Last week I asked a fellow Trinidadian (a brilliant writer—Kevin Jared Hosein) a simple question: why he writes. As his response, he relayed an image he said he can’t unsee. He received it on his phone. A man is dead on the street, his body crushed and divided under two tyres of a car. A passer-by takes a video of it, laughing, saying the man looked like ‘scrambled eggs.’ More laughs from the street.
He said, "I don’t know why violence is so funny here. It doesn’t seem to concern most people. I write to understand this."
Kevin reminded me what the late Raoul Pantin, also a brilliant journalist and poet always said. That it is a writer's duty to hold up a mirror that shows us all, who we are.
As these things go, over the next few days, friends showed me scenarios from the street.
In one, a young woman stopped by a doubles vendor. Finding that he was out of doubles, she asked for the number of his establishment so she would be able to call in future to make sure she didn’t waste a journey. He scribbled his name and number on the back of a brown bag. She said, “Can you write down the name of your establishment next to your name?” He replied, “What happen, you 'fraid your husband will beat you if he sees a man’s name or what?” The vendor laughed uproariously at his own joke. Then he said, looking at her speculatively, “Or you will beat your husband?” More laughs.
What is shocking is that in a country where the statistics show that one in three women are victims of domestic violence; that last year alone there were half a million distress calls on the domestic violence hotline; that at least 50 women are murdered each year in domestic violence disputes, that someone on the street thinks it’s a joke. That its healthy for men and women to be combative. To beat and be beaten. To laugh at and be laughed at.
That evening I got another anecdote from the street in a restaurant.
A businessman, a woman friend and I were in conversation.
The businessman told us that last week in Port-of-Spain he was driving home in traffic when he saw a woman running out of a building. Just behind her, also running, was another woman who was stark naked. He said his first reaction was “Bacchanal, catfight!” He pulled out his phone. His second was to reach for a towel he kept in his car to cover the naked woman who he later discovered narrowly escaped being raped. A passer-by got to the naked distressed woman before he did and covered her with his jacket.
The woman’s reaction was “You would have recorded it if it was a catfight?”
The businessman said, “Yes, I would pay money in Florida for that kind of thing, especially if jello was involved.”
The woman said, “You do know even if a catfight for a woman was to be naked in the street it would be from a place of pain, right?”
He is a kind, funny and decent man but wasn’t convinced.
We have shut off the valves of our hearts to cope with the persistent violence about us.
You see it in the cinema. People here laugh at tender scenes: humiliating moments involving vulnerable people, a gay man, a sad drunk woman, an elderly couple. All elicit guffaws from the audience.
Are we in so much distress that we’ve forgotten how to have normal empathetic reactions to pain?
At university, I read If This Is a Man (1947) by Primo Levi, Italian-Jewish writer and chemist—a detached account of surviving life in Nazi camps. The Periodic Table (1975) also by him was said to be the best science book ever. In April 1987 Levi killed himself. In his obituary Diego Gambetta, an Italian social scientist wrote of Levi: ‘On that tragic Saturday only his body was smashed.’ Clearly, the brutality he suffered in the camps had deadened him a long time back
This tells me that unacknowledged pain leads to the eventual destruction of our very souls. In humanising others, we humanise ourselves.