Fri | Aug 18, 2017

Timeless lessons from a T&T Great

Published:Sunday | November 8, 2015 | 11:00 AM
Ashby
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Book: The first Thirty Years

Author: Reginald Dumas

The First Thirty Years is a study in personal responsibility. It is a foray into the choppy world of existentialism where the human spirit, laboured and tested, soars to unimaginable heights. This is, essentially, a story of courage, resilience, and survival at a time when the odds are fully stacked against groups of people.

Dumas' chronicles are revelatory. He sets the tone with a vivid, compelling account of social events, circa 1930s in Trinidad and Tobago. There is some nostalgia as he describes Chaguanas of yesteryear - onerous, though it was. It is a period reeling from the Great Depression; a tumultuous time marked by economic desperation, epidemics, and social unrest. And although his later sojourn in Tunapuna offered more in infrastructural convenience, challenges were always at the fore.

Dumas' angst is well placed. The wretchedness of the underclass and the coldness of the well-heeled are near palpable.

The resistance to oppression was expectedly met with heavyhandedness. But it was the twisted views of Governor Murchison to the plight of East Indian labourers that taps into the zeitgeist of that period.

Dumas pens, quoting Murchison along the way: "The logic, from his perspective, was impeccable. 'These people lived in distressing conditions.' They took no vitamins. They suffered from 'deficiency diseases' and 'malnutrition'. They were lethargic. Their working life was 'reduced by more than 50 per cent.' They had no idea what was wrong with them, though they knew that something was wrong. But 'these people' were nonetheless perfectly happy in their conditions! To be deprived and happy - what greater glory could there be?"

(Later, Dumas touches on the political and economic ascendancy of East Indians, citing observations made by Selwyn Ryan on the new power structure in Trinidad and Tobago).

It is against this backdrop that Dumas excelled. He meticulously notes his mother's discipline and work ethic. She toiled, driven to succeed for her children's well-being. Her husband's passing made life that more challenging.

"She worked all the time, it seemed," Dumas writes. "Conscientious to a fault, she would answer every summons from ... neighbours to come and deliver the latest baby. Sometimes they would be waiting outside our home when she arrived, exhausted from a difficulty delivery; she would come into the house, wash her hand, and set out again - even without a meal - to do her duty."

Also noteworthy is the dedication invested in Dumas by his primary and secondary school teachers, in particular Isaac Malcolm Sinanan, to whom he ascribed the maxim: 'I Must Succeed.'

source of all light

There are flashes of brilliance at a young age and a sense of independence and critical thinking that served him throughout his illustrious career as a public servant.

After a few hiccups in maths, coupled with a restless spirit, Dumas shifted gears when it mattered, and likens his new-found attentiveness to a 'military campaign'.

He won the 1952 Island Scholarship, garnering distinction in Latin, Spanish, and French (winning the Stollmeyer Prize), along with General Paper, a mandatory exam for Advanced Level students.

On QRC, Dumas cites C.L.R. James, who "understood the limitation on spirit, vision and self-respect imposed on him by the fact that their masters, curriculum, code of conduct, everything began from the basis Britain was the source of all light".

But Dumas reminds us that the very purveyors of British culture produced intellectuals that challenged the status quo. It is a paradox that invites debate. Fittingly, he devotes substantive time to his alma mater, and we learn from the political and religious intrigue behind its establishment.

Dumas proves candid, even unforgiving. His view on politicians will find favour with many. "Obsessed as they are with the acquisition of power, they are always ready, even eager, to use and manipulate others to achieve their ends," he opines. And later, he writes, "Nearly 79 years later, I wish I could say - notwithstanding Eric Williams' largely successful insistence, through his People's National Movement on party discipline - that what Naipaul saw as the 'picaroon' nature of Trinidad and Tobago politics has vanished. But I cannot."

He is expressively perturbed that Trinidad and Tobago has not fulfilled the ideals expressed in 1962 as a newly independent nation.

At Cambridge, he was overly reserved and reflective during his early years. He remained grounded and self-aware, despite being embedded in all things British. The same could not be said of those who consciously scorned their past, remoulding themselves into damaged replicas of Britain's upper crust.

Throughout, the dynamics of race and racism are emotively captured. But the tide was changing on a global scale. The movement towards independence and sovereignty was taking shape, as exemplified by the nationalisation of the Suez Canal by Egypt. The struggle for social justice was making its way to the front burner - all developments that further shaped his identity and philosophy.

And later, he offers a rare insight into the problems that plagued the West Indies Federation. Policy differences on economics and immigration presented insurmountable hurdles. Insularity, immoderate egos, and the sense of entitlement adopted by the smaller islands just about sealed the fate of the nascent organisation. How Dr Eric Williams' unbridled objection to the US occupation of Chaguaramas impacted the Federation is a salient feature in Dumas' memoir.

The failure of the regional body to ably respond to Dr William's concern led to his defining moment. His words reverberate:

lighter moments

"The West Indies Federation is a glorified Crown Colony, a nineteenth-century anachronism. The United States of America claims, by agreement with the United Kingdom, the right to station troops and the most deadly military installations on our soil for the remaining 80 years of a 99-year lease. We demand an independent Federation. We demand full internal self-government for Trinidad and Tobago."

With the departure of Jamaica and the unwillingness of Trinidad and Tobago to shoulder a foreboding responsibility, the beleaguered organisation collapsed.

And more than worthy is Dumas' recollection of his experiences at the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy in Washington in the 1960s. It grabs our attention with tales of racial segregation, demonstrations, the assassination of a US president and a society ruptured by divisiveness.

But there are lighter moments. Dumas can be as comedic and witty as they come. In one such example, he recalls his first job as a clerk at the Registrar General's Department. One parent, he said, "called her daughter 'Orina'," meaning 'urine' in Spanish, to which Dumas wittingly adds, "I only hope the next child was not named Mierda. I leave that to your imagination or a Spanish-English dictionary."

The First Thirty Years beckons us to reflect; "to see the past as the indispensable portal to the present and the future". And therein are indelible quotes, one offered by Dumas' beloved mother: "Speak the truth and speak it ever/cost it what it will/he who hides the wrong/does the wrong still."

The lessons are thought-provoking and instructive, especially in an age riddled with entitlement and narcissism. They pierce the veil of artificiality, while turning long-held beliefs on poverty and crime on its head. Its message on family, industry, responsibility, and gratitude has never been sta ted with more clarity.

Yes, even as an author, Dumas has continued his tradition of excellence.

Ratings: Highly recommended

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