In Trinidad, if you are an Indian woman, and you don’t like doubles, curry, Bollywood films, pepper or big river limes with rum and loud chutney-soca music, you don’t practice any religion, lack all deference to patriarchal authority, and you made a Dougla baby with an Afro-Trinidadian man who is a DJ, not even a doctor or lawyer, people of all ethnicities often openly and genuinely ask, ‘What kind of Indian are you?’
It’s understandable. I’ve been asking myself this question since 1995, when I returned to live in Trinidad from an adolescence spent in Barbados and Canada. Never really feeling like I was a real Indian because I didn’t end up naturally connecting to typical cultural, religious, familial or other kinds of practices and traditions, I used my Mphil thesis to explore how other young women were living Indian femininity at the turn of century. I administered questionnaires to more than eighty Indian girls in four high schools at the foot of the Northern Range, conducted participant-observation in religious and cultural settings, and even became Ms. Mastana Bahar, for the ethnographic experience.
I learned a lot about young Indian womanhood, but it didn’t make me feel more authentic. Eventually, I stopped wondering, taken up with feminist movement-building, LGBT rights, environmental concerns, rapso, general irreverence to the state and status quo, and continued research on Indo-Trinidadian Muslim women, mas makers and women in politics. Increasingly confident about what it meant to be Indian for myself, inside I still doubted that my criteria would be approved if nice Muslim or pious Hindu women, or Indian men, saw below my appearance and respectable surface.
Then Ziya was born. It took me until this month to realize this, but I became Indian at that moment in 2010. No matter how little I felt I fit expectations, as a Dougla, Ziya was so much more disavowed, her belonging to Indianness so much more complicated because of her mixed hair, her African features, and her lack of cultural and biological belonging to either Indian or African identities.
In comparison to her, I was not only Indian, my body was a privileged representation. I would always be read as an Indian woman, even if I wasn’t the approved kind. Would she ever be accepted as negotiating and articulating her own experience of Indian womanhood in the Caribbean? Like many Douglas, would she end up identifying only as mixed or African, not also as Indian, disconnecting from part of herself and all of me?
That is the last thing I want. I had chosen aspects of Indianness for myself, as Indian women do, investing in family history, wearing shalwars to work rather than on assigned national days, ritualizing wedding mehindi on my anniversaries, wearing silver bracelets as symbolic reminders of how once indentured women invested jewelry with their own multiple meanings.
Yet, when Zi was born, making sure that she grew up knowing that she should be able to claim Indianness as much as me, on terms not set by religion, tradition, myths of racial purity or male authority, became so much more important. For four years, I’ve been thinking about Indo-Caribbean feminisms, and it only just occurred to me why.
Now Indian, what does that mean for my politics, and my commitment to cross-race and cross-class solidarities, particularly among women? What does it mean to be Indian, feminist and Caribbean? And, what are my responsibilities for ensuring that Indianness can be claimed just as much by descendents such as Ziya?
Now, when people respond to my writing on Indo-Caribbean feminisms by pressing, why not just be Caribbean, why you want make being Indian matter, I quietly wonder if they see the body I live in, and if they yet understand that we all have a right to explore the particularities of our experience.
I quietly imagine how different Ziya’s experience of her body, as also Indian, will be from mine.
I take notes in my head about how much more there is to learn about Indian women, whether mixed or in mixed relationships, lesbians, mothers, panditas, feminists or hijabistas, as we reflect on the combination of personal, intellectual and political in our contemporary selves and life-long journeys.