May 29, 2005
By Raffique Shah
I often wonder about my status in this immigrant society, being one of the tens of thousands who insist on being "Trini" first and anything else after that. If among us there are those who cling fiercely to their Indian or African or Chinese ancestry, I have more reason than most to proclaim my "Indianness". You see, on that first shipload of "jahaajis" who crossed the "kala pani" in the Fatel Rozack was my great-great-great grandfather (on my mother's side of the family). An uncle of mine who has taken to researching our "family roots" came across that piece of information. So I can lay claim to being a descendant of an Indian man who among the first to set foot on this land.
By the time I was a boy and had the mental capacity to understand the society, certainly the villages in which I lived, being of Indian origin did not matter. I have mentioned before that I was fortunate to have grown up in the villages of Brechin Castle (BC, close to the sugar factory where my father worked), then Freeport, and later Beaucarro. It is not as though I never encountered racial slurs (as distinct from racism). As a schoolboy, how well I recall a few children of African descent dubbing me, and others like me, "coolies". But they were the exceptions, not the norm. And even though they used the slur, I don't know that they understood it, nor will they have been surprised if I had responded by calling them "niggers".
But in my family that was not the done thing. I am not here suggesting that my parents or other close relatives did not have a "racial bone" in them. Sure, there must have been a thin dividing line, but they will have kept it in their minds, never openly using the term "nigger", nor tolerating being called "coolie".
My first recollection of neighbours in BC were the Alis to the west (yeah, Nizam and Ramjohn Ali!), whose parents were my "cha cha" and "cha chi" (uncle and aunt). No relatives, but that's what village life was like. To the east was a Bajan factory worker with whom my parents got along well. It was he, according to my mother, who looked at me as a baby, and said in his finest Bajan accent: that's not a boy, that's a man! And the first school I attended in the village, what they now call pre-school, a "Miss Allen" was the teacher.
On to Freeport where, if ever there is or was a mixed village in the country, that is it. There, we all played together: whether it was pitching marbles, road-football, or yard-cricket, there were boys (and girls) of all races, including those of the Chinese shopkeepers. Norman McCloud, an eccentric Scotsman whose family had owned the estate (hence most of the land) in Freeport, also mixed freely with people. And so I would go on to Presbyterian, Muslim and Anglican primary schools, and later the Catholic Presentation College in Chaguanas. The latter, because of sheer demographics, had a preponderance of Indian students. But again, strong bonds of friendship among boys of every race formed there, and remained with us for life ("Pilo", happy Arrival Day, bro!)
Later, I broke tradition and opted for a life in the military instead of one of the recognised professions: with a Grade I Cambridge School Certificate, I could have chosen many fields (not medicine, since my class did not enjoy the privilege of doing science). But being a rough-and-tumble teen, I saw an opportunity in the military and grabbed it. It never occurred to me at the time that I was the first Indian officer in the Regiment, nor was race ever a factor while I served. In fact, if anything, I was victim of more racism at Sandhurst than in the Regiment. By then I was a man, and most of all, a Trini man. I loved calypso and pan, but I also enjoyed Indian songs and movies. In fact, before I went off to Sandhurst I was part of a "bhuya saag" (make up band) that played crude Indian music, I on the harmonica, Indar on the organ, and Walter ("Peto", an Afro) on the dhantal. That was my upbringing.
With a background like that, was it any surprise that I was not "automatically" a DLP supporter because it was the "Indian" party? Or a PNM, just to be in the mix? In fact, I held a fiercely independent position which saw me taking up guns against the military hierarchy and the PNM government. I recall, after the fact, Alloy Lequay, who was then a big wig in the DLP, telling me: Allyuh get away easy with the PNM if it was the DLP in power, it was jail for your backside!
(to be continued)