Friday, April 19, 2024

SATURDAY’S CHILD: Burning questions


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IN 1953, eight years after I was born, the American science fiction and fantasy writer Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 about an America in which books are outlawed and “Firemen” are hired to burn them.

The name comes from the auto-ignition temperature of paper (451 degrees Fahrenheit) at which it would spontaneously ignite. One of my favourite quotes from Fahrenheit 451 is, “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door . . . . Who knows who might be the target of the well read man?” Another quote (as a self-professed, well read man) that I like is, “I don’t talk things, sir; I talk the meaning of things.” But the biggie about the power of books is, “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there.” However, Bradbury’s most powerful statement about his book was, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

This is one crime I have never committed and will never ever be guilty of. Texan author Tiffany Madison, has the best one-liner response to the killer phrase used each time a new technology emerges, whether “Kindle” or “ebook”, and causes the pronouncement that “The book is dead”. She said, “If the novel is dead, I’m a necrophiliac.” 

In the tiny sugar-cane village where I grew up, there were not many people with books or who could afford them. I learned to read early and my “Aunt” Hairoun, a member of our extended family and community, taught me to read the comic strips in the Guardian newspaper. I graduated to books early and sometimes this got me into trouble.

One day in the shop I saw a centipede and knowing from reactions of people over my few years of life that it could “bite” or sting, raised the alarm, “Look a centipede, look a centipede!” They did not react the way I expected. Nobody ran. Not one of them took up a broom, stick or cutlass. They looked at me quizzically. I pointed at the beast. Then realisation dawned. “The boy mean a ‘santa-pee’,” Miss Julia said and pulled her daughter Nan away from the danger zone. Then everybody laughed. And I learnt an important lesson.  Use the local pronunciation of an object. If people call the thing a “santapee”, call it a “santapee”. If “croisee” is pronounced “kway-zay”, this is what you say.

You never say “a tool with a sharp-edged, typically rectangular, metal blade and a long handle, used for digging or cutting earth, sand, turf, etc.” when you mean a spade and you never use the word if, as in America, it may mean a negro, a black person, then a person of colour and later an “Afro-American”. Years afterwards, when after passing my “A” or Advanced Level exams I started teaching in a secondary school, I spoke about “pineapples” in a geography class and the kids were mystified.  Eventually, after I explained, one of them told me that she knew it as “pine” but didn’t realise that it was a kind of apple.

In situations like this you are never sure whether you are the one-eyed man in the country of the blind or the blind man in the country of the sighted. Even worse, you are not even close to certain who is really wearing the blinkers or whether you should, as some people do, blame your predicament, the inability to fit in, the daydreaming and night reading under the covers of darkness or the flashlight under the covers, on the blinking books that you read. 

It is like the day one of my teachers (Teacher Ram, who later became a principal) returned from “training college”. Even though he was absent from school for a year, we used to see him by the railway station every morning.  We always thought he was learning about trains so we were very surprised when he came back to the school and took over our class once more. In the old days he made us write “compositions” on “How I Spent My Easter Holidays” but now we had to write “essays” about how we spent our Easter “vacation”. We no longer had “recess” but our brief mid-morning break was “intermission”. This is something I dredged up from the recesses or my memory and realise that in those days even though “recess” gave way to “intermission” we never had or used “recession”. Now we are experiencing a “recession” in Trinidad but the Government reacted angrily when this was announced by the governor the Central bank and he was fired. 

The functionary who became the new governor said that the former governor’s statement represented the position of the Bank and he supports that position. So now I am worried. Will we be able to manage this predicament properly or will the measures the government takes be based on personalities and principals instead of principles? Will they call a spade a spade or redefine ethnic cleansing? Will it be a process or a procession? Will the Rapid Rail the government is spending millions on be our new training college?

• Tony Deyal was last seen saying that because Trinidad is now enmeshed in a political Game Of Thrones he should quote from George Martin, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies . . . . The man who never reads lives only one.”


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