The West Indian identity
Guyana Chronicle
November 8, 2001

Sir Vidia Naipaul's latest literary accolade came in the form of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Being of Indo-Caribbean descent, I had much elation at this announcement. Not only does Mr. Naipaul represent a rare event in our history, but in many ways, he is representative of our place in the Caribbean. Many have decried his references to England and his "ancestral homeland" India and his omission of his birth place, Trinidad, during his acceptance. An additional point of controversy was attached to this remarkable writer.

But this omission needs examination because I think it speaks volumes both for this esteemed writer, and by extension, the Indo-Caribbean population as a whole. That Naipaul's work explores the "homlessness" of colonized people is a reference to his own history and the history of all the native peoples and those who were transported, whether through slavery or indentureship.

But more specifically, I believe, his work is more relevant to Indians in the Caribbean.

In many respects, we are still searching for home, for rootedness, for a place here. We have grown accustomed to being treated as if we do not belong. Our culture, our religion, our faces, have been barred from public life since our arrival and up to the present day. The election of Cheddi Jagan, and later Bharat Jagdeo in Guyana and Basdeo Panday in Trinidad, has helped to acknowledge our presence here - most people outside of the Caribbean do not know that about 25% of the Caribbean population is of East Indian descent. Prior to 1992, we had no widely acknowledged Indian hero in the Caribbean. We had no voice in determining the direction the region was heading. The dominant Afrocentric and Anglicanized remnant culture of colonization, ensured that our voices were not heard, or in the few cases when it was heard, only minimal acknowledgement was given to it.

And so when I first read Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas", I was confronted with our presence being a part of literature. Naipaul's book revealed the everydayness of the lives of the descendants of Indian indentureship. It revealed, in the attempts to build a house for Mohan Biswas, the community's quest for a "place", a "home" in the Caribbean. In many ways we are still on this quest. The current public discourse in Guyana relating to the Indian component of the population - our previous denial of access to public sector jobs, the army, the police and other spheres of public life and political power, has shed some light on the struggles of the community, to have its voice heard, to have its presence and relevance acknowledged. This sudden verbalization of issues relating to Indians in the Caribbean today, is the culmination of over a century of frustration and feelings of not belonging.

Belonging or attempts to belong has meant many things - conversion to Christianity in order to acquire the modes of the dominant culture, Anglicization of our names, and in some cases loss of culture as in Jamaica. And so Naipaul's omission of Trinidad in his speech must be seen in this light. For all his literary brilliance and ability to size up a population like he did in his works on Islam, he is still like most of us - still looking for a place. And he has done what we have been doing since we first came in 1838 - looking at India as our source, and since we were not welcomed here, as our homeland. India has been the source of much of our culture and even today we watch Indian movies, and even though the majority of us don't speak Hindi, India's Hindi films still provide a visual and auditory link to the motherland. This has helped to make us feel as if there is a place where we do belong. The closest place and the one we most identify with is still India, though that might change over time.

But this is the result of not being embraced in the larger Caribbean culture, as a distinct component of that culture. It is the reason why many Indians in the Caribbean will root for India or Pakistan in a cricket match against the West Indies - we don't see ourselves as belonging to the West Indies or as West Indian.

The struggle for us today is to be able to incorporate ourselves into this West Indian identity and still retain our distinct cultural roots. This is no way an easy task. It will be interesting to see how this other identity evolves.
Rohan Sooklall