Post 200.

In 2000, when I became Miss Mastana Bahar, a newspaper reporter asked me about my plans for marriage and children. I responded that I didn’t sit around dreaming about marriage, but wanted children. She also asked me if I’d marry a non-Indian (because that’s one of those national obsessions about Indian women, making us the only group routinely asked blatantly judgy questions about interracial relationships). Thanks to the Editor, Maxie Cuffie, a half-page, bold headline later screamed: “Miss Mastana Shocker. Wants child out of wedlock. Could marry non-Indian”.

Both forming and filling public taste for salacious details about a seemingly “sexually unconventional woman”, Cuffie’s manufacturing of a drama of sexual impropriety reflected his focus on business bottom line, not public interest.  In the fifteen years since then, during which neither motherhood nor my marriage have drawn any shock, I’ve watched media headlines shape public sentiment in ways that have less to do with public good than with selling specific stories, and newspapers.

‘Have you had sex with her?’, the headline of Sheila Rampersad’s July 2, 2015 Express column, was more of this strategy. This question was asked of a US politician, but the effect of the headline, combined with the article, was to make the public see the PM’s “personal difficulties” and “awful weakness” as sex-related, thereby steering discussion that since followed into self-righteous gossip masquerading as political commentary.

Rampersad herself asked a valid question: “what are appropriate and ethical ways to investigate, reveal and discuss the Prime Minister’s alleged personal vulnerabilities in so far as they affect the public interest?” Indira Sagewan-Ali responded with a lecture about adultery, which as much as people think is wrong, has no clear connection to good or bad governmental decision-making. Diana Mahabir-Wyatt argued that the state and public have no right in the bedrooms of citizens. In defense of free speech, Kumar Mahabir appears to have jumped in on-line with questions about Rampersad’s own sexuality and alcohol consumption, without addressing her argument. It was inevitable that her question would be seen as applicable to anybody in public life. And, as if this Mad Hatter’s tea party didn’t have enough crazy table talk, Selwyn Ryan returned on Sunday to the formulaic short-cut to scandal, the “sexually unconventional woman”, as a valid subject for analysis in a column on, wait for it, psychopathic/sociopathic disorders and psychiatric disease.

We are focusing on the private lives of leaders more than the outrage that is the collapse of the ethical and institutional power of the state and its officials to reign in all individuals on our behalf. Persona matters in the midst of their failure, and is a sign of our turning the page on our own responsibility as citizens and power as voters as we mine headlines for a savior.

Maintenance of power through mass patron-client relations, which have always combined welfare with corruption, added to the power of financiers over political parties – from Jack to Ish and Steve to Andre Monteil, a man who allegedly comingles money by the millions, to SIS, which has received more than one tenth of our national budget in contracts, added to poor institutional regulation on everything from land development to environmental management is the real bacchanal.

It doesn’t matter who we put in office, they have and will all oversee massive waste and corruption, regardless of the party leaders or other candidates, whether they drink alcohol, smoke weed or have unconventional sex. And it will remain so as long we feed the interest of big business, which owns the media, by not focusing on the story of every missing dollar, then demanding accountability from public decisions and deals. Rihanna’s BBHMM is my taxpayer’s anthem. Not a vote for you unless you get all our money back where it should be.

I care less about Keith or Kamla’s personality than the sickness of misspent billions detailed in every year’s Auditor-General’s report, which no leader takes full responsibility for, which no authority has ever issued a statement on, listing immediate action being taken, and which is the greater private sleaze threatening public order. To this ex-Miss Mastana, that story is the real inter-racial shocker.

Post 199.

Stereotype has long defined public talk about Indian women’s sexuality, and panic that Hindu women’s immorality can undermine a whole political-economic order isn’t new.

150 years ago, authorities were pressuring recruiters to find the ‘right’ kind of Indian woman whose obedience could be assured. At that time, across the British empire, indentured women were hysterically cast as hyper-aware of their sexual and labour power, and as aligning themselves strategically with men to maneuver the colonial system. This was considered a sign of their dangerousness and untrustworthiness, facilitated by the fracturing of familial and religious rules, and capable of undermining the plantation system itself.

Later, to weaken Indian women’s gendered negotiations, they were redefined as unpaid housewives in village life off the plantation, fulfilling a colonial ideal of women as dependent nurturers, and Indian men’s wish for partners who couldn’t simply leave for better love or sex, more respect and rights, or greater economic security. And so, another stereotype of the passive Indian woman, whose dutifulness held together the clan, became accepted in our society.

Throughout this period and then post-independence, conservative Hindu voices spoke out against Hindu women’s interracial sexual unions, seeing nationalist desires for biological and cultural mixing as plans for assimilation and erasure.

Both the Africanisation of Indian culture, and the Indianisation of national culture, through chutney-soca or the mass entry of young Indian women into Carnival, signaled a loss of difference, respectability, purity, tradition and Mother culture. Morally good, ethnically loyal Hindu women were supposed to neither reject Hindu men nor fall prey to African men’s debauchery. Notice how Sat Maharaj emphasized that while Dr. Rowley was wining on a young Indian woman, the PM was at a puja being a proper Hindu devotee.

On the other hand, African men’s sexual possession of an exoticised Marajin, Dulahin or ‘Indian gyal’ was considered a superior approach to creating Mother Trinidad where ‘all of we is one’. African men’s prowess with Hindu women, and their sexual and political power to determine the creolization of both Indians and the nation, was a potent symbol of Indian men’s emasculation. Indian patriarchy was considered racist for resisting such penetration.

In contestations for Indian and African dominance, Hindu women’s interracial unions have been widely celebrated and condemned, from calypsos to debates in the press. In such endless minding of their sexual business, Indian women’s views on their own sexuality are least heard. Mainly talk concerns their effects on others: men, families, ethnic groups and the nation. African women’s feelings, that men’s interracial unions were a rejection of them, were also largely dismissed. Indeed, amidst great diversity in African women’s perspectives and solidarities, the view of Indian women as an ethnic threat, who could take your man, his money and even nation-state, has also existed all along.

PNM member Juliet Davy’s comments, that Hindu Indian women seduce powerful non-Indian men for wealth and to destroy them, exemplifies this, with the twist that Hindu men use their women, including their own wife, mother, daughter or sister, to seduce non-Indian men.

What shifted such that Hindu women, rather than African men, are now considered predatory? When did their interracial unions appear, not as rejection of Indian men, but as tricks of subordinate pawns? When did African men become so sexually and economically vulnerable? How are myths of danger and docility being currently recombined?

Interestingly, for five years, Kamla Persad-Bissessar has been defined by just this predatory-pawn logic. She’s cast as embodying a creeping threat to all that constitutes our democratic state, incomprehensibly popular, politically powerful, morally degenerate and a weak puppet of a Hindu male cabal.

Combine old fear of the sexually and economically strategic Hindu woman, with established commentary on Indian women’s bodies in competitive race talk, with current assessment that a too-powerful Hindu patriarchy is ‘wooding’ the state treasury, with clear campaigning to seduce voters with an almost lone Indian lady, and it perhaps explains how stereotypes arise to articulate distrust of the PP’s twist on ‘real unity’.

Post 198.

More than once, Ziya has initiated conversation about skin colour, telling me that she wishes she had lighter skin or was white. Where this comes from, I’m not exactly sure, though the nexus of value and colour is inescapably embedded in our entire colonial legacy.

Most people blame ‘the parents’, that dynamic duo supposedly capable of successfully fighting all the world’s bad influences through their super skills in setting an all-powerfully influential example. Parents might blame ‘the media’ which, even if we police our own little sapodillas’ consumption of children’s shows, still manages to infiltrate their consciousness through conversation and time spent with their friends and other family members who watch TV.

So, Zi tells me that having light skin is prettier because you can have pink cheeks, like Anna from the film, ‘Frozen’. She apparently watches ‘Barbie’ and other Disney Channel shows when not home. And, she and her school friends clearly work through concepts of colour, status and beauty when talking, and even through skin colour matching games. She’s also reasoned to me that ‘light skin can be pink and girls are supposed to like pink, that’s why I like light skin’. This is not a conversation Zi is inventing or having alone.

When I’ve discussed this with people, they’ve gone through the list of sources of blame. I’ve checked each off one by one. Zi gets books chosen specifically with a range of considerations, including race, colour, gender, geography, art and science, in mind. I’ve only ever bought her brown dolls. Her allowed shows include Doc McStuffins, Dinosaur Train, Word World, and others vetted for their messages and representations.

What’s out there isn’t perfect, but some choices are better than others. Still, some choices are not great. There are far too few Caribbean music videos, particularly by women, that she can watch. So, it’s not entirely surprising that the ‘Roar’ video, where Katy Perry’s cheeks are quite pink, has swept the four year old world like an unstoppable anthem.

I say all this to make the point that when our children start to show familiarity with a world we know is sexist, racist, classist and more, our first reaction is blame. But, beyond family, schools or media, this is actually the world as we live it daily, like normal. Our kids were going to encounter and even assimilate it inevitably. As a parent who has made a real effort, while also having to balance not being fascist about my attempts at indoctrination, I refuse the neoliberal idea that fault is in individual failure to fulfill that checklist.

A long time ago, we realized that real change requires more than individual empowerment and effort, it also needs mass movements, attempting widespread shifts in social consciousness and political-economic relations. The global Black Power movement knew this. It challenged class-colour barriers, the connection between whiteness and power, and disparagement of hair and skin considered ‘too black’.

For children, whether Indian, African or mixed, there’s a great deal of that transformative politics we still need to achieve, and we are a generation that can redesign the wheel while not having to reinvent it. Thinking about this makes you wonder about all the reasons for, and the losses of, such hopeful, collective Caribbean movements no longer existing today. It’s a lesson for us that such great efforts can be undermined, forgotten, even stereotyped over mere decades.

As a mother, I feel that once hierarchies penetrate our children’s understanding of the world and their place in it, they can now only be in resistance to such frameworks, no longer innocent of them or fully free. I dream that we could make such emancipation a real possibility. None but ourselves can free our minds, and luckily schooling and parenting can together be revolutionary.

So it goes in our contradictory, complex postcolony. For now, I’m keeping it simple. Mummy says all skin colours are beautiful.

Post 197.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’, the well-known pediatrician and fellow columnist asked me, I hoped rhetorically.

As Stone, Ziya and I entered in his office, he eyed Zi’s bottle of diluted cranberry juice the way US customs officials profile suspected narcotics traffickers as they step off the plane.

‘No more processed juice’, he declared, like entrance rules of a worm-hole to some healthier space-time. ‘It’s processed?’ I countered, because I like to think we buy healthy. ‘Did it come in a box, tin, container or carton?’ he spelt out, because obviously it did. ‘It’s processed unless your squeeze juice from fruit yourself’, he concluded, because clearly we hadn’t.

Then, he seemed to stop himself from starting a radical, anarcho-feminist, anti-big pharma, anti-global-food corp critique, one he had no doubt been championing since the 1970s. Instead, he simply outlined that big companies fool us into thinking that what we buy is beneficial instead of defined by chemical colours, acidifying preservatives, emulsifiers, and harmful processes, especially for children. Just read labels. I mentioned that Zi has Kellogg’s bran on a morning with banana and, I swear, it was like watching Harry Potter bristle at a Death Eater.

I appreciated his hard core line on what we should feed our children. Like Zi’s teachers, who chastise parents for sending chocolate, fruit snacks and cookies instead of real fruit in lunch kits.

Except at birthday parties, Zi doesn’t access soft drinks, or eat those biscuits, Kiss cakes or other packages of salt, sugar, sorbic acid and various four-syllable poisons. I’ve stood in the Pennywise hair products’ aisle wondering, if I died tomorrow, who would take the time to buy her shampoo without sulfate. I pointlessly rant, as I am never home to do the cooking, about the harms of canola, corn and soy oils, and pointlessly insist, as I am never home to do the grocery shopping, on us buying more costly grapeseed and cold-pressed coconut oil.

Zi’s vegetarian because twenty years ago I read so much on the horrors of meat production that I was done. If meat was raised in somebody’s backyard on grass, that would be different. But, what we buy has often been raised with antibiotics, growth-hormones and genetically modified corn, usually in stressful conditions, and we don’t yet know what long term harm that does to children. Finally, she has never had milk because so many children are lactose-intolerant, and milk is the cause of far too many rashes, infections, upsets, sinus irritations and allergies.

We sought the doctor because Zi was suffering from mosquito bites that she scratched into sores, which wouldn’t heal for weeks. ‘Cut out juices and other products with sugar, including overly processed brans and granolas as well as cheese,’ were our final pediatric instructions as I imagined the Mission Impossible soundtrack ricocheting around the room.

It’s here I felt justifiably overwhelmed. Fresh juicing, baking with unrefined flour and buying more organic everything seemed like plenty more effort for one woman logging long hours at work. It seemed like even more effort to my pork-loving, three-kinds-of-carbohydrates-on-the-plate-eating, lettuce-as-a-vegetable-counting, skeptical-of-Gab’s-probably-unneccessary-consumption-commandments, but nonetheless supportive husband. Stone and I exchanged one of those married people glances.

‘And you want to be a feminist?’ He contested my politics when I contested his expectations. I knew better than to duel with a doctor whose crew is midwives, and fearless breastfeeding and reproductive rights activists.

Indeed, feminism includes building a healthier world, for us, animals and the earth. It includes giving consumer power to organic farmers and green markets rather than to the handful of corporations that make us stuffed, but starving, with shortening life-spans, and combinations of children’s diabetes, obesity and attention deficits.

If I wanted to be feminist, I’d have to defend the rights of my child, first in my own home, and value the responsibility and power of such reproductive time and labour. My soundtrack would have to be more Thug Life than Nestle, Pepsico, Coca Cola, Kraft Foods, General Mills and Wrigley.

As we left I thought of a joke, but don’t tell anybody. How many feminists does it take to make fresh cucumber juice? Just one! His name is Stone and we love him dearly!

Post 196. LGBT Hinduism.

When one of Trinidad and Tobago’s best known contemporary authors, Shani Mootoo, was reading from her work at Alice Yard in Woodbrook, she expressed amazement that the word ‘lesbian’ was now being said openly in Trinidad, in a way she never imagined when she left for Canada all those years ago. The audience promptly affirmed, collectively shouting ‘lesbian!’ at the urging of Vahni Capildeo, a younger Indo-Trinidadian woman living in the UK, and author of several published collections of poetry.

While the readings continued, I reflected on the many incremental efforts that make such major shifts occur, almost without us noticing. And I wondered what a student might examine if she or he had to try to document the causes of such change. To what extent would focus be on the work of LBGT organisations which have been systematically nudging the public toward acknowledging their claims to human rights, equality and freedom from discrimination? To what extent would the decade of debate over the Draft National Gender Policy, and advocacy led by the women’s movement, explain wider discussion of homosexuality? To what extent is it the impact of global and regional advocacy or US popular culture? How much is from younger generations just living as they choose?

Someone once asked me why my column talks about lesbians all the time. It doesn’t of course, but I also deliberately place the presence and realities of those women who remain unjustly silenced and criminalized into the public domain.  So, yes, the word lesbian occupies more space in national press than it would have otherwise. In a small way, this normalizes the kinds of citizens who continue to hope they can be accepted for who they are. The citizens who should be safe to discuss their lives and loves just as much as their responsibilities for care of parents or their dissatisfaction with that new crumbly Crix, or, come election time, who they go put.

It was one of those moments of opening and occupying at the NCIC’s Divali Nagar compound on Saturday. How amazing to hear a new generation quoting religious texts to justify anti-homophobic Hinduism, to learn from Krystal Ghisyawan’s research on lesbian women’s desires for a sense of safety in their families and nation, and to watch Shalini Seereeram talk about representing women’s intimacies in art and the risks she takes in being true to her vision of the world. This panel could never be found fifteen years ago when I was searching for it. I wondered how and when such Hindu feminism had found its Caribbean footing.

Enlargened by those watching the live online broadcast and asking questions via Facebook, we heard about a sruti paradigm in Hindu theology which focuses on the eternal and is unconcerned about sexuality and gender, female incarnations of male deities like Vishnu, and bodily transformations from one sex to another, like Arjun becoming temporarily female to experience Krishna’s love, or Sikhandini honoring her bride’s wishes by becoming male. And how these, not Sita’s chastity, influenced women’s claims to LGBT, Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian identities as all parts of a right to be.

Like Pandita Indrani Rampersad’s theological support for same sex marriage when other religious groups quote scripture to reproduce prejudicial legislation, this gathering, titled ‘Queerying Hinduism’ and led by young married couple, Aneela Bhagwat and Arvind Singh of the Centre for Indic Studies, was another small step transforming the space, language and solidarities available to and beyond lesbian Indo-Caribbean women.

I thought of Shani Mootoo, acclimatizing to the fact that engagements with sexuality and gender have moved outside of fiction. And, I wanted this column to be its own moment, tracing and placing into public record the Indo-Caribbean feminisms now inspiring me.

‘Why aren’t the older heads here?, someone asked. But, more important was the circle of young women present, without judgment, with laughter, with pride, as I never imagined I’d see.

Check out the Centre for Indic Studies on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/centreforindicstudies.

Post 192.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Watching from backstage. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Rustling with energy backstage, dozens of children waited in darkness and silence, as senior dancers with Lilliput Theatre Company performed lines from Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Laureate acceptance speech. A few girls in front of me mouthed lines as they listened and fidgeted, impatient for their cue.

Malala’s words were starkly humbling. My chest quietly swelled with feeling, over the three nights of this weekend’s performance, every time I heard the young performers quoting her say: “I had two options. One was to remain silent and wait to be killed. And the second was to speak up and then be killed. I chose the second one. I decided to speak up.”

What a lesson for us adults.

When Malala visited Trinidad, I had explained her story to Ziya. I was explicit that Malala had been shot in the head, and that there were men who did not want girls to be educated. “Why?” Zi kept asking, as four-year-olds do, when adults struggle to explain complex situations.

Lilliput’s show now led Zi to seize upon Mighty Gabby’s song, Government Boots, which played just before Zi went on stage. “What are government boots? Who is Tommy?” she started asking, taken with the catchy refrain of “left, right, left, right.”

I explained that the song was telling Barbados’ PM Tom Adams there should not be so many soldiers. “Why?” she asked.

The sound of soldiers’ boots frightens many people. Soldiers hurt people with guns, and some children are forced to be soldiers after being taken away from their families.

Again: “But why?”

Imagine the show, in which Zi played a child bride, making her start these conversations, real ones about girls being forced to marry men they don’t know and boys being forced to hurt people, instead of them all being safe with their families and in schools.

Imagine me wrestling with how and how much to tell her the truth, wondering what constitutes ‘age appropriate’ knowledge when it’s about the realities of children her own age.

Imagine her at night, with her mind effervescing, as all children’s do just as you want them to close their eyes and sleep, with questions about Malala and government boots.

“Do the children see their families again?” she asked. Imagine all this because I only wanted her to grow less shy and more confident, and make friends, by taking a dance class.

But it seems the world doesn’t allow girls to grow up innocent so.

I admired that Noble Douglas and her company compelled parents, past students and more to invest in one way or another in giving our children a chance to dress up and dance to the chorus, “No, no, no.” And there’s one line Zi now remembers from Malala’s speech: “Let this be the last time.”

For me, seeing the whole process, from weeks of Saturday morning classes to rehearsal chaos and finally to a huge cast of exuberant children on stage, also humbling was the show’s determined mix of community parenting, feminism, global politics, children’s rights, Caribbean culture and joyous creativity.

There was a small ‘army’ of mostly women, helping with children, costumes or make up, making me appreciate how much labour matters beyond what is waged and counts toward GDP, making me recognise the sacrifices of women who never saw the show because there wasn’t anyone who equally shared their childcare responsibility, making me want to ask: “But why?” like Zi.

Unbelievably, after all this, all Zi told her school friends about the show was that she had on makeup. I had to laugh. Seems Lilliput also scored in Zi’s world of actual priorities of four-year-old girls.

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies' class got their routine right on the second night after the super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes

Me with other mummies, happy and proud that the babies’ class got their routine right on the second night after their super cute but chaotic opening performance. Photo by Maria Nunes.

Post 195.

Stone has been trying to figure out how to explain to Ziya that sometimes your best friend no longer wants to be your best friend, and though sadness is inevitable, there’s nothing to do but resiliently be yourself, let go and move on.

‘Is it a school day?’ Zi had asked when she woke up one morning this week. Because of her difficulties negotiating such a changed relationship, she didn’t want to go to school. Indeed, the social life of four year olds is like curriculum from the school of tough love.

This life lesson had been long coming. When Zi moved up school year, the little friend she virtually worshipped no longer clung to her also, and she’s spent the whole year slowly, reluctantly recognizing this.

On afternoons after school, we would hear endless stories. How her friend didn’t have any interest in playing with her anymore and had found a new best friend, how on another day they played all through lunchtime and she felt included and important again, how she also had to learn to play with other girls and find new best friends.

Below these stories was confusion and hurt, and we supported her teachers in emphasizing to her that all relationships change. Ziya doesn’t easily adapt though. She’s shy and self-conscious and, because of such awkwardness, can get deeply attached, holding onto the safety of those with whom she’s comfortable and familiar, investing more emotion, expectation and loyalty than is likely to be reciprocated, and quietly brooding over moments and feelings of rejection.

I never knew that children were so emotionally complicated and sensitive. Or, perhaps, I never knew I’d have to develop the skills to navigate anxieties so early, balancing on a thin line between indulging and devaluing such momentous trivialities. It never occurred to me that I’d have a child who takes so long to adjust to new situations, new children, new everything. I’m sure neither did Stone.

When you are making a baby, you just focus on its health and normalcy. You assume your child will be exuberant and confident, smart and hardy. You hardly anticipate or consider their potential idiosyncrasies, paranoias and neuroses, and you don’t expect them when they are four.

Zi is more fearful than I imagined possible for children now encountering the world for the first time. One night, waking from fitful sleep, she cried out to us that she was scared. ‘Scared of what?, we asked. ‘Scared of everything,’ she said, and I wasn’t surprised.

At parties with children from her class, I watched Zi play by herself because she didn’t know how to integrate into group play or was the only one afraid of the height of the play structure or waves at the seashore. We began to take her to her parties early because she could handle beginning with one or two children, but was overwhelmed arriving when too many were already there. We’d encourage her to find a kind friend or older child who would look out for her, and were grateful when she soared away with them. Stone and I had to learn more patience, and he explained his own experience of losing a best friend in the transition to QRC.

On Zi’s teachers’ advice, everyday we talk about who she played with at school, and what they did. When she told me they formed a ‘Supergirls’ group last week and how all the girls were in it, I felt that it had taken a year, but our wallflower had begun to more independently blossom.

Like us, our children’s hearts puncture and heal, their days are full of ups and downs, their discomforts may be perplexing and their abilities take time to grow. And, it’s not just Zi as so many other parents know.

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