Indian Caribbeans

Indians number around a million of the Caribbean’s population, concentrated in Trinidad, Guyana and Suriname, with smaller groups in Jamaica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Grenada, St. Lucia and St Vincent. They are the largest ethnic group in Guyana, and are becoming the largest group in Trinidad. Dale Bisnauth’s The Settlement of Indians in Guyana 1890-1930 and Verene Shepherd’s Transients to Settlers: The Experience of Indians in Jamaica 1845-1950 give contrasting accounts of the impact of size on the formation on different kinds of Indian communities and the degrees of interculturation they manifest. However, from the Indian presence in Suriname where Hindi, or rather Surnami Hindi has survived as a living (and literary language) to the Indian community in St Vincent where many became Christian and creolised whilst retaining a sense of Indian identity, what is true of all those whose ancestors sailed from Calcutta and Madras is that they are a wholly Caribbean people. Kevin Baldeosingh’s historical novel, The Ten Incarnations of Adam Avatar, covers 500 years of Caribbean history; it locates Adam’s ninth incarnation as an Indian from Guyana as a logical extension of that development.

Fifty years ago George Lamming could complain of the absence of books that take us on the inside of Indian life. ‘We guess and assume and project; but the real substance of that life we are only now beginning to glimpse’. This was after Indians had been present in the Caribbean for over 120 years. Lamming’s complaint can no longer be sustained as the discussion below suggests, and Peepal Tree’s own publishing activities have contributed significantly to that situation. At about the same time as Lamming was regretting the absence of access, in The Middle Passage (1962) V.S. Naipaul was accusing non-Indians of knowing little about Indians ‘except that they live in the country, work on the land, are rich, fond of litigation and violence’. Whether this kind of accusation can also no longer be sustained is more problematic. The remaking of what is understood by the cultural totality of the region (one that fully recognises the Indian presence and its Caribbeanness) has still to be accomplished.

The first act of recognition needs to be that of seeing the huge diversity amongst the descendants of those whose ancestors migrated from India as indentured labourers. There has been a tendency to stereotype in a monolithic way and ignore the actual diversities of class, occupation, residential pattern, religion, adherence to types of family organisation, attitudes to gender, attitudes to ‘Indianness’, attitudes to relationships with non-Indians, political ideology and aesthetic preferences. This is no less true of Indo-Caribbean writing. In a deliberately provocative paper presented in Guyana in 1988 (‘Indo-Saxon, Brahmin, Dougla and Bung Coolie, or Phoebus, Surya and de Blasted Sun’) I argued for a diversity within the writing that could be defined by those positions. I identified the ‘Indo-Saxon’ as being located in the urban settlements of the new professional class and in a hybrid relationship to an idealised India and colonial versions of English culture, the ‘Brahmin’ in the resanskritised culture of the village settlements and a resistance to hybridity, the ‘Dougla’ as connected to the working class urban settlements of those Indians most acculturated to Creole society, and the ‘Bung Coolie’ as emerging out of the culture of the sugar estate. My point was to historicise the development of Indo-Caribbean writing against a background of the social and ideological framing of the writer, though not to suggest any teleology of aesthetic progress. I note that the term ‘douglarisation’ has a degree of contemporary vogue as a kind of parallel to ‘creolité’, but I’d argue both that ‘douglarisation’ is more usefully used in a more restricted way (to the kind of negotiation of intermediate identities found in Sam Selvon’s writing, for instance), but that more nuanced discriminations are needed to describe the range of writing describable as Indo-Caribbean. Equally, the controversy over the academic use of the word “coolie” has tended to lose the focus on a very specific cultural identity not shared by, and indeed strongly rejected by some Indian Caribbeans, though others embrace the term.

Some of that diversity was already present among those who migrated between 1838 and 1917, for though the majority of immigrants came from the villages of Uttar Pradesh and the Central Provinces and from the agricultural castes, around that core there was considerable geographic variation, including some very non-agricultural city dwellers, a wide range of castes, and around 15% of Muslims. Clem Seecharan’s Finding Myself: Essays on Race, Politics and Culture explores both personal family history and more general histories in tracing caste origins (and some contemporary continuities of occupation such as cattle rearing). One of the major diversities was the port of embarkation. The majority came via Calcutta, but a significant minority were Tamil speakers from the Madras Presidency, who have maintained a cultural distinctiveness to this day (see Moses Nagamootoo’s, Hendree’s Cure).

What all migrants shared was the experience of the regimented labour system of the sugar estates, the movement from a coherent but profoundly unequal quasi-feudal society into a wage-labour economy, and of being in situations where they were not only working in close proximity to other Indians they would not have encountered in village India (because of geographic distance and caste distinctions) but with Europeans and Africans. All experienced the pressure of being in an environment where there was a severe imbalance of the sexes, a situation which resulted in the exaggerated actuality and stereotype of ‘wife-murder’ (and ‘vices’ about which missionaries hinted darkly, but would not give a name). All those who came had the theoretical choice of gaining a free return passage to Indian after serving an additional period of ‘free’ labour following the period of indentureship. The last returning ship left Guyana in 1955, by which time roughly a third of Guyanese migrants and a fifth in Trinidad returned to India. The desire for return is explored in both Ismith Khan’s The Jumbie Bird and in Sam Selvon’s play, “Home Sweet India”, in Highway in the Sun and Other Plays. The evidence suggests that the returnees comprised disproportionately both some of those who were able to make the greatest savings and some of those who had been least successful in saving anything during their stay. Some returnees came back to the Caribbean, having found they could no longer fit back into Indian society. For those who stayed, undoubtedly, the decision was a momentous one, signalling that whilst they would continue to think of themselves as Indians, they would hereafter be Indians of a particular kind. In addition to the books by Shepherd and Bisnauth already mentioned, Surendra Bhana’s edited volume Indentured Indians in Natal and David Chanderbali’s Indian Indenture in the Straits Settlements provide useful comparative material to the Caribbean experience of indentured labour migration.

Critics of the indenture system rightly focused on the elements of trickery in the recruiting system, the harshness of the estate regime and the insanitary nature of the housing provided (the death rate on the sugar estates before the 1870s was a scandal that the colonial governments were unable to ignore) and the draconian nature of the labour laws that confined workers in a state of serfdom to the estate to which they were indented. Joseph Beaumont indeed described indenture as ‘a new system of slavery’, though, unlike slavery, for the individual Indian migrant indenture was finite. Clem Seecharan, in Finding Myself, has offered a revisionary view, arguing that not only was the comparison with the slavery of Africans invalid special pleading, but that for many Indians indentured migration to the Caribbean offered genuine opportunities for new, more individual lives, the possibility of escape from caste restrictions, and greater freedom for women, and the evidence is that within a short space of time a good many migrant Indians settled and remade themselves. However,  the system varied greatly in its character through the almost eighty years of its survival. As David Dabydeen’s novel The Counting House very accurately shows, the first indentured labourers did indeed arrive to work on slavery’s stale soil, with all its beatings and physical cruelties. However, after the 1870s (as the result of a royal commission) the evidence is that the system worked with a greater degree of concern for immigrant welfare. Even so, at its heart indenture remained a harsh system of economic exploitation through an inequitable system of taskwork. Edward Jenkins’s novel Lutchmee and Dilloo (1877) was an attempt to bring to life through fiction the drier documentation of the wrongs suffered by indentured Indians in his The Coolie His Rights and Wrongs (1871), and what his fiction points to was the contradiction at the heart of indenture: that men and women who had the spirit of pioneers ready to cross the seas, were treated as mindless helots. 

Whilst almost one third of Indians in Guyana remained resident on the sugar estates until the 1950s, in Trinidad from the 1870s onwards there was a movement off the estates to establish free villages and settlements based on cane-farming and provisions growing. In Guyana a rather later and smaller movement occurred, principally into establishing villages based on rice farming. The Guyanese rice industry, indeed, became the one truly dynamic native economic enterprise whose ownership and control began and developed in Caribbean hands (until being severely damaged in the Burnham era). Whilst the majority of villagers remained dependent on seasonal employment on the sugar estates, what was important about the villages was that they provided a space for Indians to re-establish a way of life that was almost wholly Indian in character, where the joint family, traditional food habits, Hindi-speaking, temples and mosques, and even a modified caste system kept an Indian way of life alive into the 21st century. There were costs: this kind of rural separation kept most Indians out of the economic mainstream until well into the middle of the 20th century. Edgar Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder, stories in Ismith Khan’s A Day in the Country, Lakshmi Persaud’s novels Butterfly in the Wind and Sastra, Sam Selvon’s plays in Highway in the Sun, Moses Nagamootoo in Hendree’s Cure, Vishnu Gosine’s The Coming of Lights and Rabindranth Maharaj in The Writer and His Wife all give pictures of an Indian world of varying degrees of completeness, though in each that world is under the stress of the pulls of the wider social and political world.

On the sugar estates, particularly in Guyana, a different kind of Indian Caribbean culture developed. It was just as Indian in its consciousness, but of a more deeply creolised kind. Its spirit was often more egalitarian (the estates were the places where indentured Indians formed shipmate (jehaji) relationships with those they had migrated with, and contrary to the stereotype that Indians were passive, among the estate communities in Guyana, both within the indenture period, and afterwards (at Ruimvelt, Leonora and Enmore) there were major strikes and disturbances that resulted in the loss of Indian strikers lives. This is the world that Peter Kempadoo (Guyana Boy) and in particularly Rooplall Monar's two collections of stories, Backdam People and High House and Radio and his novel, Janjhat ) write about. In the 1970s the master Indo-Guyanese dancer Gora Singh described the creolised folk culture that came out of the estates (in architecture, music, dance and storytelling) as ‘Bung Coolie Culture’, and promoted them as authentically Guyanese forms in contrast to the tendency of the Indian elite to define their culture as what was being imported from India. David Dabydeen's collection of poetry, Slave Song (1984, 2005) offers a provocative vision of the duality between the lives and harsh creole language of the estate workers and the apparatus of translations and notes provided by the writer whose education has carried him away from this world. Rooplall Monar's poetry collection, Koker, is an attempt to find a vision for this world in the space between old gods and new realities.

Even while a minority of Indians remained locked into the indenture system, from the 1890s onward, a small, mainly Christianised professional elite was emerging (the Indo-Saxons). It was the product, from the 1860s onwards, mainly of the efforts of the Presbyterian Canadian Missions who offered access to education as the major inducement for conversion to Christianity to the Indian population. Indeed, right up until the 1950s in Trinidad, when the Hindu Maha Sabha established what Eric Williams dismissively called the ‘cow-shed’ schools, conversion to Christianity was the price that almost all except scholarship boys (such as VS Naipaul) had to pay for access to secondary education. From the 1920s onward it is possible to perceive another strand of social differentiation as a minority of Indians began to accumulate sufficient savings (through shopkeeping, dairy production, money-lending, and rice and cane-farming – for those with sufficient land holdings) to afford to send their sons (and a few daughters, such as Lakshmi Persaud) away to study in the USA and Canada. In the early 1940s, Cheddi Jagan, son of an estate driver, was one such beneficiary.

The beginnings of self-expression come with the polemical cultural and political writing of members of this group, such as Joseph Ruhomon, in 1894 (examples of his work and that of other early writers are contained in They Came in Ships: an anthology of Indo-Guyanese writing, and discussions of the significance of this Indo-Saxon phase are offered in Clem Seecharan’s India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination. In Edgar Mittelholzer’s Corentyne Thunder (1943) there is an acute portrayal of the ways in which different kinds of Indian cultural worlds came into contact with each other through the complexity of family networks.

Whilst in music and religious drama (Ram Leela/Hossay) ancestral cultural forms persisted in Caribbeanised ways, Indo-Caribbean writing began in almost total subservience to Victorian and Romantic poetry, though in time some influences were drawn from Tagore and Sarojini Naidu and there is a more interesting interplay between Indian ethnic sentiments and anglicised forms (see They Came in Ships and India and the Shaping of the Indo-Caribbean Imagination above).

The true beginnings of Indo-Caribbean writing are found in Seepersad Naipaul’s Gurudeva and Other Indian Tales (1943) reissued with some variations of content and an introduction by VS Naipaul as The Adventures of Gurudeva and Other Stories (1976).

From this point onwards, what Indo-Caribbean writing charts (or in some instances writing about Indians by observers of varying degrees of sympathy and insight) are passages from the village world to various kinds of Caribbean contexts and futures. Churaumanie Bissundyal's Whom The Kiskadees Call gives glimpses of contrasting Guyanese Indian lives: in the rice-growing areas of Leguan, where nature is beautiful but the poor are oppressed by the wealthiest Indian land-owners and the spectacular dereliction of ‘Donkey Bugle’, the Georgetown slum in which the most deracinated Indians eke out a precarious life, the regimented order of the sugar estate and the space of the hinterland where the novel’s lovers flee to find personal freedom. As Indians entered the worlds of the school, non-agricultural work, moved to the city and the suburbs, entered the competition for the political prizes of control of the independent state and urged respect for their religion and culture, and, like many other Caribbeans, moved on yet again, to the UK and North America, at each stage there was a challenge to define and shape the Indianness of their lives. Edgar Mittelholzer’s A Morning at the Office (1950), discussed below, offers a particularly acute picture of two very different Indians in the world of the urban office. David Dabydeen’s The Intended (1991, 2005) and Lakshmi Persaud’s Daughters of Empire (2012) both follow characters who bring their Indian Caribbeanness to England.

One crucial area for exploration was how to make sense of what a village-focused Hinduism offered as a way of living in the westernised Caribbean world. It is clear that how Hindus in general felt about their religion was powerfully shaped by an awareness of what others thought about it and its low status in the colonial society. Indeed, readers of the earlier novels of VS Naipaul would have confidently predicted Hinduisms demise in the Caribbean.

VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur (1957) derives much of its humour from the seriousness with which the young Ganesh takes Hinduism, even in its apparently terminally moribund state in Trinidad. VS Naipaul’s fictional treatment was not unique. Sam Selvon’s An Island is A World (1955), Shiva Naipaul’s Fireflies (1970) and The Chip-Chip Gatherers (1973), Harold Ladoo’s No Pain Like This Body (1972) and Yesterdays (1974) all portray a Caribbean Hinduism whose pundits are ignorant and venal, whose congregations are trapped in empty forms of barely understood ritual. In these novels, Hinduism, at least in its Caribbean forms, has nothing to offer. More balanced in its criticism is Cyril Dabydeen’s novel, The Wizard Swami (1988). A richly comic novel it exposes the myth of a coherent Indo-Guyanese community by showing the immense cultural and social gap between country and town, the rural peasantry and estate workers of the Corentyne, and the merchants and professionals of Georgetown. It exposes the inadequacies of the monolithic Hinduism that his main character, Devan, espouses, as a guide to dealing with a confusingly multicultural society. It reveals the danger to a religion’s truths when it is made to serve the needs of ethnic assertion. Similarly, Sasenarine Persaud's novel The Ghost of Bellow's Man (1991) is set in the world of Burnham's Guyana where promoting Hinduism amongst an increasingly secularised Indo-Guyanese community has become an act of ethnic survival. The pressures on Hinduism and Islam from an aggressively proselytising North American brand of evangelical Christianity are satirised in Sharlow Mohammed's The Elect.

There are both sociological and biographical explanations for the varying perceptions of the fate of Hinduism. A significant proportion of the first and second generations of Indo-Caribbean writers came from Christian Indian families (Sam Selvon, Clyde Hosein, Arnold Itwaru and Harold Ladoo amongst others) and both Naipauls in their earlier lives confessed to a lack of belief and a distaste for Hindu ritual. It is also a deeply colonised response. On the one hand there are the writers, mainly educated to degree level at Universities outside the region; on the other hand Hinduism is pre-eminently the religion of the uneducated rural poor, peasants and sugar estate workers. In comparison to Christianity and European culture, the social and cultural status of Hinduism in the Caribbean was low. Yet, even in the work of Christian Indian writers, and particularly in the work of VS Naipaul, there is an inability to leave the decaying body of Hinduism alone, and there are significant contrasts between the metonyms of the social portrayal of moribundity and the metaphoric hints of stubborn life. This is where the novels of Lakshmi Persaud (Butterfly in the Wind, 1990 and Sastra, 1993) are so valuable – and beyond their intrinsic writerly qualities. She is of the same generation as VS Naipaul and from the same brahminical background but the picture she presents of the role of Hinduism in the life of Indian families, both well-to-do and poor, (one that is naturalistic and uncontentious in its treatment), reveals people who are both adapting to their greater involvement with non-Indian Trinidad and continuing to make sense of their lives through the richness of the myths, rituals and ethical teachings of Hinduism. There is debate, particularly concerning the role of women and the relevance of the traditional role models such as Sita, but one that takes place within a living, changing body. Without books like hers, and Ryhaan Shah’s A Silent Life (2005) it would be difficult to understand Caribbean Hinduism’s and Islam’s continuing life. The poetry of Sasenarine Persaud is also important here, in Demerary Telepathy and The Wintering Kundalini which both explore the continuing meaningfulness of Hindu symbols and cosmology in the contemporary Caribbean world. Similarly, in Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming's Curry Flavour there is a dynamic exploration of the place of Indo-Caribbean culture and spirituality within a pan-Caribbean setting.

Other aspects of Indian experience brought them into more direct relationships with the wider Caribbean world. Ismith Khan (‘Puran, Puran’ in A Day in the Country), Lakshmi Persaud (Butterfly in the Wind), Jan Shinebourne (The Last English Plantation) and Sasenarine Persaud in Dear Death all have important things to say about the experience of the Indian child in schools, of relationships with children of different backgrounds and confronting a sense of division between home and school. Cyril Dabydeen’s novel Dark Swirl, set in the remote creeks of the Canje explores a confrontation between the Indian village world and western scientific rationalism that changes all involved.

Edgar Mittelholzer in A Morning at the Office (1950) offers an early and insightful portrayal of the passage of Indians into non-agricultural work. Two of the characters at the office are Indians, Miss Edna Bisnauth, from a Christianised family that has made its accommodation with a westernised lifestyle (though Edna has to keep quiet about her friendship with a Creole man) and Mr Jagessar, the chief accountant, whose skills keep the whole office afloat, but who is yet in constant terror of being sacked and having to go back to his village. Jagessar is universally despised as a man who has not shaken off his ‘coolie’ ways. But from the moment when VS Naipaul shows Mohun Biswas being hauled onto the tram to travel from the country into Port of Spain, that kind of passage became an integral part of the Indo-Caribbean narrative. Ismith Khan in The Jumbie Bird and Crucifixion, Cyril Dabydeen in The Wizard Swami, for example, all focus on that process of urbanisation.

Inevitably, that process is one of a necessary accommodation with other sections of the population, a process that was two-sided and often vexed by prejudice and misunderstanding. It is clear that some Indians came with caste prejudices that located African people as outcaste, and the circumstances of Indian arrival in the 19th century meant that there was a good deal of hostility amongst Creoles to that presence. Whilst many ex-slaves moved as far away from the ambit of the sugar estates as possible, some continued to depend on estate labour for their survival. It was undoubtedly part of the strategy of the estate owners and managers to undermine the bargaining power of African labourers and reduce their wages. Since Creoles also contributed to the costs of importing Indian labour through taxes on foodstuffs, insult was added to injury. As Judaman Seecoomar describes so effectively in Contributions Towards the Resolution of Conflict in Guyana, the colonial elite of officials, legislators and planting interests were singularly adept at employing a strategy of divide and rule.

Those tensions worked their way into the kind of ethnic-based politics that have marred cultural and race relations in Trinidad and placed a huge blockage on social development in Guyana. From 1970 to 1992, an African-supported government in Guyana excluded Indians from access to state power and benefits by rigging elections, implementing a policy of party paramountcy and taking Guyana well down the path of personal dictatorship and economic collapse. Anyone seeking an understanding of this period would find it in the novels of Sasenarine Persaud’s The Ghost of Bellow’s Man, Narmala Shewcharan’s Tomorrow is Another Day, Ryhaan Shah’s A Silent Life, Harischandra Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance and Lakshmi Persaud’s For the Love of My Name.

Since 1992, fair elections brought mostly Indian supported governments to power by virtue of having an ethnic electoral majority and a first past the post Westminster system manifestly unsuitable for an ethnically divided society like Guyana. From 1992 until 2015, though with the legitimacy of electoral victories, the actions of successive PPP governments served to reinforce ethnic divisions and African Guyanese feelings of exclusion. Khemraj’s Cosmic Dance demands rereading in this new context, for it has much important to say about the necessity of looking hard at all kinds of prejudices. No novel penetrates more deeply the political corruption at the heart of 1980s Guyana, but no Indo-Caribbean novel deals more honestly with the nature and sources of Indian racist feelings towards African-Caribbeans. Whether at the superficial level of ‘people like us/people not like us’ or at a deeper level of poisonous caste-based antipathies, Khemraj’s novel looks at how the rightful search for justice in a climate of interethnic hostility can be undermined from within. The novel also has its subtext an inquiry into the meaningfulness of a Hindu worldview as a way of making sense of the catastrophes the characters experience. JudamanSeecoomar’s sequel, Democratic Advance and Conflict Resolution, adds a persuasive voice to those arguing the necessity of finding a power-sharing solution to Guyana’s divisions.

Political conflict along with a lack of economic opportunities have driven many Indo-Caribbeans along with Caribbean people of all ethnicities to emigrate to the UK, the USA and Canada. Cyril Dabydeen’s Berbice Crossing, David Dabydeen’s The Intended, ND Williams’s Prash and Ras, Raymond Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet: Five Stories, and Lakshmi Persaud’s Daughters of Empire (2012) all have pertinent and vivid narratives of the migrant experience, and poetry collections such as Cyril Dabydeen’s Discussing Columbus and Imaginary Origins, and Sasenarine Persaud’s The Wintering Kundalini use the distance of migration to explore what the hyphenation of Indian and Caribbean mean.

Of course, Indian Caribbean writers have not restricted themselves to writing about the Indian world. One sees this in David Dabydeen's fiction, in Disappearance, in Our Lady of Demerara and Johnson's Dictionary; in the very contemporary and ethnically mixed-up world of Trinidad in Raymond Ramcharitar's Island Quintet, or the similarly varied world of Rhoda Bharath's stories in The Ten Days Executive and Other Stories. In the poetry of David Dabydeen's Turner, or the range of focus of the late Mahadai Das's very important collection A Leaf in His Ear, or Raymond Ramcharitar's American Fall and Here, or Jennifer Rahim's fiction Songster and Other Stories and the poetry collections Between the Fence and the Forest, Approaching Sabbaths and Ground Level, and Vahni Capildeo's Utter, there is the work of writers who acknowledge Indian roots but choose to range wide in their preoccupations.

Finally, there are a number of important critical titles that enhance the understanding of Indo-Caribbean writing. These include The Art of David Dabydeen and the more recent No Land, No Mother, also about Dabydeen's work; Something Rich and Strange, a collection of essays on Sam Selvon's work; and Roydon Salick's monograph, Ismith Khan: The Man and His Work.