Thursday, December 14, 2017

My visit to Laventille: exploring new vistas


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An exhilarating experience it was, going down the alleys of east Port of Spain, where they say danger lurks at every corner and blurs the distinction between life and death. One has to stretch one's imagination hard to realise that in a country blessed with nature's resources and great intellectual wealth, with a GDP per capita among the highest in the region, with a population and territory of distinctly manageable proportions, there could be such disparities. So I went to explore the contours of the unsung, to share some moments of togetherness with the not-so-privileged.

Our first stop was the Eastern Girls' Primary School. No teachers, no pupils, as it was the day for rest and reflection—yet another cruel experiment of a pressure group, this time the teachers, to seek "just'' compensation, at a time when education should be at a premium. Still, we were to be greeted by a group of young pupils, somewhat curious, coaxed by their principal (who along with another teacher appeared not to be part of the nationwide "rest'') to meet us. I offered a token gift of a few books for the school library: pictorials on Gandhi, Ganesh, Hanuman, the history of India, Jataka tales, humorous stories of Mulla Nasrudeen, classics for children. They appeared amazed. I asked what they knew of India and a spirited young soul raised her hand. "Bollywood," she said, in a voice as firm as it could get. Ah, the lure of glamour has pervaded even the infant sections of the citadel of knowledge!

We moved on, this time to a soup kitchen serving a one-time meal, a bowl of broth really, to nearly 120 guests, an assembly of senior citizens, mentally challenged youths and many more abused souls. The kitchen is open seven days a week.

A door opened up to an amazing world. Of tiny tots, with innocence written large on their faces beckoning dreams and aspirations as they sang a nursery rhyme to near perfection. I held a young boy close to me as the others blinked and the cameras flashed. I told the gathering they were the hope for the future; in them lay the destiny and progress of the country. Education, and only education, can lead to enlightenment of the community, society and humanity at large.

We went out of the classroom to face a horde of media persons. I announced our support for the Laventille community by way of providing technical training in entrepreneurship and scholarship to pursue Ayurveda (traditional medicine). A young entrepreneur has already been identified by our friend, Lennox Smith, who was my guide for the day. Going by the interest of the community, we shall expand our capacity building support. I also suggested the outreach of Indian culture in all its aspects as they are disseminated in the Mahatma Gandhi Centre.

A society develops with innovation as the base of education. India was fortunate to catch the innovation bus young, in the immediate aftermath of colonialism, under our first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. We have thus shared the benefits of innovation and technology with much of the developing world, leading many to make that critical leap forward.

It was time now to experience the seamier side of Nelson Street. We visited a few eateries, passing vagrants on the street, people staring expressionless. A few were selling knick-knacks in preparation for visits to the nearest bar. People of all ages crowded the small resto-bars. I was told the owners were the most successful entrepreneurs and I met a couple of them, content behind protective iron grills. Loud music mingled with the cacophony over the sound of beer bottles. A young woman with a dozen bottles of Heineken sprang up to explain how she spends the day chatting up her friends, having nothing else to do. The same refrain came from two young men on the other side of the street, who told me about what motivated them to crime. Revenge killings, inflicting damage discriminately, seem to be the order of the day. I quoted Mahatma Gandhi's words about an eye for an eye and asked if they wished to live in a blind world. They had hands, they said, but no work. Handouts were not enough; sustainable livelihood is what they need.

The youth of today, notwithstanding the socio-psychological pressures, need to feed themselves and their families. Their engagement in wealth creation should be a priority. Mentors, role models to emerge from the community itself, can make a big difference. But the National Mentoring Programme, as I understood from the Laventille Family Day, has a problem of finding male mentors. The Single Parent Initiative is laudable, but it has so much more to do. Thus interest of the principal of the secondary school in seeking an engagement with the High Commission felt more than welcome. People like her could be appropriate role models for today's youth.

Two days later, speaking at the Vedanta Society, I called upon spiritual organisations to go into the communities and apply the balm of spiritual healing on material wounds, for I am convinced only spirituality, properly articulated and understood, could be the panacea for a strong, stable and safe society.

Post-script: The guns of the police remained quiet all through the tour. People went about their business. A group of workers hired to renovate an HDC (Housing Development Corporation) apartment building sounded a grim note about being harassed for money. And I wondered if the time had come to plan and deliver progress for our own brethren living so close to us on the other side of the road, and move hand in hand together.

• Malay Mishra is the High Commissioner of India to Trinidad and Tobago. The views

expressed are his own.