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Scott Pulchansingh vs the world

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My colleague in these pages BC Pires (known to a select few as “B-Dawg”) wrote a prickly series on independence, sounding an unpatriotic fugue of about the ludicrousness of the very notion of the nation, the cruelty of its praxis in these islands. The sentiments are neither anomalous nor lack subscribers. But still, the pervasiveness and perversity of the “nationalism” which allows national heroes to live in the US, and do short trips here to wine down low, with no contradiction, is staggering.

And as distracting as those surreally funny stories about “super-patriotic Trinis” with foreign passports are, there’s another set of people, one suspects a large majority we never see or hear, who never look back once they leave. Those deserve attention. hese Trini/West Indian migrants are like Kenyan marathon runners, born into everyday conditions so harsh, they’re equipped to walk into the most grueling contests with ease, and win.

And here enters Scott Pulchansingh, a Trini-born Boston police officer who was recently honoured by President Obama for bravery. He was featured in a story in a daily newspaper here a few weeks ago. I knew Officer Pulchansingh about 35 years ago. We were both inmates of the Presentation Correctional Centre for boys (known to others as Presentation College Chaguanas).

At that centre back then were many boys with one thing in common: they were extremely smart (or really lucky at guessing answers in the multiple choice common entrance). But once they got into PCC, a strange thing happened: many failed to graduate, or did so with poor certificates. And a stranger thing happened once some of them emigrated: many became solid citizens—high achievers, business owners, cops—achieving a social solidity it’s unlikely they’d have achieved here.

(Let me, in the interest of balance, note that a significant number of PCC inmates have gone on to do very well right here. Many scholarship-winners, doctors, lawyers, and professionals who, unlike your columnist, drink 12-year-old scotch, and don’t drive 12-year-old cars. Neither do they have many complaints about the institution. But I do.)

Scott, I recall, was not among the scholarship contenders. Like many non-contenders, he was tagged from early on as someone who wouldn’t do well, was treated as such, and performed down to expectation. He emigrated soon after high school, and, well, was decorated three decades later by President Obama for bravery. I’d bet diamonds to dung-beetles that had he stayed here, he would not have been decorated by anyone. This is no stain on Scott. It’s a stain on the society that refused to unlock his potential.

But Scott’s (and other migrants) standing out, while admirable, is not the point. It’s his conversion to something remarkable to Trini eyes: a motivated, high-achieving, ordinary citizen, which he was for decades before his public commendation.

I believe the reason is that he found something in the US he could not find here: an imperfect but functioning system based on merit, which he proceeded to make his way through. Many others have done just that, and live anonymously, happily and productively within such systems in the metropole, creating wealth which has nothing to do with money, but which is infinitely more important.

Not that the northern countries are paradises. (Except compared to us.) But it’s quite amazing to watch people who are taught from birth to determinedly lie, scam and waste everything here become the most industrious, productive and entrepreneurial of people in other environments.

The question is, why? Naipaul in the Middle Passage had part of the answer: talent is looked at here as conceit, intellect derided, and integrity is a weakness. Hollow ambition, cunning and jingoism are celebrated, even as every successful person is seen as corrupt or crooked. And looking around, you have to look long and hard to find exceptions to that rule of thumb. Among other things, you could argue, it makes success, however you define it, a morally compromised state in T&T.

The Middle Passage and Naipaul’s novels unpack this idea fairly thoroughly. But there’s another determinant (wait for it): culture. This is social dark matter, which fills the majority of the social space; is invisible, but nonetheless interpenetrates everything.

How the social machines that produce the dark matter operate is illustrated in Edgar Mittelholzer’s novel, A Morning at the Office, which I recommend to all citizens on this fine Republic Day. In it, a group of Trinidadians pass a morning at a Port-of-Spain office c 1950. Mittelholzer examines all the invisible knots, obstacles, booby traps and trapdoors which occupy and entangle Trinis going about their business.

These traps are the small resentments, fears, embarrassments, and insecurities every Trini carries around, vis a vis his/her place in the sun. They are partially involuntarily acquired as a consequence of history, ethnicity and environment. But sometimes, those wounds are also nurtured quite deliberately by (as Walcott put it) those who “nurture the scars of rusted chains, like primates favouring scabs”. These entanglements persist, and Mittelholzer’s dissections are astonishingly contemporary.

Unfortunately, these people and that agenda are very effective, and it’s resulted in Trini national culture’s inability to provide safe spaces, which is generally what national culture is designed to do: provide local/universal symbols and rituals all can endorse without compromising particular group identities. Regretfully, we see the results of this failure everywhere, everyday.

And to take nothing away from Scott Pulchansingh, who might have done equally well had he stayed here, I think this is why he left. And it’s why many continue to leave, and we continue as we are today.


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