Ethnic cleansing and my arrival


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Category: Diaspora Date: 26 May 02

The morning star that guided my father to bring his family - wife and three children - from India to these twin islands in the Caribbean, to work as chief engineer to design a highway in Tobago more than two decades ago was not only rare, it was charmed.


This was a place so remote that our imagination couldn’t conjure up an image of it. I remember badgering my mother on the journey here.

“Is it like Simla, with green-eyed coolies carrying loads, and snowy mountains?”


“Well then, is it like Madras, where its hot and women wear jasmines in their hair?”


“Like England then, with many roses?”


“America with vacuum cleaners and dish washers?”

She didn’t know.


It was Tobago, with its sunny salty sea breezes, plum trees, guava patches, Fort George with its cannons on which you could sit akimbo to watch the moon bathe the sea with its silvery light, and its people who conquered new and strange arrivals like ourselves, by making them their own.


Like this:

On a typical green-gold afternoon, mango trees swaying under the weight of ripe fruit, the sun weaving in and out between branches, and the sea, a flash of blinding light, an elderly woman of African decent spotted my mother and asked her in for a cool drink.


With her sari fluttering in the breeze, an enormous umbrella covering her flushed face as she walked up that hill, my mother was an unlikely candidate in Tobago for an adopted daughter. But daughter of a Tobagonian she became. Or we may just have unknowingly eaten Cascadura. Who knows? But by the time the Parkway Project was inaugurated as the Claude Noel Highway, the murmurings of going ‘home’ faded from my parents lips.


If my mother knew then what she knows now, she would have told me this on our journey from India to here:

“We are going to a place which, though small, is the gathering place for peoples of the world. You will see the elderly Chinese man sitting under poui blossoms in the Savannah, the Syrian who handles brocades lovingly, the blonde French Creole and the dark African noisily cheering for an Indian player at a cricket game, jhandis swaying in yards, blanched petticoats ballooning in shaded water.

“A place so free you can wear salvaar khameez at the Temple, walk bare feet on its cool parapet in the morning and wander around in bikinis on hot beaches in the afternoon.

“You will hear strains of pan mingle with the power of the Azaan on loudspeakers from mosques during Ramadan; and in a pub not far from either take a dance to calypso music. We can waltz too, if we like, under the stars.”


As recent immigrants, we have never felt torn from our roots, because we weren’t made to choose between countries and cultures because, in this enchanted place, it is okay to be many things at the same time.


Having arrived from a country where the blood of a million people has divided one country into India and Pakistan, we cannot take this gift, of sharing in, but not being tied down by atavistic prejudices of old continents.


Just as we began to believe there was nothing to fear from people who pray to a different God, or look or dress differently to ourselves, we are being asked to choose. There, in the continent of our origins they are saying, choose between India and Pakistan.


The Indian Booker prize winner Arundhati Roy draws parallels between contemporary India and pre-war Germany, calling India today “a flawed democracy laced with religious fascism.”


She writes:

“Within hours of the Godhra outrage, when Muslim terrorists burned Hindus alive, a meticulously planned program was put in motion against the Muslim community.

“Officially, the number of dead is 800. Independent reports put the figure at well over 2,000. Women were stripped, gang-raped, parents were bludgeoned to death in front of their children. 240 dargahs and 180 masjids were destroyed in Ahmedabad.

“Precisely which Hindu scripture preaches this? Our Prime Minister justified this as part of the retaliation against Muslim terrorists who burned alive 58 Hindu passengers.

“Which particular verse in the Quran required that the passengers be roasted alive?”


As the offspring of a Hindu father and a Muslim mother, I stare disbelieving, weighed down by the newspaper clippings with headlines like ‘India warships stand by’, ‘Prepare for war!’ And the worst, the photo of a Hindu woman kissing her dead son’s face, a boy who was killed in the crossfire.


If I was in Gujarat, I could have been that woman, or the Muslim woman whose stomach was ripped open and stuffed with burning rags, an ‘Om’ carved on her forehead after her death.


I wouldn’t have stood a chance, since Hindu and Muslim blood flows through my veins. Although both enrich me, now, I would prefer to be nothing than either. I would prefer to belong nowhere.


Roy put the thoughts of millions of humane Indians and Pakistanis who don’t need to hate, to know who they are, into these words:


“The more the two sides try and call attention to their religious differences by slaughtering each other, the less there is to distinguish them. They worship at the same altar. They’re both apostles of the same murderous god, whoever he is.”


Here, there is talk of ‘ethnic cleansing’, but that’s simply an inchoate, alarmist description of petty partisan politics.


As warships close in and a million soldiers hover under the nimbus of a nuclear war, a Muslim woman in Trinidad remembers her 157-year-old Indian origins at an Arrival Day celebration by quoting the Vedas with Quran and the Bible.


In Islam there is no racism, no economic barrier, no social distinction, no gender bias. But Islam is not singular in this respect. The Holy Bible states: “love your neighbour as yourself. Do not let your love be a pretence, but sincerely prefer good to evil.”


The Vedas likewise states: “In Mankind, nobody is superior or inferior. Mankind, I ordain you to have unanimity in your minds and freedom from hate and malice in your dealings.”


If my mother knew then what she knows now, she would have said, that kind of tolerance daughter, is the way of the New World.


Now that’s something to celebrate.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur