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Divali in the Creole World

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A daily newspaper ran a photo of a very relaxed-looking Dr Keith Rowley in Indian ethnic costume at the Divali Nagar last week. The gentleman seemed almost at home. It was a Kodak moment.


An inane interpretation might be that the Opposition Leader was playing a mas to reassure potential voters that the PNM know ’bout Indian, etc. But it’s also possible that he was just following an orthodox script written by said Indians.



It was (to me) a reminder that Indo-orthodoxy, via spectacles like the Nagar, prescribes a particular way of seeing IndoTrinidad to the non-Indian population. The implications of those prescriptions might be a little less anodyne than Dr Rowley’s interpretation—in particular, their effects on the Indo and national imaginations.


Much of the Divali Nagar seemed devoted to commerce, music and religious display—spectacle, in the theatrical sense.  Given this, the Nagar and Divali being “justified” as tourist attractions was inevitable—a logical, if maladroit response to the ludicrous falsehood that Carnival is a tourist attraction.



We contribute to the treasury, say the Carnival people. We too, say Hindus. Statements of economic viability are belied by the $100 million state subvention to Carnival, and the $3 million subvention to the Divali impresarios—and the absence of calculable returns.


Nothing new there, though I’m curious as to how the Hindus, whose narrative is self-reliance and successful entrepreneurialism, reconcile going after state money.



But more importantly, I find the evasion of the politics of the Nagar interesting. From inception, the Nagar has been a political statement: a direct response to the PNM/state-created “Creole” notion of culture as festivity, spectacle and ethnic affirmation, but also a heavy-handed signal of the Indian presence and its portents—which have never been mild or lacking in ambition.


But what of that ambition? It has enriched many Indians, but what of the inner life of the community, its imagination? The Nagar is a snapshot of 19th-century Hindu religious practices and Bollywood visual culture, proffered in a decidedly dogmatic way. Divali celebrations in India, I understand, are secular, materialistic, and bacchanalian—much like Indian art, society, and politics.


But the Hindu Trini establishment presents itself as ultra-conservative, puritan in the relation of religious and secular lives. What’s missing are the innovation and creativity of India, which are absent in IndoTrinidad.


The lack of creativity is important because the establishment signifiers of the Nagar’s costumes, showy religiosity, and food, have become embedded in the popular imagination: Doubles, dhotis and dharma, against a Bollywood backdrop. This has also shaped the way Indians/Hindus define themselves. In protests earlier in the year Indo protesters assumed lotus poses, chanted bhajans, and threw epithets like “Ravan” at the Government.


The effect of this un-creative self-definition on the Hindu and the national imaginations is not recognised, since many people don’t get the distinction between imagination and intellect. Indians, as the scholarship lists show, have plenty intellectual capital.



But this capital is ineffectively deployed, and displays no evidence of an imaginative dimension.  To be sure, successful Indians in Trinidad abound: doctors, lawyers, contractors, and so forth. And one or two artists and writers have Indian names—the only Trini to win a Nobel Prize has an Indian name. But these are anomalies, precipitated when the Hindu worldview enters into a dialogic relationship with Creole Trinidad.


Otherwise Hindu-Indo-Trinidad’s trajectory is bifurcated: on one path, materialistic and reactionary, congruous with the Creole trajectory; on the other, in the private Hindu world, who knows?  So Hindu economic and political success is located firmly inside the status quo but Hinduism as a social or cultural force has produced no innovative way of looking at the world, or any intervention into the philosophical, moral, or artistic national spheres.


This Hindu backdrop to success is important in the way Christianity forms the backdrop of western society, politics, science and art. Christian principles (the triumph of righteousness; the imperative of fairness regardless of colour, gender, or caste; virtue valued for its own sake) are woven into everything, from the Kardashians to the calypso.



But Christianity is a mere ornament in the private world of the 300,000 or 400,000 Hindu IndoTrinidadians. As Naipaul put it, describing his relationship with Derek Walcott, there were things about him (Naipaul) Walcott could never understand.



This constitution of this private world can be found (for example) in the Hindu epics (the Ramayana, Mahabarata), which propose alternative realities of moral and political logic, aesthetics, even social theory. If these alter-ideas could be mixed into the national consciousness, they could offer a richer reality. (Amartya Sen discusses this in his book The Argumentative Indian.)


But no such worldview has flowered in Creole Trinidad. All the Hindu-Indian community has offered to the national idea are Bollywood visual tropes, peasant morality, food and religious mysticism.  The reasons for this are pretty clear: historically, the “national environment” hasn’t been exactly nurturing to counter—or alter-ideas of the nation.


The PNM was an anti-Hindu/Indian party as late as the Maha Sabha radio licence and Chief Justice affairs in the last decade. They designed national culture from 1956 to erase the Indian presence, and later, set up ad-hoc binaries in Afro-folk culture. The Creole folk-culture appropriation of Ramleela is distressing, a subversion of the possibilities of Hindu-Trinidad culture, and UWI academics were and remain willingly implicated in this.



For me, the most unfortunate thing here is that the epics, rather than superb poetry and enthralling stories, are seen as Indo artifacts, which the “national” community is encouraged to tolerate, via the odd costume, or doubles, but not to embrace as something to which they’re entitled. And this embrace, more than anything, could make us a great nation.


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