his car and chatted to me breezily about the Trinidadian media and politics all the way home.


I met him a few more times before his ultimately fatal accident in Dominica over Christmas. The time I kept thinking back to was turning up at Girvan’s home in Maraval and seeing him with his feet up, smoking a cigar, watching a quite terrible action film on television. He knew it was awful but he had to watch to the end, with a hilarious grin of incredulity on his face. 


I wanted to share this moment at Tapia House, but I knew I would crumble at the microphone and I didn’t want to look a complete fool. An English friend said she couldn’t stand up to speak as she’d have turned bright red and forgotten what to say. 


We English are not strong any more, not like our forefathers whose cold, forceful hands gripped the globe, crushing and moulding it. Caribbean people are strong, emotionally. 


Sometimes that spills over into insensitivity. Kevin Baldeosingh had no reason to write a crass column rubbishing Girvan’s life work just a fortnight after his passing. 


While the passing of Margaret Thatcher moved people in England because it made us remember things many of us wanted to forget, the passing of ANR Robinson feels more like an event to be savoured. 


Why the cultural difference in death?


Some might answer, simply, slavery. That the history of cheap, uncounted deaths has steeled slaves’ descendants, psychologically. Slaves who died in the Middle Passage met watery graves. On plantations, their deaths were minor events. Lost property. Replaceable.


But the answer “slavery” can be, and is, applied too readily to almost everything. In reality, what does slavery actually mean to a contemporary Trinidadian? Is it painful on a personal level? Or simply history, like the English civil war? How strongly does one feel the ancestral tugging of the heartstrings from centuries ago?


Is it that stoicism is related to modern violence and the murder rate? No, attitudes to that are more hard-edged, outraged. 


I believe the philosophical attitude to a death here comes from a more simple reason—that the person lived. And that they lived in paradise. 


There’s a BBC series called Death In Paradise, described as a “crime comedy-drama.” I’m surprised CNC3 hasn’t bought the rights. It’s an entertaining programme but it does propagate the idea that homicide and death here in the Caribbean are somehow more droll than an old lady dying in a cold tenement house in Glasgow and buried in earth frozen so hard with ice that even mechanical diggers struggle to break the topsoil. 


I’ve mentioned paradise three times now on purpose, not tritely. Because, fundamentally, most people here believe that not only does one live in paradise but one ascends to Paradise upon death. So what is there to be sad for? They are still living.


In Hinduism too, death is simply part of a great cyclical chain of existence, of becoming one with the world and of rebirth.


So, in Trinidad, the dead are not really dead. 


In the midst of life, we are in death etc.


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