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Rum talk: A diary of the trauma of Caroni

Published: 
Thursday, April 2, 2015
Wendell Manwarren of 3Canal reading from Selwyn Bhajan’s book, Rum Talk. PHOTO: CLYDE LEWIS

Last Saturday a new novelist joined the ranks of Trinidadian authorship. Selwyn Bhajan launched his new book Rum Talk: Diary of an Honorary Drunkard at the The Big Black Box in Woobrook, to a full house. 

Bhajan’s novel is situated in the heart of a wrecked community that suffered the closing of Caroni 1975 Ltd. 

“I was the Human Resources manager so I knew the community very well,” Bhajan said. “When they shut down Caroni, they put 10,000 workers on the breadline. The change was traumatic. I knew the same fellas outside the rum shop. I knew their stories because they would come to me because of my own nature; they would come home and talk. I also went to the rum shop with them and chronicled what they were saying.”

Bhajan explained that at that time, Caroni 1975 Ltd was also was taking care of the drains, ravines, roads and playgrounds and that when the factory shut down, those services were rescinded and put onto the regional corporation which did not have the capacity to shoulder such responsibilities. 

“While there are 10,000 employees on the HR manual, these families had about ten to 15 people in them so the change affected 150,000 people in one shot,” he said. Then all of the parlours and rum shops and the groceries and the transportation and everything had just gone into a kind of trauma. But nobody saw that. Generally, that group of people is a resilient, quiet group of people. They take their licks and they plant their dasheen and baigan so they never starve but they can’t find work because they worked in the sugar industry all their lives. Now they suddenly have to reengineer and rescript their lives. They are bright and they know more about the engines in the factories than the engineers who came out of UWI but they have no papers so what kind of jobs will they get?

“You have to remember that this is where we came out of; plantation,” he said. “This island was not born out of oil; we came out of sugar and the plantation. There is so much within the community of sugar workers who came from places like Baster Hall, Dow Village and Couva.” 

Rum Talk, published by Lissel Publications, was written in the span of six months in the latter half of 2006. 

The subtitle of the book, Diary of an Honorary Drunkard infers the style and merits of the writer. The novel is written in diary entries, complete with a handwriting font.

“The rum shop is like a silently breathing, living being. It listens, hears, remembers, reminds and actually provides a comforting embrace to tired, burdened and lonely humans.”

“The reason I chose a rum shop is a simple one,” said Bhajan, who still resides on the Caroni compound. 

“If I wrote a book that was political I would get into trouble in this country. If I wrote the novel as a sociological work, then it’s academic and you can’t tell the truth. The academic language will cover the truth about the feelings. There is a line on page seventy that says, “But you will have to learn to listen with your heart.” 

That is the story of that book, listening to the people with a heart, not judging them but listening to them.”

“The main thing is that it is chronicled,” he said. “It didn’t disappear. Many workers and their families simply faded and disappeared home because where would they go? In Trinidad, usually something lasts nine days (in the headlines) and it’s gone. Now, this is chronicled.”

Bhajan noted that the suffering of those people is a scar that will stay with them. 

“I was very affected that the rest of the country did not raise their voice,” he said. “The tragedy with his now is that because the company did not take the time to work with the community for their own transformation, their children saw what happened to their parents and they keep in mind that mind that a group of people hurt their ancestry and a hostility perpetuates a very real division in society. 

At the launch, veteran actors David Sammy and Wendell Manwarren of 3Canal did readings. Sammy and Bhajan were actually schoolmates in Naparima College. Their vice principal at the time, Dr James Lee Wah, was in attendance and received a token of appreciation from Bhajan. 

“I knew Sammy for a long time as a little boy growing up in Naparima College and Mr Lee Wah was our drama and literature teacher,” Bhajan said. “Mr Lee Wah was inspirational to this work.”

“Mr Lee Wah was Vice Principal of the school at the time so he has influenced all of us,” Sammy commented. “I am an actor and that came out of our experiences at Naparima College. We used to have a lot of interclass drama, just for anybody who wanted to strut on stage and then Naparima Bowl was next to us, so we would have interclass drama and we would have it in Naparima Bowl. 

It was a group of crazy fellas that James Lee Wah gave some vision to, people like Ralph Maharaj, Tony Hall and Sprangalang.”

Dr Lee Wah said that he was happy to see the boys go so far.

“I don’t know how much influence I had but I am happy to see them producing, writing,” he said. “ It’s very good. I am proud.”

He also commended Bhajan on his novel. 

“It is wonderful,” he said. “I am so glad that you explained the situation and I hope that we don’t have this kind of thing happening again in any community.”

Besides being a poet and novelist, Bhajan is also and human development specialist who owns the tertiary education facility, AHA, Advanced Human Development Associates, which focuses on development based learning. 

Bhajan’s support team included his wife Lisa and daughters Tara and Shana. Gayle Quesnel-Salloum also was pivotal in organizing the event. 

Sophie Wight and David McCartney hosted the function and Solman provided musical entertainment.

• Copies of Rum Talk: Diary of an Honorary Drunkard are available at leading bookshops throughout the country.

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