After the coolies came Frankly Speaking
By A. A. Fenty
Stabroek News
May 14, 2004

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Rather furtively, (not confident enough?), I join in comment on a grand debate, as well as some related issues which, I hope, will all conclude with us Guyanese fashioning and appreciating an identity of which we can all be proud.

But believe me, my conscience really does not allow me that luxury of optimism. I nurture an uneasy feeling and prospect that our component groups - especially the two major ones - will remain psychologically fractured, separate and apart in a manner that even "India" conversions to Christianity or miscegenation cannot breach. This does not deny the fact, however, that there are periods - in the school, in the village, in a family or in the cricket team - when temporary harmony characterises peaceful co-existence.

Hey, what brought all the above about? Well, it's a combination of the hullabaloo over Kean Gibson's book, the "new" national holidays and an engrossing debate between Panday and Bakr. And it is the latter scholarship that catches my mind's eye and leads me to my own personal conclusions about my existence here, in our corner of the planet.

Ironically and co-incidentally, some sort of motion picture or historical documentary on "1838" is soon to be produced and released, having been shot on the Corentyne in Guyana. (I'm confident the filmmakers know of the significance of Vreed-en-Hoop, West Coast Demerara, to "1838", however.) You see it is May 1838 and the arrival of that first set of coolie indentured labourers from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar in India, which has ignited all three of the rather fiery discourses among those who make time for such things. (I mean the debates on Gibson, Holidays and "Creolisation.")

Now, again it won't be for me to attempt, in these few paragraphs, to chronicle the experiences and challenges faced by those first coolies during their first decades in British Guiana's post slavery plantocracy, their fortitude, then generational achievements which have contributed to the making of Guyana as we know it today. Certainly not. For the glorious record of protest, before and beyond Enmore, and of material and intellectual achievement consult GIHA, ROAR, Dev and Yesu Persaud. Any honest "appraisal" will reveal that those coolies and their descendants who came, then dwelled in Ras Tom Dalgetty's "house", have more than paid their dues or rent; have refurbished and expanded the Guyana house, even if they still can't regard it as home - or are made to feel that it is not theirs (too). Close your eyes and mind for a minute and consider: What would Guyana have been today without the "Indian" presence? Who is to say? Better, or worse? (Yes, there can be a "worse.")

I repeat two points from a personal perspective: it is obvious that Kean Gibson's conclusions, in terms of Hindu attitudes, are too generalised and flawed. It is also obvious that with the able assistance of her teleactivists pro-PNC colleagues, she has succeeded in provoking the debate she wanted, that would otherwise have not even happened. Today's Guyana, with its engineered and manipulated "racial issues" was ripe for the Gibson picking. Secondly, I have already recorded my overall view on our National Holiday. (Why should I be coerced by officialdom to "observe" Youman Nabi, Good Friday or Diwali?)

Panday, Bakr and Creoles

Many of us in the working-class category of Guyana's society - perhaps now ninety per cent of it - fighting with daily survival issues such as high prices, flooded streets, criminals at our doors and blackouts, would hardly have time to read the exchanges on Caribbean/Guyanese creolisation and the state/status of ethnic contributions and conditions today - between Amar Panday and Abu Bakr.

Indeed, if you do read the Stabroek News' letter columns, you might wonder why the Editor breaks his own guidelines regarding the length of letters. But I think of the intellectual jousting amongst David de Caires, Martin Carter, Mc Donald and Fitzpatrick of the fifties/sixties and can understand why these lengthy letters are allowed. Of course, the debate between these two (no doubt well meaning) intellects is adorned with sound research, personal, sometimes scientific social analysis, occasional arrogance and conceit - and always, strongly held pride and conclusions.

For you who are put off by the length or just can't afford the time or inclination, in a nut-shell, Panday opines that the creolisation, first of the Africans/slaves who came to these parts; then of those Indians and their descendants upon whom that creolisation was foisted, was and is a considerably bad and foul occurrence. Panday obviously in his soul still an Indian purist and nationalist born elsewhere, bemoans the consequences of this creolisation upon his "Indian" Caribbean and Guyanese. He sees it as a "degeneracy" that an "African ethos" has tainted Indian culture, religion and very existence with a type of peasantised "decadence." Panday calls for some Indian cultural revival to correct this violation of the Shastras which sacred texts commands the "preservation" of Indian people's "culture."

Abu Bakr takes offence at Panday's misrepresentation of - if not arrogance at - the history, nature and profound influence of creolisation. Bakr contends that the creolisation of our coolies and their descendants had to have been a good thing for those who took the ships across the Kala Pani!

Making the case that "we live in a world of composite cultures", Bakr first takes a few paragraphs to inform Panday - and another few million Indians who escaped India - that "... in reality, Indians in India were making no social or economic progress in the 19th century." Bakr compares the mass of Indians in then India "who missed the ship" to those who had the good sense to leave, eventually to enjoy enormous social and economic progress amongst the Creoles of the Caribbean and Guyana. Whatever the so-called loss of culture has brought about. In essence, he argues that Creole Culture, never a concept fully grasped by Panday, but which spawned and influenced countless other cultures and systems throughout the world, should not be disdained, for when the coolies came here they "benefited from the sacrifices made by those who had preceded them." Bakr recognises the contribution of Indians to "our common progress" - a spin-off of their creolisation.

It's a fascinating debate. Up to this point, I veer towards Bakr's arguments. The creolisation of the coolies and their descendants today - real or alleged, could not, by itself, be responsible for any loss of culture by the Indians - for any "degeneration" or "decadence." If so, is it evident in Mauritius, Fiji and Sri Lanka? Is Panday saying that the very spirit and soul of the immigrant or exiled Hindu are easily compromised by strange conditions they encounter?

I love Bakr's creation of a successful eminent coolie descendant, President Jagdeo visiting India and being gawked at by a "Panday" who would have remained in his beloved India - most likely illiterate and imprisoned by a rigid caste system. For me, whatever of my Indian soul or culture I would have lost, I am glad to have been creolised to a point where I acknowledged that I happened to be born here and voluntarily commit to lending this place the identity of my presence. Personally, I don't bemoan the loss of my "Indianess." I wouldn't now be accepted there, so it behoves me to utilise the good that African creolisation has bestowed upon me. And it is not that I don't recognise and reject the negative aspects of that creolisation, but all is not well with even the purest of Indians back in India.

As I've stated, it's a fascinating discussion. But it should be carried on without rancour and descent into wanton dismantling of other people's heroes, institutions or values. (Their ethos?)

Held over

1. Coming next week: The PNC needed a Gajraj and a Chowtie - not a Corbin or a Blackie.

2. List five reasons why there might be an enquiry now and not then.

3. Tell me with figures which translate to actual people: What really is the Guyana Patriotic Alliance (GPA), the new Puran outfit? The All Races Congress (ARC), the Keith Scott Group, the JFAP? Are these parties with a following of hundreds of persons I can touch?

Did not a new party led by an almost absentee, Brazil-based, Irish-influenced Guy-anese, the Guyana Action Party (GAP) rout the TUF in its traditional areas, forcing Mr. Nadir to offer his resignation? Is it not fact that the once robust WPA and something named "Labour" latched on to Mr. Hardy's GAP for their very survival.

My point is even in mergers or combinations can these "parties" constitute any Third Force? How many more will emerge by 2006?

4. Coming next week too: How does the Ministry of Culture promote understanding - or "unity"?

5. Two B's: What has become of treason fugitive Bynoe and death squad informant Bacchus? (When a small society becomes a big country.)

'Til next week!