Our culture is a whole and living entity
Stabroek News
August 11, 2001

Dear Editor,

I wish to reply to the editor's note appended to Rohan Sooklall's letter [ please note: link provided by LOSP web site ] captioned "Fashioning a national identity" (9.8.2001). Firstly, stating that Indian Guyanese are not Indians at all, and dismissing our culture as nothing but "relics" are both deeply offensive. Our culture is a whole and living entity and to say, for instance, that our religions of Hinduism and Islam, two of the great religions of the world which have given us spiritual sustenance for centuries, are relics lays bare a deep-seated ignorance of the Indian Guyanese and his culture. Further, neither of these religions, nor Christianity for that matter, can be syncretized.

Secondly, the argument that we must help fashion a common national identity because we can no longer fit in in India is a non sequitar. We have never had any wish to give up our citizenship of Guyana and return to India. In fact, we don't have to. We brought India here with us and continue to do so. Some of our religious leaders, musicians and dancers go to India to be educated and trained, and the Indian High Commission in Guyana is very active in strengthening the ties with India that are inherent in our society.

Judging from the overwhelming response I received, personally, from my previous letter (SN 08-0401) I would say that it seems that Guyanese of all ethnic groups agree with the views I expressed that there needs to be mutual regard and respect for each other' s cultural identity, and that no one cultural group should promote its domination over any other.

However, it would appear that the Stabroek News' editor does not agree with these views since he continues to talk about "understanding our own culture and who we are".

Since he insists, let me state that the Guyanese culture, honestly, is made up of Indian, African, Amerindian, Chinese, Portuguese and European elements. Into this, for your West Indian person, you will add reggae, soca, chutney, calypso, West Indian cricket and literature, and a common language and ways of dress. Now, none of these takes away from the fact that when I enter my home, I take off my shoes at the door, and greet my family with "Assalamo-wa-alaikum", and that I can wear a shalwar kameez and hearken to the moulvi's azaan and go to the mosque for namaaz. All of these activities are valid Guyanese and West Indian ones: soca, namaaz and cricket. All the words I have used are valid Guyanese and West Indian ones, as valid as if I had said "benab", "dashiki", or "koker".

Guyana is a multi-racial, multi-cultural country. The West Indies is a multi-racial, multi-cultural region. The debate is not about understanding who we are, as the editor insists. I think I can safely say that we all know very well who we are. The debate is about whether we can respect each other for who we are. In fact, why is there even a debate about this? Isn't having mutual respect the civilized and decent thing for us to do?

We have a rich culture, both Guyanese and West Indian. Why this insistence to blend and cross-fertilize and absorb and homogenize us into a Kentucky Fried version of West Indianism? Whose interest does this serve? This, readers, is the critical question in this discussion.

I hope that the representatives in Guyana from the United Nations and the European Union, and from Britain and the United States (countries that have accepted that they are multi-ethnic states), are following this discussion. It would help their understanding of the ethnic violence that plays out in Guyana since it is exposing the racism that has long passed for the best of Caribbean intellectual thinking.

This thinking (that I dealt with in my previous letter) promotes the domination of one cultural and racial group by way of the destruction of others, and gives credence and support to the ethnic violence we are subjected to. The Indian experience in Guyana, since the 1960s, is one of being beaten, robbed, raped, burned and killed for being Indian and it would seem that the choice we are presented with is to be absorbed or be annihilated.

I hope that the Stabroek News' editor agrees with me that ethnic cleansing is horrific. I hope that he further agrees with me that there should be respect for all the peoples of Guyana, the West Indies and the world. If he, however, has a viewpoint as to what is this common Guyanese and West Indian identity that he so wishes to fashion, then I hope that he will use his privilege to append a note to this letter and set this out clearly. I, and everyone else, would wish to know the common race, religion, language, music, dance, values, etc., of this homogenous culture.

If, however, it is agreed that Guyana is a multi-ethnic country then this discussion can progress to the formation of the political, economic, cultural and educational institutions that will reflect this.

Yours faithfully,
Ryhaan Shah