Due to popular demand (both of them), I include below the text (as best I remember it, and based on my sketchy notes) of my speech at the Indian Arrival Day Celebrations in Port Of Spain, Trinidad, May 30, 2006.
One of the great joys of being an author within the Indian diaspora is that I get to meet other authors within the Indian diaspora. And when I do, I typically take the opportunity to ask them each the same question: “Why is Indian-themed writing so popular and so critically acclaimed right now?”
I ask them this because, if you haven’t already noticed, much of the best writing in the world right now is by Indians; not just Indians, but Indians outside of India, and very often from right here in the Caribbean, including one Nobel Prizewinner from Trinidad who shall remain unnamed.
I’ve asked this question of people like Shyam Selvadurai, who is a Sri Lankan writer; M.G. Vassanji, who is an Indian from Tanzania, now recognized as one of the Canada’s foremost authors; Hanif Kureishi, a Pakistani writer who is now a superstar in the UK; Guyana’s David and Cyril Dabydeen; and many others. And I get a variety of responses, most commenting that Indians value education, and thus literacy, and hence can write well. Indeed, I’ve heard it described that for Indians the world over, education is a kind of worship.
I like that, I really do. But I think it was Vassanji who came closest to the truth. He said that Indians are culturally “fence-sitters”. Literally. We exist at the borders of the world, where nations, peoples, races, ethnicities and traditions come into contact. Through this interfacing of traditions, we naturally produce vibrant and novel language and experiences that eventually become translated into literature and other forms of art.
I’ve had the great fortune to have spent much time in India, most recently in February, when I was honoured to give a talk at Jawarlahal Nehru University in Delhi. When I looked across the audience, I saw first saw a sea of homogeneous brown faces. But slowly I came to perceive a new truth, that this was in fact a pluralistic audience. In that room were speakers of Hindi, Bengali, Gujurati, Punjabi, Tamil and so forth. There were Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Jains, Parsis and more. The Indian tradition is one of innate pluralism, I came to understand, and this is indeed the quality that has allowed us to thrive throughout the diaspora, and has allowed us –as Vassanji implied– to succeed in many artistic and intellectual disciplines.
Something remarkable happens to Indians displaced and transplanted in the diaspora. We retain much of what is singularly valuable about being Indian: elements of religion, the importance of family, language, food –oh how we love our curry!– and we discard that which is counterproductive.
Do you know that one of the first things to disappear (or at least be minimized) when Indians leave India is the caste system? Things like caste distinction are anathema to the innate pluralism of which I spoke. What that tells me is that those Indians brave enough to have formed societies in East Africa, the Caribbean, Mauritius, Fiji and elsewhere were forward-looking, adventurous and inclined to embrace “the other”.
(What is “the other”? Well, it’s everyone our ancestors encountered when they spread forth from India: the other races, the other cultures, religions, languages and cuisines.)
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Caribbean, where “the other” is all about. We are innately a multicultural people, so despite the ubiquitous political tensions, it remains natural for us to want to negotiate with other ethnicities who share our physical space.
Let me tell you a story. I used to be a public school teacher in Toronto. One day, one of my White colleagues came to me to tell me about a Guyanese student he had. This student told him once, “Teacha, Ravi teef me pencil.”
The next day, the student told my friend, “Teacha, Nelson jook me in de eye.”
My colleague was confused. “What do these words mean?” he asked me. So I explained to him the meanings of “teef” and “jook”. Later that week, he was using those words, too, this straight-laced White Canadian. By the end of the month, the whole school was using them. Why? Because they are good words, meaningful and descriptive words. They are such because they have been created by the best of several cultures. This is the power of diaspora, to create new methods, cultures, solutions and language.
I am an Indian from Guyana, so to me there is no better food in the world than Guyanese Indian food –though Trini food comes close! But the food isn’t really Indian, is it? It’s uniquely Caribbean, because its Indian base has benefited from the contributions of the Chinese, African, Spanish and Portuguese communities who also live in this space. That’s what makes it so good.
I live in Canada, and there’s one lesson from Canada that I would export to the Caribbean: revel in your multiculturalism. The era of the monotone culture is over. The future belongs to people who can appreciate their heritage –as we are doing here today– but who can also value the ways in which their culture has been affected by having to negotiate with “the other”. Our food, language and music would not exist without that negotiation.
Right now in America there is a slight anti-immigrant sentiment, which actually means an anti-brown sentiment. I’m not too worried about this. To me, this attitude represents the dying desperate gasps of the old world order. The future is multi-coloured, of that I am certain. Nothing’s going to stop that.
On this Indian Arrival Day, we look back to the sacrifices of our ancestors who undertook an agonizing sea journey to create better lives for us, their children. But they also undertook that journey to create a new society, one reflected in Trinidad and Guyana and all over the Caribbean, and indeed all over the world. We can best honour their memories by striving to make these societies function.
So this is the challenge I set before you: look into yourselves and ask yourselves two questions:
(1) What does it mean to be Indo-Caribbean? Does it have to to do with religion, language, history, skin colour or something else?
(2) What is your hierarchy of identity? Is it more important for you to be an Indian, a Trinidadian, a Muslim or Hindu or Christian? Or is there some other factor that describes who you are?
And this is what I think you will find: your identity cannot be summed up in a couple of words. You are all of these things and more. Your complexity gives you depth and strength.
I had to learn this the hard way. I grew up in Canada, but I’m not fully Canadian: I’m not White and I don’t watch or play ice hockey. So I went back to Guyana. But I’m not fully Guyanese: I have lost the accent and some of the traditions. So I went to India, and, despite loving the place, I certainly don’t belong there.
So I came to the conclusion that I was none of these things in isolation. I am their sum total, just as you are. And that gives us a special kind of perspective that bleeds forth in some of the world’s best writing and music, and through excellence in any number of fields in which Indo-Caribbean people excel.
So embrace your complexity, for it is your strength. Let’s have a dialogue about who we are as a people, as Indo-Caribbean folk, and about how we can uplift those of us who are without confidnce or power.
Because, my friends, the 21st century might just be the Indian century, led by that percolating superpower on the subcontinent. Let us use this opportunity to become the confident and powerful –and unified— people that our ancestors hoped we would be when they arrived here over a century and half ago.
To do any less does not honour their memory.