Love The Dark Days
by Ira Mathur:
I was the last person amongst the author’s close circle of friends to read her book. She had asked me to read some of it in draft form a few years ago. And I declined, sensing (correctly as it has turned out) that it would implicate me in tensions that would make another much-loved friend unhappy. So it came to pass that I didn’t read a single page until it was published. Truth is unsettling and often not very pretty. And, though this book is presented as fiction, it is a true rendition of the author’s revelatory journey and her victory.
To focus on the drama that the book’s launch and publication precipitated in others (most of whom had not read the book), however, would mean that the author’s brutal personal reckoning and self-actualisation are lost. That would be a loss to all of us who have the right to claim a place under the Caribbean sun, whether it be by birth or by naturalisation, by circumstance or by choice.
Readers may remember Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, the 2006 Man Booker Prize Winner. The story is based on two displaced Indian immigrants in the United States. The theme centres on the post-colonial loss of identity that is passed-on through generations, scarring each with a sense of loss, irrespective of whether a choice is made to assimilate or hold firmly to tradition. It’s a beautifully written, heart-rending novel. But Desai’s truth is ultimately not Mathur’s.
Ira’s journey starts with a sumptuous and harrowing inheritance. Born in the post-colonial era to a pale-skinned Muslim mother of royal antecedents and a bourgeois Hindu father, an army man of high ranking, Ira is a child of religious, colour, class and geopolitical conflict. She is then transposed into Tobago life and later on she attends boarding school in England before settling in Trinidad as a grownup.
Her estate is one of inter-generational violence, micro- and macro-political aggressions, and devastating power plays. She writes unashamedly of personal abjection and resistance. The spaces that she navigates are characterised by falling in between the crevices of neglect and ultimately by defection. These are the dark days that she must learn to love. But they are her days; to not love them is to not love herself.
Ira confronts and embraces the darkness, making her choice of book title highly apposite. She opens herself to the tough advice of one of our region’s greatest sons, Derek Walcott. His poem, Dark August, lends Ira the naming and the discipline of learning slowly and consuming “the medicine of bitterness”—in spite of the “steaming hills”, “the gossiping mosquitoes.” It is, indeed, this spirited Caribbean basin where nations were erased, diluted, altered and combined, perpetrating and subjected to the greatest of cruelties, that a new nation can be imagined:
Copies of Ira Mathur’s Love The Dark Days on display at the launch.
“‘Maybe when the people transplanted from the old worlds—the Chinese, Syrian, Indian, European and African—are fully integrated and cross-fertilise, our small islands will represent a utopia to the world.’
‘Now you’re talking’ he says.”
A new nation of people born out of the transgressions and glories of what it means to be human. Of what it means to belong.
Structurally and stylistically the book itself offers a new order.
There is much beauty in the language, capturing the ephemera of opulence and decaying elegance: “Angel is shouting, ‘Fairy dust, fairy dust!’ She is spinning in circles in the curtains, watching with shrieking delight the brocade disintegrate into bejewelled smoke as it spreads in the room and floats out of the windows.”
Yet, Ira’s enchantments barely linger before the picture abruptly turns to the profane and scatological: “What a terrible inheritance: all these unhappy women passing along their sadness with their jewellery. Love can be s—t wrapped in silver, but who’s to say some of the shine doesn’t rub off on the s—t and make us yearn for more?”
Brutality is rife throughout the narrative, closely following on from its sweet lyricism: “I see now why my parents live so lightly. When brutality has been normalized, it is passed on, like a legacy, like DNA.”
But there is always choice, whether the choice is the cocktail party circuit or decamping. With the realization that “‘...Spending your entire life in a drawing-room waiting for people to envy you is a useless life,’” the promise of jeans and a London career convert rejection and disavowal into liberation. Ira cites Naipaul on the mystery of inheritance in terms of “blood and bone and brain.” In so doing, she leads us to the strongest of the three: brain. It is our cognition that gives us agency: our informed choices made in the circumstances we happen to find ourselves in. And it is that agency that makes us who we are and what we. It is both our redemption and what we, in turn, bequeath.
Ira also does something quite unusual and masterful in how she presents her story. Her melodic passages recall old songs of folklore and the startling elements may raise questions about her reliability; especially as there are many people living or in living memory who would prefer her silenced. Yet, we must not forget that she is first and foremost a journalist (in fact, she is the current president of the Media Association of T&T). And it is these skills that she employs that unite the book and solidify its authenticity.
The narrative is interspersed by her memory of visiting Derek Walcott in St Lucia: a short, but epiphanous experience upon which Ira’s life story is viewed, captured and categorised. The telling is straight-up journalistic, complete with all the harsh, but invaluable criticism she receives from this great man. Walcott dismisses the essence of her identity, her firmly-held aspirations and raw victimhood: “...Why go back to those awful people, a grandmother who colluded with the British. Why not write of the now, of the new world?”
And that is exactly what she has done.
Indeed, only a woman who has accepted her birthright and her lifelong acquisitions, has trusted herself to record it for all to read, even deeply-felt personal humiliations, and who has exerted a sense of control over her life by commandeering her own story, knowing that it will offend those who are shy of the truth, only that person could create a book such as this. And I am privileged to have read it, however late in the day, and to count that woman amongst my friends.