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THE INDIAN PROBLEM
On Monday, the Guardian’s front page showed a performance tableau of a barefooted young man and woman in Indian costume. A similar image, of an old woman in a rocking chair with and two younger women, was published on the Express’s front-page on May 26, headlined “Indian Arrival play.”
Paralysed, bucolic, effete—this is the Indian “brand” in Trinidad. But it’s a different brand from the India in US pop-culture, and you might even say in the Western imagination, which is fascinated with Indians, but not as cow-herders or doubles vendors.
A decade ago, a Simpsons episode (titled Kiss Kiss Bangalore) took place in India, and featured the Simpsons doing a Bollywood dance number, and the food, the snakes, the Gods, what have you, in a lovingly campy way.
Since then, Indian characters began appearing in prominent roles in high-profile TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, and The Daily Show. M Night Shamylan’s Hollywood career is still something of a phenomenon.
Today, Indian faces appear in leading roles in network TV series like Quantico, Netflix’s Master of None, and are given high visibility on news programmes, like CNN’s Sanjay Gupta and Fareed Zakaria. Outside of show-business, former US Attorney Preet Bharara, former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi are mainstream personalities. (These aren’t exhaustive lists.)
The point is, to be Indian in the West, or at least the US, means something much different from what it means in Trinidad and Tobago. Counter arguments will spring immediately to litigious minds. The IndoTrinidadian community is rich.
It dominates in the professions, and is prominent in politics, state and business institutions. Its party, the UNC, has formed the government more than once.
All true, but it all counts for naught because of the ongoing kulturkampf the community seems either unable or unwilling to address.
It’s little comfort that similar long-simmering kulturkampfs have burst violently through Euro-American politics, societies, and economies with Brexit, the Trump phenomenon, and the resurgence of ethnic nationalism in Europe. What drives the phenomenon is usually incumbent social groups being moved to “take back” their countries from immigrants and various other interlopers.
Which brings us back to Trinidad and Tobago in 2017. The narrative that fulfills all the insular and nativist criteria outlined above is the Creole nationalist narrative—centred in Carnival, and extending into politics and society.
It pronounces on authenticity, and provides images, logic, and arguments. It also has limited room for IndoTrinidadians, and sees them as interlopers and of late, oppressors.
The Creole worldview’s most immediate media are talk radio and calypso. I can’t bear to listen to the talk radio any more, but I go to the state-sponsored calypso tents and watch the state-sponsored Dimanche Gras every year.
And from the songs, it’s clear many calypsonians, who speak for the masses, are obsessed with race, reparations and believe they’re oppressed by Indians. (I’ve reported on this at length in these pages for years.)
Outside of Carnival, you can hear it in the pronouncements of the Black Caucus Movement (they have a television show on Synergy TV) who seem obsessed with repossessing property in Caroni and elsewhere. It’s in the press—the reliable Selwyn Cudjoe is now expatiating in the Express about how Indians were brought here to stop Africans’ economic progress.
The equally reliable Theodore “Ted” Lewis writes about the absence of Africans on university campuses being attributable to discrimination. Happy Indian Arrival, Ted. Why don’t you “arrive” back in the US? And take Selwyn with you, You have US passports, right?
But it’s not just in populist trash that the viewpoint emerges. The Creole nationalist ideology formed the bedrock of Terrence Farrell’s book, We Like it So? (discussed in this space a few weeks ago). It appeared in David McDermott Hughes’ recent book on Trinidad, Energy without Conscience, and in the recent Al Jazeera documentary, From Caribbean to Caliphate.
The point is, the narrative is out there, everywhere, and there’s no point trying to counter with fact or logic. As the overly optimistic liberals in the US, Europe, and elsewhere are realising, the facts aren’t important.
What’s important in these matters are volume and relentlessness. We’ve known that in Trinidad and Tobago all along.
Which leads to the other element to all this. IndoTrinidadians don’t have an alternative cultural, self-defining narrative outside the clichéd one shown in the papers.
They seem to not know that other than in physical appearance, they have nothing in common with the India or Indians of today, though there seems to be an insistence on establishing those connections.
An article in Monday’s Guardian featured an interview with Prof Brinsley Samaroo who was reported as saying of his visits to India, “When you go to those villages, you get food your mother used to make…you see the India from which you came still very much alive.”
I have the highest regard for Prof Samaroo, and do not doubt what he says.
However, this is a very small, and to my mind irrelevant, part of the story. That’s peasant India, which remains unchanged from the 19th century, riddled with caste, gender and colour prejudice. Where women are gang-raped and murdered by good Hindu men with a disturbing frequency. It’s not a place I, and I imagine many Trinidadians, find appealing or feel connected to.
While IndoTrinidadians can be as perverse and ignorant as any tribe anywhere, they’ve become a different tribe from those they left 172 years ago.
The IndoTrinidadian waits to be discovered and defined via artists and social scientists. If Indians think their economic and political progress, and cliches about being devout pioneers, will protect them from what Paul Gilroy termed “cultural insiderism”, they’re sadly mistaken.
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