Saturday, December 24, 2016

30 Christmases: Caroling and Paranging with Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present Future of Apparitions & Auld Lang Syne


I have always been home for Christmas, no matter how far away I roam.
The pieces represented here tell those tales, beginning with the genesis of my journalism morphed into literary endeavours, mapping as much the evolution of the society over the period as they do personal development and evolution as a writer.  The selection here are all close to my heart.
In a year that began and ended in sighs and for many a sense of despair – over not just public-induced  personal traumas as well as unfolding tragedies as the gruesome murders of the Japanese masquerader Asami Nagakiya and Shannon Banfield and all in between, reading and reviewing and reflecting on these are helping to position for the challenges that may come in the New Year that are sure to test one’s faith in the future of home. Sometimes it takes a long view to put things in perspective and position for the New Year, and hence these selections.

Genesis and Discovery: Christmas 1986-87
In the spirit of  colonial Discoverie, the Discover Trinidad & Tobago columns of 1986-1988 – one of my first series and one of which one a BWIA Media Award for Excellence in Journalism/Social and Political Commentary - became the forerunner to the writings & explorations that fed writings for AVM Television Series as Cross Country, Booktalk, Survival, & the AVM Special Report; other newspaper columns as Environment Friendly, In Gabilan, I Beg to Move, Between the Lines, the C Monologues, The Week That Was  etc, all of which partly fed the impulse of my thesis and book, Finding a Place; the introduction, A Clash of Political Cultures/Cultural Diversity and Minority Politics in Trinidad and Tobago in Through the Political Glass Ceiling and LiTTscapes – Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad & Tobago published in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of Independence.

Trini Christmas – Reconstructing Nationhood from the ashes of the 1990 Coup-attempt
The article Trini Christmas written in 1990, the year of the attempted coup, when we were still shaken – and some of us have never really recovered from being on the frontline reporting the unfolding events – takes a close look the nation and its evolving traditions ….  The humour and comedic perspective is tolerant of the fickleness with which we treat cultural traditions in a society daily adjusting, adapting and growing new traditions. While the word tradition itself becomes paradoxical and oxymoronic in these contexts, the musings here provide insights into the vivacity of our living heritage. Symbols and representations of heartwarming Christmas traditions are as elusive to define as the spirit of the season itself in a young evolving nation in the grip of globalization and is a good source of warm and rib-tickling comic relief too for those of us still-in-recovery from the traumas of the 1990-attempted coup.

C Monologues
Creole Christmas and CrisCringle List, are two pieces from the C Monologues series, one of the longest running of my columns that appeared on the editorial leader page of the Sunday Guardian. Though hinged on actual and specific occurrences of the day, they epitomise the collection in that they suggest either a society in statis, or the particularly timeless character of the pieces. The pieces evoked wagging fingers from Prime Ministers Patrick Manning and Basdeo Panday, to the Chief Justice, Ministers, Ambassadors and Diplomats, many of whom also privately called in their consternation as well as their commendations. It also inspired did wagging tongues from readers who looked forward to its weekly issuance. A former Ambassador of the US said on more than one occasion he felt torn between admiration for the pieces which offered him unique insights into the society and, of course, unease when it delved into some of the actions of the country he represented, the USA which at the time of the War on Afghanistan offered much to C Monologue about. All are treated with the perspicacity, picong and pepper humour of the calypso arena, chutney stage or the private gatherings of Trinis’ elemental sharp tongue and wit.
The companion piece, CrisCringle’s List is my Naughty and Nice list sent to Santa in 2002. Based on events and occurrences of the day much of it still applies today, and to the same figures – give or take a few if you substitute the names for any of the ensuring years – the more things change …. though not sure one can find as many C’s as on that year – the year of the political deadlock with the third general election in as many years, reflective of the internal statis.
Creole Christmas is personally dear to me, as triggered from a childhood memory and inspired by my father’s daily honest toil to provide for this family as a farmer and market vender from which resonate cringing at callous authority figures perpetuating ongoing mistreatment and disrespect to vendors and other honest hardworking citizens struggling to beat the odds of challenging circumstances. That it is a situation as real today as it was written as it was of yesteryear and the reality of successive generations again poke reflection on the state of the nation.  
Deadlocks between stasis and suicide
To me one of the most poignant piece among this selection is from my The Week That Was. The Week That Was, a satirical summation of weekly national and international news and occurrences that I prepared, appeared weekly on Page 2 of the Sunday Guardian, a print version similar in style to now commentaries of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert’s or John Oliver in American satirical sitcom. But this form of satire is a tradition all our own, rooted in what we call Trini picong and mamaguy, the edge of fiction, hinged on the week’s happenings, on facts and on truth.

It’s Christmas …. In A Small Place of December 23, 2001. The Christmas of 2001 was one shrouded at sadness over the suicide of a friend in the arts. It inspired dedication of the column, The Week That Was to him,.Playwright and actor Devindra Dookie took his life following a period of intense and growing depression and institutionalization. Having had my own taste of the isolationism that public endeavor can provoke, Devindra’s end resonates like the season’s tolling bells as a constant reminder of the kind of madness that this place can plunge one into.
It’s Christmas …. In A Small Place is inspired by the tone of the week and a Santa Claus styled hat given to me as an early Christmas present by my friends at our celebration of Eid which stimulated replays of the melody of the refrain of Mel Blanc's 1957 The Hat I Got for Christmas then making a comeback through the soca/parang rendition of by Anthony Tone Salloum. So it was not fiction. Indeed I got a hat (see photo) that was too big for me and covered my eyes. The silver dust sprinkled on it also released into my eyes, making it virtually unwearable. We three friends referenced in the article, and something of a play on the three wise (wo)men of Christmas, are real, too. From three different faiths, nothing prevents us from sharing religious observances and celebrating the festivals of each other, as Divali that preceded Eid that year and the forthcoming Christmas. Such is the national character. The national political character was, however, then, as now, somewhat altogether different and tinged with the ugliest elements our society can churn up.
It is symbolized in the farcical  ‘limited agreement’ referenced in the piece which speaks to the political deadlock arising from the General Election of December 10, 2001. The incumbent United National Congress (UNC) and the opposition People's National Movement (PNM) each won 18 seats after the general election, posing a constitutional debate about which party should form the government. Prime Minister Basdeo Panday offered to share power in a government of national unity to break the deadlock, which the Opposition leader Patrick Manning rejected. Both met with President Arthur Robinson, and agreed, as provided under the Constitution, to authorise him to appoint a new Prime Minister.
On the Week of this column, on December 19, 2001, the two political parties had a ‘limited agreement’ on appointment of a new Speaker of the House and that the sitting President choose the next government.  
It might be a prophetic allusion but the day following the column, it became evident that the ‘limited agreement’ would be stillborn and PM Panday's allusions of National Unity, suicidal, as on 24 December 2001, President Robinson chose and swore in the Opposition, Mr Manning as Prime Minister. It meant suicide for the political pact that had resolved the elections tie, and threatened the convening of the 7th Parliament and by extension Parliament’s ability to pass any legislation resulting in the call for new elections.
The deadlock characterized the politics of the year 2002 and a larger national stasis; the wastage of public time, energies and resources was reflected in the left unattended to real issues of the day, like the floods that swept through the Central Plains and dampened the spirit of Christmas.
The stasis, the choking frustrations and the dead end for one’s art that Devindra’s act of suicide represent frame the column as much as the dead air deadlock of the nation drawing out the irony and pathos of the House of Parliament hailing his suicide as an act of self-will – when his suicide was so glaringly a statement on the lack of will, lack of political will, and his own lack of will to live.
The quotation excerpted in the image is from his suicide note, a mike drop if ever there was one.
I was first exposed to the art of Devindra Dookie at high school in the 1980s, when the touring Theatre in Education group came to students of Princes Town, including St Stephen’s College.  Devindra led the cast that included Errol Sitahal, Dennis ‘Sprangalang’ Hall, Errol Jones and Pearl Eintou Springer. With a passion for literature, their depiction of excerpts of the school’s literature syllabus remains embedded on my mind, especially the presentation of local author Samuel Selvon’s A Brighter Sun and UK’s George Orwell’s satirical novel, 1984. Eintou, who have been a close mentor since the start of my journalism and literary endeavours was always enthused by my avid regular appearance to research my pieces at the West India library she curated. She recalls that her group toured and performed with Devindra in schools across the country and after performances, would find the drinking-spot in the village to  discuss issues of the day, books, the arts, politics and personal issues. He leaned more and more on the bottle that Eintou described began as socio-cultural drinking. It had evolved into taste for the strongest of them all - Puncheon Rum which is iconic of Trinidad and Tobago as the royally patented Angostura Bitters  - because other alcohol couldn’t dull the pain, it seems.
Devindra led the Alternative Theatre movement, generating work through his own writing, directing and producing plays or what his circle of friends might engage him in. For much of his career he was an invisible voice on a government information programme, sitting behind a microphone in the uninspiring drab unlit, unaired space of the Division of Information. His acting/directing and stage career included, Men of Gray II and Flight of the Ibis.
His passion for his work, which he would at times invite me to sneak preview in stages of development, masked his internal turmoil and torment. Devindra, who’s art I had covered over the years – as actor, director, playwright, inspired me, and I never suspected until the later years, when he too, like so many artists sought a shoulder, an ear, a sympathetic heart, against systems that seem heartless to the arts – like the last moments of Pat Bishop who rolled off her chair from a heart attack at a meeting to plan directions for the arts and culture a decade later; like so many other stymied and stifled talents in the arts, little knowing that I too may one day be so close to the brink on which he stood.
One night, a few years prior to his suicide Devindra came pounding on my door, inebriated, singing loudly. I gently talked him away through the door. He left, singing.
But he was already on a downward swing. I was soon in and out of the country, on studies, first in the UK, and then India. The next I would hear from Devindra would be in a note sent to my office while I was away. In the note he was raving neurotically that they were coming to kill him. I tried to track him down but some said that he was unreachable, mentally. A few months later, he would take his life: an act of the kind of futility that so many of us in the arts here seem to be always trying to ward off, and the understanding that it is to live that requires courage, not to die as that Week That Was recap of December 23 2001 chronicles. The years since have brought me closer and closer to understanding and living with death and the death-thoughts of others that would mock the first Newsday headline,  5000 Lives Saved - an article I wrote in the days of hope and optimism and before Newsday’s suicide of its good news intent that was like a premonition of the death knolls that have continuously rung out since. My friend, Irma Ramabaran, too comes to mind, gone this year.  How the callousness of this country can stampede on endeavor and achievements, put one on the edge, on the brink of suicide, heart attack, death.
 
Breathless & Pantin for Hope
Among the pieces, I also found hope. The lighter pieces represented are in an era when a few people in journalism took the brave step to challenge the existing media status quo and attempt change, which efforts in themselves were stopped in their tracks by blinkered commercial interests.   
It is not unlike the current environment where, since the 2016 Local Government Election and end of year spurt of murders, a number of individuals have been coagulating in various configurations to try and define agendas for change. But without the long view and perspective, such endeavor for change may themselves be as stillborn as the Newsday Good News endeavour.
Founded on the principles of Good News with its first lead story 5000 Lives Saved (by the suicide hotline), Newsday - before it became the Town Crier for Crime, Murder & Mayhem - once believed in the power of the press to shape the social conscience with glad tidings, few would believe from its current mutation.
It's Christmas Time In The City: The early days of our founding of this newspaper, and our focus and efforts to lighten the heart and creating the tone for a society more solidly resting on its imagination and creative strengths are what emerges from the pieces of 1994 – when Newsday’s was but an idealistic infant as we all were of its good intentions.
Deck the Halls: Making one’s own decorations brought family and friends together creatively but has become one of the fading traditions of Christmas that with readily available plastic & Made in China alternatives.  
An Excellent Store: The Commercial imperative found savoury contexts of social, cultural, historical & heritage value, beyond materialistic greed; based on principles of Good News, celebrating diversity, social inclusion, community building, social development  - the power of the press to shape socio-cultural conscience with glad tidings …  
PeaceAmong these pieces, too, is the voice of the now deceased Archbishop Anthony Pantin. Faced with social and religious leaders who recoil and are timid to standup to the atrocities of those who hold positions of authority, there is a sense of nostalgia as one could have always counted on : Archbishop Pantin to give the society & his flock the right dose of conscience-stirring appraisal, soul stirring guidance, & sense of security without thought to status, class, position, power or relationship to his Church.
His message in this piece rings through and true with its message for our times, in the single word which formed the headline and the word on which I wish will rest the ensuing days of this Yuletide season and the coming year for all: Peace.

Lagniappe: LiTTscapes: Christmas Traditions in Fact & Fiction
A lagniappe is a Christmas tradition. Standard dictionaries define it is an act to give something extra when one has made a purchase. This sneak preview of 30 Christmases also offers a lagniappe, some of the representations in fiction of Christmas as detailed in LiTTscapes which compresses the preseitnations of Christmas as viewed through the eyes of writers, poets and novelists as Derek Walcott, VS Naipaul, Earl Lovelace, Michael Anthony, Lakshmi Persaud Seepersad and Ramabai Espinet.
If this has whet your appetite like their telling of the making and partaking of gingerbeer, ponche-a-crème, sorrel, blackcake, rum and a host of other Christmas traditions as parang you can send in requests to purchase LiTTscapes or pre-purchase the complete edition of 30 Christmases.

Auld Lng Syne - one from the series I started called Between The Lines virtually sums it all up - the character of timelessness, the sentiments expressed in all of the pieces, the pathos and the prophesy as the song Auld Lang Syne is itself and is indeed a fitting way to close the year and open as 2016 promises to be, in every sense of newness.
Thank you all for being part of it and seeing me through this year. 


Season’s Best and bests for a Joyeaux New Year.



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