By Raffique Shah
December 04, 2011
IT 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.