Saturday, May 31, 2014

Reflections on Arrivals Caribbean society in transition

Having a sense of where we came from
Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago: 

...more than a people defining themselves, there must be a better understanding of who we are and not allow political allegiances to mark out lines of segregation - Dr Kris Rampersad.

Interview with Dr Kris Rampersad, Media Cultural and Literary Educator
 By Marcia Braveboy in 
Caribbean News Now Senior Correspondent

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- Indian Arrival Day is being celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago on 30th May. On the eve of the occasion we are summoned once again by our foreparents to contemplate this burning sense of our past that engulfs our thinking with sparkles of thoughts about who we are and where we really came from.
This gentle meliorism by a conscious people whose             gaze is set only on progress, must through active aspirations wonder into the deep and beyond the stars to find answers of a sometimes forgotten past, to reconnect the links for future generations. 
The flames of 200 years ago by our ancestors and predecessors refuse to go out under a people it still challenges to define their purpose on this journey to a better Trinidad and Tobago.

Writer, author, journalist Kris Rampersad says that, more than a people defining themselves, there must be a better understanding of who we are and not allow political allegiances to mark out lines of segregation among our peoples and for the removal of denominational and ethnic inhibitors to national development and to see the dream of a people becoming one come true. 
“We as a country and a region are losing so much of understanding ourselves when we define and confine ourselves through all kinds of narrow allegiances, and that is not to downplay the value of identity to all of us.”

Rampersad is a Caribbean woman. What that means is that she takes a keen interest not just in Trinidad and Tobago but also in our regional neighbours and the importance of that interconnection to each other as a Caribbean people. She sits on the UNESCO executive board in Paris representing Trinidad and Tobago and has been working across the Caribbean to build resilient communities through heritage and culture; developing policies, infrastructure and institutions while at the same time involved in journalism and new media as an independent media operator.

But first, she is a Trinidad and Tobagonian national, passionately wanting us to celebrate our people-hood. She has just issued a call for artistes to produce nonviolent content in their music and she is working towards producing music and songs for the soundtrack to a biography film to highlight the life and times of assassinated Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal. Rampersad hopes to use this brand to help music producers define spaces for non-violence with their art. 

“The dimensions of crime, for instance, in our societies cut across ethic identities; to address those problems we have to be able to look beyond those lines.” 

Many Trinidad and Tobago nationals have been pulling at the skirt tail of governments to abolish the various celebrations and establish just one national holiday and call it “Arrival Day”, the thinking is that we all came, and it will be a true representation of the rainbow country that is Trinidad and Tobago. Kris Rampersad has a different view:

“Do we need one arrival day? If an arrival day is important to people they should have their day - separately or together - I'm not sure I have an opinion on that. I celebrate all of them: how could we not?

“I like to think of migration – departures and arrivals – the process that brought us here as an evolutionary flow – as only one stopping point in a long history of such migratory movements into antiquity. A long view of history beyond the recent colonial past, shows that we can look ahead too with a longer view - and there might come a time when we as a nation would agree that we do not need many arrival days but one, to mark our national presence. I am sure the people associated with the rare 7,000-year-old skeleton discovered on our soil – a people who we would label 'Banwari' and about whom we seem to have no curiosity – would have celebrated an arrival of sorts at some point in time. Our coming here was one frame of migrations, and from my research, when the truth is known, the story of ‘Banwari’ is likely to upset and overturn a whole lot of long held theories of migration, etc. Societies evolve. People come into contact with each other and change the space they occupy. The ancient history is replete with recounts of those – the Shrutis, the Vedas, the oral stories of the African and Chinese folk tales.”

While Indian Arrival Day places the Indian community on the radar on such an occasion, the celebration of that day, like Emancipation Day, symbolizes the amalgam that is a ‘Trini’ (as they say in local parlance); a productive and talented people, as Rampersad describes the people of Trinidad and Tobago. It seems, however, that as citizens too much has been relinquished through old systems. While the British gave this twin island its independence, the people held on firmly to the institutions left behind by that British system, Rampersad declared.

“As a counter to the erosion of identity the colonial system imposed on us, self-governance following independence sought to repair the damage with such national days. But the challenge of governance is really minimising the sense of threat to identity that has
been ingrained in so much of our operations and many of our governance institutions have been unable to meet that challenge.

“Because of our recent history and the striping of self esteem and identity of post slavery and indentureship, part of the post independence process of regaining self, involved establishing these national days of recognising the presence of various groups, but as our society evolves; as we strengthen our national fabric and if our governance system can assure each group of its self identification and of equity in treatment – there is so much insecurity in our system you see – that would become less relevant….”

The author and journalist sees Trinidad and Tobago as a country that is full of talent and flowing over; a country that is replete with individuals who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps – generations building on the struggles of the previous one – like the now assassinated senior counsel Dana Seetahal and others like her who fully occupied their own spaces, doing what they do best, when all the frames and structures and institutions mitigate against that -- that is what Carnival and Phagwa and Baptist Liberation Day represent, Rampersad believes. 

In spite of its avalanche of talent and skills flowing in this twin island Republic, the islands remain underdeveloped. Kris does not like that.

“We may feel now that we need to celebrate days like those, but my concern is that we -- as a society – by trying to define ourselves by those parameters we are also narrowing our vision of ourselves in silos rather than the collective strengths that we are. The insecurity that makes celebrations necessary forces the kind of chest thumping in trumpeting such national days – to, beyond colonial pains and hurts to trumpet the glorious ancient civilisations that are behind us. But it is also a divisive championing, that can limit us celebrating all the mother cultures that contribute to our national being.”

What about those who define us by our ethnic and cultural antecedents?

“We are also that,” Rampersad agrees, citing that we all came from somewhere. “We also came from somewhere, from a mother, and from a motherland – India, Africa, China, Europe – they are all our cultures as Trinis; and then there is that other space you can lay claim to based on ethnic origins; in fact, I think that is the process of evolution I attempted to trace in my first book, Finding a Place, and maybe too in much of my journalism – on the one hand it was about how fiction influenced journalism; on the other it was how we evolved from one culture into another, to make us the people that we are – Trinis....”

The multiethnic as well as multi religious society that Trinidad and Tobago is makes it equally a beautiful and complex society. The fight for space in every sphere, especially economic, political spheres creates antagonism primarily between the African and Indian groups. 

“Our jostle for space here, represented in the so many different celebrations, is depriving us of the opportunity to fully explore and appreciate the larger sense of self. To do so, we need to level the playing field and create an environment that is more secure for people’s self-identification before we can start thinking of relinquishing those isolated symbols of identification,” Rampersad explains.

She thinks governments can turn the wheel of understanding in all the right directions once they exercise the will to do so.

“The governance processes since Independence have been challenged to do so and hence so often seems to be going in the opposite direction to creating the kind of society we envision ourselves as – ‘rainbow country’, multicultural, diverse, ‘every creed and race finds an equal place’, et al.”

A scholar in her own right and of East Indian descent, Dr Kris Rampersad sees herself simply as a Trinidad and Tobago national and a reflection of all Trinidad and Tobago nationals of different creed and races.

“I am the sum total of being born and nurtured in Trinidad and Tobago but also of all the people I have encountered, all the places I have visited and lived in and all the experiences I have. Every travel, every encounter, and every experience changes and alters us in some way. I feel blessed to have been given such opportunities to meet, work play and share ideas with so many different people. I feel somewhat that I never return to Trinidad the same person I was when I left on some meeting or the other having been enriched by those experiences.

“It is an ancient wisdom, to embrace life as a journey, a series of journeys; a continuous process of departures and arrivals. The arrival of Indians and each other group, including the ‘Banwari’ people more than 7,000 years earlier, here, ought to be seen in that context, as a universal experience and not as the be all and end all struggle it becomes in a political context; in a context of a society built on insecurities and pitching one group or one ethnicity against the other, each vying for national space when equitable policies and approaches could address all that,” she said. 

Dr Kris Rampersad has authored three books: “Finding a Place”, which traces development of a literary sensibility among Indians who migrated with their own languages and cultures, through writings in newspapers, education and production of a Naipaul: acclaimed lord of the English Language.

Her second book: “Through the Political Glass Ceiling” looks at the race to prime ministership by Trinidad and Tobago's first female holder of that office – Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar -- and explores the socio-cultural and political situation that gave rise to the country's first woman prime minister in the context of the 2010 general elections. 

In her third book: “LiTTscapes” (Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago) Rampersad features more than 100 works by more than 50 writers through visualising in photographs fictional representations of Trinidad and Tobago's  landscapes, cultures, lifestyles and more. Look her up on Facebook to see the photos and to journey through her other works.

Ask about our digital memory services click here Let's Tell your Story: Leaves of Life
Published on May 31, 2014: Caribbean News Now!: Indian Arrival Day in Trinidad and Tobago: Having a sense of where we came from

Related Links:

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Mapping the Literary Imagination 

Book on TT Heritage

Through the Political Glass Ceiling

Cutting Edge Journalism

Caribbean Literary Salon
Sunday 1st June, 2003
Dr Kris Rampersad
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Clan-destine confessions
I am a bastard. The name I carry is not the one I was born with. And I do not refer only to the truncated byline that accompanies this article.
(That was the Guardian’s doing. Days into what would turn out to be a career, not many moons ago, a dashing sub-editor faced me with the ultimatum of truncating my name or run the risk of not being credited for my articles. My given name would take up an entire paragraph, and space was a valuable newspaper asset, he argued, rather convincingly. I acquiesced. It reincarnated into Kris, his option over Krissy – that one had come in the late years of primary school, so christened by a teacher from “town,” fresh out of Training College.)
For years I harboured clandestine thoughts that I was a bastard. In times when I wanted to disown my family, I convinced myself I was orphaned; on better days I savoured my secret – that I was a love child.
While I combed her hair, made wavy from decades of plaiting, or massaged her back, I would smilingly indulge in this little secret I shared with my ma. She groaned approvingly every time I massaged an ache out. I dread to think what her real reaction would have been had I voiced my thoughts…
But it was not just my imagination running wild. My bastardisation was the doing of the State.
It began when I discovered my birth certificate a few weeks before sitting the Common Entrance examination.
Under the column “Father’s name” there was a dash. Nothing else. A dash, then blank. Everyone assumed I was Rampersad because my many, many brothers and sisters carried one of my father’s names, and when you’re number 10 on the list you can’t really choose your name, or so they thought. I’d disprove it trice.
Though all my official records made me his, his name was not on the birth certificate. Instead, that carefully rolled, still crisp but yellowing piece of paper ma kept in her secret place stated I was a Sookraj.
Even when Rampersad went to the Red House in Port-of-Spain to swear I was his, I reserved the option of being Sookraj when I wanted. Really, I should be Kris (blank) or Kris — (dash).
Three years ago, I again saw Sookraj named on paper. One then long-unknown cousin, Nelson Ramdeen, was tracing his maternal ancestors and it led him to my mother. He jotted down all our names, and the names of the children of my siblings, and the names of ma’s siblings, and their children, and her mother’s name, and her father’s name: Sookraj, a grandpa I had never known.
Her unregistered Hindu marriage to my father not being recognised by law, not even 10 children later, I was stuck with her father’s name, her maiden name, hence her love child, and my romanticised bastard status.
So Rampersad is the name that defines my place in a place that didn’t recognise my parents’ cultural relationships – an oral culture – but placed emphasis on things written.
Writing made things real. In that way too, Moneah became real.
From Ramdeen’s research, she popped to life. He traced my mother’s lineage to this faceless woman, who, for whatever reason, at age 22, from Dinapore village in Patna, India, packed her husband, Ramchurn, and her Jahaji bundle; boarded the Hougoumont on October 13, 1870; braved four months of treacherous, unfamiliar kala pani, to arrive in Trinidad four months, two days later – on February 15, 1871, one day after what would come to be known as Valentine’s Day.
Thus began her love affair with Trinidad, which would outlive two husbands, spawn 10 (known) children, some 50 grandchildren (and counting, some blanks still exist); each of those had on average 40 grandchildren; each of those some 30 grands.
Five generations later, I need a better capacity for math than I now possess to calculate Moneah’s contribution to Trinidad and Tobago’s voting and working population and to the Trinidad diaspora in North America, Asia, Australia, Europe and the Caribbean, which a rough estimate places beyond 5,000 human souls in various professions.
(All except politics, the family jokes, and on the agenda is a motion to disown from Moneah’s lineage any who enters that profession at the next clan gathering – the first was three years ago, 130 years after Moneah’s arrival, so the next might not be until another century or so.)
Moneah now lives: In the faces and the mannerisms and quirks of character of the some 3,000 women who can trace a bloodline to her.
From what I know of some of those women in her lineage, I could see her, on Ramchurn’s death two and a half years after their landing, pulling her widowed orhini over her head and shrugging off considerations of becoming Suti and dying with her husband, saying, “Sati who? Mere nam, Moneah” (Meh name’s Moneah).
She would mourn him properly in the traditionally defined ways, and two years later consort with our grandsire, Shewpersad, who said farewell to his cows and his village Semaie in Boodha, Gorukhpur, boarded the Brechin Castle (ship) on December 26, 1874, to Trinidad and 25 years of Moneah.
Those two would seed Trinidad soil with cane and cabbages, pumpkins and pawpaws, and offspring like peas.
Though only one of her sons, one great grandaughter, and two great, great grandsons would demonstrably exceed her level of fertility, the average offspring of each of the descendants over five generations stands around six.
Several have inherited her genes of outliving husbands.
They include beef-eating Hindus, pork-eating Muslims, bhajan-singing Christians; through their veins have flowed T&T’s coconut water and Carib, French wine, Scottish whisky, Japanese sake, India’s lassi, and whatever other beverages rage in the places they have settled and spawned their own dynasties – in the USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and India.
A solid bridge now stretches seven generations – each step boldly labelled – towards Moneah. Because we know her name.

Cutting edge journalism

At first glance, its cover with photographs of Sam Selvon, Lakshmi Persaud, VS Naipaul, Seepersad Naipaul, Shiva Naipaul, Stella Abidh, Shani Mootoo and FEM Hosein suggests Dr Kris Rampersad’s newly-launched book 'Finding a Place – IndoTrinidadian Literature' is a literary critique of these writers and their work.

In fact, the fading newspapers beneath the photographs suggest a more subtle and compelling connection. Dr Rampersad’s ground breaking work is built around little known and rare publications produced by IndoTrinidadians over a hundred years (1850-1950) – The East Indian Advocate, Herald, Patriot, Weekly, Observer, Presbyterian, Koh-i-noor Gazette among others. It unearths lost chunks of our history, presses us to rethink the Indian experience in the New World, and lights up through her research the lost and faded pioneers of IndoTrinidadian writing.

“It was in the (East Indian) Weekly,” she writes in chapter five, “that the first writers found an outlet for their wish to write. Through its reports and focus, they found the subjects and themes that would dominate later creative fiction.

“The issues of adaptation to a new society, cross-culturation, the struggle for promotion and acceptance, acquiring wealth, biracial marriages… later became subjects and themes for the creative fiction of IndoTrinidadians.”

In her introduction, the author asserts that her book, which quotes articles, letters to the editor and editorials from rare, lost or forgotten publications, “maps a process of literary development.”

She writes: “It becomes obvious from this study that a writer like VS Naipaul did not arise as an aberration, but from realities within the society in which he grew up. The desire to write came out of a century-long tradition of yearning and aspiring towards that goal, within which was encapsulated the need to be understood and accepted by the society which was now being claimed as home.”

I had seen Dr Rampersad, looking incongruently girlish the evening of the launch, among heavyweight university academics asserting that we all have only a partial view of the world based on our individual experiences and influences, which is why we each need to write our stories so we can understand one another.

Although Finding a Place is rooted in academia, it reads like investigative journalism at its cutting edge. The writing is lively with evocative images, plump with analysis and context, (so that in some ways it is a one-stop shop for the history of the IndoTrinidadian’s experience in the New World) and the material as fascinating as unexpectedly discovering fading letters of a grandparent and seeing them in their youth.

“The book began with a vague notion, a philosophical position, that of understanding how the many strands of our society have evolved. After that, I looked at the Koh-i-noor Gazette which was one of the few of the 12 publications available in the National Archives,” Dr Rampersad said later in an interview.

“A whole lot has disappeared. When I was looking for material, people would say ‘we just moved and threw away old papers.’ I didn’t locate The Herald and The Patriot until the end of the study, then I had to redo other chapters to accommodate the new material.

“Practically all the issues raging in the 1860’s and 70’s are relevant today – the questions of voice and voicelessness, of national identity; of how much allegiance do we owe to Africa, to India.

“There are instances in the book that manifest how politics and self-interest divide groups such as the split that caused the demise of The Herald, a paper that saw itself as a unifier among races. The political faction produced a rival paper The Patriot. The Herald’s noble literary ambitions suffered, its editor got disillusioned, and the paper died.

The study, adds Rampersad, “explodes the myth that IndoTrinidadians were insular since it demonstrates so much interaction within the society without animosity. For instance, the East Indian Weekly had an Afro-Trinidadian publisher. The paper shows Hindus, Muslims, Christians working together, for example, on the issue of destitute indentured labourers and championing national issues from flooding in Laventille to the need to develop Carnival.

“Today you won’t hear anyone calling themselves a ‘Christian Hindu,’ but that was common then. The term ‘An IndoTrinidadian’ has its first recorded usage as a pen name, as early as 1888.

“Perhaps the society was much more tolerant than we are today, recognising that all peoples need to assert their identity. Nobody at that time had a problem with people having a press for themselves. The Creole population had The San Fernando Gazette, the upper classes The Port-of-Spain Gazette, so when The Koh-i-noor Gazette came out, most felt it was about time.”

Finding a Place debunks old myths of the IndoTrinidadian as insular or un-intellectual by producing overwhelming evidence that this group, like the Afro- and Euro-Trinidadian, was grappling with an identity that remembered the Old, and actively interacted with the New World.

“Trinidadians don’t realise the great struggle it was for IndoTrinidadians to get the vote in the country. When the Franchise committee on granting universal suffrage wanted to introduce a clause that only people who could read and write English should be able to vote – at that time that was about 70 per cent of the Indo population. Agitation in the press got that clause removed.”

Even as IndoTrinidadians gave up their language and adapted English for mobility, says Rampersad, they found other ways to streamline Indian culture and language, other ways of evolving while retaining a sense of their roots. This was manifested in the oral tradition, in chutney and Pichakaree, and the oral traditions fed into the writings.

Dr Rampersad’s premise is that everybody is searching for roots and identity at a time when technology and travel makes it impossible for people to be insular, and many see themselves as multicultural entities. She hopes her book will become a module for others to look at their own groups.

Finding a Place is a must read.

After 50 years have we come a long way?

By By Essiba Small

The ascension of Kamla Persad-Bissessar to the highest office in the land was chief among the milestones for women of T&T since the country became an independent nation.
In the last 50 years women have progressed in the fields of medicine, education, law and politics. Like activists Elma Francois and Claudia Jones who went before them, women have articulated their presence and voice to issues of national interest.
None of this came easy.
"Everything we have gained as women has come through struggle and negotiation," says Dr Gabrielle Hosein, assistant lecturer at UWI's Institute for Gender and Development Studies.
"In the last 50 years women have made a number of important advances that should not be negated. In 1980 we witnessed feminism in T&T which shaped movement building. Women's organisations made changes in the country in terms of the consciousness of women's rights and they challenged the family pattern."
In the field of education women have also made strides. There was a time when women had no access to free education. When that changed, women still had to jump through hoops to gain a university education.
"To be admitted to the University of the West Indies women had to score higher marks than men in their final examinations," said Dr Diana Mahabir-Wyatt, chairperson of the Coalition Against Domestic and Gender-based Violence.
University education afforded those women a chance to get better jobs with the number of women in the workforce moving from less than 30 per cent pre Independence to 50 per cent post Independence.
"Domestic workers were able, for the first time, to take cases to the Industrial Court, the increase of the minimum wage and the state's recognition of common-law marriages have also benefitted women," Mahabir-Wyatt said.
There has also been an evolution of women's roles, Dr Kris Rampersad, writer, researcher and gender development advisor observed.
"In terms of how they are viewed and presented in national life, women have really come into their own in the public sphere as they have in the private sphere for decades where Caribbean women, and the women of T&T have always held significant power and leverage – think of the women in the canefields, in the markets, in the domestic and small industries who have supported, not just supplemented, family incomes for generations – though this has not generally been acknowl- edged."
Poet, playwright and cultural activist Eintou Pearl Springer, while joining in the celebration of achievements made by women, said she couldn't divorce the milestones from the scenes that continue to play out on a daily basis in depressed areas.
"As an African woman I feel invisible and undermined and I am concerned about the African woman and my community. I say that with no apologies."
Springer said 1838, the year of Emancipation from slavery, is her watershed rather than 1962.
She said in the post Emancipation period women have been the burden bearers of the race but that position of women shifted in the generation after hers.
Springer witnessed Independence as a teenager, went to the first Government co-ed school and got an exhibition to high school. Through it all, she has always been surrounded by strong women.
"Even though the men were absent, uncles helped out as women took charge of the family. "Today, when I look at my community, women seem to have given up. They seem to be looking for their own fulfillment to the detriment of their children.
"The words of the stickfight lavway,  'mooma, mooma, yuh son in the grave already, take your towel and band yuh belly', come to mind. Women are grieving for their sons and their men. "
Catherine Kumar, CEO of the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce, who has broken a few glass ceilings, attributed the missing generation syndrome to the lack of balance between career, family life and social life.
"There was a time when grandmothers were the backbone and took care of grandchildren. Not so today.
"With grandmothers now working, this support has diminished and children are being left alone or at places where they are not being challenged to think or taught sound values.
"This I believe contributes to some of the challenges in society- delinquent youths. There needs to be greater support in the work place and infrastructure generally to support working women."
Domestic violence and the lack of gender equality continue to be grey areas for women.
"There needs to be a turnaround in the domestic violence figures," Mahabir-Wyatt said. She believes that couples could benefit from mediation, problem solving and negotiating arguments in relationships.
 That violence against women is no longer glorified in our calypsoes, as it once was, is a huge advancement Hosein said.
"There has been a serious shift and now the woman is seen for who she is, a human being who needs to be respected."
The ideas pertaining to gender continue to be static in this country, according to Professor Patricia Mohammed.
"There is an aberration of some norm that women will somehow go back home and take care of the young, old and their husbands and that men will rediscover their rightful place in society as leaders. This was never the case, some women have always forged ahead, and there is no fixed mould for gender."
Mohammed said she would like to see a change of gender ideas.
"We have to have the gender policy passed and accepted. Men and women both have to see themselves as equal nurturers, caretakers of families and society as both will invariably always be sharing the economic burdens and responsibilities of same."
 Looking ahead, Mahabir-Wyatt wants to see more women commanding heights, to quote her.
"A few women have broken the glass ceiling but I want to see more of them as chair of boards."
Springer wants to see a refocus on the African lifestyle.
"African women in this country lack a sense of self and so they are opened to negativity."
You've come a long way baby, the theme of feminism and women's liberation used as a marketing slogan by Virginia Slims cigarettes, played its part in empowering women all over the world. Could the same be said of women in T&T? After 50 years have we come a long way?
"Of course we have, a very long way," Professor Mohammed declared.
"Women can virtually do anything they wish to at present — but there will always be room for more progress for as soon as we reach goals, the goal posts change."