Finding a Place - Indo Trinidadian Literature
Dr Kris Rampersad, Ian Randle Publications
The one group that found itself continually on the margins of Caribbean
studies, by virtue of long held assumptions in European dominated schools,
were the labourers and settlers from India.
This new immigrant population was seen as backward, static and unhygienic.
Yet, such interpretations cannot account for the meteoric rise of that
ethnic/cultural group to economic and social prominence today.
A new book, a groundbreaking piece of scholarship, Finding a Place
- Indo Trinidadian Literature just landed on my desk in time for South
Asian Heritage Month.
Authored by Dr Kris Rampersad, who holds the prestigious job of editor
of the Sunday Guardian, has jettisoned some long-held assumptions.
A university scholar in her own right, she has investigated the written
records left by the collective ancestry - newspapers, journals, minutes
of literary clubs - to show that a rich, fermenting brew of Indo-Trinidadian
thoughts and ideas were already there by 1900. In the next 50 years,
it would rise even further and lay the groundwork for a remarkable body
of writers, essayists, journalists and professionals, many of whom went
on to receive international recognition.
One would want to think that Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul represents the
apex of such a literary history but the local cognoscenti would opine
otherwise. Through Rampersads study, we come to recognise that
Naipaul was no fluke, but was an inheritor of tradition stretching back
to the early arrival of indentured labourers to Trinidad, and even back
The first item of re-interpretation is what constitutes literacy.
Must it pertain strictly to the art of reading and writing? What about
oral traditions that sustained great civilisations over the millennia?
The indentured from India may have been illiterate in the European interpretation,
but every Hindu labourer was aware through song, dance and story-telling,
of the cultures great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabarata.
Muslims knew by heart extensive passages of the Quran. This consciousness
of a great past kept alive the principles of achievement, and one of
its manifestations was the creation of a new literary tradition.
The embracing of Christianity by some in the following generation also
added to this impetus. The reader is reminded that among all Caribbean
peoples at the time, Indians more than most had a fairly well developed
worldview. They looked to Mother India for sustenance, understood its
ancientness, were very loyal to the British Empire and the crown, knew
distances across the oceans, and now grappled with a new home with different
races in a western archipelago. These understandings accelerated their
progress even as the rest socially shunned them.
Dr Rampersad brings to light such early Trinidadian journals as The
Indian Koh-i-Noor Gazette, The East Indian Herald, The East Indian Patriot
and the East Indian Weekly. The Koh-i-Noor started in 1898, lasted for
six months, but showed the need for facilitating the expression
of the voices of a third of the islands population, i.e.
Also in the mix was the Trinidad Presbyterian, which, although it focussed
primarily with church matters, did meet a need for Indian public communication.
By 1915, the Indian population had reached 110,000, and the need for
new publications was inevitable.
The Herald and the Patriot, though rivals, operated from 1919 to 1925.
These two publications were conduits for numerous debates, especially
as to the identity of the second and third generation East Indian. There
were attempts at essays and short stories in emerging Caribbean English
peppered with Indian expressions.
But it was the East Indian Weekly, launched in 1928, that became the
beacon of Indo Trinidadian literature, according to Dr Rampersad.
It recognised the existence of numerous literary societies and nurtured
dozens with literary pretensions, spreading the disease of writing.
One of its determined journalists, Seepersad Naipaul, father of the
Nobel laureate, was able to move to a national publication, the first
Indian to do so. The Weekly reported diligently on the activities of
the Mahatma Gandhi, and his exploits in the mother country became a
primary influence on the Indo Trinidadian for greater representation.
The East Indian Weekly, owned through investment by Leon Fitzgerald
Walcott, an Afro-Trinidadian printer from Belmont but run by Indians,
also championed the cause of non-Indians. A noted subject was Audrey
Jeffers who did enormous social work for the homeless and for young
women. It also recognised a young scholar named Eric Williams, going
up to Oxford. It launched the journalism dynasty of Patrick Chokolingo,
leading to his landmark newspaper, The Bomb, and which in turn inspired
the creation of about a dozen tabloids in the 1970s, now so integral
to Trinidad and Tobagos rough and tumble democracy.
So by 1945, on the 100th anniversary of the first arrival, there was
a well-established Indian press, a coalescence of Indian thought, enough
to bring together a massive gathering of children of India to celebrate
as never before.
Rampersads study ends at 1950, but it is sufficient to impress
any reader that new approaches must be undertaken in identifying a fuller
The Toronto launch of Finding a Place is scheduled to take place in
- Republished from the Caribbean Camera, Toronto, Canada, with permission.