Walk tall, Indian
June 01, 2003
By Raffique Shah
INDIANS in this country really need to work hard on "arriving" at an identity that will make them proud of their heritage, but even prouder of their nationality. Listening to those who remain psychologically trapped in an inferiority complex, one might be excused for thinking that they have only just arrived in this multi-racial country. Fortunately, these are but a few discordant voices in the diaspora who would have us believe that they only graduated to full citizenship after the UNC came to power in 1995. Before that, this lot presumably lived like the proverbial "zandolees", buried deep beneath the earth to protect themselves from rampaging Afro-Trinis and other races that were bent on decimating if not eliminating them.
Last Friday the nation celebrated Indian Arrival Day, a public holiday that has become contentious because of its "Indian" prefix. As a descendant of indentured immigrants who arrived here on the Fatel Rozack (oh yes, a relative of mine has traced our ancestry to that first ship!), I have been among the few Indians who felt there was nothing to celebrate about our arrival here. It was not an auspicious occasion, since, for all I know, my great-great-great-gandpa was some dirt-poor Gujurati who was kidnapped by some ship owner or his "sardar" and forced to cross the "kala pani" under extremely brutal conditions. My view was that Indians should celebrate the end of indentureship. Our arrival should be marked with solemnity in recognition of the thousands who died on the voyages, those who perished as they worked in the sugar cane fields under conditions little better than what the African slaves had earlier endured.
But I respect the voice of the majority, and since most Indo-Trinis are happy celebrating the arrival of our fore-parents here, then I have no problem with that. If that is what it takes to instil pride in their heritage, then let them be. I shan't delve into the historical aspect of the occasion that was first marked by prominent Indian activists in the early part of the 20th Century. But I need point out that it was Ramdath Jagessar and a small group of UWI students who, in the wake of the revival of Afro-consciousness in 1970, seriously addressed the question of Indo-consciousness. Although their zeal fuelled strong racial sentiments among the few who worked with them, it also achieved some positive results.
It was out of that initiative that Indian Arrival Day re-emerged as an occasion to be marked—which they did, with very little support from other Indo-organisations and small gatherings at those early celebrations. Jagessar, Kamal Persad and the handful of university students who were there at the beginning never got their due recognition. What bothers me though is that for all their achievements in academia, in business, in politics and even in sports-there remains an almost palpable feeling of inferiority among too many Indians. Listening to the few who moan about "discrimination", which I have no doubt exists, but in rare instances, and among both sides of the racial divide, I wonder what this does to the psyche of young Indo-Trinis.
If Vidia Naipaul had remained trapped in that mindset, and I feel sure he will have experienced some measure of racism from two fronts in the colonial days when he attended QRC, he might never have attained the heights he went on to do. When the talented but uneducated Sonny Ramadhin made it to the West Indies cricket team at a time when non-Whites could not climb to captaincy, he too would have faced discrimination, much the way his Afro-colleagues did. But Sonny, Alf Valentine, and the famous "Three Ws" (Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott) will have used raw talent to successfully overcome any inferiority complex they might have had before joining a team that was captained by Whites like Jeffrey Stollmeyer and Dennis Atkinson.
The fact is no man can ride you, or ride roughshod over you, unless you bend your back. And if we keep preaching to our Indian children that while they might be brighter or better than African children, they start life disadvantaged by reason of their race, then we help inculcate in them that inferiority complex. It's the main reason why so many Indians only felt safe going into Port of Spain after Basdeo Panday became Prime Minister. Which is a hell of a thing, given the fact that as far back as in the 1950s one Boysie Singh walked tall from East Dry River to Cocorite, albeit as no exemplar, but as the "baddest" man in town.
We need to generate positive thinking among our young Indo-Trinis, not the negatives that will keep them forever trapped in race-cocoons. Again, mercifully, most young Indians ignore the fools in the tribe that prove to be the biggest hurdles they have to cross. Look at Ramnaresh Sarwan, one of the youngest vice-captains ever, or his fellow-Guyanese Shivnarine Chanderpaul. They come from a country that is steeped in racial tension and where discrimination (again, on both sides) does exist. Do you ever see them show fear or suggest that they feel inferior to Brian Lara or the mighty Australians? No way! Indeed, I felt proud of Sarwan when I saw him stand up to Glenn McGrath when the fast bowler attempted to intimidate him during that crucial Test match.
Let me add that I, too, consider myself as someone who was always willing to challenge the racial-stereotype, who never settled for second-best, and who blazed a trail where other Indians feared to tread. When I chose to join the army instead of the Coast Guard, Joffre Serrette tried to steer me towards Stauble's Bay instead of Teteron. I insisted that I wanted to join the Regiment. There, among 95 per cent Afro-Trinis, not only did I not face discrimination, but I also became one of the most competent and popular officers. Maybe Serrette and the Government went on to regret my choice, given the events of 1970. But even in the wake of that uprising and subsequent imprisonment, I always walked tall.
I was proud to be Indian, from as far back as when, as a primary schoolboy, my lunch was a piece of "sada roti" with "bhagee" wrapped in oily brown paper. But I was even prouder to be Trinidadian, and that from a very young age. My race-heritage is rich, but my nationality is infinitely richer and dearer to my heart. That's what we should inculcate in our young people. Trinidad, not India (or Africa for Afro-Trinis), is my land...my native land.