August 2018


Post 298.

The Prime Minister has finally apologized for the PNM’s Family Day debacle. Unfortunately, in this being made a Hindu issue, with apologies to the Hindu community, all and sundry have missed the broader injuries.

Overzealousness from the newly expanded Tabaquite base and collective enjoyment of violent picong by the wider, more established base led to this tangled web.

It’s an interesting example of the complexities of traditionally Indian and UNC constituencies changing party loyalty, and reflects deep disregard and disgust for the UNC amongst those willing to turn against the hierarchy that was once their own.

Indeed, the scene was a premier example of pre-election gutter politics, which is why it was received as uproarious bacchanal among the PNM and high-handed terror among the UNC. If Tabaquite has turned against you, do you have any chance of winning Tunapuna?

Both Stuart Young and the PM could have avoided a wrong and strong approach. Meaning, a wrong happened, but shouldn’t persist with impunity and both acknowledgement and humility, or recognition and apology, were the right first instincts to have in communication with the nation.

Instead, trivializing the skit, as public statements by Womantra, CAFRA and the Hindu Women’s Organisation pointed out, reflected a failure to understand how rape culture, or treating sexual violence as normal fun by women asking for it, continues to powerfully and instinctively work in our society.

This doesn’t mean that individual men, such as the PM, are themselves being labeled rapists – which it seems only letter-writer Kevin Baldeosingh and ex-Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran – found it hysterically and stupidly important to say.

Rather, the term rape culture refers to the possibility of a scene where a women’s public disrobing can be made into an acceptable show of political power, and many not see how profoundly predatory that is.

This is standard stuff in tribal politics, so well entrenched that we don’t think of it explicitly. In inter-ethnic, cross-caste and multi-national conflicts, it’s the conquering of ‘their’ women that are the signs of triumph, for women remain objects of ownership and exchange, and controlling them remains a sign of man power and status.

At the same time, the nation is considered to be feminine, under rightful masculine or at least patriarchal authority, so the wider symbolism was not only of conquering UNC bodies, but also the body of the nation one constituency at a time, rescuing it from potentially becoming too Indian of the wrong kind.

In the discomfort of seeing women’s disrobing as political fun, its religious and racial marking was clear, but its not just an Indian or Hindu or UNC insult, and treating it this way divides women along racial, religious and political lines.

These wider implications seem to have missed the PM and the party. There was also the discomfort of seeing party faithful depicted as gorillas, which is unimaginably racist, and shouldn’t happen with impunity either, but that injury has disappeared from the narrative entirely and unfortunately, but conveniently.

The UNC and Kamla Persad-Bissessar seized on this issue as an opportunity to rally their base, and were right to do so. The skit was meant to directly symbolize a public dress down of Persad-Bissessar, as the most visible and vilified Indian woman in the nation, and the stripping of other Indian, Hindu and UNC women from these identities in order for them to become truly PNM through replacement of an obsolete yellow sari by the modernity of a red t-shirt.

Underneath it all must also have been a realization that the UNC is imploding or at least bleeding from within, and the protest was necessary to show morally respectable leadership and resilient political power, covering what should be internal party worry, for if ex-UNC Indians will turn against still-UNC Indians so publicly, and if Beetham will rather flood as PNM, despite their own disgust, than go yellow at the ballot-box, where will votes come from in 2020?

So, as the world turns, the PM is yet again denying he is a rapist, while being clueless about rape culture. He’s playing the ground war in placating Hindus while the UNC is rallying the Hinduvata and broader race-baited ire for whatever mileage it can offer, especially in the face of the SDMS’ grumpy withholding of support.

And, the issues of how women are seen, included and represented in public life, as shaped by the tangled web of sexism, racism and violence, yet again make front page, though nothing in Trinidad and Tobago appears about to change.

Advertisements

Post 298.

While children play over these holidays, school is on many mothers’ minds. You see these mothers, going extra distance to find the store that sells books at a cheaper price, double-checking stationary lists against the contents of their purse, and carrying heavy plastic bags of school supplies while pulling one or two children along by the wrist in thick High Street or Chaguanas main road heat.

I was in a bookstore, buying just-deceased Vidia Naipaul’s great novel, A House for Mr. Biswas, a big, big book by any measure and one that forever defined my life-long obsession with having a house of my own. It is the essential Trinidadian ambition, shared by everyone from the wealthy oil families of South to the squatter next door.

Like Mr. Biswas, I was combing the country looking for affordable housing materials, discovering commitments such as rates, interest, repairs and debt at the same pace, and the risks and costs of it all, from hollow bricks to pitch pine beams to tiny leaks in roofing.

I was thinking, like Naipaul, of what could be hidden, by bookcase, glass cabinet or curtains, what could be accommodated until Ziya’s whole life was comfortably ordered and her memories made coherent by this odd-shaped house in Santa Cruz.

At the same time, as I stood in line to pay, I was thinking of motherhood, listening to a woman portion out her life story with the young assistant helping her tick off items for purchase. For every ruler, eraser, copybook and text, there was that time she had to tell the children this and how she had to manage to make ends meet then, and how hard it does be throughout.

When all was added up, she decisively handed over a thick fold of blue money, like the CEO of a company that for another year weathered rain, robbery and recession. I thought I knew exactly that feeling and how I’d seen it on other mothers’ faces in bookstores and in between aisles with school shoes. Most important, I knew that not one soul really knows what you go through when those responsibilities fall unfairly and ultimately on you.

One woman, a survivor of her partner’s violence, went to the credit union every year with her book list and its itemized amounts to borrow money. Others hold on for their sou sou hand just at this time. Everywhere, mothers’ are planning and calculating, scraping and saving in time for September, like unheralded characters in a great Trinidadian barrack yard novel.

Indeed, in the 1970s, the Housewives’ Association of Trinidad and Tobago started a school book exchange, first in Hazel Brown’s house, later in the ONR’s office on Albion St. and, finally, in East Side Plaza precisely for these reasons.

Hazel herself, who was taking care of ten children, would sort all their books by subject, see what could be handed down, and then call up everyone to see what others had and what could be exchanged.

As she told me, at one point, the book exchange was taken up by some schools and parents would bring their used books and their book lists and exchange what they needed, buying at a fraction of the original cost.

HATT began to make a small profit, in what we would now call social entrepreneurship, by buying at 25% and selling at 50% of the store price. In Albion Street, women would iron the dog ears flat, make sure books were in good condition and could be sold at an affordable price, and that the right editions were the ones available.

It meant that children were told not to mark up their textbooks or simply throw them away. A stigma associated with second-hand books was pressed back, giving mothers and families collective solutions to their challenges making ends meet while preparing for the new term, and giving what they already had in their hands greater dollar value.

As I walked out of the bookstore with Mr. Biswas’ dream of a house in my hand and hope to manage the expenses of both renovations and the new school year on my mind, I thought of the mother in the store, taking her school supplies home, and how Naipaul became a writer because his family valued books.

I thought of HATT and how women can help each other fulfill hard-earned dreams, and I thought of Mr. Biswas and the list of compromises his family continually navigated in the hope that their circumstances would one day improve.

Post 296.

The floorboards creaked and tore as if daily life was almost too much weight to bear. The windows broke from their rusting hinges for their joints ached and they gave in to the pain. The roof hung with a sadness only the neglected know, its desire to protect unnoticed, its watchful eye met with ones closed to its needs. The house had been falling apart for a long time.

I’d describe its crumbling as imperceptible, except it was everywhere – in the decaying cupboards, the stained kitchen countertop, the scuffed furniture, the torn curtains.

These were plainly apparent, but too overwhelming to see so the best option appeared to not look. It’s like that sometimes, living in an old house past its grandeur, the walls of the rooms are made of memories, so you can live in the past when the white paint shone and the roof glistened like a whole beautiful blank sheet, before botched by time, weather and neglect.

Meanwhile, parts fall or break down, like organs, and the structure becomes unreliable so that even its all will no longer be enough. High winds, normal for changing seasons, blow from unexpected directions and everyone holds anxious, insecure breath.

Moving was inevitable and overdue, but gutting. You wake up for twenty years in one room and the light falling across the floor just so feels like the quiet intimacy of long-time companionship.  The birds sing from their perch on the eaves, and your heart aches that their song cannot be wrapped in newspaper and carried with you in a cardboard box.  Your favorite corner of the room will disappear when demolished.

Taking pictures down from the walls, and seeing their outline remain written in dust, like a ghost that won’t leave, makes your vision ricochet between all the past times you looked there – the contexts, reflections and familiar sounds, and the present – which is all that matters. The house remembers everything in its bones, in every break that wasn’t mended, in every echo of anger, laughter or silence.

Anyone who has ever had to pack up a life to move knows that it’s a reckoning. What you discard or keep evokes the story you want family history to tell and the stories even you want to forget. What gets put in boxes for immediate unpacking rather than those you may not end up unpacking for years tells you much about what once mattered and now can be forgotten.

As glossy as the new house may be, you have been shaped by the old space, the way that your mouth shapes your words or your hands curve around another’s or the way a coocoon envelops a butterfly. A house isn’t bricks and mortar or wood and galvanise, it’s the ribcage in which your breath has been steady and protected. It’s a space for a heart.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy even if you don’t want to or can’t still live there. It’s like pulling away from your own skin, which shrank from the salt of too many tears and, now, like a soucouyant, you cannot get back in. It feels the way that thin, slivery cobwebs cling to your hair and lips because they are not built to let go.

You are going to somewhere new and better, something that isn’t threatening to trap you in its collapse, but as I keep coming back to, a house is the embrace you sleep in at night, its arms warm and familiar.

The new house, with all your life teetering around you in boxes of different weights and sizes, isn’t quite finished, and it will take a while to get the windows and doors right, to know where the motes dance in afternoon light, and what calls speak to your house at night. You stand amidst all this, in limbo between past and future, unsettled, but asking for acceptance from the foundation and walls, and the wind that moves through.

In the old house, grown decrepit and ruined, sorting each object reminds that this moment will never come again. In the new home, everyday construction and care, fresh eyes and fresh paint, are the loving gestures you make to complete a dream you returned to when you couldn’t sleep.

Such departing and arriving are the only metaphors I can find for when your heart and mind are occupied with the many emotions of moving, and when you walk away from an old life and open the door to one both necessary and new.