A Literary Character

VS_Naipaul_2016_Dhaka
VS Naipaul in Dhaka, 2016. Photo courtesy Faizul Latif Chowdhury, through a CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

The news yesterday was that Sir VS Naipaul had passed away. Only the day before I had been in West Mall, in North Trinidad, and had glanced at some of his books. ‘Soon’, I thought, since my reading stack is larger than my time to read these days.

When I first got published, I went around to my father’s siblings and got almost the same response every single time.

“VS Naipaul is your uncle, you know. It’s in your genes.”

It was very matter of fact, dismissive and as supportive as I would find could be expected from my family. I retorted every time, “My mother is a writer too.” All of them nodded quietly, dismissively, and went on with their lives.

Clearly, I kept writing. After all,  if he’s my Uncle and that’s their logic to dismiss that accomplishment, all the cousins I know and all the cousins I don’t know also have him as an Uncle. In fact, a lot of people in Trinidad and Tobago are related to him. None that I know of, including myself, actually knew him. He didn’t help me with my homework, or give me a talking-to when I needed it.

To me, Sir VS Naipaul was simply a literary character that existed in the minds of others. Over the course of the years, I read a few of his books. I was told some of his history and life by someone who knew of him and might have met him a few times as a child.

This is the core of the issue I consider when people in Trinidad and Tobago try to claim Sir VS Naipaul. Here’s this author who had the opportunity to leave Trinidad and Tobago with British citizenship. He did. He did well with it. Would he have done as well were he in Trinidad and Tobago? Probably not. He traveled, he lived his life, and that was that.

What did Trinidad and Tobago do for him to get him where he was? And Trinidad and Tobago tried to give him a prize that he declined, which further stirred some negative sentiment. And yet, the Trinidad he left was very different, a Trinidad under British rule. Why wouldn’t he leave given the opportunity? To this day, people still aspire to leave.

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Ram Singh, was this source. So he told me of his memories of the Lion House, of his few meetings with this literary character. That was kind of boring, really, because he didn’t have much to say on the topic other than, “He was always upstairs writing.”

And that’s all I really know. I do know that of the books of his I’ve read, they were good. He didn’t write the sort of things I enjoyed reading, and the Internet will be full enough of his praises.

What I do like about him is that he did what he did on his own, despite what others said or did. And, through references to him, I got to hear more about a very different Trinidad and Tobago. People like Uncle Ram would tell me about how they would ride to Carlsen Field on bicycles to get chewing gum from the U.S. Army base, from well-intentioned soldiers through the fence. He laughed about that when he told me, even as I thought of a poor East Indian boy on a bicycle begging at a fence at a U.S. military installation. I’ve been on the other side of those fences.

It was a very different Trinidad and Tobago. A pre-Independence era, a post WWII era. Rations. Bicycle licenses. Things that they never teach of in school.

In turn, I spoke with Great Uncle John – my paternal grandfather’s friend. In his 90s at the time, he had served as the Master-at-Arms at the Chaguramas base, had been involved in politics in a small way right after Independence… he had met his wife when he was out patrolling on an Estate… and she was washing clothes in the river. I learned a lot by simply listening to him – about how there was so much water at Chaguramas, so many wells, and that the country had water. A man of few words, I would simply sit there and listen to someone who was happy to have someone there to talk to. There was a  time he was working in Port of Spain and missed the last taxi, so he walked to Chaguanas through the canefields, got home at sunrise, showered and went back to work by taxi again.

There are many colorful stories, many literary characters, but right now everyone’s concerned about Sir VS Naipaul – about what he wrote, about how he wrote it, about why he wrote it… just like any other author. In the end, yes, geographically he was from an island in the Caribbean that was then under British rule, and he went on to do great things.

But it wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago better. It wasn’t for him to make Trinidad and Tobago more recognized for literature – in this regard, he stands largely alone and as a borrowed literary figure that left Trinidad and Tobago long ago, from a different era, who made his own way as so many others who leave Trinidad and Tobago do. Everyone wants to claim the successes, no one wants to claim the failures.

Einstein noted this sort of thing himself:

If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

– Albert Einstein.

(Address to the French Philosophical Society at the Sorbonne (6 April 1922); French press clipping (7 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 36-378] and Berliner Tageblatt (8 April 1922) [Einstein Archive 79-535])

There are many literary characters running around Trinidad and Tobago. Sir VS Naipaul was one of them during the British era, but not after.

His successes remain his own. As it should be.

Broken Contracts

Break FreeThere are contracts between people, and there are contracts between lawyers – the latter existing because contracts between people are fragile.

One of the reasons  I haven’t been writing was because I was negotiating a contract – a business deal. It started with a handshake, as so many business deals do. This was a contract between people, between men – me having something someone else wanted, he wanting something I have. The deal was for a certain amount, the deal to be completed by lawyers the next day.

The next day never arrived – instead, I got another representative of the company and family. And, right before Carnival here in Trinidad and Tobago, I was given a downpayment for a price for roughly 70% of the original handshake. I smiled and laughed, knowing I wouldn’t accept that offer, and returned their downpayment after Carnival. I simply showed that I understand the value they placed in shaking hands by returning the favor. I think they got the point.

Now I know how they do business and I can say that they don’t really respect contracts between people – I won’t name them, there’s really no need to. It’s no more than an attempt at a reverse bait and switch maneuver, as basic as that – and what I found was that once I got past that, they had nothing. So I raised my price, and they said they wouldn’t buy – and called me the next day, still trying to get me below the price of our original handshake.

“Do you think you can get that price from anyone in Trinidad and Tobago right now?”, I was asked churlishly. I responded in a firm tone, “Do you think I care?” 

And I laughed, putting it in the hands of someone the next day to deal with. I’ve seen too many contracts broken over the years – more than most, less than a few – to really care that much about a broken contract. I put it in the hands of someone else; I have no patience for people with money saying that the price is too high. Clearly, the value is not – pay the price or move on. 

It’s as if they do not matter to others, as if one’s word doesn’t matter, as if a promise is so easily broken. Trust is not something understood – Honor and Commitment are Gordian knots to be sliced.

And it’s not just business.

Social Contracts

 

There was a time when social contracts were more valued – we find pockets here and there among the rubble of civilization where they are still valued, where a promise or a handshake means something. When someone’s word meant something, when they were careful what they promised.

Now, we gamble on people’s greed in things more and more – not just financially but otherwise, be it emotional or otherwise.

And one thing I have learned over the years is that a world where one’s word is worth something is becoming smaller every year. Marriages, divorces, political promises, government reality, and so on. And because of that we do not trust.

And a civilization where we do not trust is not really a civilization.

A person’s word should mean something. Should. But now, unless you get a witness and everyone signs, it’s empty – expended air lost to the atmosphere, needless noise. And even with lawyers…

We are surrounded by broken contracts.

2018: Trinidad and Tobago Carnival Begins.

UntitledA lone drunk walks down the trace where I live, shouting, “Pay the devil jab jab” at 3 a.m. this morning – lost from a J’ouvert somewhere in South Oropouche, I’m sure, where WASA water flows more slowly than puncheon rum. Where WASA, in fixing things, inordinately breaks something else.

It’s the start of Carnival 2018. There are plenty of people out there right now enjoying all the festivities, and there will be many more. Celebrities like Trevor Noah are around, giving local performers their 15 seconds of fame in the Internet age.

It’s not my thing. To say that out loud, or dare write it, is seen as a travesty by some. But really, it’s not my thing. I haven’t enjoyed Carnival since the late 1980s as a young man full of hormonal energy – not that I haven’t tried, or others have not tried to have me do so.

Right now, photographers I know are out there getting brilliant shots of Trinidad and Tobago’s greatest event. One, Sarita Rampersad (unrelated), even took even more pictures of people on mobile phones, which you can see in an album properly titled (Dis)connected Mas. Global Voices interviewed her in 2016 about the same thing – we can see that it hasn’t had much of an effect on what people do. This year, they went with her ‘Steups emoji‘ which – and Sarita knows this – I see in a different way, as do a few others, but it is something. And a steups is appropriate when selfies and phones are disconnecting people from the most extroverted event in Trinidad and Tobago.

Because that’s what extroverts do these days, too. Where is the line between extroversion and narcissism? There isn’t any; there’s just overlap. It’s also odd to explore in the context of what we decide to share of ourselves. I’m neither, yet I share plenty that I wish to. There is room for exploration here, introspection, and some thoughtfulness.

But it’s Carnival – seen by some to be the antithesis of thoughtfulness. I know better. There are very thoughtful people out there, the vast majority, keeping things fun and real – which should be the focus. It’s escapism that comes from new found ‘freedom’ – a debatable topic if you look around Trinidad and Tobago and the financial chains that burden so many, where the hand that you hold is more often than not the hand that holds you down. That’s global, though.

Yet the news, even internationally, talked about the squelching of a terrorist threat – locally you can see the smoothing over of it; Newsday, Trinidad Express, Trinidad Guardian. The facts are lacking; now 7 men have been held last I checked. One target was allegedly the U.S. Embassy (how original) – internationally, CNN covered the story and put the U.S. military on top of things. Local police are saying otherwise, smoothing that over, while I first read about the potential threat from a British source. It’s anybody’s game. In the end, though, nothing is actually publicly known except how many were held – and one has to wonder why it made the news in the first place until one considers that it creates fear, uncertainty and doubt. That spread like wildfire on WhatsApp groups.

But T&T has short term memory loss, which leads to not being able to remember much in the long term. Until something happens. Or happens again. And then short term memory loss happens again – even in local media. Trevor Noah showed up. What terrorists? How is this not on Global Voices yet?

Never fear. The Trinidad and Tobago Police Service are keeping everyone safe and secure from 8,000 lbs of Venezualan dasheen. The guns and drugs come from the very same place, but the dasheen problem is real enough to local farmers. Unfortunately, because of the lack of dealing with drugs and guns – people have theories on why – the Minister of Agriculture was mocked for supporting the police here even though violent crime isn’t his jurisdiction.

We’ll all sleep better with that contraband dasheen off the streets.

It’s a comedy that writes itself into tears. We won’t even get into ‘tiefing a wine‘, a strange thing given the culture of Trinidad and Tobago, where outfits for Carnival get smaller every year and costs for them go up. Where suggestive dancing is encouraged; where some say only men ‘tief a wine’. We know better. Yes, it can be construed as assault.

Don’t hug me without consent, by the way. With an accusation, I can get you sent to jail for assault.

And until Ash Wednesday jail, Trinidad and Tobago will forget all of this. As it should.

But on Wednesday, will it remember?

The Bookstore

Rain. Bookstore. I read the Glad well before, but find myself referencing when I don't have a copy.I’d needed a haircut for a few days, but the stylists – whatever you wish to call them – were having bouts of the flu. Today, though, I called and faced the traffic to get there, to have my hair cut – and the lady in charge was kind enough to throw in a complimentary shampoo. The shampoo involved a head massage by a woman I can only describe as gifted.

I was in a good mood. It was rainy. I did not want to go home; a lady asks me if I was hungry – a hint that I was boggled at to the point where I fumbled it. I left, and went to a place I am always comfortable. A bookstore.

In entering, I was immediately asked if I needed help. I said no, and began perusing titles – I liked the Louis L’amour, I always have, so I picked that up because I hadn’t read these stories by the dead author. Some will point out that he wasn’t the best Western writer, talking about how his publishers made sure his books were prominent… I don’t know. I do know that my father purchased all of them, that a Louis L’amour novel lasts me about 4 hours at most, but that I always enjoy them.

Another young woman comes up to me and asks me if I need help. I said no again.

A few more minutes perusing. Looking for minds more original than my own has become difficult; I scan titles and look at cover art. I read the back covers, instantly annoyed at how marketers have taken over that spot to tell people what other people have said about the book.

I don’t give a shit what anyone else says about the book, I want to know what the book is about.

And… a young man comes up to me and asks me if I need help. I stare at him. “You’re the third.”

“What?”

“The third person who asked me if I needed help. I don’t understand why. If I’m in a bookstore and I need help, I probably shouldn’t be in a bookstore.” I said this maybe a little more annoyed than I should have, but I let it sink in a moment. This attempt to play librarian in a bookstore forgets that the librarian sits quietly until provoked; the librarian doesn’t go around asking people, “Do you need help?”

I scan titles I’ve seen easily in the background as I considered the plight of the young man.

“Look, I’m sorry, you didn’t deserve that and you’re doing your job as your employer says you should – and maybe even as the market dictates. So I apologize. It’s just that I know my way around the bookstore, I like the joy of finding things I couldn’t possibly tell you about because I don’t know them yet.”

He accepts the apology, but I see that my former words had stung more than my latter words had soothed. He wanted to explain. I let him, let him let the ooze rip from the cyst I had accidentally incised with my words, nodding at moments, keeping eye contact, but flipping through the books I had scanned in my mind. He needed to let go of something, I didn’t need to hear it. His face relaxed. He was done. I smiled, nodded and said, “I think I understand” and continued looking over the shelves of books.

The young woman who had asked me if I needed help first witnessed the exchange. She assured me he was fine, but her assurance didn’t mean he was fine. He was sensitive. People had been nice to me today. Part of me wanted to shout at him to toughen up, the other part regretted my casual abrasiveness. The latter won this time.

Most of the books were ancient in the age of the Internet; a point of anguish for me sometimes, but also a time of opportunity to see some of how the roots of present ideas form. I read very, very fast – not ‘speedreading’. I just read fast and have a reading comprehension that frustrates me to no end when people with degrees are so bad at it. So, while the books are generally what’s sent and left in this tropical armpit of the planet, where books come to die, there are opportunities to explore things – with the knowledge that the information in them is likely outdated. It’s better than reading ingredients on soup cans.

I peruse some more, finding the Gladwell that I so often tried to use as a reference for some of the solid concepts he has written about – but I had left my copy in Trinidad the first time I had left, had left the copy I had in Florida, and was down here without a copy. And I picked up one on the rise and fall of information empires — something that I’m constantly researching new perspectives on (because none of them truly fit). I explore more, seeing the same tired titles that no one wanted yet.

I encounter the young woman I had first met upon entering the store – she’s nestled quietly in a corner with a book, reading.

“Ahh, that’s exactly what I would be doing if I worked here.” Nothing makes a literate person more comfortable than seeing the person working there reading instead of pestering them, in my mind, but we’ve already established I’m an outlier (gratuitous Gladwell reference).

She looks up and smiles, “I love working here. I get to read.” Well, look at this – a rare bird in this day and age, the Literati Exoticus.

She looks at the books in my hand, “I see you found some things. Why did you choose them?”

So I go through, explaining, “Well, the Louis L’amour is like cocaine to read; it’s fast, action packed, well paced and unfortunately over quickly leaving you wanting more. The Gladwell is something I like to refer to when writing, but I don’t have a copy so I’m getting this one. And this one is about Information Empires, which I’m interested in because I find myself writing about them indirectly.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Ugh. I wrote an eBook that got published back in 2005 or 2006. I wasn’t pleased with it, but yes, I’ve been published and I do write… though I haven’t published a book since then.”

“Why not?”

“Partly things changing so fast, partly procrastination and all the excuses not to write, and partly too many projects I’ve started and not finished.”

“I want to write children’s books.”

“Then write one.”

“I’m procrastinating.”

We laugh. In conversation she points to the bookshelf next to her as a generic reference to books and accidentally points at “50 Shades of Grey”. I laugh, telling her what she pointed at – and looking around to see that the store was empty of other customers, went on to say, “That book is so horribly written.”

Enter sensitive Third, who apparently loves the book. I try to make the distinction, “I’m not saying it’s a bad book… I’m saying it’s horribly written.” An attempt to be honest without being dishonest to smooth over the sting. This poor guy looked like someone kept walking by and killing puppies. I decided that there was nothing to be done, that I had been kind enough, that part of growing up was facing facts and that the “my puppy died” face was just to trigger enablers.

Fuck enablers. I’ve seen too many make children of what could have been men in my generation and prior. There’s a place for sensitivity, but there’s that thin line.

“Listen, it’s a popular book, but being popular doesn’t mean it’s well written. In fact, the BDSM community came out against the book. Writers mock the book openly. But people buy it, just like people think McDonalds sells hamburgers.”

His eyes grow distant, as if I had also killed puppies in the distance. Or maybe he was sad yet thoughtful. It’s not my business, my business is being honest and, at times, hurting feelings – conscientiously, for ‘the greater good’.

I bought my books, having made a friend of one person there and having killed a few virtual puppies of the other – a shame because if the puppies were real, I’d probably still be playing with them. Who doesn’t like puppies?

Exited stage, left.

“Please take a seat”

She asks me to sit down. This is, of course, innocent and polite, but the system itself has done this to me one time too many. I was here for my contacts, I’d been through the testing, I’d been through two aftercare appointments, and every wait starts with, “Please have a seat in the waiting area.”

I’d been told on Monday that they would order the contacts, that they would be there on Thursday, and when I asked if they would call me I got an uncertain look about it which told me, “Maybe”, which tells me, “Probably not”, which I infer as “No”. While it’s nice to assume good, when it comes to systems of bureaucracy, unless you get a confident ‘Yes’, the answer should be taken as ‘no’.

I tell her, “No, I’ll stand right here. This should not take long; either you have them or you don’t and if you don’t, there’s no reason for me to linger.” She gives an awkward assent, scurrying to the back, this poor young girl used to the domestic herbivores who do as they are told when they are told because they are told.

I drift to the back, watching as people awkwardly come to the front desk looking around at the room full of employees, trying to decide how to politely get someone’s attention. One bearded fellow adjusts the stapler, ignoring the people at the desk. These are the same people who would call me twice when I had an appointment, to my annoyance, to make sure that I would be there – and here they were, unable to deal with the asynchronous.

As it happens, they didn’t have my contacts – it took 3 people to tell me that, a symptom of disconnected systems, of silos. The second one asks me to take a seat again, “No, I’m tired of sitting in here over the past few months.”

She tries a joke, “Well, we don’t have an option for people to lie down.”

She wriggles away under one of the looks I give people when they say something stupid and I don’t want to be a jerk. There was a time when I would just look down and shake my head, now I make eye contact and let my mask fall away. More than one person, even friends, have said that this is uncomfortable.

The third woman cuts in quickly, having dealt with me before.

“Did someone call you about them?”
“No; On Monday I was told they were ordered and would be here by Thursday. Today is Saturday.”
She properly apologizes, double checks. “I will personally call you when they come in.”

“Thank you.”

None of this required me to sit down. None of this required an elaborate process where I had to be handed off between people. And I’ve found, as much as I hate it, by unleashing myself just a little bit – just enough – they learn to adapt when they see me.

But the first pass is always so annoying.

Retirement Eclipse.

eclipseI’ve grown used to not worrying about things. It’s a comfortable way to live, like a hobbit in the Shire, having done my travels and having avoided coming how with any rings. I’m content, my health is better, and I sleep well at night – something that I’ve not been able to do since I was an infant. I may not live a life many people want but it is a life I have been content with. I’ve been writing a lot more. Some of it has even managed to slowly become something like a book.

I’d forgotten that I’d promised to attend the 13th Caribbean Internet Governance Forum at a local hub here in Trinidad and Tobago for at least one day. Flattery was tried to get me to go, and that almost never works because I don’t believe thinking highly of one’s self is of worth – knowing one’s value is. And in the end, it was the latter that got that promise out of me. From there, it was a simple matter of me keeping my word.

Well, it wasn’t a simple matter. The morning of, as I sipped my coffee and planned the day as I usually do, I realized just how much I didn’t want to go. For about 15 minutes, I toyed with the idea of saying I would come on the last day… but I had given my word, and I had written a day, so I could not do otherwise. Instead, I thought about why I didn’t want to go. Here’s what I came up with. I expected:

  1. The organization of the event to be done on the cheap, with glaring issues, and with inhibited participation.
  2. To hear much the same things I had heard before.
  3. To see more bureaucracy being created to try to change things, which is exceptional in that bureaucracy is created so things do not change. (Read James Gleick’s book, “Faster”).
  4. I would meet new people who would be thinking that these problems were all new and that we hadn’t been working on them.
  5. I would meet old people who had gotten so lost in the details that the larger picture was not as clear to them anymore (it happens; don’t protest too much).
  6. I would have to listen to bureaucratic doublespeak, something more tedious than Latin because Latin has the good sense to be accurate and does not tolerate ambiguity. Bureaucratese, on the other hand…
  7. I would end up involved since so few people are involved and engaged.

And, as it happens, I was exactly right. 

Repetition: Trinidad and Tobago

Nothing To HideI don’t comment much on Trinidad and Tobago because there’s not really that much to comment about. It’s all the same thing over and over again. To write commentaries on most things is simply to repeat myself.

I hate repeating myself.

I hate repeating myself.

I hate repeating myself.

I hate… well, that’s my threshold. I can’t find myself doing it again.

There’s only one thing that’s worse than being wrong: It’s being right.

Reading B.C. Pires’s Thank God It’s Friday, I can’t help but wonder how he has handled this over the years. There are others who comment as well, and they too continue to repeat themselves – a litany of the ills, a litany of what could be changed, a chorus sung at one time only on paper and now more interestingly on the Internet.

Through the volume of share ideas and opinions on things in T&T, if you hit squelch the same solutions keep popping up. Emotional opinions, grounded in nothing more than how something is said or written, drive the rational underground into caverns where they shake their heads. Rum talk, all of it.

In this way, Trinidad and Tobago is the planet in microcosm.