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LETTER TO A CLOSE RELATIVE ON THE 150TH ANNIVERSAY OF THE ARRIVAL OF EAST INDIANS IN TRINIDAD

Dear Les,

Your photograph is before me on the table where it has been on view since it arrived with your letter two days ago and, as I write, I am reminded of your great-grandfather, Nattan (a former East Indian indentured labourer of legendary physical strength, independent-minded and outspoken) whom I vaguely remember - I was but a child, not much older than about five or six, when he died. And for some reason, perhaps because of whispers I heard long ago, I have continued to believe that he did not die peacefully in bed, but through a dark and cowardly act of violence. What was his crime? My curiosity was met with conspiratorial silence so intimidating and of such finality that it inhibited further inquiry and, instead of clarifying such questions as I posed, had the effect of deepening the mystery and mystique of the man. From what my mother told me, and I believed implicitly what she said, he was an industrious and generous man, who loved children and young people generally. He would have been proud of you, and it is likely that you, in turn, would have looked up to him. He was taller than usual for an Indian, as many non-Indians condescendingly remarked. His careworn, dark-brown craggy face and calloused hands were the distinctive marks of a hard life. And though you bear striking resemblance to your parents, especially your mother in such features as your nose and mouth, your eyes flash the fire of your great-grandmother Rajindi, the wife of Nattan, and like her, your face evokes an animation that is tempered by a mysterious calmness. It has crossed my mind often and I know with certainty now that Rajindi, so far ahead of her time, was the first efeministf I ever met. In a word, she could be described as self-assertive. She was of medium height, slight build and exuded gentleness, but was not passive, a mistake often made by unsuspecting Creoles. Her energy and passion could, on first impression, be misunderstood for stridency, but for those close to her, she was wise, witty and, of necessity, have been a bonded labourer, unusually strong. The one you resemble most, however, is your father, whose broad forehead is stamped upon your countenance, suggesting a refined intelligence. So in all, your face speaks to me of many aspects of those from whom you have descended.

Just before you were born (as a life-and-death struggle encompassed you and your malnourished, delirious mother) I was sitting on the front stairs of your home where Rajindi often told spell-binding Kheesas (stories). Most of what I learned in my boyhood and early teens was through this oral tradition, and one story was especially memorable, a recurring tale of difference that was about the quest of a boy from a land of antiquity. My version of the story is modern. Not once upon a time long ago, but once upon a time, not so long ago. It is the story of an Indian boy not much older than you. His mother told him he was beautiful; and with his dark skin, long, lustrous and unruly black hair, he felt blessed. Alas, others saw him differently. And much too soon, the blessing became a curse, as the slights, comments and actions of others injected in him feelings of unbelonging, of being an outsider. Put simply, he felt rejected. Gradually, he became less outgoing and more withdrawn. Troubled and confused, the boy went to a Pundit who was also a Guru and asked for his counsel. eOnce upon a time, almost five hundred years before you were assailed by this gcurse! As you put itf, the guru said, ea brave white explorer in search of the rich lands of the East, by chance, came in contact with people whom I believed were your ancestors. The White adventurer was less interested in these peaceful natives than he was in the wealth they could bring to him. Arrogant ambition and greed blinded him in his underestimation of these people and their way of life. The clash of cultures, arising from their differences, led to tragic consequences, which have echoed down the centuries to the present time. And so on, and so oncf

When the boy left the Guru, he was no less troubled, though more enlightened about the distant past and the immediate realities he faced in his small corner of the New World. He was not born in a rich household. Far from it, and intuitively, he knew what the old man had meant. His was a parochial life. He had never been further than the largest town and still in his teens, he ventured thousands of miles overseas to one of the greatest cities of the world

In the strange landscape of the Metropolis, the boy lived alone and with no trusted friend and little money, he learned new ways of survival. Distance and aloneness provided the opportunity for exploratory thought, which time and again led to prolonged questioning of the past. One cold day, as he sat staring at the gas fire in his basement room, the names he had been called since childhood, more out of malice than in friendship, names that were hitherto unacceptable elabelsf, now had the force of unlocking something vital within, something that had eluded him over the bleakest years. This was how OTHERS saw him; names inflicting inferior status that were rooted in the Colonial past, but still much in evidence, in the post-colonial present. eI am a personf, he insisted in frustration, ean individual!f A wave of exhilaration swept over him, and the gcurseh that had bedevilled him for so long began to give way as his probing thoughts shifted from the particular to the general, from differences to the similarities among humankind. While he reasoned and warmed to his discovery before the glow of the fire, he recalled what the Pundit quoting the ancient VEDAS had said to him during one of his precious few lessons in Hindi and the Hindu tradition: eTruth is one, the sages speak of it by many names.f

So it was many years into his personal odyssey that the boy, who had left his village once upon a time not so long ago, came to understand the journey he had made within himself. He was liberated from the crippling effects of negative images, and with a sense of hard-won freedom and wholeness once again, he felt blessed to be himself. From that time on, he was filled with justifiable pride in being eIndian. Thirty-two years have passed since the boy had left his humble village home. That boy is now a mature man, the author of this Letter.

On the eve of your admission to University I feel proud of your achievement. And I congratulate you on your exceptional letter. It has generated a rare excitement in me, especially the manner in which you communicate, expressly your experimental handling of the language, changing, evolving, growing (an audacious departure from the rigid, oppressive, policing language, so neat, so final, so life-sapping, so prevalent) used to good effect by your imaginative, inventive and altogether refreshing use of words that suggest boundless possibilities. The essence of your style and personality is clearly inscribed there as though you were (and of this I have no doubt) acutely conscious of the need to learn thoroughly the language you have inherited which, until recently, was so alien to so many of your forebears, the most accented and easily victimised being the India-born. This again, marks you as different. It is true that many of us carry Christian names, instead of traditional Hindu and Muslim names, a conversion which afforded Indian labourers the only means through which they could have access to education: the prerequisite to a better-paid, non-agricultural livelihood.

I am very pleased with you choice of English, history and philosophy, a trilogy that will, in time, aid your understanding of the world you live in. But be mindful also of the importance of hard experience, a precious asset that tests the most noble of ideas. More than a decade before you were born, a feverish zeal had gripped the people of this country who were, for a while, deeply moved by the motto: eTogether We Aspire, Together We Achievef. Alas, much time has elapsed since then and the desired togetherness remains largely unachieved. Our failure to respect racial differences shows how little we have learned since that renowned Genoese explorer imposed his standards on these islands, and of other exploiters who followed with their refinements to oppression, institutionalising differences in race, colour and class. At this crucial stage in your youth, it is perhaps worth pondering the words of an ancient philosopher who wrote eThe beauty of one form is akin to the beauty of another, and that beauty in every form is one and the same.f

You will, of course, be eighteen years old on 30 May 1995, the day on which the country, more particularly sections of it, will be commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the arrival of the first indentured Indian immigrants in Trinidad, the very people the explorer went to his grave believing he had found. Would he have treated these Indians any different from those he had met? I share your anticipation of this yearfs celebratory events, but their significance cannot be taken for granted. I know you will seek in your meticulous, critical way, a more profound understanding of your identity than you have been allowed at school and college, institutions cited by so many in recent years, as breeding grounds of dissatisfaction and low self-esteem. These have brought a sense of demoralisation among Indo-Trinidadian youth and questioning that often leads back to the past, to your history and culture (which, by the way, are not God-given, but man-made) that have for too long been relegated to a footnote in our history books and consigned to the periphery of our educational system and, generally, of our Caribbean discourse. You should know that seventy-eight years ago, East Indian indenture, which rested on the brutalization of Indian women and callous exploitation of their menfolk, was finally dismantled, that many of your contemporaries know little or nothing of that enew system of slaveryf and, more disturbingly, much less about their Indian ancestors, who made a massive contribution to the well-being of this country since their arrival on the Fatel Rozack. Yet, for too long, there has been the tendency to stereotype you as eheathenf and ealienf. But you are of this land, and nowhere else! That must be made clear.

The way you walk, talk, dance, dress and the food you prefer, are unmistakeably you and Trinidadian. You must keep in the foreground of your mind the fact that you are an individual with special attributes that can enrich the community. As an Indo-Trinidadian, you must continue to be responsible and (at the risk of the change by some of being bitter, too passionate) make known your rights as a citizen to those in your country who still see you as eother.f Such conscious seeking of knowledge, as you engage in, can have beneficial results and will, I hope, guide you in the pursuit of excellence as we approach the end of the century and enter the uncharted waters of the third millennium. All things considered, this is a unique historical moment for you, proud bearer of an inheritance that spans the generations of courageous Indians who crossed the ekala panif (dark water).

I feel confident that as you grow in self-knowledge and come to know and rise above the more obvious man-made differences, you will reach out for that essential fellowship with your brothers and sisters who comprise the cultural mosaic that mirror the marvellous capability of human creativity in this extraordinary land, for knowing oneself is the best preparation for knowing and respecting others.

I thank you for the photograph and the letter, for your concern about the role of elites at this time of international focus and your sensitivity to the mass of poor dispossessed descendants of the East Indian field-hands, who through the spirit of Jahaji Bhai (brotherhood of the eCoolief ship) rose from the ravages of their plantation bondage. You inspire in me, dear Lesley (determined representative that you are of a new generation of Indo-Trinidadian womanhood) renewed, justifiable hope that more meaningful etogethernessf will indeed be achieved and for this, and much more, you have my everlasting gratitude. But most of all, at this time of reflection, of meditation on history, I thank you for being you.

Godspeed and Happy Birthday.

Affectionately,

Your Uncle,

Ronf


RON RAMDIN is an historian, novelist, biographer, travel writer, Essayist and Autobiographer.
For further information, please see his website: www.ronramdin.com

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