My Muslim grandmother, my Tobago granny


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Category: Diaspora Date: 20 Nov 95

So. this is it. A new Government. A new Cabinet. Mr Moutett has said - now that we’ve got this “Indian PM” thing off our backs, it’s time to get back to work. I want it to be as simple as that. But a public servant says she feels like her mother died and another counters, “It’s we time now.” Keith Smith reports fears that the Promenade will be turned into a cane field, Wayne Brown talks of Saris in Queen’s Hall. What on earth was that all about? It didn’t take an analyst to see that the country was walking a tightrope on the night of November 6. A gridlock of tribalism some called it. Some had even, after the event, said there was no need to go to the polls, that CSO figures would have brought in the same result. Then Robinson threw his weight behind Mr Panday and said “lets go.”


So Mr Panday was made Prime Minister. Notwithstanding the events that led to his appointment, last week we all witnessed history - a trade union leader, an Indian, a Prime Minister - a rush of something new, a turn in the minds of men and women in this country. Despite the encouraging signs - a dignified and mature country, which governed itself for nearly three days while the government was being sorted out, Manning telling his supporters to “go home in peace”, Panday calling for unity, the outward signs of calm -there is some disquiet.


After his address to the nation when Mr Panday assured the population that no one need fear a UNC government, he said change is a difficult thing to deal with. Now that we see our melting pot silently smouldering in parts and bubbling up in others. What do we do to contain the spillage? I am familiar with tribalism. I was born and brought up in India, in a country where a small riot took place when my mother, a Muslim, married my father, a Hindu. A country which at one time relegated an entire community, millions of people, to the role of untouchables, people who only clean toilets.


In the other end of the caste scale, Brahmin type 1132 (there are over 1,500 kinds of Brahmin) might well refuse to speak to Brahmin type 1292, let alone touch him, a country where, during the Emergency put into place by Mrs Ghandi, an untouchable was killed for having a moustache of the wrong shape. Much has changed since the India of the 70’s. The caste system is now declared unlawful; but measures to reverse it, for instance, by relegating certain coveted positions in universities to certain castes, led to blood letting among students of India. Fourteen provinces, each with its own language, thousands of dialects, a yawning gap between the rich and the poor. It does not matter how these divisions came about it India. Some argue that partition was artificial, an extension of the British way of dividing and ruling, while seeming to take the high road of secularism.


 Common Experience


Others believe that a country as large and diverse as India was somehow pulled together and still cleaves together because of its solid foundations of democracy in the world. The point is, today Kashmir, Gujarat, Punjab, are agitating - some dying and killing for self rule. A child of staunch, middle-class, North Indian, Hindu father and a Muslim mother from a fanatical well established Muslim family in South India, I instinctively clung to secularism even before I knew what it meant. It helped me survive. I profoundly believe that the human fund of common experience runs deep. In Delhi, immersed in my fathers joint family, I felt the merest whisper of shame, apologetic for being tainted with Muslim blood and in Bangalore, every now and then firmly relegated to the outskirts of my mother’s Muslim family. My images were mixed, making pilgrimages to magnificent old temples in Nandi Hills in Mysore, Mahabalipuraum in Madras and being whisked off in secret to a darkly shaded mosque - the cloying rich smells of roses and jasmines and incense; reciting the kalma, head covered in cool chiffon orhni. My Hindu name Ira, my Muslim name Gulnar. Learning Sanskrit and the daily 15 minutes of Shiva meditation with my father and Arabic in my grandmother’s house.


I was ten when I asked my father to take me to meet Mrs Ghandi. There in Rashtrapati Bhavan in Delhi, in her crisp cotton sari, her grandson at her knee, I felt a surge of belonging. The backdrop was a mammoth crowd in the prime ministerial garden - you could pick them out, the fair turbaned Punjabis, the dark Southerners, women with long black hair woven in Jasmines - the mud coloured blur of hope which chanted with a faith which even the, I found endearing, childlike. “Indira Ghandi is good - she fulfills her promises”.


And my grandmother at 80, battling old age and diabetes, lives on in Bangalore and still bangs her head on the wall when she talks about my mother marrying a Hindu. She who could trace her family back to the Holy Prophet, she who taught her only daughter Arabic and Urdu and Islam. For 36 years that “Hindu” wound has eaten into her soul. She is trapped in her hate. I don’t know how she got there. But I know we can’t do it to ourselves. Yet the odd thing is; when a Pakistani and an Indian Hindu meet in London or Dubai or Trinidad and Tobago, they embrace as brothers. They share a language and a history. Just as on November 19, 1989 the entire country wore a bit of red to support our football team. The crowd was whipped into a frenzy but, weeping and silent, still found strength to cheer the winners. To go home in peace.


Perhaps what distinguishes us from each one in the world is, no human being is racial one on one - divide and rule has only destroyed. Mr Panday and Mr Manning understood this, and this is what will save us.


I write in images because it is my primary media. I am most comfortable with it. So a slow motion of images are anodyne to the gnashing of teeth and the smug faces.

Tobago 1975: an elderly lady sees a woman, conspicuous in a sari and an umbrella, walking up that angular hill in Scarborough street out of breath, and looking disoriented. In a charm that belongs to the old world, the Christian Tobagonian invites the Muslim woman from India in for a soft drink. This Tobagonian lady adopted my mother as her daughter and loved her and supported her spiritually and emotionally until the day she died. She was granny to us.


Two homes on the fort with only a courtyard separating the back doors - four Tobagonian children and three immigrant children from India running in and out of one another’s homes, eating here or there, picking guavas and screaming on the incline of the Fort on gocarts, walking on the beach, quarrelling over marbles and books. Sixteen years later, their ties are taut as only childhood ties can be.


Human Spirit


This week while driving along Tragerete road, an Indian girl stands shy and coy blushing and deeply absorbed in a uniformed guard - African - who seems not to see anyone else.

In elections, a sudden feeling of Carnival - a balisier band passes the rising sun - they smile and wave and shout.

Mr Manning on a podium, “don’t vote for me because of what race I am.”


It can’t be “we turn now”. Under the PNM Government Indians also thrived, were educated, became professionals - one man rose to be Prime Minister. We are proud of Mr Basdeo Panday. He has found his place in the sun. He worked for it. He brings with him a sense a belonging for so many. And how can we not admire Mr Robinson, a man who embodies the triumph of the human spirit. He was not broken by 1990 and he is back in Government - Minister Extraordinaire - anyone with that resilience must spell hope.


The political analysts can quarrel over their pitfalls, and misalliances, their miscalculations, but in 30 years of independence, a solid foundation of democracy and unity in diversity has been laid out - embodied finally in the voice of an obviously shocked Manning who told his supporters on the night of November 6 - “go home in peace.” Raoul Pantin said he could have wept over his country which walked in peace - regardless of whether they were jubilant, fearful, or in mourning. But whatever the flaws of governments - and incidentally folks, the party’s been over  the boom days will never be back no matter who you vote in and out of power, the pie is smaller - we have had peaceful, free, fair elections for 30 years.


As citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, we are among the most civilised in the world. And deep within us we recognise that there is no Mother India or Mother Africa. Our lives are inextricably bound as Jit Samaroo’s to pan.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur