T&T is a land of amusement, the kind that makes you either burst out laughing or shake your head in disbelief. Last week gave us a bit of both. First, there was news of the lawsuit filed against the Comptroller of the Customs and Excise Division over the seizure of a sex doll that was imported into the country last December. Lawyers for the claimant are contending that the current legislation doesn’t explicitly ban adult toys. So this is about our right to tool—assisted self-gratification—good to know.
Then there was the story of a Gasparillo family who claims to being terrorised by a three-foot-tall supernatural creature believed to be a “buck”. Not only is this a mischievous, thieving buck, but a horny one as well, for it’s been attempting to seduce the lady of the household. Perhaps someone should point it in the direction of the customs warehouse where the sex doll is being housed.
Finally, there was the public brouhaha surrounding the dilapidated state of the Lion House—the ancestral home of the Capildeo family located in Chaguanas—that was stirred up by the city’s mayor, Gopaul Boodhan, and Tabaquite MP Suruj Rambachan. All three stories epitomise how Trinbagonians come up with new and interesting ways to grab the country’s attention. But while the first two might have made you chuckle, the third looks more like a shameful pappyshow.
Most citizens probably know of the Lion House as the birthplace of VS Naipaul, and how it served as the inspiration for his Nobel Prize-winning book A House for Mr Biswas. Beyond that, because of the long shadow cast by Naipaul’s achievements, it’s easy to overlook the contributions made by his Capildeo cousins. Pundit Capildeo, the patriarch of the family and builder of the house, was a self-made man. He came to Trinidad in 1845, as an indentured labourer and rose to become a successful businessman and landowner. His two sons, Simbhoonath and Rudranath, were both politicians and prominent members of the Indo-Trinidadian community. The elder one was among the founding members of the Democratic Labour Party and served in the Parliament from 1956 to 1966. The younger one, before entering local politics, earned a PhD in Mathematical Physics and lectured at the University of London. He was also awarded the Trinity Cross in 1969. It should be noted that the matriarch of the family, Soogee Capildeo, ensured that her daughters were educated along with her sons, something that was uncommon for Hindu girls at that time. And although they went on to live quiet lives and have families of their own, one of them, Kalawati, served as a senator. Indeed, even without the Naipaul connection, the Lion House is an icon of historical significance for producing one of our country’s leading families.
Before last week’s hysterical and overly-enthusiastic call for intervention, Prof Brinsley Samaroo raised the issue of the structure’s poor condition during a conference held in 2015 on the literary works of the Naipaul family. He lamented that it was another example of the national community’s failure to prioritise our historical and cultural heritage; leaving such sights to succumb to oblivion, both from the physical landscape and from our collective memory. Despite the negative press, implying that the site is being neglected by the current owners, the House has already undergone a restoration. In 1991, Surendranath Capildeo, the grandson of Pundit Capildeo, commissioned local architect, Colin Laird, to reinforce the structure. This was done at the personal expense of Mr Capildeo. The project was completed in 2001 and no further work has been done since. Unfortunately, both Mr Capildeo and Mr Laird recently passed on. And the famed house that brought them together seems destined for a similar fate.
It’s interesting how no one in the past 18 years, not from the Government, not from the Hindu-Indo-Trinidadian community, and not from the National Trust, has shown any interest in the Lion House. Not even when VS Naipaul passed on last year. But now, all of a sudden, there’s this fervent push by misters Rambachan and Boodhan for the State to step in to acquire and preserve this piece of our national history. I can’t help but wonder whether these men have ulterior motives in mind. After all, they could have quietly approached the Capildeo family with their proposals to renovate the structure. Instead, they boorishly thrust it into the public domain, and in doing so created a farce. Don’t get me wrong—renovating the Lion House is a worthwhile endeavour. But the timing of this crusade by the before mentioned gentleman, showing up like a couple of “Johnny-come-latelies”, seems more like an attempt to gain some political mileage. Worse yet, it comes at the expense of a good man’s name and a family’s legacy.
Putting those suspicions aside, considering the State’s track record when it comes to the care of our heritage sites, I wouldn’t blame the Capildeo family for being sceptical or outright refusing any involvement by external parties. Restoration projects around the country—the Red House and President’s House for example—often end up being perpetual eyesores of scaffolding and construction equipment, not to mention bottomless pits into which taxpayer money is thrown. Even after work is completed, most of these refurbished buildings are closed off to the public and subsequently forgotten. I’m not saying that the structure is better off in its current condition, but I trust that the Capildeo family (or some of its members, at least) have their own ideas for the future of the Lion House. They should be consulted, not embarrassed. But, of course, that’s not how things are done in T&T.
You know…if VS Naipaul were alive, I suspect he would have gotten some perverse pleasure out of all of this. The sex doll, the buck, the Lion House—it all reads like a satire conjured up from his own mind. But while the first two could be compared to Miguel Street and Mystic Masseur, highlighting the charming quirks and superstitions of Trinbagonians, the third reads like the identity confusion of Mimic Men. The actions of MP Rambachan and Mayor Boodhan show how easily we confuse culture and history with politics, and how we likewise exploit one to support the other. That, it would seem, is the Naipaullian paradox that we are locked into. So the Lion House may never roar again in grandeur. But, even in death, VS Naipaul is roaring with laughter at the mockery we’ve made of it.