The narrative is meticulously researched and infused with historical data that supplements the development of the personal story
Stories underscore the common humanity of our existence and are of powerful significance in the field of life writing, where autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, testimonials, essays and post-20th century emails and blogs underscore the resonance of the individual perspective. For this reason, telling a story offers expurgation – an opportunity to simultaneously relive the past and/or release it, to measure personal growth, and gift a new generation with a foundation on which to build their future.
What makes a story compelling? Undoubtedly, a compelling story consists of complex characters, dramatic conflict, an intriguing setting and unexpected twists and turns in the plot. Against this criteria, “A Call Within A Call: All Politics is Local” by Parasram “Paras” Ramoutar, delivers, beginning with the epanaleptic reference in the title – A Call within a Call.
In the Caribbean, because of a history of exploitation, murder and trauma, certain stories have been difficult to tell and just as perversely difficult to suppress. A Call positions itself within this frame. This is the story of an individual, of an individual within a community, a community within a country, and a country within a world that stand in significance despite the many forces against it.
A powerful narrative
The power of the individual story is a critical aspect of the development of citizenship and nationhood, and A Call presents a protagonist keenly aware of his role in the development of this consciousness. The narrative is not organized in a chronological manner. Instead, there are four main parts organized around a specific focus, such as Place – Caparo incorporating the protagonist’s personal history; Career – the protagonist’s work and development as a journalist and communications expert and his travels; Impact – moving analeptically and proleptically in time, recounting some of the defining influences on the protagonist’s development and, finally, through Perspective – various experiences of the ties that have the potential to hold a community and a country together, gained from international travel, awards and activism.
The importance of action is not only evident in example after example within the text but is also underlined by the way in which action is worked into the very structure of the narrative. Within each section, there are defining memories capped by a conclusion that summarizes in bullet form the key insights that readers can incorporate into their own lives. The account therefore becomes a motivational synthesis of the public and the private, a narrative of home and a commentary on the social and political life of Trinidad and Tobago.
Does place shape a person or can a person shape a place? The village of Caparo is at the heart of this narrative. Thus, the narrative begins with community, with the tragic tale of a villager nicknamed “Government” who drowns in flood waters because according to his wife, “…even he couldn’t cause the real government to do something about the flooding in the village” (2). It is this agricultural place (approximately 18 and a half miles from the capital city of Port-of-Spain) that not only gives birth to the protagonist but also births within him the desire to live a life of service: “I felt that Caparo could become a model of communal support, showing that a community could carve their own future, with or without Government intervention…” (12).
It is here that the protagonist learns political activism. With his siblings, he organizes “national elections”. From the radio, he listens to parliamentary debates in the official parliament. These experiences form the bedrock of his career choices later in life and are reflected in the accolades received as a journalist, a communications consultant, a recipient of the Humming Bird National Award (2002) as well as the Rotary’s Paul Harris International Fellow Award (2016).
The narrative points to an imperative need for activism in rural communities, recording for posterity the attempts of the Caparo people to agitate for basic necessities such as electricity, transportation, mail delivery and potable water alongside relief from flooding.
Ramoutar recounts the loss of life, the loss of manpower in closed schools, damaged roads and crops – especially devastating in an agricultural community – amidst numerous attempts to address this issue with few results except for promises from successive political regimes. All politics is indeed local when citizens have to agitate for themselves by themselves to have basic needs met in a satisfactory manner.
How do we love our own? Perhaps one of the most significant purposes of the narrative is the attention it calls not only to forgotten communities but also to forgotten artifacts within the country of Trinidad and Tobago. The narrative is meticulously researched and infused with historical data that supplements the development of the personal story.
In these pages is the record of the Caparo Train station constructed in the 1890s. Its tale of prominence and then neglect is told alongside that of the history of the central train line or “Manicou Train” that connected North, South and Central Trinidad. This is indeed a national failing as it highlights opportunities lost to simultaneously preserve the past and provide economic benefit through tourism opportunities in the present.
Requests to both government and private agencies to restore, preserve and add to the Heritage Asset Register have to date borne no fruit. Aside from the historical references to artifacts is also the history of political systems. The protagonist’s foray into political office in 1996 is told alongside the national change from the Colonial Country Council system in favour of a Municipal Government System which still obtains today. In 2003 when he returns to formal politics, it is at the same time that a new seat is created in the central region and parallels the closure of the Caroni (1973) Limited, an iconic reminder of the nation’s sugar-producing past.
In what ways are we the sum of our experiences? The protagonist’s belief in the power of culture to promote “national cohesion” is reflected in the attention paid to the development of the observance of religious festivals such as Divali and Eid ul Fitr. The excitement and importance on a community level of these observances is traced from the practices of the Caparo community to full-blown national development in 1966 with the official acknowledgment of Divali and Eid ul Fitr as public holidays and then to the official launch in 1986 of the Divali Nagar site as “the largest Divali celebration in one space outside of India” (177)
The significance of an autobiographical account goes way beyond the recollection of an individual life. Immense value lies in the historical detail uncovered here in the stories of the “little people” told, in the unique insight provided on activism from the “inside out”, and in the candor of the voice – the recognition that willingness to help does not mean the ability to help all.
Sometimes there is a failure despite the passion for activism. The narrative is thus a significant contribution to the legacy of one generation to another in the lives touched, the scenes witnessed and the wisdom learned. The protagonist sums up his reflection in the following words: “…having an alliance of people with diverse experiences, perspectives and talents coming together yet maintain their distinctive characters could only buttress the foundation of our society” (273).
A Call Within A Call thus challenges each of its readers to reflect on their own spaces and places and find ways to make a lasting impact.
Title: A Call Within A Call: All Politics is Local; Author: Parasram (Paras) Ramoutar; Winston Dookeran (Foreword); Publishers: Independently published, 2021; Pages: 311
(The author is Lecturer and Coordinator of the Academic Literacies Programme in the Department of Modern Languages and Linguistics at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, Trinidad)