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Raffique Shah


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Age of innocence

By Raffique Shah
Apr 5, 2015

The Easter weekend has always been a period of intense religious activities for Christians in the country, and one for recreation and relaxation for others in the society. As a child growing up in a Muslim home in the 1950s, I was very aware of its significance to Catholics and Anglicans in particular, since both had (and still have) churches in the Freeport/Boccarro districts where we lived.

Out of custom, and maybe respect for other people's religious beliefs, I recall my very Muslim mother cooking fish on Good Friday. There were a few "bobolees" crafted, dressed and later beaten "to death" mostly by teenage boys, but all of them were depictions of Judas, the reviled disciple who had betrayed Christ, a story we all knew, whatever faith we belonged to.

None of the effigies depicted politicians, as is the norm today. In other words, religion was not tainted by politics even though race-voting would later insert itself in multi-ethnic communities like the one in which I grew up. As far as I knew, no imam, pundit or priest proclaimed his political preferenc­e from the pulpit.

In so many ways, my boyhood years could best be described as the age of innocenc­e.

I remember my mother pouring the white of an egg into a glass of water which she put on a bench in the sun, and my two sisters and I eagerly watching to see if it would shape itself into a church spire or some such formation (or apparition?)—maybe people older than I can clarify what that was all about.

In Central Trinidad, we did not have public re-enactments of the stations of the cross, no "no-nose Brackley" to volunteer to play Christ on the cross, to plead in a nasal tone, "stone me, my brothers, stone me like they stoned the Saviour", and when the brothers hurled serious rocks at him, to cuss from the cross, "What de #!@* wrong with allyuh… allyuh want to kill me?"

Over the Easter weekend, there would be several masses, from Holy Thursday through Easter Sunday. Our Christian neighbours would dress in their finest garbs (I remember Miss Plaza, Miss Pragg, Miss Buntin, Miss Mae and Miss Taylor), greet their non-Christian neighbours with warmth, then fill the pews of the Catholic and Anglican churches on St Mary's Junction.

It was the age of innocence, a time when the village raised its children, when people genuinely cared for each other.

Kite-flying was commonplace since almost every boy knew how to make kites. It was a time when there were no electricity lines to pose danger, and when pure pleasure, not commercial lure, prompted us to fly kites using thread pilfered from our mothers' sewing machines, all in pursuit of boyhood fun.

Easter also meant the start of the "mango season", when the hundreds of mango trees in and around the villages, among them scores of species (vin, rose, calabash, starch, axe, spice, dudus…), ripened, providing healthy and tasty fruits for everyone, quite literally. We would roam the bushes and raid the yards, having mastered the arts of accurately pelting the stems and climbing tall trees to feast on fresh fruits. No unhealthy processed snacks back then.

It was the age of sharing, a time when the boys (and some girls) harvested the fruits and shared them with the elders.

It was a time when religious bodies did not depend on the State for their sustenance. When the Catholic or Anglican or Presbyterian church, or the mosque or Hindu temple or denominational schools needed to be repaired or enhanced, everyone in the community contributed. As a student at the College of St Phillips & St James, I collected "blocks" by selling chances on a "punch card" for the construction of Presentation College, Chaguanas. Most people, whatever their beliefs, contributed at least ten cents—which was the cost of one clay-brick back then. Many of the contributors did not have sons who were likely to attend that college. Also, they were poor people. But it did not matter. The village would help build the college where a few of its sons would be educated.

So when today I see so-called spiritual leaders prostituting themselves and their flocks on the altar of materialism, elevating politicians to demigods, prostrating themselves before the wealthy and powerful, people of dubious character, I feel nauseated.

When churches and mosques and temples are reduced to houses of ill-repute, to dens of wheeler-dealers who barter their flocks to the highest bidders, I squirm. When some pastors wallow in wealth and their fawning flocks encourage them to flaunt their materialism as a gift from God, I know I made the right choice by withdrawing from the hypocrisy that passes for religion.

Easter is as good as any time to reflect on how materialism has overcome spiritualism. In the simpler era I reminisced upon, life was far from perfect. I am not suggesting that the "old time days" were superior, that there were more saints than sinners.

But having been there and seen much of it, I am convinced it was a time when, whatever their religious beliefs, people did not sell their souls for a mess of pottage, or less.

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