III: Indian Culture and Its Transformations in Trinidad

diaspora3When one thinks of the Indian presence in the Caribbean, a number of people at once come to mind. In the cricketing world, the names of Sonny Ramdhin, Alvin Kallicharan, and most of all Rohan Kanhai are not easily forgotten; in the political realm, there is Cheddi Jagan, President of Guyana, and Shridath Ramphal, who for many years was the Commonwealth Secretary-General. The President of Trinidad & Tobago for the last seven years has been Hasan Ali, whose ancestors came to Trinidad 100 years ago. Most prominently, there is V.S. Naipaul, whose house in Chaguanas, just south of Port of Spain in Trinidad, still stands — immense, forbidding, abandoned, decayed, aloof, desolate, not quite unlike Naipaul himself.

However, in thinking of the exceptional journey, from servitude to resistance to freedom, undertaken by Indians in the Trinidad and the rest of the Caribbean, it is not the fame and fortune of some Indians that is most striking, but the manner in which Indians as a whole, despite the formidable adversities placed in the way, have been able to retain their self-dignity, preserve and enhance their culture, and enrich themselves by a selective engagement with other cultures. The landscapes, art, music, cuisine, and religious edifices and customs of Indians in Trinidad provide an illuminating testimony of the manner in which Indians have been able to inscribe themselves into the history of Trinidad. Having been severed from their homes and families, many Indians made new friends on the long passage to the Caribbean, only to lose them as each man was shunted off to some plantation or the other. It was all the more imperative, in an alien and hostile land, that Indians be able to inhabit a space which they could claim as their own, and to which they could offer their attachment. Those who came from the Gangetic heartland named many of the streets after the principal areas from where they had been recruited, such as Mathura, Kanpur, and Lucknow. Those hailing from Basti in Uttar Pradesh created Basta Hall, while Faizabad became transformed into Fyazabad; indentureds from Barrackpore and Chander Nagar, both in West Bengal, retained these names for the villages in Trinidad to which they were despatched. While Europeans were intent on claiming lands for their sovereigns and for cartography, transforming land into space, Indians sought to render space into place, localizing spaces into habitats for communion with self, nature, and fellow human-beings. In so doing, they also cherished memories of the ancestral land.

In conditions of adversity, Indians were bound to take refuge in their culture, thinking of it as the bhakta in Indian devotional songs does of the boat in which she or he is placed, which gathers the storm unto itself, but they also rowed their boats to different shores. Again, as in the case of bhakti, the classical had perforce to yield to the vernacular, and other transformations and adaptations were inevitable. Those who have made a communalist reading of Indian history might well be tempted to turn the history of Indians in Trinidad and the Caribbean into another communalist affair, and though this is not the place to enter into a debate on Indian history, there can be little doubt that Trinidad’s history does not allow of communalist interpretations. In the nineteenth century, the “Hosein” festival, a celebration of Muharram, was the principal festival for both Hindus and Muslims, and the Muharram Massacre of 30 October 1884, in which at least 16 Indians were shot dead by the colonial police, was a desperate attempt by the colonizers to infuse Indians with a distinct and irreconcilable sense of being ‘Muslims’ and ‘Hindus’, besides being a brutal assault on a burgeoning labor movement that paid little attention to religious identities. In other spheres, too, such as the celebration of Divali, Indians in Trinidad have shown an extraordinary pluralism.

In food and patterns of eating, as well, Indians were to show their capacity for adaptation. Those caste distinctions that made impossible commensality in India were, in the conditions of migration, broken down, and vegetarianism was to have little appeal among Indo-Trinidadians. Tandoori cooking remains unknown among Indians in Trinidad and the Caribbean, and curry is made with a curry powder, rather than by mixing a curry paste. But it is the prevalence of “curry” in Trinidadian food that impresses, and in most respects Indo-Trinidadian food bears an astonishing similarity to certain varieties of Indian food. As one author of a cookbook on Caribbean food was to note in 1974, “the Indians have had a deep effect upon the Caribbean Cuisine primarily through their enthusiasm for curry, which is becoming as much a part of Caribbean as of Indian cooking.” Trinidadian fast food, usually eaten with chutney, is mainly of Indian origin: their saheena is like pakoras, “doubles” is a variation on the channa batura, though more in the form of a chick-peas sandwich, and their kachowrie has a marked similarity to its namesake in India. Though many Afro-Trinidadians will not admit it, even their own main meals are now predominantly Indian in origin, for alongside callooloo there is curried goat, and roti is easily the most popular food in Trinidad. Indeed, to understood just how far roti has come to be a marker of ‘Indianness’, and the resentment felt by some Afro-Trinidadians, consider that in the 1961 election, the black party took up the slogan: “We don’t want no roti government.” Roti shops proliferate, and though in India the middle-classes have adopted a Western-style breakfast, complete with poor white bread and corn flakes, in Trinidad roti with dhal and subzi or tarkari constitutes the bread and butter of most people at breakfast and dinner and often at lunch as well. The prevalence of Indian food is reflected in calypso, and many songs sing, often with mockery, scorn, and disturbing caricature, of ‘roti’ and ‘chutney’.

In Trinidad, however, chutney is not only a condiment, but a form of music that Indians have made their own. In the arena of music, as in others, there appears to have been a divide between Afro-Trinidadian music and Indo-Trinidadian music. Calypso, which occupies the mantle of the ‘national music’, complemented by pan, came to be seen as the exclusive preserve of Afro-Trinidadians, though Drupatee and a few other Indians came to acquire a considerable reputation as calypsonians. Likewise, Indians never made the music of steel bands their own, though again today an Indian, Jit Samaroo, is probably the most well-known orchestrator of pan music. But it was in the creation of chutney songs and rhythms that Indians found their own soca or soul music. Taking with easy abandon rhythms from pan and rap, and drawing from the well-springs of Indian folk and even more so film music, Indians evolved a distinct musical form. If the prevalence of Hindi words in chutney helped to maintain a living contact between Indo-Trinidadians and those they left behind in India, today Sundar Popo, Anand Yankaran, and other chutney singers have become one of the principal threads around which Indo-Trinidadians in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., three countries to which they have migrated in large numbers, weaves the memory of the homeland.