Tuesday 27th May 2003

Naipaul was no fluke
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A university scholar in her own right, Dr Kris Rampersad 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.


Review: 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 Rampersad’s 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 to India.

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 culture’s great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. Muslims knew by heart extensive passages of the Qu’ran. 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 island’s population,” i.e. 26,764 Indians.

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 Tobago’s 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.

Rampersad’s study ends at 1950, but it is sufficient to impress any reader that new approaches must be undertaken in identifying a fuller Caribbean.

The Toronto launch of Finding a Place is scheduled to take place in June.

- Republished from the Caribbean Camera, Toronto, Canada, with permission.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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