The inauguration of the new President will be chalked up as another absurdity in Trinidad and Tobago. We would have wasted millions more in another useless exercise of hollow pomp and imitation grandeur, exposing our ridiculousness in open air, pretending that it is some momentous event, when the President can do absolutely nothing to improve our lives because his office is hollow, making its occupant a “large cardboard figure masquerading as head of the national family”.
Our worst sin is involving the children in the farce, busing in thousands into the stadium, stirring excitement in their innocent hearts that this “man of the people” could possibly bring great things like a new school or “a job for daddy who now drinks all the time and gets into fights with mummy”. And when nothing changes, the seeds of disillusionment increase, and laughing children emerge as monsters, in our inadequacy, we would remain bewildered and blind to the cause. We would never think it would have been better not to have them witness the inauguration of a nothingness.
It reminds me so much of the Miss Universe pageant that Donald Trump conned Basdeo Panday into staging here. That too was an utter waste of money, raising foolish hopes and producing nothing. I remember grumbling bitterly in Cabinet about it along with Trevor Sudama and I showed my disgust by refusing to attend the event. But I will never forget the sickening excitement at the highest levels of the society. This was going to be the “greatest event” ever in Trinidad and Tobago: it would “brand this nation internationally”. I prayed hard they wouldn’t succeed. I felt it demeaning for Trinidad and Tobago to be known for its “signal achievement” of hosting that rubbish.
Later in a newspaper column I wrote that in seeking sophistication by hosting the pageant we revealed how proletarian we were at the highest levels because “those who arranged this event were some of our bright minds who had been to university, held top managerial positions, and had international experience. These were the people who considered this trite event a major coup for Trinidad and Tobago.
They honestly thought they were bringing grandeur to the country. They therefore donned their best gowns and black ties, sharpened their accents and arranged chauffeured limousines and champagne for the grand event. Not for one moment did they discern their condition.” I am afraid ten years later, the presidential inauguration pageant shows that nothing has changed. Our education has really afflicted us with a pestilential superficiality at all levels.
So here is our cultural condition. Without ever attaining a classical era, we are already in decline. The best that colonialism gave us was the English language and law. Our plantocracy was of the worst kind in the British Empire. The cultural rif-raff came here and left neither spirit nor society. Therefore we did not start sovereignty with an aristocracy of the mind, indispensable for the cultural life and for the foundation of a classical era. We still suffer from that deficiency. So that ten years ago I wrote, “there is still nothing at the top, either socially or intellectually. There is really no upper class in Trinidad and Tobago. We have just a few very rich families at the top of the heap, where the merchant mind is still all-pervasive. No society in the real sense, with tradition and responsibility. No patrons of the arts here, for example.
“The university, the height of our intellectual life, is now mainly functionalist, victim of the present arid utilitarianism, when it should really be leading and shaping the intellectual and cultural life of the country.
The university has a special responsibility at this juncture. Instead, its biggest cultural event is an annual Carnival fete. The middle class, which should be producing our sharpest minds, is intellectually anemic, preoccupied with survival, gaudiness and acquisition, aspiring to a top which doesn’t exist. And so like the plantocracy, our immediate cultural predecessors, we have remained crude and mainly mercenary, building nothing that distinguishes us, nothing that speaks of our unique experience from which we could contribute to a world civilisation. As a nation, we are bequeathing nothing of real value to our children.”
We could have avoided this condition at Independence. But our first prime minister failed to capitalise. Ironically, he who rose through the power of his intellect tragically turned out to be an impoverished spirit that lacked the genius for national transformation.
As I said a decade ago, “Williams saw education mainly as academics, analysis, study and thesis. He was never really convinced of the role of the arts in social transformation. He was cerebral, not spiritual.
There was not much poetry in our first prime minister. He had the opportunity to build the classical tradition, to establish an intellectual and cultural foundation, because in the environment with him were other powerful forces in Naipaul, Selvon, Walcott, Anthony, McBurnie, Sparrow, Kitchener, George Bailey, Lloyd Best, Wooding, Lee Wah, the Steelband, the entire East Indian cultural traditions, the Theatre Workshop, the Drama Guild, and many others.
We had organisation, however rudimentary in both town and country and we had the makings of civil society. We were fertile in all fields of the mind. We were also in our first flush of Independence, brimming with optimism and confidence. Tragically, we let a golden opportunity slip and we never recovered from that.”
Had we used that opportunity to build the intellectual and cultural foundation we would have not been so impoverished to preen ourselves for a Miss Universe Contest. And in 2013, we would not have invited the children to the inauguration of a nothingness.
• Ralph Maraj is a playwright and former cabinet minister