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Friday, May 30, 2008

TRINIDAD EXPRESS: West Indian Arrival Day

Read it once, read it twice, then put it down, come back later and read it again...
THE TUESDAY EXPRESS front page picture showed inmates of the Maximum Security Prison, in a cardboard Fatel Razack, the ship that brought the first sub-continental Indians to Trinidad in 1845, the 163rd anniversary of which we celebrate today, Indian Arrival Day; and the picture says more than we might care to admit about just where we've reached.

It could hardly be me alone, e.g., who noticed the captain in his peaked cap, white shirt and epaulettes (did they rob a coast guardsman?)-was fair-skinned. (Venezuelan? Part Chinese, perhaps? Certainly typecast.) One inmate-in the coolest darkers the year 1845 ever saw-was reefing the mainsail (though one-third the size of the foresail, itself rigged as spinnaker). Another man wore an ohrni, the headscarf of Hindu women (obviously a method actor). He/she, the lone female outnumbered ten-to-one, was consigned to the stern-and that (plus the absence of a bogus Brahmin in the bows, "attending to the spiritual needs of the noble, hardworking immigrants" Ã la advertising copy) was the closest anything celebrating Indian Arrival in Trinidad has come to historical accuracy.

The very vehicle of the presentation-the paper boat, impossible to carry anyone anywhere (except to Davy Jones' locker, swiftly)-was the most lucid front page illustration of ourselves I've seen since I was part of the editorial team that ran the photograph of the bodiless head held aloft on page one of the 1998 New Year's Day issue of The Independent.

On Tuesday, I was persuaded I was wrong about that photograph by one scene from A Mighty Heart, Michael Winterbottom's distressing film about the American journalist Daniel Pearl; in the scene, Angelina Jolie, as Pearl's widow, Mariane-amazing in the role-is asked by an interviewer whether she has seen the video of her husband being beheaded; she stares at him and says, "Have you no decency, to ask me that?" On Old Year's Day, 1998, I thought our horrendous picture might shock Trinidad awake; ten years and a thousand murders later, I regret having upset that man's loved ones for what Trinidad has proven to be no good purpose; and am having second thoughts about having used, last February, the name of a young suicide as the springboard for columns protesting the cruelty of religious doctrine.

And so this place makes me laugh even as I wipe the tears away; you could say it cracks me up, for I am in the same boat as the rest of the country for the last 500 years and the Maximum Security Prison inmates last Tuesday: any self-refection necessarily and quickly leads to self-abnegation; you could not just die laughing in Trinidad-you could kill yourself doing it.

That's why Trinis would rather put their hands in the air every chance they get than their finger or their own pulse even once; because we might feel the fibrillation. Twenty years ago, David Rudder, in "Madness" sang out lyrics that still collapse me with as much laugh as cry: "The short union man turn and tell the Tactical/ "Shoot we while we wine/ Because, Comrade, we not leaving here until half-past nine!" Shoot we while we wine, indeed. Or shoot a picture of us, criminals all, "reenacting" (really "staging") an ugly past as a pretty modern holiday. Everyone will remark how well the convicts did with only Bristol board and imagination, just like the kiddies in the primary school Carnival competitions. Count the paid advertisements in this paper; calculate the money behind the outright lies to which, every year, we solemnly rededicate ourselves: the nobility of the East Indian immigrant (don't mind the scrunt in the Motherland that made the kala pani a bush-bath); the Brahmins by birth (not boat); the indefatigable Hindu pride (that even today values a fair skin and a fat wallet higher than honesty); the hardship endurable only by superior beings (i.e., untouchables). Recall the Emancipation Day ads that simultaneously applaud Africans for maintaining family structures even as they chastise slavery for breaking families apart; and consider that any white Trini in West Mall could explain you that the country going down the drain becaw white people not in charge again! Indian Trinidadians with money-like their Syrian, African, Potogee and Chinee counterparts-would bankroll indefinitely the most ludicrous fantasy rather than count the cost of ignoring our reality.

See us create opportunities (like today) to look at ourselves. See us revealed by a jailhouse skit; but hear us applaud the few gallerying in the cardboard boat or Cabinet and watch our blindness to the rows and rows and rows of criminals in blue shirts lining the ramparts in the background. Watch us all miss the glaringly obvious: if we have progressed from slave society at all, we've got only as far as penal colony.

But, by an irony as subtle as a Chanderpaul tickle to fine leg, the thought of the transformation of a penal colony reminds me today is also the first day of the second Digicel Test v Australia. I don't know what those other famously unpatriotic West Indians, Cozier & Fazeer, will predict (turn to the Sports pages to find out), but I suspect the West Indies might well play a Test match. Forget the official proceedings at the Divali Nagar (unless Ken Ramchand or Brinsley Samaroo are involved). Shiv, Chris, Dwayne, Ramnaresh & Them might today-self begin the journey to a real West Indian Arrival Day.

BC Pires is run out of space. You can email your no-balls to him at bcmaverick@tstt.net.tt

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