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Raffique Shah


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Claiming my space

June 05, 2005
By Raffique Shah

PEOPLE like me who insist on being "Trini first", and anything else afterwards, find ourselves in the unenviable position of being almost outcasts in our native land. Which is a hell of a thing, since I think we should have first lien not just on the country, but maybe on its resources and all the goodies those who see themselves otherwise have "huffed".

Instead, it's virtually the other way round. The self-proclaimed Indians fare very well, those of Syrian/Lebanese origin who hold on to their roots do even better, the Chinese have carved a lucrative niche for themselves, and even some of the Afrocentrists are far better off than the mass of their fellowmen. We, who belong solely to this country, who don't even think of migrating to the USA or Canada because of the crime-trough our country is experiencing, are seen as being "neither fish nor fowl".

And therein lies a fundamental anomaly that will haunt this country for as long as the mass of people see themselves as immigrants whose forebears were forced to come here either as slaves or indentured labourers. As a main player in the events of 1970, I thought the period was a necessary catharsis for us all to experience. Before that, descendants of African slaves did not, in the main, relate to their continent of origin. For most, it was still the "Dark Continent" as described by the European savages who had plundered it. They would sit in cinemas and laugh at the stereotype-African-Pygmy presented on screen by white movie producers. Tarzan, a white man who was a "jefe" in the "Dark Continent", was their hero. In fact, he was our hero, too. As late as in the 1960s, Lord Brynner, our Independence Calypso King, sang a calypso that made a mockery of African names: one name Kasavubu/fighting Justin Bomboko etc.

Among Indians, and I have made this point repeatedly, many chose to change their names to Christian ones. This was based not just on the demands of the dominant Presbyterian or Catholic religions, their control of the education system, but they were choices deliberately made and seen as a means of making progress in the society. Many of them were rather comical. I recall Winston Leonard (Joseanne's dad), a 100 per cent Indian (and Trini), telling me how his father had adopted the name of an estate boss, seeing it as a means of advancing the interests of his family. Boysie Moore Jones, former president of the All Trnidad sugar union, is pure Indian, and a devout Muslim at that! And I am told that my Fath-al Razack (thanks, Brinsley, for correcting the misnomer we had all digested) forebear went by the name "Dookie"!

Following the upheaval in 1970, many more Africans recognised their ancestry, and some of them chose to revert to African names. But having recognised one's roots, it seemed to me that they should have moved on with their new identities stamped on their foreheads, but the "Trini" logo or flag being most prominent. For many, it went that way. Others chose to remain fighting to be identified firstly as "Africans", and "Trinis" afterwards. This latter I absolutely abhor. In similar vein, we have Indians who want to enjoy the best of both worlds, but who damn the country that saw them make the progress they would never had done in their ancestral homeland. I could not help but snigger when I read what Dr Elizabeth Sieusarran had to say recently about "dharma" and "karma". I wanted to ask her only one question: why Elizabeth? Why not Kamla or Radha?

I have repeatedly written and proclaimed how proud I am to have India as my ancestral land. It's a country that has phenomenal potential, little of which has been realised. It's a leader in education, in technology, in industry, and is close on China's heels to become the economic giant of this century. But, as High Commissioner Gupta noted recently, it's also a country of grave contradictions. What is left of the caste system remains a blight, child-marriage is primitiveness that haunts it, and behind the veneer of the billionaire-Mittals lie hundreds of millions of mainly dark-skinned Indians mired in poverty. Africa, too, is steeped in inequities that would chill the blood of any civilised person.

For all its deficiencies, Trinidad and Tobago remains a land of hope, one which I shall never abandon. If the bandits or murderers or kidnappers so want, they could drain my blood on this soil: ah not leaving! But I insist on claiming my space, something I earned, given what I have done for my country. Interestingly, it's we, the true Trinis, who have made selfless contributions to this society. Check the others. Mostly, they have enriched themselves, exploited their own, and always threaten to run when the going gets tough.

Nuff said.

Part I