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​Dark Days

Pictures courtesy Maria Nunes

Picture courtesy My name is Ira Mathur and my memoir Love the Dark Days was published last year.

I was born in an army hospital in Guwahati, the heart of India's tea country. My earliest memory is being in my ayah’s arms, following my grandmother and several soldiers on a hunt for mushrooms in the rainforest. I remember the sweet rancid air, the heavy footprint of the soldiers in the mud – my brother racing ahead wild-eyed, with a stick pretending it was a scythe – like it was yesterday.

The exact address of where in Trinidad and Tobago I come from would be: The Museum, The Fort, Scarborough, Tobago. The museum annexe, our first home, became the heart of my childhood. I live in Woodbrook now. But I think I am more ‘Bago to the Bone than Trini.

In the Indian Army, my dad was always moving all over India. My brother was sent to boarding school at eight and my sister lived with my grandmother. I was a very dreamy short-sighted child who spent a lot of time alone, making up stories. My father sometimes got his orderly to play ludo with me. Soldiers complained I cheated at snakes and ladders.

All army kids went to school banded together in an army truck. When our parents played bridge at the officers' mess, we ordered soft drinks in the children's room. We played board games which we always managed to make into a battle between India and Pakistan. The weak kids got to be Pakistan and always lost.

Depending on where my parents were posted, I was sent to or removed from the Sacred Hearts Girls High School, a convent run by Irish nuns. My mother said I was a very naughty child so, occasionally, I was sent to Bangalore to live with my grandmother. I adored her. She stuffed me with stories of the British monarchy and the Indian Raj, Sufi poetry and Arabian nights and her own family. She’s still in my head, talking rot, as she said. So I feel I am hundreds of years old.

I have a family, my adult son Kiran and daughter Anika and my husband Imshah. My beloved parents are still my best friends. My sister also lives in Trinidad and has two children.

We also lived in the Himalayas, snow, ice and vast mountains, my father escorting Benazir Bhutto to inspect troops and treacherous winding roads with steep drops. I remember looking down from my father's army jeep to see the rusted carcasses of buses. And, above the sun through pine trees, so many monkeys and baboons everywhere. In Simla, we would wake each morning to the scent of wood smoke and the sound of soldiers playing the bagpipes.

I may have got my fanciful nature in Simla, then known as Little England. Centuries lived in our heads comfortably. You saw history everywhere in people's faces: the Afghan rule of India in blue-eyed, fair-skinned coolies carrying loads, the Chinese, Dravidian, North Indian and South Indian features of the army officers and their wives.

Always I was being admonished for my manners.

My adolescence in Tobago were the happiest days of my life, go-carting down the hill with my brother and his best friend Warren (now Dr Wheeler), the Yips, the Khourys, the Maharajes and the Serranos. Moonlight picnics at Pigeon Point, parties at Mount Irvine, cocoa estates, overnighting at Charlotteville, watching fishermen bringing in early morning catch. There was always the sea in our hair and the salt and sun on us.

I learned to love poetry in Tobago through the best teacher, Mrs Thomas. I came last in every other subject. Because I was put in form two at the age of ten and didn't understand anything but the poetry. My brother and I loved The Potters Wheel.

There was one tiny disco in Tobago but my brother wouldn't let anyone dance with me or my sister. Some smart boy once asked my mom if she minded if he danced with me. She said, “Yes." He said, "Yes, I could dance?" Mom said, "Yes, I mind".

The day a classmate called me a coolie I was puzzled. I said, with a strong Indian accent as I had just arrived, “But I don't lift loads!” She called me crazy and we became best friends. I didn’t realise coolie was a pejorative term, just thought people were using it incorrectly.
I went to at least five primary schools in India and Tobago before going to secondary school at Bishops in Tobago. And Oakdene School in Buckinghamshire, England. I did my masters in journalism at City University, London.

When I was 17, in my first philosophy class at uni, my professor asked if we wanted to be contented pigs or discontented Socrates. I must have intuitively decided on the latter. As a child of a mixed religious marriage, bucking against dogma is part of our legacy. We were raised around religious texts, the Quran from my grandmother and the Gita from father – but no rituals were involved. They were just part of the books we read in abundance, English classics, Urdu poetry, Archie comics(!).
I don't believe in a standard God. I have an amalgam of beliefs that help me through tough times: karma exists; it’s clever to recognise how insignificant we are as humans. We need to surrender to know we are not in charge. Human nature, sickness, and death is actually peaceful; and troubles teach us empathy, connection and consolation towards other humans.

An ideal evening would include yoga and lazy solitary afternoon reading in a sunlit room sipping cucumber juice.
Also a long hot shower, calorific dessert, late night existential conversations, a sneaky cigarette. Then pray for sleep.

I've been a lifelong insomniac. My brain never stops. Demons come at me, crazy fears for the people I love. Night wanderings, pacing, rifling through books. A thuddingly maddening urgent idea. Occasionally there is reprieve – a beatific dream, a longed-for insight. I live my most essential life at night.

I never stop reading. Six books on a go. I love the old male gatekeepers. (Sorry.) Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth, Hanif Kureishi. Vikram Seth, Rohinton Mistry, Ian McEwan, Walcott, Naipaul, Saul Bellow. And the stoosh women, AS Byatt, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Anita Brookner, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I have a love-hate relationship with Carnival. I love Jouvert, calypso tents, las lap – but I find pretty mas boring, dumbed down and snobbish. And, amid DJ's instructions to jump and wave, I think longingly of a cool bedroom and a book.I hate modern soca.

David Rudder is the greatest lyricist ever. Machel is top-tier in performance.
When I see men playing a team sport, I feel guilty as I objectify them and think of cute butts or nice legs. I don't listen to them talk about the game. Too boring.
The human condition, the march of time, feeling like it’s all pointless makes me miserable. Also when people spell 'lose' as ‘loose’.

I have never hit anyone in anger. Unless biting my husband's hand while giving birth counts.

It was inevitable that I would write about family in my first book My split life between continents, religions and ideologies was a monkey on my back. After I had children, I began forgetting some words in Hindi and Urdu and realised how quickly the past is forgotten. The book stopped that haemorrhaging.

I wrote my way into whether Dark Days would be a memoir. The first version was a work of fiction called Unloved, based on a terriblyspoilt great-grandmother courted by the Nizam of Hyderabad. The Mathurs were the grown-ups in the room of a divided India. Administrators for 200 years of Mughal rule, steady, secular, liberal and academic, they ate mutton and drank spirits (including at Diwali.) They had a strong sense of duty to family and country, were easy-going and jocular. There simply wasn't enough drama to write about.

The structure of the book absolutely evolved. Do I start in the 16th Century or the 21st? In India or Tobago? When I went to see Derek Walcott, he suggested I write in the present, so the structure changed. I used the diary I wrote in St Lucia to finish it.

Walcott liked the bits about my childhood in India and Tobago the most. He said things like, "Khaki and crimson are your colours.” He wanted me to write about my privileged ancestors who fought on the side of the British. I had to shuck off my awe at my family. Give them a cold side-eye. That's harder.

I’m more relieved than pleased with the final version; it’s as if a necessary wound has been lanced. I only looked at it once after publication, in London, to record the audiobook.

How did my family react to be written about so honestly? My parents revere books and literature with religious fervour. (We put books to our heads when they fall on the floor.) So their first response is pride that I’m published. My dad asked why I didn't make it more shocking. My mom saw my dad off to three wars against China and Pakistan, left her lush family for an army officer and lost a son, so she lives lightly. My children are absorbed in their own world. My sister has been quiet about it. A niece who is overwhelmingly supportive is my publicist.

I get asked about the book's honesty all the time – but I don't get the question. I never thought I was being too honest in writing Dark Days. Journalism has trained us [newspaper writers] to be honest. I don't know any other way to write. Even when the honesty is damning to me.

I lose dignity, perhaps, but the truth is everything. I don’t regret including any particular part. I regret leaving out stuff. Virginia Woolf said, 'Nothing is real until it's recorded.'

Everyone needs therapy. Life gives us all a thrashing, and we could all use help. If the bits in Dark Days about my breakdown help even one person to feel less alone, the book would be worth it.
Plumbing my family as material for Love the Dark Days was deeply exhausting. You have to dig out and examine all the pain rather than escape into a dreamy past. You have to make yourself alert and feel everything – but the craft does take over, which is a relief, and it becomes about the form rather than the content. When it's bigger than and, hopefully, will outlive you, it becomes worth it.
People in the colonies tend to be mannered, careful with our public persona, speak like the Victorians, and say 'persons' instead of people. Like how former PM Patrick Manning would say, In The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fourteen for 2014. And then there's BC Pires’ irreverent, hugely well-read, kicksy writing, like the boys on any block seeing through our affectations, as Naipaul did but with uniquely Trini eyes, with enormous affection. This entire Trini to the Bone series is a love letter to Trinidad. BC speaks of my honesty, and as a fellow writer, I see his courage, how he bucks against the norms and forces us to see things we'd rather not.
Once, in Tobago, I saw two cars going opposite ways stop. A feller took out his bottle of rum, poured some in a glass, handed it to his pardner going the other way. And oblivious to all the angry honks of cars in traffic behind them, the two calmly took a drink. We don't let anything get to us.

To me, a Trini is a fierce proud, disproportionate talent, with a face like a Gaugin painting. And an inherent sense of equality and lyricism in everyday language. A Trini hides pain and sadness with jokes.

India belongs to nostalgia and dreams. Trinidad and Tobago is my life and my home. Is here I go dead. I love this country more than any other.

Love the Dark Days is available at Paper Based in the Normandie, NEXGEN and on Amazon.