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OPINION: Cornelia Ida, my village

Cornelia, West Coast Demerara. Guyana. This is the place where on hot tropical nights you touch the moon with your bare indentured, slave descended hands, watch the shooting stars with your own brown eyes, where you may look deep into the night, and now and again, well into the crimson platform of dawn. Night laughter never dies. And then the rhythm of Saturday morning markets at Leonora, by turns fanciful and abject, the details of faces, crevices, and dimples, faces of the barefooted friends with whom I ran the chure line, and played gun-shooting. I know now that when you leave, the village lives on in you, and against you. It becomes that inescapable agent, like an albatross—following you, chasing you down cold abstract highways, making it difficult for you to leave those dense, noisy relations of intimacy and settle in foreign lands constructed around relations of anonymity. It stalks you with the warning that the new modern land is erected through affections of convenience. Too brutal I suspect, but I am not the sole author of this finding. The village is Plato’s demiurge. And thus, my Third World village is still there, nigh erect, two thousand miles below this cold mid-Atlantic wind, standing there like a night watchman, waiting, waiting for a return.

All of us who have left our villages, towns, and countries, for reasons somewhere between fear and hope, or between deprivation and desire, carry with us this burden, this weight on our backs, even though of what specifically, I am not sure. I am one of them. I plead guilty to the groundings with the Gemeinschaft, the groundings with my brothers, with rice fields, cows, and hammering tropical rain. And still, I see a kind of dark, beautiful, and intensely private truth in these dislocations. Remember Naipaul? The gold of the imagination turns into the lead of reality.

There is nothing special about Cornelia Ida, this village of about a thousand planted souls. Flat and undifferentiated, it never attracted anyone from afar. Jejune the critic might say. And yet, I developed a relationship with this place that is still so alive and well. It began with the Atlantic Ocean, not even a quarter of a mile from the rugged backstreet of CI. Water, my element. Water, I found out, has a mind of its own, capable of moods, of attitudes. When the tide is out, the ocean is flat and still like sheets of glass, disdainfully indifferent to eyes unknown, and then with the dance of the moon it would turn and start behaving like an angry boar, and with gathering momentum come in magnificent swells, massive pounding waves. The Dutch had built a seawall to keep the beast out, but by my time it had collapsed into heaps of history for those who cared to ask. Those broken, jagged protrusions form an archive of the ingenuity of the Dutch and some of the worst forms of coloniality. Sustained domination is impossible without some measure of genius.

The next imperial power, Britain, built another wall––ten feet tall, sturdy, rough and defiant, like a concrete Maginot Line, snaking its way through mangrove and mud. I liked that seawall, for it became a window to the outside world. Before I left those shores, it was the only place from where I might look outwards. I had a favorite spot on the seawall. It was to the immediate right of the drainage koker facing the endless water. There was sand, flat brown sand, but no beach, no concept of beach, no picnic, no colorful umbrellas, no parking spots, not a changing room, no tourists, no cameras, no clicks. I used to sit there sometimes after my high school class on West Indian history, or a fiery anti-imperialist speech on the radio by a big-one and try to figure out from which direction they came —the African slaves, the Indian and Chinese indentured servants, the Dutch, the Spanish, the French, and then the British. It was hard to figure out where I was in relation to all the brutalities of centuries gone, through the geography and history I was encountering. I was there, sometimes forlorn, grasping for some spatial reference, sometimes with a quiet rising expectation of exiting the geography I walked on. The one or two textbook maps at my disposal were not sufficient to fracture the confinement of where I was at that time, on the village seawall looking into the Atlantic Ocean. One friend was sure that if I look straight ahead that would be Africa; if I angle the body a little to the left, I will pick up England; and a then a little bit more to the left and that would be America. For years I went to the seawall, often with a book in hand.

I recall Benham’s Economics by F.W. Paish (MC, MA. (Cantab.) formerly Professor of Economics (with special reference to Business Finance)) in the University of London. I started to think of what it would be like to go to this great University of London. I practiced things like the production possibility curve and was especially proud that I had recognized the difference between a change in quantity demanded, and a change in demand. This is where with my back against the wind I read books like Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Elizabeth Wiskemann’s Europe of the Dictators, and A.J.P. Taylor’s The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848–1918.

I shall be there again this Sunday, this time to watch the shooting stars graduate from SVN.

Modified excerpt from R.B. Persaud, “The reluctant immigrant and modernity,” in N. Inayatullah and E. Dauphinee (eds.) Narrative Global Politics, New York: Routledge, 2016.

Dr. Persaud is Adviser, Office of the President, Guyana.

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