At 71, a good run

By Raffique Shah
March 08, 2017

Raffique ShahAs I mark 71 years of life today, almost all of them spent in my native land, I reflect on how I have fared, whether I am happy with what my country has done for me, and what I have done for my country. On both counts, I can say I am satisfied. Not fully, mark you. But only an ingrate would gripe at being short-changed when compared with the successes of others. What’s the point in feeling unfulfilled in one’s goals when some may have been unattainable anyway?

Back when I was a boy, in the 1950s, free primary school education was available to everyone, something that was not universal across the world, and certainly not in all the colonies that were owned and controlled by European countries, in our case Great Britain, the biggest coloniser in history, on whose global empire the sun dared not set.

To simplify this celestial boast for today’s hi-tech generations, the king or queen of tiny England was the head of state to colonies in almost every time zone, today’s equivalent being, say, Google or Microsoft. The difference was whereas you have choices in computer and information technologies, back then, you rub the Queen the wrong way—talk of independence, say—gunboats and troops enforced her rule.

I remember June 1953, for the coronation of Elizabeth R, we schoolchildren, like millions of our counterparts across the Empire, gathered in our schools to be treated with “snowballs” and “drops”, and we lustily sang, “God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen…” Little did we think that God would listen to our pleas: 64 years on, Liz lives and reigns, albeit over Britain alone.

But Britain did establish some institutions that worked within the colonial system and afterwards, one of them being primary and secondary schools—with substantial help from several religious bodies. At the primary level, I attended Presbyterian, Muslim and Anglican schools where I applied myself and gained a solid foundation, especially in English and Math.

Still, I never won a college exhibition, which would have meant free secondary education at one of the best colleges: I believe there were 150-or-so on offer (1956-1957). In fact, none of the boys I joined in Form 1A in January 1958 at what, by April 1959, would become Presentation College, Chaguanas, had won an exhibition. But talk about bright! Some of those fellas like they ate 500-watt-bulbs for breakfast!

Some 90 per cent of the boys came from poor families who could barely afford the $16-per-term fee, to which transport had to be added, as well as the cost of textbooks. Lunch was not a problem: half-a-sada-roti or a piece of bake, invariably topped with fried-aloo or saltfish-and-something, washed down with tap water—good to go, and fit and strong enough to robustly engage in sports!

It was like a gift when, in 1959, Chief Minister Dr Eric Williams announced that Government would pay the tuition fees for all students in recognised or approved secondary schools: Pres Chaguanas was one such school, and our parents were grateful for the relief even if they did not openly express their gratitude: politics was rooted in race then as much as it is today.

I performed well in the Cambridge exams, did not pursue A-Levels because I felt compelled to help my father, a low-paid sugar worker, care for the family. Thereafter, I decided my own future: secured a government military cadetship at Sandhurst and returned to the Regiment as a commissioned officer before I was 21.

Like so many young people across the world, I developed strong revolutionary consciousness during the heady 1960s, and in 1970, at a critical point in the Black Power revolution, I was among the few youthful officers who led a mutiny against the high command and the government. It failed. We were arrested, charged with mutiny and treason, court-martialled and spent 27 months in prison. Rex Lassalle and I won our local appeals, the State lost its appeal to the Privy Council, and we and all the convicted soldiers were freed in July 1972.

Throughout the trials and imprisonment, we stood tall, walked like dragons.

As if I had not experienced a colourful enough life at age 26, having been booted out of the army, I proceeded to organise and rally the nation’s sugar cane farmers from 1973. That would lead to me joining with Basdeo Panday, George Weekes and others in founding the ULF in 1975, forming the opposition in 1976, breaking with Panday in 1977, eventually walking away from electoral politics in 1981.

I switched to journalism that year, entering a new career serving as writer, editor and I remain a columnist to this day.

What more can I ask for? Maybe relief from Parkinson’s—and even that I take in stride. No, I’ve had a good run, led an exciting life, and I’m thankful for what I have achieved. I count my failures as blessings in disguise.

4 thoughts on “At 71, a good run”

  1. Raff, it feels like when you write about that era and speak about yourself, many of what you said reflect the same experiences that most of us have been through. Our politics may differ but the living conditions were spot on. It is a good reflection, when one views the past (even with the failures) and can honestly say that life has been good to him. That to me, is an indication of true maturity and one who is not looking for anyone but himself to blame his ups and downs in life. As a public figure, you have shown and exhibited what it is to be a true patriot. You may not remember me, but I was one of the NCOs who was privy to your enlistment papers on entry into the Defence Force. Being the first officer of Indian descent to attain such a position, it was incumbent upon you to prove that you could withstand the rigors of military life and you passed with flying colors.

    Your politics then, represented a return to a culture that emblazoned the divisions that continues to be the one aspect of Trinidadian life that keeps us apart. But that was quickly erased when you used your journalistic skills to speak for the less fortunate, the lesser informed and may I say the most oppressed in our society. That is saying a lot about a poor boy from the sugar belt. In our society, I have seen many who aspire to prominence then turn their backs on those who struggled with them. But you never did. You have demonstrated over the years that you are cross-cultural, which means you represented the best we have to offer. That is why I have characterized you as a true patriot.

    May you continue to tittle our sensibilities with your brand of journalism and May God Bless you richly.

  2. I am a big fan of your analytical mind! When you disappeared from the pages of this paper for what seemed like an eternal drought, I worried about your fate. Glad to know that you are as sharp as ever. What a fascinating life you have lived and I am sure will continue to live. I agree; so many of us have so much to be thankful for. Thank you for reminding us because sometimes in the dizzying haze of brute crime and morbidity, we forget that there is still so much for which to be grateful. Stay strong brother – Parkinson’s can never defeat the spirit of a man of your caliber.

  3. Happy belated Birthday Mr. Shah. May you live to see many many more. I have always read your down to earth articles addressing many issues on various levels. I would like to thank you for the assistance you give me 31 years ago as a runner from Central Athletics which you founded and was president. A letter you wrote helped me in obtaining a visa to visit USA and compete in the New York Marathon. I never looked back upon arriving to this great country. I served the US army for six years, owned businesses and completed many degrees for personal advancement. Again many thanks goes to you for your support to me and many other athletes in achieving our goals.
    God Bless you Mr. Raffique Shah.
    Frankie Ramsook Sr.

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