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Category: International 22 May 11

Sixteen years back, Patrick Manning, the then prime minister of this country declared to thunderous applause that May 30 and the 150th Anniversary of the first arrivals of indentured labourers from India would be a public holiday called Indian Arrival Day. Journalists reported this was a “triumph” for former opposition MPs, Trevor Sudama and Raymond Pallackdarrysingh who first introduced the idea of this commemorative holiday to the House of Representatives. The applause shattered to shards of disappointment when Mr Manning added that May would be known as Indian Arrival Day only in 1995. Thereafter, it would be “Arrival Day”. That same year, the shiny new prime minister, Basdeo Panday feted as the first of Indian descent in T&T, restored May 30 as Indian Arrival Day. The 150th milestone was celebrated in euphoria culminating with the visit of the President of India, the late Shankar Dayal Sharma. A growing sense of legitimacy and belonging in this tiny Diaspora community of half a million people manifested itself over the years in a burgeoning of radio stations devoted entirely to “Indian” programming (mostly of the Bollywood and devotional variety), in fashions from India, denominational schools lead by the Maha Sabha, so that inevitably doubles was fully integrated with shark and bake.

Indian Arrival Day preserved, intact

I stumbled onto the meaning of Indian Arrival Day circuitously, after an Indian Women’s NGO asked me to write a commemorative piece for its magazine. The piece, which eventually ended up in the Trinidad Guardian was rejected by the group on the grounds that the Diaspora narrative of an Indian-born expat did not qualify as authentic arrival. I learned then that although there is a deep nostalgic and emotional attachment to India, it is not for contemporary but for a remembered India. And with it, longing and loss as well as an undreamed of opportunity in these Caribbean islands that was to be the legacy of the great grand children of indentured labourers. A contemporary India of 1.2 billion people, is home to one sixth of humanity, of 28 states encompassing deserts, snow capped mountains and rain forests, with dozens of languages, thousands of dialects, a hugely varied cuisine, tribes that resemble all the peoples of the world. It’s an India that was making juggernaut strides as an emerging economy, an India struggling to keep its federation intact, an India of fast paced westernised Bollywood culture that would make New York look tame was incidental.

But to us, the 166 intervening years were incidental. It mattered not that urban Indians celebrate Divali with all night card parties, or Holi ( Phagwa) by getting high on Bhang. The T&T Indians would not eat meat or drink. They would fast as they always did, pray in mosques and temples because along with language they also lost atavistic and tribal hatreds. So Indian Arrival Day remains preserved, intact in a time capsule which is unspeakably lovely. But to do so at the cost of ignoring contemporary India would be a huge mistake. The idea of the India 166 years back is our sacred cow but should not hold us back from hitching a ride with contemporary India, which in 2010 was the world’s fastest growing economy—driven by shipping, pharmaceuticals, textiles and an IT knowledge permeating every sector from telecom, manufacturing, agriculture, education, natural resource extraction, to banking, finance and health.

T&T/India trade hit all time low

In an interview with the High commissioner of India to T&T, Malay Mishra I was shocked to hear that trade with India has hit an all time low, that can only be partially explained by fluctuating energy prices and the global economic crisis. “T&T businesses,” he said, “have not looked to India for trade apart from spices, handicrafts and garments; and India to Trinidad for oil and oil derivatives. “The value of bilateral trade which peaked in 2009 at US$400 million dollars has slumped to US$200 million dollars.” The envoy is convinced that T&T is ideally poised to take advantage of India’s US $1.3 trillion economy using our cultural and commonwealth links (including language) and our proximity to Central and South America as a springboard. It is with this in mind that his mission has embarked on an ambitious Festival of India starting with a business forum from May 31 to June 2 at the Hyatt. Mishra says that the conference is planned along both business and academic lines; sessions which complement one another. The business seminar “is a window to contemporary India and an opportunity for aggressive local businesses and rising young entrepreneurs to get the benefits of making links with India.”

The diplomat is confident that if the local population grasps opportunities offered by the visiting Indian delegation representing many sectors—pharmaceuticals to IT solutions—that Trinidad’s exports to India “will double from its current US value of some $90 million dollars to US$180 in a few years” The mission’s first secretary, Mahaveer P Bhardwaj adds that “many of T&T’s businessmen buy Indian made products such as pharmaceuticals and surgical equipment from companies based in the US for example, for ten times the price they would have paid if it was directly purchased from Indian companies.” He adds that, “in the business to business meetings we will bring each sector in contact with its local counterpart with the India/T&T Chamber of Industry and Commerce and the Overseas Indian Facilitation Centre, providing support and guidance along the way.”

Mishra says India can help with the move away from the uncertain future of an energy-based economy towards services, IT and downstream industries. “India’s growth is largely due to services which contribute to some 60 per cent of our GDP, with manufacturing at 27 per cent and 12 per cent on agriculture.” The Indian High Commissioner recognises, however, that certain barriers need to come down to facilitate trade. To this end he says, “Diaspora researchers from all over the Caribbean are coming to Trinidad, and along with Trinidadian students, intellectuals and business people will have the opportunity to forge a new and vibrant relationship between contemporary India and the Diaspora.” With globalisation; now as we keep dinner dates across the world on Skype, and as a woman in a call centre in Bangalore gives directions to a visitor in Baltimore to his nearest local pharmacy. Now, with an Indian woman, a Hindu Prime Minister who was voted in by a multi cultural population, perhaps it’s time to look—not only to look back—but outwards at contemporary India not as a place relegated to a fading nostalgia of a painful journey, but an area of opportunity.


§         The Festival of India starts on May 31 with the business forum and continues with a two-day Diaspora conference from May 31 to June 1 at UWI.

§         Contemporary Indian fashion will be showcased by the High Commission of India Women’s Group headed by Mrs Gargi Kaul Mishra on June 2 at the Hilton Trinidad.

§         There will be a week-long exhibition of paintings of Diaspora artist Leela Gujadhur Syrup at Divali Nagar from May 25 to June 4.

§         For foodies, there is a week-long Indian food festival from June 1 to 8 at the Hilton Trinidad, where a 15-member Bhangra and Giddah Dance Troupe will perform.

§         A joint tourism evening between the Governments of T&T and India will also be held on May 31 at the Hilton Trinidad.

§         The Festival of India will be crowned by the visit of the Indian National Cricket Team that plays with West Indies on June 4, 6 and 8.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur