Post 249.

Indian Arrival Day provides a moment for looking back through history and asking what we should continue to carry in our jahajin bundle tomorrow. All remembering is selective. For young Indo-Trinidadian women and dougla or mixed-race women with Indian ancestry, who we accept and empower ourselves to be is shaped by the historical stories we are told. So, choosing those stories is as key to what we remember as it is to how we define ourselves today.

Stories of Indian womanhood typically idealise a sacrificial, dutiful and respectable figure, making many young women wonder how to manage being both Indian and self-determining at the same time. It’s as if Indo-Caribbean and feminism are awkwardly fitted words, to be lived in ways you hide from your family or as a marker of your irreverence to the teachings of priests, pundits and imams. Or, worse, your failure to be either appropriately Indian or an acceptable woman.

But, this ideal figure is a mythical one – drawn from emphasizing some women over others in India or the history of Islam, some goddesses or others in religious texts, and some women over others today.

Instead, the Indian women we should be remembering are our great-grandmothers, grandmothers and mothers. They were complex characters, not simply self-sacrificing. They could be unruly and heroic. They were imperfect, yet resilient, resourceful and determined survivors who changed lives, families and communities. These were the kind of women in whom we can see struggles, choices, regrets, victories and secrets, so much closer to our own lives despite the span of sometimes more than a century.

Thirty years of Indo-Caribbean feminist writing has highlighted that Indian women who arrived as part of the odyssey of indenture came as workers, not as wives. Some were kidnapped or fooled by recruiters, but many were escaping conditions not of their own choosing, including economic conditions shaped by successive droughts in India, the multifarious violence of British colonization, and the oppressiveness of marital, family, caste and village life. Sexual violence was also a reality in India, on ships that crossed the Kala Pani, and on sugar estates in the new world.

Amidst all this, these jahajins earned their own money (though at discriminatory wages in comparison to men), accrued and invested their own savings, and started and left sexual relationships in ways that explicitly threatened men’s control over them. The idea that Indian women were or should be docile, dependent or domesticated was a myth wielded by colonial authorities, religious leaders and Indian men to manners women, such that men would not turn to the cutlass or courts to control them and such that the British experiment wouldn’t be seen as producing the wrong kind of woman for a patriarchal stable family.

Post-indentureship feminism, which Lisa Outar and I write about in the collection, Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, is the pursuit of self-determination which, in this post-indentureship period, explicitly builds on these stories which we are less often told.

It’s a sense of rights and how to navigate them which emerges from looking, not to India or texts or myths or the past, but to the indentureship experience and the archetypes or models which women have provided for us since they set foot on those boats.

It’s a legacy of women’s dreaming, strategizing, learning, laboring and organizing to resist, withstand or outlive violence, to express sexual desires and experience erotic pleasure, and to manage the demands and rewards of respectability.

Post-indentureship feminism describes how Indian women today negotiate gender ideals, navigate a range of aspirations and expectations, and wield a sense of self and rights shaped by decades of feminism. That feminism, in all its kinds, is home-grown. It emerged from the plantation experience of slavery and indentureship, and provided Indian women with the rich possibilities for cross-ethnic relations, intimacies and solidarities among women which are the best of Caribbean feminism today.

As we remember stories from indentureship to present, young women now have 150 years of Indian women’s sometimes hidden histories from which to find inspiration for our fearlessness and refusal to obey oppressive ideals at our own expense. Our families and communities should be our allies. This would honour those who arrived seeking nothing less.

Post 247.

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Seen from the air, Guyana’s forested beauty is epic. The plane’s shadow buzzed over the treetops like a gnat, insignificant in afternoon sun and in comparison to such wondrously vast tree cover.

In between, bare red rock or white sand pockmarked the surface where old forest had been razed. Mining, quarrying or logging is making some rich in the present while leaving children in the future without this inheritance, for all your generation has to give is this one precious planet.

Such wounds seem small from the plane window, but are matters of life and death, of community traditions and contemporary rights, for Indigenous women continuing to resist in Guyana even as I write.

The taxi driver couldn’t figure out where all Guyana’s money went, for a country with gold, diamonds and timber should be the wealthiest in the Caribbean. ‘It don’t make sense’, he told me.

Not in Trinidad either where our resources made some rich while leaving the place poor: hospitals dirty, public transportation insufficient, prisons over-crowded, landfills unregulated, families violent and schools failing a third of the youth.

Given deals struck with Exxon and other companies, will Guyana’s oil just pass through the country like a dose of salts? If only others could learn the Trinidad lesson that wealth makes you shallow, wasteful, corrupt and consumerist as a nation; changes values so that the main ethic becomes private gain; and erodes attention and commitment to public responsibility, public utilities and public space.

As we drove, I tried to reconcile a Guyana I knew as a teenager when my mother joined Caricom.  At the same time back then, I moved to Barbados to start secondary school at Queen’s College, leaving Trinidad to become, first, a nowherian and, later, a regionalist.

It’s as a regionalist I listened to Christopher Ram, after a television interview in a neglected studio building, talk about his time in the Grenada Revolution and the hurt he still carries at its death.

It’s hard to imagine a generation from across the Caribbean traveled to Grenada to contribute to one island state’s aspiration to get independence right. It’s difficult to identify how much that aspiration was crushed and never quite returned. From Jamaica to Guyana, you can meet people who know what the fire of hope feels like and who carry the failures of that political experiment like the loss of a loved one, in their mind’s eye when they look into distance.

Arriving in Georgetown, there were areas I didn’t recognize. ‘We get modern’, said the driver, ‘we almost like foreign’.  There are better-lit highways, burgeoning suburbs, big cars, money laundering and ostentatious religious buildings. At best, the poor people, who remain the majority, struggling with VAT and joblessness, can hope to one day inherit the earth, but not tomorrow, next year or the next decade.

Such a dream deferred isn’t good enough. So, it’s important to cast our lot with those who remain indefatigable, rather than defeated, often women, often feminists.

One of them is Vanda Radzik, who drew the University of Guyana and the Women and Gender Equality Commission together to launch the collection, ‘Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought’, which I edited with Lisa Outar, a Guyanese born feminist scholar.

I first met Vanda thirty years ago, as I became aware of the anti-violence, ecological sustainability and economic empowerment work of the Guyanese women’s movement. Today, I’m simply and inadequately, like that small plane over such vast terrain, carrying these women’s legacy, trying to always remember and learn from their dream for a different future.

Similarly, the book collection’s premise is that Indo-Caribbean feminist thought requires us to look back as part of gathering our resources for the work ahead. The ways we imagine alternatives to all forms of oppression are richer when they draw on multi-ethnic, woman-centred, solidarity-based legacies of indentureship. This is the real wealth that arrival bequeathed.

The book is being launched in Guyana this week, and on Tuesday at 6pm, in UWI’s Law Faculty Auditorium, in Trinidad. All are welcome, for all these complex and tenuous threads, from Guyana to Trinidad to Grenada to elsewhere, some of which you may be gently holding over all these decades, are woven together there.

Post 204.

I am writing today to support the LBGTI community in their hopes, raised every election amidst platform speeches about a better future. These hopes are for what others already have, equality and freedom from discrimination. The kind of rights enslaved Africans and indentured Indians dreamed of and fought for, the kind of rights those Africans and Indians who became our post-independence shipmasters now deny, forgetting history then and charting us on the wrong side of history now.

What can our political leaders say to these members of our families and nation when they are not safe to be themselves? How much are our political leaders their leaders too? Or is it okay to lead the nation for the benefit of some, and to simply defer sharing that experience of citizenship to all?

When asked about her position on ending discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, by for example amending the Equal Opportunity Act, approving the National Gender Policy or removing draconian provisions in the Children’s Act that legalise life imprisonment of young people engaging in same sex experiences, Kamla 2015 said, ‘let the people decide’. When asked, the PNM leader, Keith Rowley, said the party never discussed the issue, though that is not exactly true. Both leaders decided that there are no political gains in pursuing full equality amongst citizens. ‘Suffer on’ is their message to those asking.

Imagine it is 1815, and enslaved Africans are asking those leaders in power for the same rights that they have. Imagine them saying, we’ve never discussed it. Maybe later. Suffer on.

Imagine it is 1915, and indentured Indians are asking country leaders for equal citizenship, and they respond, let the plantation owners decide, for giving you full citizenship is too controversial right now. Maybe one day. Suffer and wait.

Imagine it is 2015 and those African and Indian leaders are now playing the mas of colonial masters, able to deny rights and willing to do so, while those of you who have rights and enjoy full equality, quote religious text or tradition or family belief, to get on happily with unequal power.

Every election is a chance to create more inclusion, to lead in ways that are principled rather than simply popular, to articulate a vision for another generation to truly understand, evermore, what it means to be one people, one nation.

In frustration, voting citizens in the LBGTI community have created their own manifesto, one where non-discrimination isn’t negotiable or denied. Just six of the twelve actions they call on are for:

  1. All national officials to vocally support inclusion and dignity for all, including LGBTI members of the national community, and denounce discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender.
  2. Pilot a life skills programme for LGBTI young people made homeless by discrimination.
  3. Lower to 16 the direct eligibility age for social welfare for young people abused by their families.
  4. Implement school-based initiatives and policy that prevent and protect young people from violence and bullying in educational settings.
  5. Repeal paragraphs 20(1)(c), 20(2)(c), and 20(3)(c) of the Children Act of 2012, which came into force on 18 May 2015 and specifically target young people of the same sex for criminalization and life imprisonment for sexual exploration with each other.
  6. Equip and charge the Victim & Witness Support Unit to support LGBTI complainants of domestic and bias violence.

Representation, school tolerance, state services for victims, and children’s care are what citizens are saying they hope to vote for. These are not unreasonable dreams for inclusion. Of Keith and Kamla, who will first stop repeating, ‘suffer on’?

There are many issues in this election, with the economy, crime, corruption and the environment being the most important. Yet, these issues of sexuality and gender are ones show whether our leaders understand what it means to lead us all, equally, regardless of the political costs because the costs will not be ones citizens are instead made to bear. Regardless of race or religion, this is a value we should share.

I listen to rallies, read manifestos, and see worn words without commitment to full equality. Why vote for such leadership when our hopes matter so little to them in 2015?

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 194.

As I’ve been thinking about Indianness in the Caribbean, I’ve been particularly struck by the representation of Indian men in our history, in scholarship and in novels by Indian women.

These representations have prioritised necessary honesty about male violence and domination in family life. Yet, they also overwhelmingly engage national stereotypes of Indian men’s patriarchal backwardness.

I’ve been left looking for narratives and analyses that track an alternative story, one of an emancipatory tradition in Indian communities and families, and in Indian men’s ways of articulating masculinity.

I first began to wonder about this when reading my students’ essays in my course on Men and Masculinities in the Caribbean. For this assignment, students had to interview their fathers or grandfathers about how gender, or ideas and power associated with manhood, has shaped their understanding and experience of fatherhood.

A decade ago, there were far more stories about their grandmothers’ and mothers’ experiences of violence, rural hardship, self-sacrifice and fear, and their grandfathers’ or fathers’ alcoholism, emotional unavailability and investment in a sexual division of labour that eschewed shared responsibility for care of and in the home.

This year, far more essays than ever before wrote about fathers’ care, nurturing, housework, commitment to be different from men a generation or two earlier; support for their daughters’ independence and empowerment, and more equitable co-operation with their mothers. I noticed that shift particularly among Indo-Trinidadian students’ essays, which had long provided insight into generations of their families’ gender negotiations. What are the changes to Indian masculinity that we may not be noticing? The fathers who astound by quietly and lovingly accepting their lesbian daughters’ choices and partners, the ones who surreptitiously see their daughters and their children when even their mother has stopped speaking to them for marrying the wrong kind of man, the ones who’d rather their daughters be well-educated and single than pressured to marry, the ones whose children felt they could talk to them about anything.

Was this new or had I become more familiar with one side of the history of Indian masculinity and fatherhood? The one that Indian women had to challenge, manoeuvre, survive and even escape? Although definitely real since migration here, it’s the other side that I began to also want to trace.

This is the story of fathers, even indentured labourers, who sent their girl children to school from the late 1800s. I had always valued the fact that my great grandmother went to school as a child in Princes Town, just after the turn of the century, but had not ever considered it as only one example of Indian men’s progressive approach to their daughters’ education. This led to women like Stella Abidh, born in 1903, becoming the first Indo-Trinidadian woman medical doctor in 1936. It was her father, Clarence Abidh, a trade unionist, school master and County Council Representative of Couva in the 1920s, who insisted that she could travel to Canada to study to be a doctor not a nurse. Place his encouragement against both her grandmother’s wish to see her marry a suitable boy at 16 or, the head of the Presbyterian Church, Reverend Scrimgeour’s view that, “I would not send my daughter to study medicine, because Indian girls are morally weak and would not be able to stand those pressures.”

And, there’s the long progressive tradition in local Ahmaddiya practice of Islam, one which has critiqued imposition of hijab, encouraged Muslim women’s public speaking from the 1930s, challenged taboos that disallowed menstruating women from bodily embrace of the Qur’an, and considered women breadwinners, not only wives.

Decades of Caribbean feminist scholarship has argued that Indian women were never just oppressed, docile, passive dependents, but were active makers and movers of their own desires and histories, whatever the expectations of men, family, religion and state.

Though I never fully noticed, that scholarship also documents men’s support for women’s rights and equality, how their gendered beliefs changed over their lifetimes and how they easily accommodated changes desired by girl children.

Now, I’m thinking, if I wrote a book on Indo-Caribbean feminist trajectories through study of Indian men’s histories, what could I tell about their myriad investments in women’s freedom?

Post 191.

Syed Abdul Aziz’s story intrigued me.

Not only because he was my great, great-grandfather, not only because he changed destinies in that crossing from Calcutta, but because he was known to have come from Afghanistan.

I was intrigued by how little is documented about Afghans who dissolved into the homogenous identity now known as Indo-Trinidadian, who nonetheless appeared with insistent counter-narratives amongst handed-down family lore in the Muslim community.

Who were these Afghans? Why did they come? What routes did they travel? How could we, as their descendants, tell a tale from the new world to challenge contemporary global stereotypes?

What was the significance of the fact that Aziz sent his daughter, Ayesha, my great grandmother, to school in the first decade of the century, raising her to be literate in Arabic, Urdu and English? What is the significance of her living, working and praying in her orhini, never in hijab?

This daughter of an Afghan born, Muslim leader in Trinidad could tell us about an authenticity and tradition different from modern fundamentalist versions. And, what would that mean for me, and for other family who long defined ourselves by this legacy?

As I traced Aziz’s steps, seeking proof in colonial documents, each finding led to more questions, and I began to think less of his migrations than of my own rollercoaster of emotions as the old photos I hoped to scour were in some unidentified location in the Princes Town Regional Corporation, or as I finally, in sha’allah, reached the knowledge trove I sought.

Euphorically, I sat in Maulaana Mustapha Kemal Hydal’s balcony, my insides fluttering in Freeport’s breeze as much as the photocopy he held of Aziz’s auto-biography, written in Urdu, more than possibly in Aziz’s own hand, and given to Kemal by his mother’s uncle, Aziz’s son Yusuf. In all my searching for any of Syed Abdul Aziz’s own possessions, finally, this single page.

It says that Aziz was born in the Hazara district in the ward of Mansehra in India, said Kemal, who translated the page himself.

I was aghast. The planned book project falling from my fingertips like crystal shattering.

Yet pieces that had made no sense immediately fit together, such as why Aziz’s indentureship record said he was from Lahore, and why he held a post in the British army, with a monthly pay of 14 rupees, meals and uniform, in the second Anglo-Afghan war.

The family is Husaini, extending through 30 recorded generations to the Prophet Mohammed, said that single page. They left the Arabian peninsula in 728 C.E., settling in what was then India and is now Pakistan.  No, said Kemal decisively, Aziz was not Afghan.

Marveling that one piece of paper could so dissemble my constructed sense of self, and wondering at how I spectacularly failed to anticipate this risk of journeying into the past, I struggled to accept that every reference I found, in books, on websites and in theses, all confirming the Afghan connection, was based on repetitive citations of an original misrepresentation. But, how could this be the first time we are hearing this, my mother skeptically asked, and why then did Ayesha herself talk about her father as Afghan?

Again, answers begetting questions.

That same day, as I was about to become more Indian than ever before, I learned that my father’s great grandfather, who came from Hyderbad, said his family was originally from Afghanistan. So too, an ancestor of my father’s mother.

Now wary of oral and published histories, even official records, I’m left with Afghan origins on all sides which I’ve no idea how to verify.

Could I be more Afghan than Syed Abdul Aziz himself? How ironic, even absurd. Such plot twists are not for the faint-hearted as I pursue this story’s final word.

*May 12, 1862 is Syed Abdul Aziz’s birthday, 153 years ago today.

Post 189.

Was it history, luck or fate that led me to 93 year old Abdul Hamid Razack?

I arrived at his gate after a meandering trail ended on the Naparima-Mayaro road, where indentured Indians once held panchayats underneath a seventeen foot wide sandbox tree, amidst ganja smoke and a heady mix of old world origins and languages.

Mr. Razack’s grandfather, Cariman, had left Persia and travelled through Afghanistan, the Silk Road and Hyderbad as a trader, finally arriving on our shores on the first ship from India in 1845, the Fatel Rozack, thus establishing his family name in Trinidad.

I hoped Mr. Razack could tell me about my great, great grandfather Syed Abdul Aziz, who was 21 years old when he arrived at a Macoya estate in 1883, having himself travelled from the Afghan region of Hazara where he was born to Peshwar to study, then later to Lahore and Calcutta before boarding the ship Lee as an indentured labourer.

For me, as I travelled south with Felicia Chang, whose company Plantain is producing a book from our findings, it had been a long day of encountering loss, and not just mine. In the small, lovingly assembled room of decades-old household implements and Qurans, the curator of the Charlieville ASJA museum sorrowfully told us of how many families had discarded or misplaced their ancestors’ papers, photographs and books, not seeing history in our own homes, and how many had passed on before sharing precious, irreplaceable descriptions and stories.

Such immeasurable loss had swept over me as I stood on the demolished site of Abdul Aziz’s home on Princes Town’s main road, remembering the house where my mother would carry me to visit his daughter, my great grandmother Ayesha. Its clean wooden floors, blue-bird coloured walls, light-filled kitchen and back door opening to a sloping hill.

All around me as a child may have been his handwritten kutbahs to Trinidad’s Muslim community, his letters to colonial officials advocating for the registration of Hindu and Muslim marriages, and his own records regarding the East Indian National Association, the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, the Anjuman Sunnat al Jammat and friendly societies such as the Islamic Guardian Association.

Now, only grass swayed at my feet as wind explored the emptiness.

Like the Lee’s missing ship records only for the year my great, great grandfather sailed or the British Army records that failed to list the names of Afghans who had served, as Abdul Aziz did at fifteen, a search for photos of the house, at the library across the street, left me empty-handed.

Finally, I sat across from Mr. Razack, feeling like searching through the past is not walking a path backwards, but collecting bits of broken fossil, and rejoicing when just two pieces connect, whether because you despair or dream of putting together the whole.

Such was my unexpected joy on Saturday afternoon. It was Mr. Razack’s grandfather who had heard of Abdul Aziz’s Islamic education, and who had helped to arrange for his indentureship to be ended two years early so that my great, great grandfather would be free to become imam at one of the first mosques built in Trinidad, by Cariman, in Iere Village.

There, Mr. Razack and I were sitting together just as our ancestors once had, as they created the trail of artifacts and memories that I fatefully followed right back, 130 years later.

I can only hope more documents remain with my and others’ families than I know. Like Abdul Aziz’s original indentureship record in Port of Spain’s national archive, which one day Zi can touch for herself, such dusty papers are a richer inheritance than gold.