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School for scandal

Terry Joseph
March 13, 2002

There is an uncanny similitude between the careers of Richard B Sheridan (who, 225 years ago, penned the outrageously funny School for Scandal) and Basdeo Panday, lead actor in the currently playing tragedy about a contemporary learning institution.

Like Sheridan, Panday first worked in theatre, then became separately famous for his contributions in a Westminster-style Parliament. Like Panday, Sheridan will always be remembered whenever we hear the word “school”, particularly in sentences where it is followed by the word “scandal”.

Sheridan’s play throws up some equally interesting comparisons. Set in a country district (perhaps a place like Biche), the principals engage in lies, half-truths and innuendo full-time. By far the most intriguing of these conspirators is Lady Sneerwell, whose frequent baring of teeth is often mistaken for a charming smile.

The work unravels a tangled web of humorous sub-plots, involving documents (which some see and some don’t), unsolicited admissions (Mea culpa! Mea Chaitan!), reports from sources various and a moneylender (not quite up to the $30 million mark), who discovers the truth before Sir Oliver surfaces to ease the dialogue into blissful conclusion.

Panday is yet to conceptualise a happy ending. In what has evolved into desperate attempts at mustering pathos, he seeks to infuse comedy as a way of staving off predictably harsh critique, only to discover his audience’s perception of outrage sequentially exacerbated.

Responding to claims that Biche High School, built during his recently concluded watch as Prime Minister, was sited on an earthquake fault, too high a water-table and over fissures likely to emit gaseous hydrocarbons, Panday, with Thespian bravado, blithely says: “Trinidad is so lucky, we even have gas in schools.”

And forever the bit-part player, former Cabinet colleague Harry Partap gathers a few party-affiliated crop-farmers, whose experience with geology probably goes no deeper than topsoil, to tell us the land is safe, even as deep cracks strafe the foundation and walls of a brand-new building.

“Nobody is to blame,” Panday says, concluding within nanoseconds: “If anyone is to be blamed, it is Trintoplan,” perhaps hoping to invoke public wrath against the firm of consulting engineers of which Lenny Saith, chairman of the political party that replaced him in government, was once at the helm.

The Caribbean Industrial Research Institute (Cariri), Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Ministries of Energy and Planning and Principal Medical Officer Dr Rohit Doon all advised against building the school on that site. Dr Doon was summarily sacked.

Former Agriculture and Environment Minister Dr Reeza Mohammed now tells us Panday scoffed at the potentially lethal problem during a Cabinet meeting, saying: “I don’t care what you all do, but that school must not stop building.” Eventually, he would refer to the scandal as a mere “red herring”.

The parallels grow eerie. In a relatively tame application of the rum and roti pre-election deception widely practised here, Sheridan won his first seat in the British Parliament by wining and dining even the ineligibles and paying five guineas each to some of his burgesses (we too have a Burgess report).

Like Panday, Sheridan’s maiden speech was made even as he defended police charges and while in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (a position also held by Panday). He refused and made public an offer of a substantial cash gift for supporting US interests in their war of Independence. Like Panday, his integrity did not allow for participation in so heinous a crime.

In debate, the Panday and Sheridan profiles share a keenness for identifying flaws in an opponent’s argument and the glorious art of swiftly scuttling antagonists with the flair and finality of great orators. Sure there was unnerving rhetoric (civil disobedience) among highly ornamental hyperbole, but both men grasped the power of the spoken word and used it to repeatedly denounce a person named Napoleon.

Curiously enough, one of Sheridan’s most celebrated speeches was delivered in support of strong measures against mutineers (Gang of Four/Three Musketeers). Panday more crisply called them “Judases” and “Jackasses”.

Brooking no advice in his latter days in The House, Sheridan soon lost even the support money can buy and consequently his space on the benches. Adding debt and disappointment to his burden and now bereft of parliamentary protection, impatient creditors wrote the final chapters that take us through to his death in 1816; passages that rank among the most poignant in the biographies of great men.

From all reports, Panday is hardly in a money crunch. He steadfastly refuses to accept substantial retroactive payment due him for work as Prime Minister, although this is not a view universally embraced by his former Cabinet colleagues.

So in the autumn of their years, there is divergence. Sheridan was never accused of conjuring up lame excuses for obvious recklessness nor could he be blamed for making the other dominant political party in the British system look good by heaping one public relations disaster upon another, piling InnCogen upon airport, Biche upon Ibis.

So as it approaches that time when we note things by which to remember him, Panday must be careful that, like the very Biche High School, he does not construct the climax of his colourful career on shifting sands, or further immerse himself in scandal that has no humorous value.

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