Ivan, not so terrible

By Raffique Shah
July 02, 2024

Raffique ShahEarlier this month, I became nostalgic over Labour Day celebrations in Fyzabad. The date and venue are etched together in spirit and in history; hence the reason why the 30-or-so times I attended, marched and even spoke on the platform, it was only at Fyzabad. That position was held by the radical unions.

Many of the North-based unions that openly supported the parties in power avoided Fyzabad for several years after the town had stamped its name with authority as the only venue that made sense. They would conveniently return to their headquarters when its significance was acknowledged by all, especially schoolchildren who were now learning that aspect of the country’s history.

But I digress. Frankly, I didn’t give a damn about who came to Fyzabad or who didn’t. My presence there and that of members of the cane farmers unions I led was what mattered to me. While in numbers we were not the biggest unit that marched faithfully to hymns like “We Shall Overcome”, our loyalty and dedication to the memory of Butler and others whose blood was spilled there made Fyzabad almost a shrine for radical trade unions, loyalists to those who made history, in whose shadows we walked.

I ended my previous column by promising readers more information on PNM heavyweights such as Ivan Williams; I didn’t think people were that interested in the burly disciple of Dr Eric Williams. Their importance to history is only in proportion to how the PNM party was able to retain power. I shall open one tiny window on Ivan and what impressed me.

The first time I would come face to face with him was in John John on a weekday, mid-morning. I don’t recall what precisely I was doing there, but it was not unusual for me to do that since I had many friends, soldiers and ex-soldiers, who lived there. The few friends with whom I was talking noticed Ivan with a bigger group of residents surrounding him.

Before I could take full measure of the man—he was taller and bigger than I—he used an authoritative voice and bellowed: Raffique Shah, what are you doing in my territory?

Clearly seeking to oppose his authority, my response was louder than his: I should be asking you that question, Ivan. This is my constituency, the whole of Trinidad is my constituency.

We advanced towards each other. Clearly, though, there was no animosity at that point. He wore a smile on his face, shook my hand, and we proceeded to talk. In minutes, we seemed to have found common ground; as it turns out, Ivan wasn’t so terrible after all.

I think Ivan was either a chairman or manager in the then-National Housing Authority. We went on to inspect some issues affecting the residents, and agreed in the presence of what was now a small gathering that we’d both work to have them repaired and restored. Thereafter, we struck up a friendship that would last for many years.

I used to be amazed at how easily he would inject doses of humility into his revered leader, Eric Williams. Later, when he was head of TSTT and had offices on Frederick Street, I made an unannounced visit when I encountered a problem with some government agency. Bear in mind that TSTT’s offices were known in political circles as PNM offices, meaning they were controlled by the party.

I walked up to a receptionist and announced that I would like to see Mr Ivan Williams. She measured me for height and asked: Do you have an appointment? To which I responded: No. Tell him Raffique Shah is here to see him.

Within a few minutes, I heard the heavy footfalls coming from the main corridor. It was Ivan. He came, hands outstretched, “Raffique, welcome to my office, brother.” And, led me to his well appointed office, the building’s inner sanctum. I could see staff looking on in amazement, many peeping to see “that man Shah”. Ivan once again came through in solving my issue.

He would later tell me that I may not yet have exited the TSTT building when his private line rang—it was the prime minister: I hear that man Shah was there to you. Ivan continued: I told him you were here. Eric demanded: What did he want? Ivan responded with what my issue was. Eric hesitated for a couple seconds, then replied: Okay, but be careful with him, he is a very dangerous man.

Ivan and I roared with laughter when he relayed the story to me. However, that was how Eric ran his party, through powerful lynchpins who commanded support from the grassroots, where Eric had no need to go, so it mattered not that he had nothing in common with them or he didn’t know how to communicate with them. He had people for that.

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