Vinay Lal (June 2009)

Is it sheer coincidence that in my very first three days in Guyana in June this year the name of Mahatma Gandhi came up repeatedly? Or is it the case that in a troubled country the invocation of his name is not only a plea for sanity and nonviolence but also an expression of the hope that where everything else appears to have failed to heal the country’s racial wounds it may well be the teachings and example of Gandhi that will bring some relief to the country?

It had not been more than an hour after I had checked into my hotel room at Sidewalk in Georgetown on Friday morning, June 19th, and had gone to cash some US Dollars for Guyanese Dollars at one of the cambios that I first heard mention of Gandhi’s name. A friend and I were seated in a taxi talking about the racial politics in Guyana when the taxi driver, having overheard us, intervened with an observation. He asked if we were Guyanese, and was told that I had come from India via the US. ‘The saintly Mahatma’, intoned our African driver, ‘taught us humility’. He then proceeded to narrate the incident where Gandhi, in his early days in South Africa, learned what it meant to be a ‘coolie’ when he was tossed out of the train for daring to travel in a first-class cabin. That incident has resonated very strongly with nearly everyone acquainted not only with Gandhi’s life in South Africa but with the history of resistance to racism and colonialism, and I found it remarkable, and inspiring, that a taxi driver in Georgetown should have recalled this incident.

The following day, one Mr Harold Khan of Bassant’s Taxi Service took me to West Coast Demerara. Though he claimed (as did many others) to be speaking from the heart, letting me have the truth unvarnished, it soon transpired that he is a hard-core member of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), which has been ruling the country since 1992. To gauge his assessment of Cheddi Jagan, it is enough to say that he described Cheddi as Guyana’s Mahatma Gandhi. Many people, myself not excepted, are likely to have far too many reservations about this comparison. It requires an enormous stretch of the imagination to think of Cheddi and Gandhi in the same vein, but I suspect that, by the same token, no one who is not familiar with Cheddi Jagan can understand the much larger-than-life figure he was in Guyana, particularly for the country’s Indians. He founded the PPP, led the party at its inception, and led it to triumph in August 1961. The Americans, who viewed him as a staunch communist and a proxy for the Soviet Union, engineered his removal. In the first elections held in Guyana after the end of the Cold War, Jagan rode back into power and served as President of Guyana from 1992 until his death in 1997.

On Sunday, June 21st, on my third day in Guyana, another friend took me into Indian villages on the East Coast road, and we also stopped by the African village of Buxton. On Sunday mornings in Guyana, the action is all at the local rum shop. In Good Hope, we spent the better part of the entire afternoon at a rum shop. The 20-20 final was taking place between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but we nevertheless entered into a conversation with some of the men seated at the run shop. In the three days that I have been in Guyana, I have heard much talk of rampant corruption. The prevailing view is that politics has ruined what is a beautiful country and might otherwise have been prosperous. Our conversation veered at one point to a discussion of the violence that occasionally grips the country. One of the brothers, Rudy, who drove a truck in the US for two years, was articulate in the expression of his political sentiment that Guyana sometimes appeared to be lurching towards racial violence, even if he was clear that in their everyday relations the Indians and Africans exhibited an intermingling about which official or scholarly views of the country are more or less clueless. Rudy then quoted Gandhi, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’

Listening to Rudy and thinking of how Gandhi had been invoked so often in the few days that I had been in Guyana, I wonder why, in some 20-25 years that I have lived in the US, I have rarely heard Gandhi’s name come up in table-talk or everyday conversation. Gandhi’s name evidently has cultural capital everywhere in the world, particularly so, perhaps, in countries which are desperately seeking solutions to what appear to be insuperable political problems. In the US, Gandhi’s name has been mentioned in conversations I’ve had with political activists, liberals, Quakers, peaceniks, and (occasionally) academics, but seldom with people from ordinary walks of life. This is not altogether surprising when we consider that the US is most likely the most apolitical and insular country in the world.