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The Cowshed Fable

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 30, 2012

I want to congratulate my East Indian compatriots for the achievements they have made over the 167 years they have spent in Trinidad and Tobago and the enormous efforts they have made to carve out a space in these two beautiful islands in the West Indies. I also wish to congratulate Sat Maharaj for the herculean efforts he has made to improve the educational standards of his people and his determination to ensure that his people receive their rightful share of the national pie. When the history of the second half of the twentieth century is written I am certain he will take his place as one of the more outstanding Trinbagonians of the era.

I also wanted to thank Sat for inviting me to share in the Maha Sabha celebration of Indian Arrival Day and granting me the pleasure of meeting novelist Rambindranath Maharaj whom the Maha Sabha honored at their function for his literary achievements. Robin, a Robert Village Hindu School and Naparima College graduate, has made a name for himself in Canada. Sat compared his work to that of V. S. Naipaul but I am not in a position to critique that judgment since I have not read any of his novels. I intend to remedy that shortcoming in the very near future.

Many of the national luminaries of Indian descent, primarily government ministers, spoke with much enthusiasm about the sacrifices their forefathers and foremothers made to get them where they are today. They argued that those who went before carved the way for present achievers. Robin Maharaj took the position that their forebears completely disregarded their own sufferings confident that they were sacrificing themselves for the generations after them which raises the question: does any Indian generation ever live for itself?

As I listened to various speakers the whole theme of the evening revolved around the fabled nature of the cowshed; it being reported by all of the speakers that Dr. Eric Williams called the Hindu schools cowshed and look at what the cowsheds have produced? Sat Maharaj, the grandest luminary of all had to correct the younger ones by letting them know that when Dr. Williams called the Hindu schools cowshed, Badase Sagan Maraj, his father-in-law, declared: "It is better to educate a child in a cowshed than not to educate them at all."

However, there is a problem with these apocryphal stories. In spite of their ethnic appeal they lose their real meaning as they are told from one generation to another. They are misconstrued and become uplifting fables which may have a moral but veer so far from the truth that anytime it is uttered it becomes yet another whip with which to beat the present generation of oppressors.

When Dr. Williams arrived on the scene in 1956 the conditions of the Hindu schools were quite deplorable as I presume the same was true of the non-Hindu schools. I went to Tacarigua E.C., a school that was built by enslaved Africans in 1838 and what in our days we called the "Cocoa House." I went to that school from 1948 to 1954. It was just one open building with a large stage under which we placed the agricultural tools we used to till our school gardens that lay on the southern side of the Eastern Main Road near to the Vestry that was built in 1843.

In 1955 Badase was doing his best to build some schools for the Hindu children. Dr. Williams deplored the fact that the East Indian schools looked like cowsheds and vowed to do a better job of school building for all of the children, Hindu as well as Christian children, when he came into power. Although present Hindu lore has it that Dr. Williams called the Hindu schools cowsheds he did not intend to denigrate Hindu schools or Hindu children. He merely sought to deplore the condition in which the education of our school children took place.

None of the speakers at the Dinner could forego the temptation to hit out at the PNM administration—read Black people—for all of the evils that the Black people had done to them. The only problem with such a narrative is that it only tells us part of the story rather than the whole story. In fact, the only way to understand what happened to East Indians between 1955 and 2010 is to tell the whole story; contextualize the issue; and opt for racial healing rather than fanning the flames of racial hatred in a subliminal manner.

One only has to compare the progress East Indians made in the society from 1917, the year in which indentureship ended, to 1955, the year when PNM came on the scene, with the progress East Indians made from 1955 to 2010 to understand the apocryphal nature of the cowshed tale. Use any yardstick and one would see that the cowshed story is only a fanciful story that is told from generation to generation to fan the flames of racial hatred and continue to remind the present generation that they really have an enemy when none is there. And while they do not name the enemy, it is inferred.

And this is why I appreciated the closing sentiments of Robin Maharaj's response. He warned East Indians present that they must "be proud without being vain; celebratory without being jingoistic." In this, I thought he hit the correct note. Although a historian may want to mark this present time in our history as the moment when the East Indians were fully inculcated and recognized in the society, it should not be used as an opportunity to emphasize their exclusivity but as a time to affirm their Trinbagonianness; a moment when the society opens its arms to welcome another strand of its many fabrics.

While we are at it, it may be wise to drop the cowshed fable. It only tends to divide rather than bring us together as a multi-ethnic society with all of the richness that such a society implies.

And yes, Happy East Indian Arrival Day!

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