Trinidad and Tobago, 1998
Colour. Beta-SP/PAL 42
English, Direction Sanjeev Chatterjee; script
by Amitava Kumar
Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost islands of the Lesser Antilles, contains the continents and confounds purists. In this amalgam of Africa, America, Asia and Europe there is little that is not hybrid. Lying to the east of Venezuela, it was initially inhabited by Amerindians—the Arawak of the Orinoco and the Carib of the Amazon. They had the misfortune of being discovered by the grasping mariners of mercantile Europe. Spanish freeloaders followed Columbus and set up plantations. Catalan Capuchin missions followed some time after. The planters drafted the ‘natives’ for plantation work. New diseases and the demanding regimen of labour began depleting Amerindian numbers. The Capuchins worked their way through the remaining populace, converting them spiritually and transforming them racially, doubtless adopting the prescribed missionary position. Women bore the brunt. Little is left today of the original race or culture, barring a few place names, of which is Tunapuna, made famous by CLR James, the historian, cricket connoisseur and an early Caribbean litterateur.
The Atlantic slave trade of the 16th and 17th centuries rescued the planters and replenished labour for the plantations. Men subsequently elevated to high office and dignified in the national mythologies of Britain, France and Spain made their fortunes and their heroic reputation abducting tribes from West Africa, the Sahel and Madagascar. The slaves died fast in inhuman conditions of transport and work. As the slaves died the trade prospered and Europe got its supplies of sugar, cotton, tobacco and cocoa. An Afro-Caribbean population soon took root. They had come from diverse tribes and cultures in Africa. On the plantation they lost the memory of their original cultures, except the syntax of their languages, with which they inflected the ‘white’ languages to create the distinctive Caribbean Creole. The drums of Africa too remained in this historical memory. The two combined to produce a genre of music that is unique to the West Indies, a genre that defies permanent description because its forms keep changing periodically.
Trinidad during this period changed many hands. The European Reformation prompted the Spaniards to invite French Catholic settlers from the other islands, who showed up with their slaves. French patois came with them. Courlanders took over Tobago for a period. The British finally took possession of both islands. Inevitably, some of the white mixed with some of the black and a bit of brown had begun to sprout in the islands.
In 1834, in a moment of conscience, the British Parliament abolished slavery. Trinidadian planters suffered the inconvenience only briefly. By 1845 the system of indentured labour was in place. Labour was imported from India in large numbers until the early years of the 20th century. They too were drawn from diverse cultural backgrounds, predominantly from Bihar, but also from the Punjab, the Bombay Presidency and the Madras Presidency. Many opted to stay on after the period of indenture and in a few generations, barring the idea of the homeland, a few dietary habits, a dash of Hindi and their religion, the new settlers too forgot much of their original cultures and became part of the Trinidadian hybrid. In the meantime, a few thousand Chinese labourers too had arrived, many of them without women. They settled down to become the Chinee of Trinidad. Syrian and Lebanese traders added to the mix as did the Portugese and Surinamese who made their way there.
Such a concentration of races on a mere 4828 square kilometres of island territory makes for an alluring proximity. At a mean annual temperature of 27 degrees centigrade the consequences are predictable. In Trinidad’s ethno-demographic profile, aside from the 41 per cent Afro-Caribbeans and 39 per cent Indians, there is an intriguing 20 per cent “Others”, the racial strands of most of whom it will be impossible to unravel. What the missionaries and planters began cautiously, and on the sly, the “Others” have carried on with hectic abandon.
Such goings on are not expected to hold universal appeal, least of all to the Hindu revivalists of India, some of whom are hidebound enough to attempt the retrieval of the original cultural core from so advanced a hybridity. That is precisely what the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has set out to do among the Indians of Trinidad, and that is perhaps what has prompted the making of the film Pure Chutney, else there is no other explanation why a film made by Indians based in the United States of America focuses solely on the Indians of Trinidad, unless of course it is the Indian diaspora’s known penchant for gazing at itself with endless curiosity and fascination. In the case of Pure Chutney the latter does not seem to be the case.
Judged in its context, there is not much that is wrong with the film, except perhaps the narrator’s occasional tendency towards an excessive flamboyance. In many ways it is a bold and sensitive film, portraying the mixed identity of those of Indian origin in Trinidad. Technically too, the film is competent. It begins on a light note and then proceeds to the more serious aspects of the issues it probes. Amitava Kumar, the narrator, is quite deft in his role, mixing easily with people of different classes and sensibilities. Most importantly, the film does not confine itself to the spectacular or the arresting locales, but looks beyond the main thoroughfare to capture life on the plantations, where some Indians still work. And the neat editing ensures that the people interviewed in the film move in and out of the camera’s focus in a well-ordered thematic sequence.
Clearly, the makers of the film, unlike the VHP, celebrate hybridity, for that is its main motif and those interviewed in it include Muslims, Hindus, expatriates who have settled in other countries and religious activists, many of whom come across as being educated, articulate, and aware of the history of their own ancestry, at least the Caribbean part of it. These descendents of indentured labourers are no longer overwhelmingly a population of plantation workers. Transcending their working class origins, they have over the last century diversified into many occupations.
The escape from the relative ethnic seclusion of the plantations has meant a greater interaction with the other communities of Trinidad, particularly the Afro-Caribbean culture that evolved in more urban circumstances. A fair degree of cultural exchange followed. Their songs are a delightful blend of Bhojpuri and Calypso. They participate in Trinidad’s legendary pre-Lenten Carnival. They have innovated with Afro-Caribbean musical forms, most recently the Soca, to create an Indo-Caribbean variety, appropriately called Chutney Soca.
The other half of the hybridity lies in their attachment to things Indian. They keep up with the latest Hindi film songs, this despite being largely ignorant of the language.
The residues of the their ancestral language and cultural base include a smattering of words for addressing elder relatives (nana, nani for the grandparents, chacha and chachi for uncle and aunt), the names of some condiments and kitchen items, and some social practices and religious rituals. That this much survived through the generations is itself remarkable. Racial distinctiveness is sought to be preserved by marrying within the community. But attempts to stick to constructs of a purely Indian way of life are not always successful. The cultural and social fusion has gone on far too long for the pure form to survive. A man called Kismet, whose name means “fate”, interviewed while attending the cremation of his father, believed that his name signified “faith”. Clearly the remains of the homeland are not strong enough to attempt any authentic retrieval of the past.
But this is not a constraint for Indian revivalists who intend to undo history with such meagre resources. The VHP accepts only ancient history. It cannot tolerate more recent history, particularly of the kind that Trinidad has gone through. It has disrupted religious harmony in India and it has now come to camp among the Indians of the island. Typically, the VHP cultivates its Hinduism among Hindus who know their religion the least. Hence it has a large base among the Indian diaspora. That is where much of its funds come from, that is where many of its publicity strategies are developed. Unfortunately for Trinidad, the VHP has found a base among some Indians seeking an authentic cultural identity and Pure Chutney traces both the process and its effects. One person interviewed did not know what exactly was wrong with the Muslim rulers of medieval India, just some vague notion of “many Hindus converted”, of the “widespread demolition of temples” and the imposition of “a jiziya tax”. The trouble comes from pretending to have a homeland and not knowing its history. In Trinidad, among families of Indian origin, it is not uncommon to have one child adhering to Islam and another to Hinduism. The film brings out starkly how this religious plurality now stands at risk with the VHP propaganda. All the stereotypes that revivalism specialises in are thrown into the ring. The Carnival is “western” and has to be shunned. The black population is of course “debauched”, possibly even polluting, and must be kept at a safe distance.
While focusing on these and other aspects of the VHP’s Trinidadian outing, Pure Chutney invites attention to what is happening in the United States where South Asians do have a radical counter-culture in cities like New York, which opposes the agendas of the VHP and similar outfits. This counter movement seems to be missing in Trinidad and Tobago. Historical and sociological reasons entailing varying patterns and moments of migration lie behind this difference. Consequently, films such as this are necessary if Trinidad is not to suffer the designs of off-shore provocateurs. In the meanwhile, it is hoped that the “Others” of Trinidad will get on with their job more purposefully and erase all traces of original culture and pure blood.