30 Years and Counting

By Raffique Shah
December 04, 2011

Raffique ShahIT occurred to me recently that I have been writing newspaper columns for 30 years. When I started writing opinion pieces back in 1981, I did not think of it as a career. I was 35 years young, already an ex-soldier who had become notorious during the mutiny of 1970. I was also an ex-MP who had fought fiercely against both Dr Eric Williams and Basdeo Panday, and paid the ultimate political price for having the nerve to cross two crosses that were too heavy to bear.

In more ways than I cared to admit then, I had traded the sword, or rifle, for the pen, when I agreed to write a weekly column. What began as a lark of sorts soon evolved into a romance with words. From another perspective, I had traded the political “soap box” for the one-thousand-or-so words newspapers allow their columnists. Soon enough I became passionate about writing, and 30 years later, I have no regrets.

During 1981, two events stood out. First, Dr Eric Williams, who had cast a giant shadow over the country, died quite suddenly. Well, maybe not so suddenly. I was still an MP when he passed on. A week or two before he died, I remember Errol McLeod, my colleague in Parliament, saying to me, “Eric is not looking well.”

He was correct. In the heavily air-conditioned chamber, the then Prime Minister seemed to be sweating profusely all the time. He would leave the chamber frequently to answer “nature’s call”, as he told me on the only occasion that he and I conversed in a civil manner. I think he knew the end was nigh and he was making peace with his “enemies”.

Days later, Eric expired. When I learned of how those ministers closest to him were afraid to defy Williams and call in a doctor to examine him and treat his grave illness, I knew politics, and bowing to a “maximum leader” was not for me. I wrote a column paying tribute to Eric. It surprised many. They thought that I would savage the man, even as his body lay in a sealed casket.

But I had never disputed Eric’s contribution to his native land. Oh, I recall his many sins, too, and I refer to them whenever the occasion demands that I do. However, I was grateful for the free secondary education I (and so many others) enjoyed because of his initiative in 1959. His focus on education, whatever its shortcomings, remains his prime legacy, the other being diversification of the oil and gas sector into downstream energy industries.

The other major event in 1981 was the general election. It was the year of the Organisation for National Reconstruction (ONR), a time when the flamboyant Karl Hudson-Phillips introduced glitz into otherwise dull campaigning. It was also the first time that the People’s National Movement (PNM) was going into an election without Williams. And for Panday, he was facing the polls, having purged the radicals from the ranks of the United Labour Front (ULF).

I invented a column titled “MP for the Masses”. Talk about fun! I, who had never witnessed a horse race live, likened the parties and leaders to horses. I even categorised some parties (there were 11), such as Ramdeo Sampath Mehta’s National Freedom Party, as “jackasses in a horse race”. In the end, Panday would lose two seats the ULF had won in 1976, Karl’s ONR won “not a damn seat”, and the unassuming George Chambers led the PNM to a 26-seat victory.

Writing opinion pieces was, and continues to be, a learning experience. I’ve never kept a collection of my writings. I think most of my early columns are forever lost, dumped with old-style binders that newspapers used to store their archived material before the advent of the computer.

I feel sure, though, that while those pieces provided comic relief, my command of language was in its infancy. Not that I am ashamed of them. But I know I have enhanced my writing skills over the years, and I continue to improve, to learn from my colleagues in the media and from the many books I read.

Indeed, if I have learnt one thing in life thus far—it is that learning is a life-long process. The day we stop learning, we start dying. Also, the columnist must keep abreast of subjects and topics he or she addresses.

Equally important, the columnist must learn to cope with criticism and condemnation, some of which are unjustified, others uninformed. I look at it this way: if I have my say through the views I express, I expect others to have theirs, without hindrance.

It is why I never respond to persons who comment on my columns online or through letters to the editor. I thank those who read what I write. I thank the few who compliment me. To those who feel wounded by my words, I say sorry.

However, I shall never compromise my independence as I continue to tackle controversial topics. For example, I feel very strongly about man’s injustice to his fellow human beings. I detest people who view the world only through race or religion-lens, those who refuse to respect other people’s beliefs. Yes, we must all learn to absorb “ah little fatigue”. But pure venom has no place in civilised society. We can be nice to others even if we disagree with them.

Thirty years may seem to be a lifetime. Indeed, it is, for many of today’s misguided youth. Once I have health, strength and mental alacrity, though, I shall continue to have my write.

Thanks, people.

7 Responses to “30 Years and Counting”

  • Very objective, well written and true to the core, I concur with you in the sentiments expressed. I have always viewed criticisms as the measure of the substance of a recipient of such. I have respect for Williams, Capildeo, Panday, Hudson-Phillips, Gene Miles, Selwyn Richardson, Kamla etc. I have never since 1962 seen a woman leader condemned, criticized no end, villified in the press and is doing her damnest as a servant for the public. The public is crying out for reduction in the criminal activites in T&T and the opposition is lambasting her at no end and usurping elements of race in their blogging. contributions.

    • Get used to it Loyal Trini – if that is what you are , for if you were, you’ll recognize that T&T always had a rich tradition of frank honesty , / freedom of speech , since we would not hesitate to condemn , and or criticism our leaders, irrespective of their alleged fine motives.For the record , this did not begin two years ago.
      Your Basdeo , although reluctantly , recognized, that , so did Ah we Tobago bouy ANR Robbinson , Papa Eric your father of your nation likewise , and of course ,much vilified Patrick Manning, who unlike any other leader in the history of your much adored British Commonwealth ,held an election , with no prompting 2 years before it was due.
      Pray tell me what you think Raffique Shah , and his bossman Pat Chocolingo, were doing all these years,that he finds himself bragging about today?
      No my friend , he was not a movie, music , or food critic, of that I can assure you.
      Time to quit this pointless ,fanlike , South Asianish adulations, of Her Majesty Queen K,simply because she so happen to be female.
      There have been far too many missteps, along with petty micromanagement of our public service – and the reasons are obvious – along the way ,since assuming power , that makes many of our citizens wonder, if change still means anything.
      Your PP regime ,would prove that it is serious about security , the day this Canadian Gibbs fellow pack his Maple leaf bags, and return to Alberta.
      We will advance as a nation , when cronyism , and party hacks, jobs creation mechanisms , becomes a thing of the past.
      The defeatist , imbalanced ,14 th century fixation ,solely on blue color crimes, and low end physical security, with little attention being paid to the actions of white color thugs, or introduction of prudent social policies ,that addresses , major problems across our society , in a holistic manner ,will get as no where soon.
      Just my two cents.
      Luv Humanity, and forget de tribe, hummmm?

      • I am used to the freedom of stealing from the public purse as far back as 1956 re- O’Halloran to the present re-Calder Hart. I am used to the freedom of the migration of bullets re-Selwyn Richardson and 1990 coup. I am used to the freedom of the administration of police order re-Burroughs. Some of us are prone to make mistakes and learn from them others tend to forget to learn or they learn to forget.

        • So what’s your point Loyal Trini? Do you think that somehow you deserve some mammoth, cyber kudos, for obvious tribal biases ,since you conveniently refused , to also highlight atrocious political banditries by selected PNM leaders,and their fanish business stooges across the nation ,from Min of Energy,Errol Mahabir ‘SanFernando JAPANESE ,Lucratve Oil Garden kickbacks,’ to Aranguez/ El Secorro’s son of de soil, aka Mastana bahar hero,Kamal Mohommed,with his world famous ‘ADB agricultural ponzi scheming shindig ,’ and , or blatant , Health Ministerial corruptions forays?
          Do you naively think that the way we are going develop political accountability , and place our country on a part of prudent changes for de better , is to only be selectively outrage by the action of Afrikan folks, while turning a blind eye , to Indians/ South Asian Trinis, Syrians/Lebanese , Middle Eastern/ Jewish Trinis, old monied ,privileged ,Fake Whites / French creole/Euro Trinis,Chinese / East Asian Trinis ,including crooked foreigners,such as Mrs Malaysian Hart, de convenient wife ,of a former, unmentionable , Central chicken farmer, who , some much smarter than myself , think , only expose her possible ,salacious connivance, because he was ,maybe,… jilted?
          Just saying!
          Oh Yes,Loyal Trini, while we are on the subject of corruption, don’t forget Gillman Hussain, and that still pending Airport Scandal,led by your lifetime leader ,Papa Basdeo ,along with ISH , and Dish , and unmentionable Labor bosses . Wink , wink!
          Hey buddy , think anyone is loosing any sleep over the plight of our life time ,hard working ,kindred brothers & Sisters, from Caroni Limited, who were inveigled by the like of race baiter in Chief , la , Uncle Sat , to deposit all their life’s savings in the HCU , only to see reprehensible Trini – Floridian billionaire ,bandit,Harry Harnarine,fleece it all away , then disingenuously,told staff, and friendly ,media brayers,to shift blame,via ‘neo ethnic,political connivance,’by pointing fingers,at others ,for not stopping them,from lending millions,also to unverifiable Ambassadorial pals,from places such as Costa Rica?


          Tell me Trini Loyal, who stopped de UNIT Trust, Eastern, Rands,PSA,and all our other still successful banks, who did the right things, and complied with national,financial regulations? I don’t know Trini Loyal, since I was away much de same like you, but just maybe ‘CLICO was too big to fail.’ We will ask Karen Nunez Teshiera, when next we see her ,jumping up in Miami,along with the Harts their neighbor.
          Just saying!


          Seriously, ‘me think,’ Trini loyal, dat since it seems like the ‘Caribbean ,ever vacationing , while his village symbolically burn, ‘Am -bass-a-door , Makandal Daggar ,’ has a better chance of going on successive dates with former ‘1st daughter ,’in elusive Mikliah Panday, leading to marriage, than justice being served on the ‘fadda of Caroni Nation,’ who disgustingly think’s, that “politics has it’s own morality,” eeeehhh?
          Tell us my brother!
          Uncle Shah , this is all your fault, as you should have fought a ‘lil bit harder ,’ and save us from this ‘evolved social travesty,’ but then ,we were all caught up in de moment, and , of course, “age bring’s reason,” in de words of the wisest woman dat ever lived, from the most, socially depraved , neglected piece of 116 square miles of real estate ,in the entire world- bearing in mind ,our exorbitant wealth . ie.
          Hey Trini Loyal , there are those who somehow think, they are capable of making us hate this wonderful country , named T&T,and it’s mosaic of beautiful 1.3 million , and counting people.
          I don’t know about you my friend , but the folks that make me do dat, ain’t born yet,’hmmmmm?
          Ah , it’s a beautiful life , so forget de Tribe , & Luv Humanity , as the consequences for doing otherwise , are quite dire indeed!
          Trust me on this.

  • Dear Raffique,
    Congratulations on your milestone achievement as a journalist/writer! Thirty years is impressive. I try to read your columns regularly. Most of the time, I am in total agreement with your point of view. The other 5%, I treat as gray matter.
    All the same, as a young man growing up in “foreign,” I have always looked up to you. There were really no Indian men who were so “cool” and reflective of the changing time. Most Indian men were still uptight and disdainful about integration or mixed marriages.(I hope Sat is a dinosaur.) Although I’m not Hindu, I was heavily influenced by the private secular secondary education I received before immigrating to the states. Today I’m in a better place. Thanks to your influence and perspective.
    I left Trinidad when Hindus had a mistrust for Muslims. The divide is probably closing, and I hope it is. So, to admire you my brother took on a special relevance. Besides, I was young and forming an identity. You came at the right time. There were no real role models for young Indian boys and the stance you took made your stature ideal for all, regardless of race or gender.
    Remember, I was living in the U.S. when you were involved in the mutiny and later, I followed your ULF MP years. Today I wished you were still involved in the daily running of TnT. At least, I know someone with integrity would be at the helm. Nevertheless I’m satisfied with your life’s journey. You have made an invaluable contribution to my development, as well as to thousands of people; people from all racial categories, religious beliefs, class and gender. I just wanted to say thank you. I know I have exceeded the limit of words for this little box and I have no way of editing for fear I might get timed out.
    By the way, I enjoy when you analyze calypso/soca for the season. I always look forward to your assessment. Try to do the same for chutney and pan. I know you have the pulse on culture and can enlighten the masses.
    Once again, “Word Up” for your presence. Don’t spear the proverbial pen. Give them thunder!

  • “I was also an ex-MP who had fought fiercely against both Dr Eric Williams and Basdeo Panday, and paid the ultimate political price? Well ‘Houses before horses,’ that too , and how can we forget , your fights on the critical issues?
    For the record , your wars with Basdeo, were of a different nature , and some might say, merely an extension of homeland India,post colonial class / religious struggles, brought into our budding democracy.
    I tell you Uncle Shah,even today , in your attempt at being magnanimous, you still cannot give a lil bit of credit , where it matters , the fact that you and Rex life was spared , from a bullet at the back of your head , due in great measure that Eric Williams ensured that democracy reign.
    Pray tell me another country , and leadership ,on planet Earth ,that would have allowed ,you and Sandhurst coup school buddy , Rex, to survive , irrespective of some stupid British legalise?
    Did you say England, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana,China, Israel, Saudi Arabia,America, oh yes I forgot , your favorite country Sweden?
    However, I understand , tough guy legacy ,and all must be preserved.
    Still admire your work ,as both you , and eventually Rex Lassale , helped shape my then 20 year old impressionable mind, even that far back as 81, and for that I am grateful for Dr Eric. You in your patriotic honesty, and Rex for indirectly nudging me into becoming a vegetarian , and conscious advocate for holistic living .
    We look forward to your continued solid objectivity in terms of analysis on scio economic – com political matters, both domestic , and international,but especially in this troubled era, when it would appear that political leaders ,can run for office, become victorious , then continue to run for the next five years while in power, all the while advocating progressive mantra of change,and sadly ,looking over their shoulders,way into the past, like Lot’s wife.
    Long live the Republic of T&T .
    We wish our people well.

  • Congratulations on your milestone, Mr. Shah. I, too, have enjoyed your articles over the years. I have secretly admired you for being a true Trini – you are comfortable in being who you are and do not have to denigrate others in order to promote who you are. A true patriot to humankind.

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