The Indian Community in Trinidad: An Interview with Viranjini Munasinghe

Viranjini Munasinghe is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Asian American Studies at Cornell University. Her new book, Callaloo or Tossed Salad?: East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad (Cornell University Press, 2001), is an historical and ethnographic study of an Indian community in the Caribbean, with an emphasis on the politics of cultural conflict between Trinidadians of Indian and African descent. By redefining the term “creole” to include the Indo-Trinidadian community, Professor Munasinghe portrays Indo-Trinidadians as active creators of a unique, hybrid culture. Asia Society spoke with the scholar from her office at Cornell University.

Can you explain the title of your book? Why is food a good metaphor to discuss the debate between pluralism and homogenization in Trinidad?

The use of food as metaphor for the nation is not limited to Trinidad but characteristic of most nationalist discourses. Trinidadians often use the local West Indian dish “callaloo” as a metaphor for the nation. This stew, made from the leaves of the dasheen bush and flavored with okra and coconut milk, serves as a fitting image for their nation because it conveys both native origins (in the New World) and the containment of diverse elements within a single unit. However, many Indo-Trinidadian cultural and political activists I spoke with during my fieldwork in 1999 and 2000 took exception to this metaphor for the Trinidad nation. They argued that since the ingredients making up the “callaloo” are boiled down to an indistinguishable mush, the original ingredients lose their respective identities and blend into one homogeneous taste. They disapproved of this metaphor because it represented an extreme level of blending or “mixture.” Instead they opted for the metaphor of the “tossed salad”–an image which also signified diversity but one where, unlike the callaloo, each diverse ingredient maintained its originally distinct and unique identity. Thus the food metaphors of the callaloo and the tossed salad for the nation of Trinidad and Tobago convey very different ideas of mixture — callaloo depicting a process of mixture that produces homogeneity and tossed salad signifying the co-existence of diverse elements in pluralism. Indo-Trinidadians who are intent on preserving what they believe to be their unique and distinct “Indian” identity are against a “callaloo” nation because of the extent of biological and cultural mixing signified by this metaphor.

Can you discuss the historical circumstances of Indian immigration to Trinidad? When did this movement occur and what factors influenced it?

When the slaves were emancipated in the British Caribbean in 1838, the planters looked for alternative supplies of docile and servile labor that could replace the labor of the former slaves. Planters claimed that emancipation caused a labor shortage in many of the British Caribbean colonies such as Trinidad. However, I, along with a host of other scholars, argue that it was not that labor was in short supply but that former slaves were no longer willing to labor under the terms offered by planters. Therefore, planters had to look for a controllable (as opposed to “free”) labor force to work in the sugar plantations.

Some colonies such as Trinidad were particularly well poised to realize huge profits with increased sugar cultivation because many of their resources were still unexploited. The planters and the British Government instituted what some academics such as Hugh Tinker have labeled “a new system of slavery,” or indenture, to provide the planters with the desired labor. After brief experimentation with different groups, India, a British colony, became the major source of this alternative labor supply. India was a suitable source because India’s population was vast, the majority accustomed to agricultural labor under tropical conditions, and because the country was under British control there was no need for negotiations with foreign authorities. Living conditions were also grim for many Indians in the nineteenth century due to famine, disease, overpopulation and the increasing encroachment of the East India Company. As a result, many Indians were destitute and looked to opportunities outside of India in order to improve their impoverished lives. Between 1845 and 1917 (when indenture was abolished due to pressure from Indian nationalists) approximately 143,939 Indians came to Trinidad.

How and when were differences between South Asian immigrants such as caste, sect, region, language, and religion collapsed into a singular “Indo-Trinidadian” identity? Did any of these differences survive?

While the common perception is that Indian immigrants constituted a homogenous group because the vast majority who settled in Trinidad came from the densely populated central plain of the Ganges in northeast India (the United Provinces, Oudh, Bihar and Orissa), they were in fact a very diverse group characterized by religious, caste, linguistic and regional differences. While it is hard to pinpoint a date for the attenuation of these distinctions, once in Trinidad this originally diverse population of Indians developed into a relatively homogeneous group with the emergence of a common language, Bhojpuri, the standardization of Hinduism, the attenuation of the caste system whereby only certain distinctions now carried valence, and changes in the family structure in which certain features of the joint-family structure still persisted, but in modified form. Religious divisions between Hindus and Muslims, caste distinctions between Brahmins and Chamars and to a lesser extent, regional differences between the few “Madrasis” (South Indians) and the rest of the Indo-Trinidadians whose ancestral origins lie in northern India, still persist today.

What role does India play in the Indo-Trinidadian imagination? How much contact is there between India and the Indo-Trinidadian community? Has there been travel and exchange in both directions?

India plays a large role in the Indo-Trinidadian imagination. While Indo-Trinidadians insist on their commitment and loyalty to the nation of Trinidad and Tobago, they also express pride in their Indian ancestry. They don’t see these two identities as necessarily in contradiction.

Identification with India heightened in the 1930s when the independence movement in India added vigor to the Indo-Trinidadian consciousness. As early as the 1930s, young Indo-Trinidadian intellectuals began staging island-wide demonstrations in support of India’s demand for freedom. Public meetings held in Indo-Trinidadian majority areas opened and closed with Indian patriotic songs and “Vande Matram,” the Indian national anthem. Many of the Indo-Trinidadian organizations formed during this period, like the India Club, were intent on spreading knowledge about India and things Indian. Wealthy Indo-Trinidadians visited India and contributed generously to famine relief funds. Visits from a host of Indian missionaries and cultural leaders generated new interest, especially among the Indo-Trinidadian middle class, in the language and culture of their “mother country.” The first Indian movie, “Bala Joban” was shown to enthralled audiences in Trinidad in 1935.

Contact with India continues today and India as imaginary homeland has much symbolic import for Indo-Trinidadians. Yet, most Indo-Trinidadians will emphatically insist on their Trinidadian identity. While the wider society tends to view Indo-Trinidadian identification with India as a statement of disloyalty to the nation of Trinidad, Indo-Trinidadians see it differently. They insist they can be Indian and Trinidadian at the same time. My book explores why Indian and Trinidadian identities have historically developed as mutually exclusive identities, and the strategies through which Indo-Trinidadian cultural activists attempt to redefine Trinidadian national identity to include Indian elements. The Indo-Trinidadian dilemma of being viewed as strangers or outsiders in their society of settlement because of their ancestral culture is quite typical of how immigrant Asians are viewed generally. Asians, as in the United States, are often viewed by other groups as unassimilables or as perpetual strangers because of the unusually heavy cultural baggage imputed to them.

Can you discuss the process of creolization? In your book you argue that Indo-Trinidadians themselves are a product of creolization rather than inheritors of a strict ancestral culture. Can you explain this?

Creolization is a concept primarily identified with the Caribbean to describe and analyze processes of cultural adaptation and change within deeply hierarchical systems (the plantation/slavery complex and the race/color hierarchy that accompanied it) whereby new cultural forms emerged in the New World. A combination of the Spanish words “criar” (to create, to imagine) and “colon” (a colonist, a founder, a settler), the term Creole in the British Caribbean refers to people and things that constitute a mix of elements originating in the Old World. Through this mix of Old World forms, cultures and people indigenous to the New World were created. The terms creole and creolization, however, emphasize primarily the synthesis of African and European Old World elements, thereby excluding Indians. Thus while those with African and European ancestry are labeled Creoles, Indo-Trinidadians are never considered to be Creole. The implications of this exclusion from creole status is significant for Indo-Trinidadians.

Creolization also implied indigenization whereby foreign elements could become native to the New World through creative mixings. Thus, all persons and things “Creole” signified native status in Trinidad, and by extension the New World. East Indians who were considered unmixables because they were thought to be so saturated with an ancient (albeit inferior) civilization, were as a consequence not accorded Creole or native status in Trinidad. Thus, Indo-Trinidadians have been symbolically positioned as outside of the nation of Trinidad before and since independence in 1962.

My book examines the material and ideological mechanisms through which Indo-Trinidadians were positioned outside the creolization process and thereby the Trinidad nation. By examining Indo-Trinidadian practices and behaviors, I argue that Indo-Trinidadians too can be considered creole because they are active creators of new cultural forms indigenous to the New World rather than being mere reproducers of ancestral cultural forms.

What historical factors contributed to the development of the Indo-Trinidadian community as distinct and isolated from the larger Trinidadian population?

Historically a host of factors functioned to situate East Indians as separate from the rest of Creole society. Soon after arrival in Trinidad, Indian indentured laborers were banished to the sugar estates concentrated in the flatland or rolling hills of the western side of the island, later known as the sugar belt, thereby subjecting them to spatial isolation. As indentured laborers they were legally differentiated from the rest of the population and were subject to a number of laws that restricted their mobility and hence their contact with the wider society. Occupationally too, they were confined to the cultivation and processing of cane. Thus the majority of East Indians were confined to the rural agricultural sector. Religious and cultural differences coupled with their inability to speak English, underscored their alienation from the rest of the population. Symbolically too, East Indians were represented as outsiders. Since the Indian presence was thought to be only temporary, very little effort was made by the colonial government to integrate East Indians into the rest of society. Even education functioned to separate East Indians. The Canadian Presbyterian Missions catered exclusively to East Indians and instruction was in Hindi.

How does colonial race theory inform contemporary politics on the island? To what extent is the tension between Trinidadians of Indian and African descent an inherited legacy of colonialism?

Colonial policies and racial theories continue to influence contemporary politics on the island. The division between the two major ethnic groups comprising Trinidad’s population, the Afro-Trinidadian and the Indo-Trinidadian, which is marked and reproduced by race rhetoric and ethnic stereotypes with both groups jealously guarding what they believe to be their legitimate terrain, can be traced to colonial policy. East Indians were brought to Trinidad as “scab labor” to drive down the bargaining power of the Afro-Trinidadians. Thus, East Indians from the beginning occupied a structurally antagonistic position to Afro-Trinidadians.

Planters were also instrumental in creating particular kinds of discourses about the character of the “Indian” and the “Negro” in order to make their case for the need for indentured labor. Caricatures of the luxury-loving, lazy, immoral Negro and of the docile, hardworking and cunning Indian abound in planter discourses of the period soon after emancipation. Many of these derogatory racial stereotypes continue to this day as the two groups use these same caricatures to undermine one another. Unfortunately, as is the case with ethnic/racial stereotypes, these negative racial traits are thought to signify natural characteristics of the respective groups and the specific colonial history that led to the creation of such discourse is forgotten or remains unacknowledged. A major concern in this book is to historically situate and understand the development of race relations between Afro-Trinidadians and Indo-Trinidadians and to examine the continuities and disjunctures between the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell, Asia Society.

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