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Monday 23 October 2017
Commentary

A merciless nation

It seems an apt moment to look at Jennifer Rahim’s new book, Curfew Chronicles, published by Peepal Tree Press.

Rahim’s previous works include five volumes of poetry which explore a sense of place, matters of sexual abuse and the effects of abuse, the failure to deliver justice, the relationship between daughters and mothers and daughters and fathers.

Her collection of short stories, Songster and Other Stories, continues to situate Trinidad within the context of its mythology and its different religious traditions, including Hinduism, Orisha and Catholicism.

Rahim’s previous profession as a university lecturer informs her work. There is also a deep reflective and spiritual dimension.

In this new fictional work, which is not so much a collection of stories as meditations which appear at times to break off in mid reverie, Rahim extends her scrutiny of the Caribbean and Trinidadian society. She does so by placing the carefully connected events and characters against the backdrop of the state of emergency and the curfew declared in 2011 by the then prime minister.

The other context is the murder of a female lawyer who is not afraid to speak out, and who is never named.

The book closes with a poignant, imagined cry for mercy at the moment when the “lawyer lady” is shot close to her home. Her plea is not for herself alone, but for all those “before and after.” She is a reminder of what happens “in this place when you batted outside your crease” (194). And this is the core of the book: that our nation has become merciless.

Rahim seeks to enter into the soul of those who are torn from the inside and who become hitmen, or politicians, or their wives, or policemen who protect those with power. Power is connected to a form of sycophancy to which even Christopher Columbus succumbed in his lies to placate those who had power over him.

The ordinary people who inhabit this world are shown to be bewildered by the senselessness of it all. In particular by a state of emergency (SoE), which imprisons young men guilty of nothing else but belonging to a particular street or neighbourhood. The book reiterates in this “imaginative response” to the SoE that those who were imprisoned were only the hired help, and the true perpetrators of drug crimes and violence walk free.

The true heroes of this finely woven web of connections are the young woman with Down syndrome (DS) and the scholar, who is psychiatrically ill. One cannot fully approve of the portrayal of Ganga. She is unfortunately a stereotype, since adults with DS do not go around chanting incy wincy spider as Ganga does in “Sister, Sister,” nor does my daughter with DS lack a sense of direction.

But this is one of the only depictions of a person with an intellectual disability in Caribbean literature and Rahim tries hard to remove the stigma associated with this disability. Everyone loves Ganga and she is the reason why her adopted sister becomes an activist.

“Justice that is my purpose. Not no flower. Not no sun or whatever symbol they pushing” (99), says Beatrice who protests every societal ill, including the “inexcusable deaths” at the Women’s Hospital in Mt Hope. Activism is in fact what is being demanded in this place where the sea and the coastline give a sense of connection, but which politics and crime defile. This need to change lives and attitudes is not treated with a heavy hand, but becomes witty and even humorous in “The Apparition,” which plays with the notion that Trinidad is divinely protected.

The overcrowded bus in “Standing Room Only” demonstrates both the effects of the SoE on ordinary, already harassed lives and the way power is so easily used to bolster small egos, as in the conductor who wields his authority on those desperate to get home before curfew.

“The Boy in the Superman T-shirt” hints at the issues that fester within society. The boys are drug runners and preyed on sexually. Politicians like the Minister of All Things Legal use the media as public relations exercises to hide behind and have a chauvinistic, condescending attitude to the female Prime Minister, who is “Smart. Photogenic,” and “could dress” (120).

The vignettes offer brief signs of a growing awareness of the lack in society. But at the end it is powerlessness that prevails.

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