Monday, July 07, 2008

Chutney as a political idiom

Indo-Caribbean culture and politics in Trinidad
The distance that ‘East Indians’ — men and women from what is known as the Bhojpur region, apart from those from Bengal, of whom there were few — indentured to work on sugarcane plantations in Mauritius, and later in British colonies in the Caribbean, travelled in jampacked ships and in abysmal conditions across the kala pani, was not only geographical but also cultural. Within a span of three to four months, the time taken by schooners to transport the indentured labourers from the dockside in Calcutta to the disembarkation jetties at Port Louis in Mauritius, Port of Spain in Trinidad, and other similar destinations, these men and women, fleeing what a historian has described as “the appalling poverty and joylessness of life under such conditions that cannot be easily pictured”, found themselves in an alien land with alien practices that violently clashed with their centuries-old religious and social traditions. Draupadi not only became Drupatee and Sriprasad was renamed Seepersaud, courtesy immigration clerks, but along with their new names they were also confronted with the choice of disowning their past or clinging on to it. Some disowned it; most refused to break free of all that they had learned and inherited by way of tradition, rites and rituals. Tattered copies of the Ramayan became the most valued possession; pandits with knowledge of Sanskrit found themselves pushed up the social ladder; and, despite its best efforts, the Presbyterian Church failed to separate ‘heathens’ from their ‘heathenism’.
In the post-colonial era, the cultural identity of the East Indian community — referred to as Indo-Caribbean in Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana and other Caribbean states — became the foundation of their political aspirations: Politics was, and remains, a means of protecting identity and asserting the right not to be swamped by Afro-Caribbean, or Black, culture. But for all their efforts, the East Indians have not entirely succeeded in this, as is evident from the creeping influence of Creole culture and Black culture, even among those who remain firmly rooted in Hindu traditions linking them to their homeland. The World Is What It Is: The Authorised Biography of VS Naipaul, by Patrick French, provides a certain insight into this conflict between past and present and the gradual accommodation and assimilation of cultures as memories recede with each passing generation. While keeping the past alive has been easier in Mauritius, where descendents of the indentured labourers are in a majority, it has been more difficult in the Caribbean where East Indian communities are suffering numerical erosion as the affluent among the new generation seek fame and fortune in the US and Europe. The uneven electoral performance of the United National Congress in Trinidad and Tobago and the trials and tribulations of Mr Basdeo Panday are indicative of the community’s declining numbers, although infighting and back-stabbing, the staple of politics in India, have played no mean role in preventing the UNC from becoming the dominant political force. The Afro-Caribbean politicians have not missed the opportunity to exploit the Indo-Caribbean community’s weaknesses to their advantage, thus retaining power when they should have really been in the Opposition.
The immediate provocation for these thoughts is a fine collection of essays in the journal, Man in India (Serial Publications, New Delhi), whose special issue on the Indian diaspora in the Caribbean provides a fascinating insight into the post-colonial lives of the descendents of indentured labourers. Edited by Prof Kumar Mahabir of the University of Trinidad & Tobago, among the best-known scholars of the East Indian experience, it brings together views from Trinidad, St Vincent, Suriname, Guyana and Martinique. My favourite is Kai Abi Barratt’s essay, ‘I found my East Indian beauty’. While reading it, I was transported back in time to an evening spent in the frangipani-scented lush lawns of the residence of Mr Basdeo Panday, who was then Prime Minister. After a sumptuous dinner, we were treated to live chutney music.
The relevance of the show dawned the next day when a group of young East Indian activists met me at the hotel and launched into a long tirade against the UNC Government for sponsoring that year’s calypso carnival and thus poking the community squarely in the eye. Afro-Caribbean musicians, I was told, use calypso to denigrate East Indians and flaunt their prowess by using sexual innuendoes: The wilting Indian beauty succumbing to the raw charms of the macho Black. An agitated young Maharaj, his first name slips my mind, said Mr Panday should have withdrawn official support for the calypso carinval and instead promoted chutney, integral to the East Indian culture, to make a political point. By not doing so, he had pandered to the Blacks at the cost of East Indian sentiments. Apparently, community elders had lodged a similar complaint with Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To disprove his critics, Mr Panday ensured there was a lot of chutney at the official dinner he hosted for the visiting Indian Prime Minister and we had a riotous time.
But like all things Indian, community opinion, it now transpires, is divided on chutney, described as “representing Indian cultural continuity and persistence” in the Caribbean, too. Drupatee Ramgoonai, the most popular exponent of chutney and whose album Pepper Pepper (Mirchi Mirchi in Hindi) was a huge hit, has riled community leaders with her lyrics and performance skills. In the popular chutney song, Lick down mih nani, she sings,
Lick down mih nani
He fender break
On nani waist
Now she can’t move
She two knee bruise
While he drivin he was gazin
Ah feeling sad, she bump she hard...
What is seemingly incomprehensible to us Indians in India is replete with shocking double entendre for conservative East Indians in Trinidad for whom Drupatee Ramgoonai’s music is as outrageous as that of Executor and Dictator, popular calypso artistes. Kai Abi Barratt quotes a Maharaj incandescent with rage, “For an Indian girl to throw away her upbringing and culture to mix with vulgar music, sex and alcohol in carnival tents tells me something is radically wrong with her psyche. Drupatee Ramgoonai has chosen to worship the gods of sex, wine and easy money.” In a sense, it’s the same old story of the past jostling with the present for a future that is tense.

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