Parallel Lives Pt2


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Category: Diaspora Date: 07 Jun 04


Children of the Diaspora learn that people, no matter what they look like, are essentially the same. Whether they are from Timbuktu, Travandrium or Trinidad, everyone wants to be a winner. Everyone wants friendship. Everyone wants to be recognised as a valuable human being in the world. This is what we learned on an island where the expatriate Indian community consisted of four families.


Wanting to hold on, afraid of going so far that you will forget where you've come from, that you will lose your identity-this predicament comes with the passage of time.


It came to me when I became a citizen of this new world, a wife of an Indo-Trinidadian and a mother of two children.


It happened after my father had achieved his dream of educating his three children in England. Ironically, instead of this event taking us further away from India, it simply brought it closer, as we acknowledged our debt to our parents.


My own panic set in the day my son, then a toddler listening to my mother and me speak, began mimicking us in what he thought was Hindi. I hadn't taught him the language of my birth. Language gives you entry into a culture as nothing else can. I realised then that my children would never experience the India I knew, that they would never share that part of me. By the time I was six or seven my grandmother had told my siblings and me stories that made us hundreds of years old. Our heads were filled with the jumble that India is, the stories of conquerors and slaves, of rose gardens and colonial clubs, of tongas and auto rickshaws, of tombs and temples, of 14 provinces, and hundreds of languages, of thousands of castes, faiths.


We had walked in twilight dust with the lingering scent of jasmine in our hair through crazily bustling market places, listening to our elders haggle with vendors for bangles, saris and spices. We had driven for hundreds of miles, when my father was on army leave, in the trunk of his tiny Standard Companion, sat in trains through hundreds of miles of landscape, from the snowy hill stations of Simla to the ancient temples of Benares. India was in my blood but it wouldn't be in theirs.


But the panic was misplaced. The gains quickly began to outweigh the sense of loss. A whole new world opened up before my eyes and I fell in love with it. In this young country in the Caribbean populated by, in the words of Naipaul, mimic men, people from five continents, could re-invent themselves as they wished. Indians here, like all the other groups, have felt free to eschew atavistic communal hatreds, drop the oppressive caste system, operate in a level playing field, free to invent themselves. They have tried on several types of clothes and have arrived at a place where they feel comfortable.


Here, while the Hindus and Muslims butchered one another elsewhere, I was able to marvel at the way a Muslim, yes a Muslim, fasted so that she could help cook at a Hindu prayer function. That she was allowed to participate is a miracle; that she treated a Hindu with so much respect was nothing short of an epiphany.


Yet these minglings are routine here. Here, I saw for the first time, India in a time capsule, and my heart went out to the people who came here as servants, as labourers, who were coerced into changing their names, at times even their religions, in order to get ahead, and yet, passed on from generation to generation the traditions of those who arrived here more than a 100 years ago.


Here we may have forgotten languages, but not the music, not the rituals, not the values, not the traditions, not the family ties that bind and create ladders for the children to climb educationally, socially, economically.


Some traditions are frozen in a time capsule, taking us back to India 150 years ago. So while Indians in India drink bhang and get high during Holi, Indians here, fast. While Indians in India gamble all night during Divali, it is a time for praying and fasting here. Whatever the differences, you have kept a sense of home, of belonging.


So picture us at a traditional Hindu wedding in 2004. The father of the bride is considered wealthy by any standards. A pundit meticulously performs ancient ceremonies that have been transported across the Kala Pani. We are seated on wooden benches, eating simple vegetarian food off banana leaves, (though God knows he can afford salmon and caviar) being served by a son of the home, a big shot lawyer working in New York, with the same humility you would have found amongst their ancestors in India and Trinidad. You see amongst them older women comfortably wearing dresses with an orni, a tacit acknowledgement of their movement to the west, of the need for change, and the unchanging orni, a symbol of modesty and respect. Mimic men and women? I don't think so. More like a people who have the luxury to pick and choose their way of life and show the world how to live.


There are also those who have cut entirely, who wear white at their weddings, and have Christian names, who eat western food and to them India is just another continent. What's wrong with that? Their ancestors came here to find a better life, and that's what they did. They embraced their new world wholeheartedly. Who is to define to the Diaspora what is lost and what is gained, how much we should change and how much we should preserve but the émigrés and their descendents themselves.


A young East Indian Trinidadian man told me that he discovered he was West Indian and not Indian on two occasions. One, when he went to India and felt like a foreigner, and secondly when in university he encountered first generation Indians and had more in common with his French Creole, African, Chinese, Syrian neighbours than with them. He had the map of Trinidad and Tobago tattooed on his back. This didn't mean he didn't enjoy Hindi films or music, or remember huge family trips to the river to eat curried duck, or grow up in a tightly knit family-many things we consider Indian. Only now he was so much more than that.


There will always be those who return to India to learn the ancient arts of Kathak dancing or to Benares to learn Sanskrit and there will be those who will move away from everything Indian including their first names, identifying with a burgeoning West Indian identity that encompasses not one but five continents, gliding easily between worlds of cricket and chutney, carnival and Hosay, Holi and Christmas, claiming all of it. It doesn't get better than this.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur