T&T invented globalisation


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Category: Trinidad Society 06 June 11

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 decades back 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?” “No.”

“Well then, is it like Madras, where it’s hot and women wear jasmines in their hair?” “No.” “Like England then, with many roses?” “No.” “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 descent spots 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 handling brocades lovingly, the blonde French Creole and African noisily cheering for an Indian player at a cricket game, jhandis swaying in yards, blanched petticoats worn by Baptists ballooning in shallow dappled 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, when 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.

As someone born in Asaam, a North-eastern state India, in an army base that had no connection with the birth place of either of my parents—to a Muslim mother whose origins lie in Afghanistan and Central Asia, who can trace her family to 400 years of Mogul rule in the Southern Tamil and Kannada speaking State of Savanur in Karnataka, to a Hindu father of academic middle class roots from Aligarh who attended a Muslim university in North India, before enrolling in the army which required him to fight against Pakistan, a country where my  mother went to boarding school, multiculturalism is my blood.

As the daughter of an Indian Army Officer who was posted to a new state of India every three years, educated in convents by Irish nuns, as someone who lived in Chandigarh in Punjab, Simla in Himachal Pradesh, Bangalore, in Karnataka state, as someone who grew up speaking Hindi, Urdu and English and witnessed the tail end of colonial India with its Officers Messes, piano lessons and English literature; as someone who lived in Tobago when still a child, educated in London as a teenager, in Canada as a university student, and England as a young graduate, and settled as a professional, wife and mother in Trinidad, multiculturalism is not a topic but my life.

Multiculturalism is not a phenomenon of the new world, or globalisation. It’s been around ever since man created transport. India’s entire history is one of conquerors, as is that of Africa, and Europe. The premise that there is some kind of “purity” of race is vile because it boxes entire races, religions, customs, dismisses them as somehow incorrect and dehumanises them. Virigina Woolf, among the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century once wrote: “The common fund of humanity runs deep.”

It simply means that all humans essentially want the same things: love, freedom, security, dignity, opportunities. Ironically, to get to that space of freedom, we all need a sense of belonging, of context, culture, language, land, history, of home, familiarity, continuity. It’s in maintaining this fine balance, in this tension that we find the wars of the world, currently over 30 of them, over land and religion, between Hindus and Muslims, Catholics and Protestants, India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine.

On this tightrope we find the new globalisation with the Diasporas of the world creating fascinating permutations of culture—multiculturalism in this globalised day and age, where the Diaspora of the old world mingle in the new and the new has access to the old in a way it never did before. The technological revolution has rapidly eliminated boundary after boundary creating a globalised village and a generic middle class globally that speaks a language of technology and well recognised brands.

Afganis, I am told, love coke. Sir Viv Richards’ daughter, with Indian actress Neena Gupta is today a part of Bollywood royalty where she has made a name for herself as a designer for the stars. She is Indian to India, but also very proud of her father, and her West Indian roots. Globalisation doesn’t take away, but adds layers to ones identity. I first witnessed this in London when a fellow student, a dusky beauty from Madras spoke in an unlikely mix of cockney and Tamil.

Europe’s freedom of movement allows layers on nationalities and languages like no other continent. They also interact with other continents. Every continent has its own version of this layering. Trinidad and Tobago—this small island state in the new world—represents strands of five continents. We invented globalisation. You can find all five continents on one beautiful face. The attempt to create a blank people in order to rule was brutal.

Language is a vital link to any heritage, yet it was deliberately wiped out by the people who colonised these new world islands. In the struggle to survive, to be educated and work, entire histories, cultures Yes, a lot was lost. But there was also an enormous gain. Absence of a linear history meant that old hatreds were also wiped out. People can continually reinvent themselves, to piece themselves together with the best pieces of the mosaic that remained available, from music, religious ritual, and customs.

We banished intolerance, hatred, ethnic violence almost two hundred years ago. Imagine my shock when I first got married here, with my Indian background to learn that my Muslim aunt-in-law was fasting during Divali so she could help her sister, married to a Hindu, to serve food after a prayer function. With all our problems of illiteracy, poverty and crime, corruption and lethargy that keeps us stuck in oil and gas, hubris and lawlessness, flagging institutions, a near collapsed health sector and nonexistent service sector, T&T shines as a model in miniature of how people of the globalised world should live.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur