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Madrassis

The small group of South Indians who came as part of the indentured labour migration to the Caribbean still form a significant presence in Guyana, and to a lesser extent Trinidad. From the beginning they were recognised as a distinctive group; the planters were loath to accept them as workers because of their reputation for independence and recalcitrance. They were also the group whose religious observances most offended colonial sensibilities. In addition to the worship of Kali (Mariamma), which involved animal sacrifice and possession (and still does), South Indians also practiced firewalking, and charkh puja (swinging from a pole, impaled on hooks) that were both banned. Probably because of the arrival from India of a significant cluster of Madrassis to British Guiana in the decade before the end of indenture, though never more than about 5% of all Indian immigrants, the Madrassis have been a culturally influential group in Guyana (to a greater extent than in Trinidad). Whereas the tendency in the Hindu community as a whole (whose ancestors came predominantly from North India (Uttar Pradesh) has been the shedding of those cultural and religious forms which were associated with the lower castes – the process known as sanskritisation – the worship of Maha Kali and the establishment of Kali churches in fact went through an expansion in Guyana in the 1970s onwards (and revived in Trinidad in that period).

The significance of the Madrassi presence is multiple, not least in reminding that Indo-Caribbeans don’t comprise a monolithic group. Madrassis comprise one of the centres of non-Western/non-European cultural dynamism within the Caribbean; they appear to form one of the most outward oriented groups (in terms of cross-cultural relationships with other ethnic groups) without losing any sense of their distinctiveness) and there are deep resonances between Kali worship (its emphasis on healing, divine possession and ancestry) with African derived religions such as Cumfa in Guyana or the Orishas in Trinidad.

The Madrassi presence in Caribbean writing is small but interesting. There are portrayals of the community from without in Jan Shinebourne’s The Last English Plantation (1988) and Lakshmi Persaud’s Butterfly in the Wind (1990), both of which describe the group’s funeral customs, which are marked by singing and dancing and expressions of joy, and the extent to which other Indians look askance at the Madrassi difference. There is also the character, Kampta, in David Dabydeen’s The Counting House (1996, 2005) whose ‘Madrassiness’ is conveyed both in his rebelliousness and his sexual relationship with the ex-slave Miriam.

There are a number of authors whose ancestry is Madrassi. Sam Selvon was one, though as a very creolised Christian Indian there is no reflection of this fact in his work. However, in Peter Lauchmonen Kempadoo’s Guyana Boy (1960 and 2002) and in Moses Nagamootoo’s Hendree’s Cure (2001) there are portrayals from within of two different Madrassi groups in Guyana. Guyana Boy gives a lively portrayal from a child’s perspective of a East Coast Demerara sugar estate community, Hendree’s Cure of Whim, a fishing village on the Corentyne. Whilst Kempadoo’s book does not draw more than a coincidental focus on the specifically Madrassi origins of his characters (the community keeps and eats pigs – anathema to ‘orthodox’ Hindus), Nagamootoo’s portrayal, subtitled ‘Scenes of Madrassi life in a New World’ is very conscious of both the community’s distinctiveness and the fact that emigration to North America has carried away much of the community. (There are now several Indo-Guyanese Kali churches in New York.) Both of these two novels focus on what they see as archetypal elements of Guyanese Madrassi culture: its permeability, its poetry and earthiness and its delight in tricksterish behaviour in the characters of Uncle Tomby and Hendree.

For an insightful and imaginative portrayal of the aesthetic and spiritual significance of Kali-Mai worship and an attempt (which is less convincing) to read a number of Caribbean literary texts through a theoretical construction of the belief system of Kali worship (and Julia Kristeva) see Stephanos Stephanides and Karna Singh, Translating Kali’s Feast: The Goddess in Indo-Caribbean Ritual and Fiction. Rodopi, 2000.

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