April 29, 2013
Like a sizable section of the country, I watched Jack Warner’s nationally televised speech until late in the night after a long work day. Ziya was playing around me, pretending that the bed was a bus she was driving to the grocery and trying to get me to strap in my seatbelt while sharing the imaginary food she had enthusiastically prepared for dinner. She was spoon-feeding me, saying, ‘eat, eat up’, and beaming with pleasure as I did so. After our meal, Zi became obsessed with washing her hands, which, like any toddler, is her strategy for getting to turn on the tap and play with the water, and eventually I had to take her downstairs to the sink and soap to stop her from complaining, falsely, about her hands being dirty.
Ziya is two years old, Jack is seventy, but what they were doing was not so different. Jack was also dealing in the imaginary, trying to convince his constituents and the national community that he is in the driver’s seat and that his destination has certainty. Ziya had some idea of a grocery in her head, a collage of the ones she’s visited incorporated with sites drawn from other memories. Jack was creating a collage of his power and efficacy, narrating the world as he saw it from his leadership in FIFA, CONCACAF, past ministries and his constituency, also mixing in selected memories. Simultaneously, both he and Ziya wanted me to buckle up for the ride, with Jack’s fiction involving admittance to gravely unethical decisions without recognition of wrongs, discomforting contradictions escaping in every direction, open display of patronage’s power to twist politicians and voters into supplicants, and threats to show us all his excellence at revenge and love.
‘Eat, eat up’, they both said, Jack, like Ziya, needing us to agree that the plate we already know is empty is yet the food we really need. Both were spoon-feeding me, beaming with pleasure and invented possibilities. Yet, all was thin air indeed. Action man that Jack is and savior to our nation’s souls long abandoned by non-functioning state institutions, his declarations of party loyalty and Cabinet despair, of personal autonomy and subordination to electoral rules, of international deal-brokering and photocopied paper-trails gleam like gold-spun strategy rather than the straw of ethical accountability. Ziya’s fantasy was charming, but Jack’s left me uneasy. The difference between his and my politics, and UNC politics, came through the TV clearly.
Maybe that’s how it was for others watching, maybe my generation could view his theatre skeptically, maybe we are fed up of truths never intended to reveal, and maybe as a society these moments are how we come to conceptualise the kind of politics in which we can actually trust. Or, maybe not. Maybe Jack leaves us willing to play along though we know not what to believe and are not sure what end he has in sight.
Maybe at the end of the night, when all both Ziya and he is want their hands washed, we will be too weary to insist on differentiating clean from dirty. As she grows up, all I can hope is that Zi learns to distinguish childhood creativity from adult charades that conceal reality.
April 22, 2013
Recently, a river in Balandra told Ziya this story:
Once upon a time there was a little river who wanted to be a linguist. She knew that only fancy people at the United Nations or in stuffy universities got to be linguists, but she didn’t care. Even if she was only a small river on a small island, she was ambitious beyond anyone’s expectation.
Little river had already begun to make her way all over the island, rushing out of rocks, flowing slowly through settlements, leaping off little cliffs, bubbling through forests and meandering her way along villages. She did this because she loved to listen to the languages of her world as they were being spoken by all the people who lived on her island, and even by the birds and animals.
Soon, she learned all the languages that there were to know, from Yoruba, Urdu and Bhojpuri to English and French Patois. Little river also came categorise the sounds of many hundreds of birds, the buzz of thousands of insects and the day and night-time calls of mammals. Yet little river felt that there was so much more for her to learn.
One day as she was running quickly along the edge of the island, humming to herself in six languages, she heard the most remarkable sound. It was like many different words were being said, all at different pitches, all with different accents. She slowed in wonder and wound her way closer, listening as the noise got louder and more jumbled, like a Saturday morning market. Just as she thought she discovered their source, she hit a wall of rocks too high for her to reach over and too deep and solid for her to flow under or crack through. Little river sank back, stared at the rocks for a long time and could not figure out what to do. She began to cry, thinking her dreams had ended. Even the flowers’ whispered consolations could not stop her tears.
She cried so much that the sky, who usually minds nobody’s business but her own, noticed little river’s broken heart, wrapped her in her arms and began to wail for her. Their weeping continued until river began to realise that sky’s tears had filled her and made her tall. Through her sorrow, little river became powerful and strong. She lifted her wet eyes to the rocks and, without pausing to feel fear or doubt, leapt over them, cascaded over a cliff, skidded down a hill and tumbled in sharp curves toward the sea. Breathless, she plunged head first into the vast ocean.
‘Hello, little river’, said the sea in ten thousand tongues. ‘Hello’, said little river, proud that she knew a few. ‘So, you are a linguist?’ ‘Yes’, said little river, ‘and you know all the ancient and new languages ever spoken. How can I learn them too?’ ‘Simply drink me’, said the sea, ‘and I will drink your island’s languages from you’. Each opened her mouth and began to fill with the other. Little river twisted in currents she never knew existed, and heard the sounds of people and animals who no longer roamed the earth as well as those who still visited the world’s oceans and rivers. She wove through them all, soaking up knowledge beyond her dreams.
And so, today, whenever people, birds and animals want to learn languages and knowledge, they visit little river’s mouth, where she still fills with the ocean and where the ocean still drinks her in, and in these visits, it is best to just sit quietly and listen.
April 3, 2013
Every year for my anniversary, bridal mehendi is etched on my hands and feet. It’s a ritual symbolizing more than the marriage. My wedding mehendi was first done at my matikor, organized and attended by women of all hues and mixes, religious beliefs, sexualities, feminisms and politics. This was no ordinary matikor, though it did draw on the divine and feminine in Hinduism and in the ceremony itself, and it did feature women and sisterhood, song and rhythm, ritual decoration, invocation, fire and, of course, educational dancing with a baigan. The women who attended all came as goddesses and warrior women from various mythologies and histories. Athena, Gaia, Poolan Devi, Oshun and more descended in dress and spirit to mark my transition.
That night called upon more than one tradition, and did so in ways that were creative and invented. While some might look askance at such unorthodoxy, it also brilliantly showed how cultures combine and emerge with new meanings as each generation makes them their own in relation to their time. In no way do these inventions replace those enactments that seek consistency and continuity, but they do open spaces for resistance, reinterpretation and even rejuvenation, which are how we have formed the sacred practices that distinctively represent Trinidad and Tobago today, whether it’s the hybrid blessings of Siparia Mai or the high mass of Jouvay.
What followed was a wedding whose rites equally combined the old and authorized with the imaginative and unsanctioned. At ten am in the morning and wearing a wedding kurta suit and a red sari, Stone and I were married in our back garden by his godmother, who is a Reverend in the Church of the Nazarene. Muslim blessings were also given. Because he’s a music producer and I’m a poet, we walked down our aisle to our own beats and rhymes, which we hoped would remind us that after nine years of bliss, promises kept don’t need a wedding to be declared.
In the evening, we held another service whose steps I devised for no other reason than they mattered to me, like amulets strung around not only the bride and groom, but the whole occasion. One Wicca sistren drummed as we joined our friends and this time I wore my aunt’s sari from her wedding thirty-five years ago along with my great grandmother’s earrings. Another Carib sistren lit sage and chanted, mentioning all the corners of the country that hold indigenous value and within which we live today. Our friends wrote our vows and then read them to us, giving us the blessing of their collective hopes and wishes. We jumped over a cocoyea broom, hand-made with cowrie shells by another sistren. That’s when it all became complete.
Maybe it’s being feminist that makes me feel empowered to choose the traditions and rituals that feel right regardless of whether others agree. Maybe it’s being just sort of contrary. Maybe it’s being from a country where our greatest legacy is our inventiveness, which has enabled us to not only survive, but also to thrive. Maybe it’s being an anthropologist and knowing that culture is always being made anew. Maybe it’s learning from a generation of women around me who draw on every religious and cultural resource of the land regardless of their race or creed. In sweet T and T, you can have a dougla matikor and wedding which draw on diasporic and local beliefs, generations of female collectivity and generous amounts of love. Beyond being a bride, this is what I remember as the mehendi is being drawn on my body. All histories are ours to claim and make sacred, uniquely.