It was Trinidad-born VS. Naipaul who had famously described the India he visited as “an area of darkness”. And, when his younger brother, novelist Shiva Naipaul, travelled to India, he had described its poorest province, Bihar, as “a dying state”. Bihar, he stated in an article for the British Spectator, was “the subcontinent´s heart of darkness”.
A hundred and fifty years ago others had made a similar journey in the opposite direction. Many of the 134,000 indentured Indian labourers brought to Trinidad after slavery was abolished on the islands came from Bihar.
I was born in Bihar, but the historical connection did not weigh terribly on my mind as I sat on the plane to Port of Spain. Growing up in India, the name West Indies had meant cricket. Otherwise, it figured in barely disguised racist jokes. A dark-skinned cousin in India is called a “West Indian” by my family in Patna. (I found out later that the epithet is returned by people of African origin in Trinidad, some of whom generally refer to those of East Indian origin as “coolie people”.) The point, however, is that the early crossings of indentured labourers from India to the Caribbean, was hardly ever mentioned. There is a poem of Derek Walcott´s about Port of Spain. The city evokes in Walcott´s mind a comparison with Jorge Luis Borges´s blind love for Buenos Aires, “how a man feels the veins of a city swell in his hand.” My arrival in Port of Spain, however, was as a stranger. I took in the sight of the lights outside the airplane window, and, to the side and in the distance. the glow of the oil rigs near the Ven ezuelan coast. That was in October, a year and a half ago.
The ugly tourist
When I visited Trinidad for the second time this February, the plane was full of American tourists coming in for the carnival. I and my film-maker friend, Sanjeev, spent our time in flight downing glasses of the customary rum punch and taking down names of the carnival bands that were being recommended. There was this person from Indiana repeatedly telling us not to waste time eating oysters in Trinidad because they didn´t really work as aphrodisiacs. He proceeded to inform us that we´d find “a lot of Indians down there… Boy, they´re all over!”
But, it was the tourists who were all over. Not so many during the night mass called the jouvert, when revellers cover their bodies with mud and ash as they dance to the beat of the bands riding atop huge trucks, but certainly during the closing event of the carnival, the queen´s parade. Everywhere in the parade, one witnessed white flesh protruding from under bright, tinsel costumes, like those we last saw worn decades ago by Hollywood´s Roman soldiers on the sets of The Ten Commandments.
Returning to the hotel, I got into a conversation with some exchange students from a Lutheran college in Washington State. Their South African instructor at the University of West Indies was making them read Jamaica Kincaid´s A Small Place, a fierce diatribe against the complacency of American tourists visiting the Caribbean. At my urging, one of the students stood against the balcony and read her favourite lines out loud for us:
The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being… [A]nd it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you. They do not like you. They do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you.
On the second evening of the carnival, we watched the calypso competition on television at the home of the Permasads. Ken teaches history at the University of West Indies and Roslyn is an attorney. During my earlier visit, 1 had read in Ken´s introduction to his dissertation – which was written while he was a visiting student at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi – about his feeling a “nagging sense of historical hurt”.
Sitting in the Permasads´ living room, leafing through the pages of Ken´s book, I asked, “What is this historical hurt?”
“That´s what lots of Indians feel,” Roslyn replied.
Ken said, “That´s what somebody like Naipaul went to India to work out. This place draws you… What am I doing here? It´s very difficult.”
Ken and Roslyn took turns ex plaining this to us.
“It has more to do with the violence of a rupture. Blacks in the new world suffer that too… It is about existence in these fabricated societies. Native populations wiped out, and people were brought out on denuded lands.”
“You are placed there without a past that is indigenous to you.”
“Indians in India have monuments, we are creating monuments. There is so much taken for granted there, here we are in the process of rooting ourselves.”
What they said was very much in evidence in the temples and mosques we visited: that powerful sense of resilience evident in the signs of a culture that has survived against tremendous odds. Culture had worked to keep intact a sense of society after it had been, quite literally, set adrift.
In ways not seen in the festivals and functions of Indians in the US or England, the Indians of Trinidad adhere to a memory that reaches far, far back. It is quite startling to see, for example, the tight clusters of jhandis – flags and pennants hoisted on bamboo poles – outside the Hindu homes in Trinidad today. One is returned at once to the villages of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh; these are not sights seen any more in Bombay or New Delhi.
And yet, there is a curious denial in these gestures of steadfast remembrance. And this denial has a gravely disturbing feature to it. Not the least of which is the discomfort one feels in telling someone else that what they value as real, is unreal, or dead – or, for that matter, dangerous.
At a wedding lunch before the festival of Diwali, a man leans forward, holding a green chilli in his hand. He says, “Hara mirchi [green chillies] the best anti-AlDS thing.” He pours another shot of rum and proceeds to describe the way Indian women “move their bodies after two drinks” during the chutney dance. His eyes widen and he blows air hotly, “Oh-h-h, man…”
The chutney dance, it is said by some, arose as a hybrid form evolved by young Indian women whose parents would not allow them to go to calypsos. The prohibition was a way of ensuring inter-marriage among Indians alone. Such was the suppression, indeed, that many Trinidad-Indian girls ended up taking their own lives. Apparently, drinking weedkiller was the most popular form of suicide.
I was told that the other night at the Diwali Mela, there were women handing out flyers about battered women, and so went looking for these women who had turned the traditional festival of lights into an occasion for enlightenment and consciousness-raising. These women were not to be found, but there were many signs like the following:
“When a man has begun to be ashamed of his “ancestors”, the end has come. Here am “I” one of the “Hindu race” yet proud of my race, proud of my ancestors. I am proud to call myself a Hindu.”
Together with these words of the late-19th century Hindu philosopher Vivekanand, the organisers had installed an imposing papier-mache statue of the swami in one section of Feature the grounds outside Port of Spain. His words certainly seemed to find an echo among the Trinidad-Indians: “You must have an iron will if you would cross the ocean. You must be strong enough to pierce mountains.” But, this was not simply a sermon about fearlessness.
For a visitor from India, familiar with the way in which nationalist Hindu pride is used by fundamentalists to persecute minorities, this insistence was more than a little alarming. Ravi-ji, one of the chief organisers of the festival and a leader of the Hindu community in Trinidad, was not perturbed by our expressions of concern. He defended himself thus: “I am valid. I am Indian. I am Trinidadian. I am Hindu. That´s my trinity.”
But, what of the fact that he was, in an undeniable sense, in the sense of inhabiting a shared history, also a Muslim? No, he said. He could have Muslim friends, and added, “My brother-in-law is a Muslim.” But that was not his identity, and furthermore he was not about to forget the lessons of history.
What history, I pressed. “The history of the Muslim invasions in India,” he said, “and Muslims breaking Hindu temples…”
That was exactly what the destroyers of the Babri Masjid had said before demolishing it on 6 December 1992.
Chaguanes to Chauhan
After the carnival was over, sitting in a roadside-bar near rural Mayaro one morning, I asked the woman at the counter whether the man on her poster, the long-haired, bare-waisted singer Chris Garcia, was an Indian. Yes, she said.
How come that name then? She didn´t know. A few days later, by pure chance, reading VS. Naipaul´s fragmentary autobiography, Finding the Centre, I came across details of the accidents of a syncretic history.
During Naipaul´s childhood, Trinidad was poor, even with American bases, and many citizens made the illegal passage to nearby Venezuela to find work. Naipaul writes, “Some acquired Venezuelan birth certificates; so it happened that men whose grandfathers had come from India sank into the personalities, randomly issued by the migration brokers, of Spanish mulattos named Morales or Garcia or Ybarra.”
Similar cross-fertilisations of history, often mixed with the violent and bloody consequences of colonialism, provide the pedigree of other names in the region. Naipaul´s birthplace, Chaguanas, recalls the struggles of the Amerindian tribe of Chaguanes against the Spanish. But then Hindi-speakers appropriated it as Chauhan, a North Indian Hindu caste name.
There are no pure origins for identities in the diaspora and, equally important, the identities cannot be claimed by appealing to pure homelands either.
There is a detour through a larger lesson in the story of our own mad Columbus. He was the one who, stricken with homesickness, threw himself into the sea to swim back home. In trying to swim back to Calcutta from Guiana, he offered a lesson about the perilous gesture of return.
The Daily Chronicle of 22 December, 1899, tells us that our hapless swimmer was quickly jailed for 14 days for indecent exposure. Would-be travellers to imaginary homelands, stand warned!