Still an uneasiness in the skin

Letter to the Editor
Guyana Chronicle
August 14, 2001

MANY are contributing to the debate about a national Guyanese identity.

It is interesting to hear this. I think the time is long overdue.

As an Indo-Guyanese, I can only write looking through Indian eyes.

People of other ethnic groups can write from their point of view.

First let me say to those who claim we are not Indian, Black, Portuguese, Amerindian, Chinese but Guyanese, that it is very clear that, at least for Indians and Blacks in Guyana, this is pretentious.

It is very clear that there is a huge chasm between Indians and Blacks in Guyana and the earlier we admit this and put it on the table and find out the roots, the earlier we can begin the process of trying to bridge that chasm.

Some claim that we are not Indian or Black because we cannot live in India or Africa.

I don't know that my inability to live in India makes me non-Indian. I would say it does not.

Yes, I do not speak any Indian language fluently, and maybe some of the cultural traits and outlook on life my great grandparents brought over with them on the ship, have been adjusted to fit life outside of India.

But Madhuri Dixit and Aamir Khan, and Hritik Roshan and Rajesh Khanna are still what I consider my movie stars.

And listening about Krishna and the gopis on the riverbanks and hearing of Arjuna's heroism in war, are still the models I use in making judgements about life and living.

And hearing an "Allah hu Akbar" is still something I identify with as a remnant of our pre-indentureship.

Gandhi and his tireless fight for the equality of people the world over, is still my role model.

I cannot identify with a Hobbes and his philosophy or a discourse on the greatness of Caesar or some Egyptian Pharaoh or references to Greek mythology so prevalent in newspaper articles in Guyana.

This does not mean that they made no contributions to life as it exists today, but they did not speak my language and the glasses they wore were not the product of 5,000 years of Indian civilisation.

I suspect that, unknowingly, most Indo-Guyanese will identify with a pre-Guyana culture than they do with the present Guyanese reality.

But to the reality in Guyana today.

I had the opportunity a few days ago of talking to a man who is 65, whose father came off the boat from India in 1906 and who grew up in a logie.

He recounted over and over how intense his desire to become a school teacher in Guyana in the 1950s met with the response, "you can't become a teacher if you're not a Christian."

With the result that he converted to Christianity.

This notion that only Christians were good enough to become school teachers, carried the assumption that being Hindu, like he was, or Muslim, was not good enough.

It is the remnants of this disregard for the Indianness of Indo-Guyanese that spark responses like, "We are not Indian... etc."

There is the feeling that in order to become anything in the larger society, we must give up our Indianness. In order to get off the plantation and "integrate" we say Gopaul and not Gopal, anymore.

And we say Mr. Seepersaud, not Seeprasad. I REFUSE TO.

I also remember talking to a Chinese Guyanese a few years ago, a professional in a government agency, who told me that the problem with Guyana was the fact that Indians did not "integrate".

I wonder what Indians integrating means in practical terms. The overarching culture, a remnant of Anglicisation, would have us become Christians and modify the rhythm of our speech and analyse life by reference to European thinkers.

I remember in high school reading history and searching for a reference to me in the text book.

I remember looking through the index for "India", with the hope that there will be something I can identify with.

I believe that many of us are still looking in Guyana for a "place" in the larger culture.

We still feel as "other", not good enough, not Anglisized enough, not Christian and western enough.

There is still an uneasiness in the skin, an uncomfortableness of not quite being the face, the speech, the walk, the temperament that is accepted.

When we consider colonisation followed by the PNC years up to 1992, one can only begin to imagine the deep psychological damage that was done to the Indian immigrant, his children, and their children.

I think that most of you would understand my resistance to any attempt to make Indians in Guyana, more Guyanese, more West Indian, if this involves an eroding of who we are, at the core, irrespective of the effects of colonisation.

Yes, we were colonised, but like they used to say when I was a child, you can take us out of India, but you can't take India out of us.

In case any of you doubt the truth of this, take a walk to an Indian village and go sit on the ground in a temple and observe the people or listen to a namaaz call and see them in their kurta kiss the ground in reverence to Allah.

Or go to a Hindu wedding and observe the dulaha and the dulhin going around the fire seven times and hear the pandit reading in Sanskrit. Then tell me that we are not "Indian."

Only when these visions of Guyana become a part of our national culture, will we all feel as Guyanese.