It is all about being confident and proud about who we are as we set out to create a nation

Stabroek News
August 1, 2001

Dear Editor,

I commend Ms Bernadette Indira Persaud for her response (24.7.200l) to your editorial that commented on the subject of a West Indian identity. The publication of her letter was timely since it answered perfectly, as well, the comments made by Jamaican Professor, Rex Nettleford, of the University of West Indies, who stated on the VCT newscast of July 23, 2001, that the Indian in Guyana has to learn to be West Indian. The professor went on to concede that a group retreats when it feels it is not accepted.

The professor made the statements to a VCT news team visiting Jamaica, within the context of questions posed to him on the idea of power sharing in Guyana. I am aware that the professor takes a keen interest in Guyana's politics but his statements vis a vis the idea of a West Indian identity have to be questioned, and his perception of our retreat into "Indianness", challenged.

To say that we have retreated infers that the Indian in Guyana had, at some point, given up his Indianness and become something other than Indian. This has never been the case. From the time the Indian indentured labourers landed here, and in Trinidad and Tobago, and in Suriname, they kept their religions, dance, music, names, rituals, customs, languages (by way especially of their religions), and value systems. It is both admirable and remarkable that after 150 years and more much of this has survived albeit with some evolution to fit them to local circumstances. Cultures evolve to make groups of people comfortable with their environment, themselves, and with other groups, so I would posit that the Guyanese Indian has always felt that his culture gives him self respect, dignity, grace, integrity and a unique identity, gives him a rightful place, that is, within the human nationhood.

I lived for years in the Cayman Islands which has a considerable Jamaican immigrant population and I once asked a Jamaican friend there about the self-assurance and confidence that his people display wherever they go as immigrants. He explained it thus: "We arrive somewhere and we say to the person next to us, "Brother, I'm here so move over and mek me a likkle room.'". He gives no explanation for his presence and does not beg for his space but takes it as his rightful due. Likewise, the Indians in Guyana have never felt the need to explain their presence here nor have they ever craved acceptance from anyone, nor do they know of anyone who has been mandated to bestow on them such acceptance. In fact, before hearing Professor Nettleford's supposition, I had never known that I was not accepted as Guyanese, or West Indian for that matter, because I am a person with an Indian heritage!

The professor may be unaware as he proposes our renunciation of our culture that, here in Guyana, ACDA has embarked on an admirable programme to inform and educate our African Guyanese brothers and sisters about their cultural heritage. Their rich past was lost to a cruel history and the move to make them aware of their ancestral legacy is bold and progressive. I watched a young woman recently, in splendid African garb, give a list of beautiful Swahili names and their meanings to the viewers on Channel 9 so that they could consider these as names for their children. Of course, Mr Eusi Kwayana, a prime mover in ACDA, has long since understood the importance of a name and Africanised his.

Whose name is West Indian? Rex Nettleford's? Eusi Kwayana's? Mine? Are they not all West Indian in that they reflect our history or ancestral past, and, in Mr Kwayana's case, a personal courage to take back what history robbed him of: his name?

I believe this renewal of pride would, however, sit well with Professor Nettleford and he would not view it as a retreat either since his view of West Indian culture is that it is Afro-centric, that "the African Presence must have a central place in the ethos of the Caribbean ..." He wrote thusly in the "Caricom Perspective" magazine of June 1995, and went on to state in the article entitled "Our Common Heritage", that "...the tolerance that is characteristic of our own heritage of quest for equality and social justice should be matched by the Caribbean offspring of Asia being willing to be absorbed into the region's cross fertilization process even while helping to determine the form and direction of that process."

The assimilation which the professor so desires may not happen even centuries from now, if you look at Great Britain, for instance, you find that the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are fiercely proud of their separate and distinct identities which are enshrined in their names, customs, traditions, and regional accents and idioms of speech. No one tells the Caribbean and Asian immigrant populations there, either, that they have to be absorbed and cross-fertilized into the central White Presence. If they did, there would be riots, and rightly so.

Further, the assimilation that the professor promulgated is not a mutual one: it is that one must surrender to the other. It is chilling to hear someone speak of his characteristic tolerance in the same breath, the same sentence in which he proposes your destruction. This sets off warning bells. It is little over 50 years ago that a mad dictator decided to create a master race, and thousands ignored the warning bells as he exterminated millions of people who offended his, among other things, aesthetic sensibilities.

I am not surprised that VCT carried the professor's comments unchallenged, i.e., without inviting opposing comments. Balance and fairness are not respected ethical values in what often passes for journalism here. However, I would expect the official magazine of a regional body that is mandated to represent the interests of all its peoples, to be more careful in its choice of articles. Then, again, the professor is so revered and honoured by his peers that the oversight can be understood.

If we examine this homogeneous quantity labelled "West Indian"' we find that it starts with our colonial masters who looked out at us and described us as an entity that took its roots from our geography, the West Indies. For him, it was a comfortable simplification. Then he need not bother himself with the complexities of who was African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, etc. He need not, that is, consider us as peoples with unique human identities. To demystify, to homogenize, gives control.

The majority West Indian population of African descent lost their cultural legacy and created one for themselves from fragments of memories and from what they saw and knew of Europe through their colonial masters. While ACDA seeks to redress this through their education programme, the idea that we should give up our culture and adopt this newfound West Indianess is still promulgated. Why? Here in Guyana, we are particularly sensitive to preserving the Amerindian's culture because it is vital human knowledge and losing any of it makes us all lesser human beings. Why, then, is someone allowed to promote the subsumption of my cultural identity which has as much validity?

There is no homogeneous nation of people anywhere in the world. It does not exist in Africa, India, China, Mexico, anywhere. Everywhere, there are groups and communities who celebrate their differences even as they respect the nationhood to which they belong. If you look at the European Union as an example of a new construct of nationhood, you find that the politicians who crafted the nation never espoused such silliness as a common European cultural identity.

We, the Indians of Guyana, bring to this region, the West Indies, a cultural legacy that goes back to ancient times. We have been given talents, skills, the very shape of our faces and hands by no one other than God Himself. We need no validation from anyone but the Creator, and need no acceptance from anyone other than Him. If the way we move, dance, sing and look offends thee, brother, then walk on the other side of the road. You have that choice.

The whites in America did that to black people until recently, kept them to the other side of the tracks. The whites in South Africa did that to blacks until even more recently. You would think that these experiences would make black people everywhere particularly sensitive to the needs of others, make them tolerant, even respectful, since they know what it feels like to be told to stay back because you are not good enough. We have always known, however, that we are good enough and the Indians in Guyana are not going to reject their cultural legacy, their valid and rich human identity to make ourselves over into anyone else's image.

I recently watched the movie "Remember the Titans" in which an American high school football team of black and white players learned to respect each other and play as a team by being forced by their coach to spend time with each other, and to learn about each other's music, families, foods, customs etc. The film is based on a true story. The team, needless to say, went on to win the state championship. They became a victorious all-American football team by learning to respect and value each other's differences, not by one group dominating the other, or preaching hate and violence against the other.

I do not believe that we are anywhere near to having such respect for each other in Guyana. That we are still even talking about any one group giving up its cultural identity shows how far away we are from such maturity. And it is all about maturity. It is about being confident and proud about who we are as individuals and as groups, and about respecting our differences as we set about to create a nation. This is the maturity that allows one human being to care about another even though he dances to a different drum.

Mahatma Gandhi once advised an assassin, a Hindu man who killed a Muslim, that he should raise a Muslim child in his home as a Muslim. Change will come in Guyana when we can appreciate the vital lesson in this: to respect and honour that which we believe we most hate. What happens in the process, as with the Titans, is that we do not only discover the other's humanity but, surprisingly, our own. When we have reached this level of maturity then we shall choose leaders from among us who shall reflect our confident, just, caring and respectful will. Then, this nation shall progress.

Yours faithfully,
Ryhaan Shah