Her large expressive eyes and bubbly Anglo-Indian accent have been a staple of T&T’s journalistic landscape for over 25 years. Last month, Ira Mathur's prolific body of work consisting of more than 900 columns, mostly for the Trinidad Guardian, and over two dozen features and documentaries culminated in the launch of her website, www.irasroom.org
www.irasroom.org showcases Mathur's ongoing life experiences as the daughter of an Indian army officer, spending her early years navigating her identity in a country as culturally and physically diverse as a continent and landing as a journalist and creative writer in a “living experiment” scarred by colonialism, but left with unparalleled syncretism, dynamism, and imagination.
Mathur's website, complete with photographs, is a weekly capsule and archive of Trinidad since 1995 and features commentary and hard journalism on local women, crime and politics and includes interviews with prime ministers Basdeo Panday, Kamla Persad-Bissessar and Dr Keith Rowley; commissioners of police Dwayne Gibbs and Gary Griffith, members of the Judiciary, the environment, and the medical fraternity.
It highlights documentaries for CNC3 and TV6 on notable figures such as first president, Sir Ellis Clarke, Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, and special reports on poverty, the environment, and domestic violence.
On the website, the Indian-born journalist also serves up private snapshots of her world, making no excuses for embracing T&T as her home.
She told Sunday Guardian recently: “I remember the stories, but mostly I think about the people. The longer I live in Trinidad, the more I’m astonished that small islands like ours; people of five continents thrown together by accidents of history, that something special percolated.
“Yes, oil spoiled us, and yes there was waste and corruption and impatience at the unsteady work ethic, but look what we've become when all cultures of the old world meshed…
“The New World allowed me to be anybody I wanted to be. Here I am free to re-invent myself. I've had the freedom to come into my own.”
Coming into her own has set her on a dual course of pursuing journalism and creative writing. The latter was re-kindled four years ago through interactions with Bocas Lit Festival winners and esteemed poet and playwright, the late Derek Walcott. Her deep affection for literary arts, however, had been ignited long before, during her childhood years in India.
Her birthplace, Guwahati, the daughter of an Indian army officer, Colonel Mahendra Mathur often moved with her parents and siblings, Varun and Rashmi. In the cities of post-Colonial Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh in the northeast with its snow-capped mountains, exciting skating rinks and officer’s clubs with army bands, Chandigarh, where she had to learn to speak Punjabi, and Bangalore in the south, Mathur found herself avidly chronicling the extraordinary figures that were her parents and grandparents. Shielded from the day-to-day realities of over 581 million people in a fragile democracy, she lived a “fragmented” but “magical” existence, observing her parents, whom she described as the “Great Gatsby couple”, her mother in chiffon and pearls and father in uniform, heading out for an evening at the officers’ mess.
“I probably never thought my life would be like theirs. My grandmother’s great-great-grandfather fought in the Indian mutiny (for the British 1857-58). They were all on these very huge canvasses. My father fought in three wars, and my mother was and remains this ethereal woman from a vanished world.”
However, having a Muslim mother and Hindu father had its burdens.
“On the rare occasions we visited our actual families, we had our splintered selves because around our Hindu family I'd have to repress the Muslim side of me and around the Muslim family, I'd have to pretend the Muslim side didn't exist.”
The army life allowed them to escape the brunt of tension and the deep love her parents had for each other triumphed.
Having migrated to Tobago in 1975 after her father was hired as chief engineer on the Claude Noel Highway construction, Mathur recalled spirited and blissful pre-teen years living in Scarborough at Fort King George. Among Filipino, Chinese, Syrian, Afro- and Indo-Tobagonian neighbours who became “family”, chennette and mango trees and moonlit nights on Pigeon Point were her playgrounds.
“That was where my idea of family emerged–not necessarily of blood, but the people whose blood takes you. The people of Tobago were so welcoming and so warm. It was when my mother was walking up a hill to Scarborough that the mother of ANR Robinson gave her a glass of water and she soon became our Tobago granny.
“Tobago gave us family, freedom, and beauty. When I land in Tobago, I know I'm home.”
Moving often meant that Mathur had to grapple with learning different languages and was never able to master any of her subjects at school. She was onto her second degree before she found her voice.
Insisting that she be an independent woman, her father dragged her to City University in London to pursue Journalism despite having a Liberal Arts degree in Politics, Economics and Philosophy from Trent, Canada…and a broken ankle at the time. There, she became a political creature, lapping up knowledge of world issues including apartheid, wars and ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and the Middle East.
Working afterwards at the Gemini News Service in London which collated articles from mostly developing countries grappling with conflict, disease and famine set the tone for her journalism.
Back home in Trinidad, Mathur was tested early at her first job as a reporter for Radio 610 when the Jamaat-al-Muslimeen seized Parliament in the 1990 attempted coup. The insurgents sent her a direct rebuke for blatantly denouncing their actions in BBC Caribbean reports.
Mathur said she felt privileged to have continued her education under GATE with an LLB from the University of London and to have interacted with the likes of William Demas, Sir Ellis Clarke, Derek Walcott, Raoul Pantin, Keith Smith, George John, Frank Rampersad, and Vidia Naipaul, prominent independent thinkers who have helped shape T&T.
Mathur said she remains strongly influenced by her father who fought in wars for India, has a “meticulous sense of duty”, having developed lower Scarborough as a technical officer in Tobago and made significant contributions to this country as the head of NEMA and as the author of nine books. She also regards the lessons of her mother, Zia, who is unimpressed by privilege and position and believes in helping the less fortunate.
Mathur’s website can be accessed at www.iramathur.org