Sunday, August 27, 2006

A President's Legacy

I think the Express editorial captured something that got lost in all the praises of his most visible characteristics:

For the late Noor Hassanali to be remembered simply as a kind of placid president is to do an injustice to the memory of the man. It is true that he exuded a certain tranquillity but this is a man whose term of office straddled some of the most traumatic moments in the country's post-Independence history.

Among them were the first-ever defeat of the People's National Movement (PNM), the party that had guided the country since its attainment of sovereign independence, the subsequent coming into power of the National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) in 1986, its sudden sundering and the consequential return of the PNM and the unprecedented 17-17-2 results of the 1995 general elections.

Newsday managed to capture something that people forgot as well - the fact that the State has not been nearly as good to Noor and Zalay as they had been to the country

His presidency is remembered as a model of thriftiness, as his household bred their own tilapia in ponds and grew their own vegetables on the grounds of President’s House. Further, in accordance with his religious beliefs, no alcohol was served at President’s House, a move which surely helped the taxpayer. He is also believed to have spent his own money to repair President’s House.

President Hassanali and Mrs Hassanali served Trinidad and Tobago well. Sadly, however, it can’t always be said that Trinidad and Tobago served the Hassanalis well.

In a story, “All Presidents not equal”, Sunday Newsday on January 29, 2006, reported the hardships being faced by the Hassanalis who had to pay the cost of security, vehicle, and driver, which had otherwise been provided free by the Government for at least one other former Head of State.

One other dark cloud impacting on the Hassanalis was the incident in September 1989 when two gunmen fired three shots at the car in which Mrs Hassanali was travelling. Fortunately she was not injured, although to date no-one was ever convicted for the offence.

All in all we say President Hassanali had a good innings both in his professional and public life and served Trinidad and Tobago well.
One day the full story may be told. I look forward to the biographer who really writes a definitive work on the person I believe to be our greatest President ever.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Our best President (Noor Hassanali, 1918-2006)

Sometimes it's hard to separate one's own preconceived notions from one's ideas about what "people think". So it's always re-assuring to see at least some of them ring true. I have always said that he was the most popular president Trinidad and Tobago has ever had, and he was one of the very few truly national figures, someone who was universally admired. The news coverage of his death seems to bear that out. From the message boards at ttonline

Possibly the best Pres. T&T ever had.

Possibly? He was the best president we ever had. May he rest in peace.
There's a lot of coverage of his death in the local papers. The international press mentions race (first Indo-Trinidadian President), religion (first Muslim head of state in the Americas) and the coup. Factually true, but that misses his main achievements. He was elected President by an NAR government. He revoked Manning's appointment as Leader of the Opposition and replacing him with Panday, he was re-elected President by the PNM government. Despite being President in a turbulent time and with two different governments, he was never criticised (by any side), he never came into conflict with either administration.

It's worth remembering that he was the first Indo-Trinidadian President specifically because it was uncontroversial. In 1987 there were a lot of people who were apprehensive about what they saw as an "Indian power-grab" in the form of the NAR government. I'm sure that some people saw the appointment of an Indian President as yet another step in that direction. But if people had reservations, they quickly forgot them. He was a national figure, above politics and above race. He was, I believe, the perfect person for the Presidency. Outside of sports we have never had a national identity, so it's fitting that such an avid sportsman would be the one truly national figure in the world of politics.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Noor Hassanali (1918-2006)

Chilo was, without a doubt, the most popular president in the history of Trinidad and Tobago, and was perhaps the most well-respected national figure. As a country there's a void to be filled. But it is as an individual that I feel the loss most.

There was always something about him that set him apart - a sense of nobility, a sense of being an honourable person, a good person. He was always friendly, always made you feel important. I admired him more than anyone else I have ever met. It was more than the fact that he was family - I think I would have admired him equally if he were a stranger. I always said that being related to the President in no way reflected on me - after all, I did nothing but be born. But knowing a person who was good and honourable, knowing a person who, it seemed, saw the good in people and did his best to do what was right - that was important to me. Long before he was the President he was someone in the family to look up to.

It's been a long time since I saw him. His health has been in decline for a long time. At 88 it's likely that he was the longest-lived person in the family - ever. But while it wasn't a surprise, it was a shock. There was a comfort in knowing he existed. It's a shock to know he's gone.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Summer is done

Classes start on Monday. Three months have slipped away. I wish I knew where they had gone.

To be honest, that's nothing but a series of cliches. It isn't the least bit surprising that summer has slipped away - we departed on the Appalachian trip just days after classes ended; after we got back I was back to teaching almost immediately; then we were off to Michigan, and just over a week later classes start again. The idea of a "break" during summer is an illusion. I suppose I should be happy to have the time off that I do - after all, in the "real world" people have to work longer hours with fewer breaks.

What would a "real workd" job be like? I have no idea, and no basis against which to judge. My only "real" job was the time I worked in the Herbarium in UWI, and even then I was supposed to be writing my dissertation when I got home, and doing consulting work on weekends. I have such an idealised view of the work world - on one hand, the idea that you are working continuously all day, pretty much tied to your desk for eight hours, and on the other hand, the idea that you can drop what you are doing at the end of the day and just be done. One seems to be torture, the other a luxury. But neither is realistic, I suspect.

So what is the "real world" like? Whatever you make it, I suspect. Just like life in academia.