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Category: Diaspora Date: 11 Jun 95

Very interested in the celebrations, the Delhi journalist perceived them as a glimpse into a “time capsule” of rural India, 150 years ago. Even in India, he was not exposed to religious ritual and music or rural life the way he was here on his two-day visit.


While Indian Arrival Day was being celebrated in various parts of the country on May 30, a visiting journalist from Delhi pursues his soundbite in my dimly lit living room in Port-of-Spain. “What are your emotions today?” he cajoles. I ponder, blinking into his rolling video camera. He can barely contain his impatience: “You must feel something. Sad? Happy? Nostalgic?” I look blank, he, desperate for emotion for his story: “You’re not sure? Nothing?” He sighs and signals the cameraman to stop.


As a television journalist, I know the importance of a good soundbite. But it was the truth. My mind then flashed back to an airport interview with VS Naipaul some four years ago. I had asked Mr Naipaul his opinion on Indians in Trinidad today. “Indians? I don’t know any Indians. Who are they?” I felt put-down and angry that he had been facetious. I consoled myself, “He must be a misogynist, that arrogant man.”


But to tell the truth, I felt trapped by the question. What really does it mean to be Indian or African, European or Chinese, in a world that is becoming smaller via satellite communication and cheap air fares. With the debatable benefits of modernity, the middle classes of the world are becoming alike. Communication and new technology, freer trade, and cable TV from the US have ensured uniformity of material and increasingly, social ideals of fast cars, trendy clothes, computers and mortgages, of dating and divorcing.


I do not propose to force iconoclasm down everybody’s throat. The idea of people preserving their culture and religion is not only laudable but necessary to civilization. A sense of history and belonging is vital. But the line between pride in one’s own culture and divisive rejection of other cultures is thin. That evening at a reception (for the Indian journalists), in conversation with a fellow expatriate Indian, I ask, “what are your emotions today?” She says, “I expect it’s too soon for us to look back. India is moving in a different direction from Trinidad.” Our urbane Delhi journalist (who had forgiven me for being incoherent earlier) joins in the conversation. He was very excited about being here. “Where are the nightclubs?” he drawled, “and where is a good place to go dancing?” Feeling somewhat matronly, I thought quickly of the Pelican and Moon Over Bourbon Street and the Red Parrot and wondered if they were open on a Wednesday night, and would Smoky and Bunty be considered a nightclub?


A ferocious city man, he proceeded to tell us of India’s middle class (more than 200 million people) about cities like Bombay, its all-night discos, shopping and eating places, the health spas, the video game centres, cinemas and theatres, 80 TV channels; of people who now eschew temples and mosques and get married in five star hotels. Of huge conglomerates, and cellular phones, of the fact that there never seem to be enough time to get things done. Bombay is also the city of Hindu Muslim riots.


He spoke of the ubiquitous social problems: teenage pregnancy among middle class girls is high because they begin dating at such an early age; of the economic necessity of marrying a qualified working woman, of delinquent mothers who spend all day playing rummy and gossiping in clubs, waiting for their husbands to join them for a swim and a game of bridge leaving the domestics to cook, clean, and take care of children. Sounded like he could be talking about any city in the world.


Very interested in the celebrations, the Delhi journalist perceived them as a glimpse into a “time capsule” of rural India, 150 years ago. Even in India, he was not exposed to religious ritual and music or rural life the way he was here on his two-day visit.

“But you are missing the point entirely,” intones an esteemed Trinidadian economist. “What we are celebrating here is the arrival of a community which has contributed to Trinidad and Tobago. Whether or not Indian customs have been altered, watered down or not move in the same direction as India is irrelevant. What counts is that the Indians brought with them the values of a strong work ethic, commitment to family, and the ability to save.

“The Africans brought an educational bias, the Europeans business expertise, and everybody came with their culture and music, to build what is Trinidad and Tobago today.”


In the pale morning light at the airport the next day, I was a peripheral observer of the ceremony of the departing Indian President; the red carpet flanked by our dignitaries, which led to the Air India jet; the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment’s robust gun salute to the frail President. After the Trinidad and Tobago Regiment played the two National anthems, I was surprised that my eyes blurred with tears. My thoughts ran amok, a jumble of thanksgiving to a country which has given me so many opportunities, as a journalist, as a wife and mother, a country where I feel cossetted and valued. It was also a goodbye to people who represented the variety of India today. There was the fair, hefty, Sikh cameraman who came from Punjab, which only recently had separatist violence; Mr Fernandes, a Christian from Goa; the journalist who felt that India should not be a secular but a Hindu state, the chain-smoking intellectual TV journalist who was obviously brought up in well-watered gardens in suburban Delhi. The self important government bureaucrat from Karnataka; the fastidious Brahmin official; the President’s Aide, a tall Major of the Indian army with all his military pride; the Governor of Madhya Pradesh, also fighting for self rule, the cultured Oxford educated Muslim foreign minister whose grandfather was the President of India.


A kaleidoscope of Indian life boarded that jet. A country of 14 states and official languages and hundreds of dialects, where people can look Chinese, Persian, white, black and simply “Indian.” They are all Indians. Many expatriate Indians come from different provinces of India and have to speak English to communicate because they often don’t speak each other’s languages. A population of diverse religious and social practices where prodigious wealth, slums and nuclear power co-exist. This is President Shankar Deyal Sharma’s country. It is no wonder that the Indian President’s message was one of unity in diversity, of acceptance, of eternal vigilance against partisan politics and dogma.


Perhaps because Trinidad and Tobago has been so much more successful than many countries in preserving a peaceful plural society where differences amount to squabbles rather than bloodshed, one comes to expect so much more of it. Perhaps there is no need to sound a warning against being communal and partisan. Except to say that everytime a community leader or politician panders to the narrow biases of a community, he or she is splintering the country.


Carnival and Carifesta, Christmas, Divali and Hosay, chutney music, cricket and cynical brilliant writers like VS Naipaul, gentler ones like CLR James, our dogged tolerance in a world that is daily being shattered by ethnic violence: this is the stuff of which Arrival is made. I wish I had another chance to be interviewed by the Delhi journalist. I have a few soundbites for him.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur