While this really has nothing to do with drag or queerness, May 30th is quite important to me and I wanted to write about it. Today is Indian Arrival Day. Some of you may have never heard of this holiday before, and to be honest, I wasn’t aware of it until about five or six years ago. While it’s mainly only practiced on the national scale in Trinidad and Tobago (and Mauritius as well?), it’s an important day for many West Indians in the Caribbean and in diaspora.
Indian Arrival Day commemorates the first “migrants” to Trinidad from India in 1845. I don’t really want to turn this into an essay or academic dissertation, but I do have to talk a little bit about history for a second if this post is going to carry any weight. Most often, when non-Caribbean people are asked about the West Indies, what comes to mind? American-owned resorts, palm trees, coconuts, beaches, reggae and probably a bunch of other representations that Western media has attributed to this culturally rich and diverse region of people. It’s not surprising at all that representations of “Indianness” have been left out of these images. In my experience, when asked what my ethnic background is by colleagues and strangers, “Trini” is not the first conclusion many people go to. Sure, I have brown skin and carry the common Indian surname ‘Persad’, but I don’t read as ‘Trini’. My biraciality obviously plays a role in this given that I carry an anglosaxon name and have a Portuguese-Canadian mother. Because of my lighter complexion I often get assumed to be Indian, Mexican, Spanish and surprisingly Filipino. 😐 Literally, I’ve had Filipino aunties – STRANGERS OFF THE STREET – come off the street and speak to me in Tagalog. Regardless of all my struggles with my racial perception, I descend from these Indian migrants who landed on the shores of Trinidad in 1845.
This day is important because it reminds the West Indies and our diasporas that we, Indo-Trinidadians, NOT Indians, have a place, voice and role in the formation of our communities. We arrived in the Caribbean not by willing immigration but by forced indentured labour. In many scenarios, the British empire tricked, deceived and bribed
North Indians from the provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar onto boats, often not informing these laborers where they were going, what they were doing and what the future held for them. Our ancestors lived in horrible conditions, did not speak the languages of other inhabitants in Trinidad, and were massacred for practicing Islam and Hinduism and resisting the authority of white supremacy and racial discrimination. I do not want to equate the experience of Indo-Trinidadians to that of African slaves who were brought to the island through the Trans-atlantic slave trade, but some Caribbean scholars in effort of describing the trauma and abuse Indians went through, have described the Indian experience as the “second slavery.” The British, Spanish and French colonized us, christianized us, and have made it nearly impossible for us to retrieve information about our origins in India. While it’s great that many Europeans and other people alike have resources available to them like ancestry.com, colonial powers often did not keep records of marginalized and colonized peoples, because to them, we were simply products of manipulation. As a result, marginalized populations, especially those affected by colonization, are often left in the dark with regard to ancestry.
As a result, Trinidad has become racially divided in many ways between Afro- and Indo-Trinidadians. Often, we, as Indo-Trinidadians, have been seen as simply a “minority” in Trinidad, docile in contributions to the formation of a national identity. This is quite far from the truth. While we arrived after our Afro-Trinidadian brothers, Trinidad would not be what it is without the interracial syncretisms (being the processes of mixture), and hybridities that have formed our diverse and unique culture. As an example, it is almost impossible to go to a carnival event, soca fete or Caribbean family party without dishes such as roti, or curry goat/chicken/lamb/beef, etc. Soca, the party music you hear at Carnival and other club events, would not have developed the way it presents and sounds today without the Indian musicians who brought Bhojpuri folk songs and instruments like tabla and mrdangam. As a result, Chutney-soca would have never came into formation. However, I need to make it clear that ALL of these cultural customs and traditions are not credible to solely Indo-Trinidadians. Of course not. Afro-Trinidadians arrived in Trinidad as slaves decades before any of the first Indians showed up. In addition, their emancipation (freedom from slavery) only came just before Indians were brought to the islands. As a result, our society evolved through a process of mixture between Afro-Trinidadians, descendants of West Africa, and Indo-Trinidadians. While we, Indo-Trinidadians, are often left out of discussions and discourse when dealing with the Caribbean, we carried a pivotal role in our nations formation.
I guess I have a few key ideas and statements that I’d like to express on Indian Arrival Day to my fellow Indo-Trinidadians, Afro-Trinidadians and coolies (yes, I am reclaiming that word) throughout the diaspora.
- Be proud of who you are. Colonial powers have been trying to pit brown peoples against black peoples in the Caribbean for CENTURIES. The nation and culture as we know it would not have existed without either of us.
- Do not let people refer to you as an Indian. I do not say this with any offence to my Indian friends and colleagues. But, we are not Indian. We were removed from India many centuries ago and our customs, traditions and attitudes have developed and evolved within a society that is much different from the one’s seen in India. Most of us don’t speak Hindi. Why? We were forced to speak English. Most of us don’t have physical ties to a past in India, besides the ones constructed in our memories. Why? Because we were removed from that land and only 8% of us ever returned. We are not Indians, we are Indo-Trinidadians. We are Caribbean people and we are West Indians. Do not deny us our Caribbeanness simply because we fit into a structured mold of “browness” that others have constructed for us.
- This is again for my South Asian friends. DO NOT ever try to claim our Indo-Trinidadian culture as your own. Chutney-soca, tassa music, dhantal, etc. are all traditions indigenous to Trinidad and Tobago. They may be influenced by India but those rites are inherently Trinidadian. You can enjoy them, partake in our culture but do not deny us what is ours by attaching yourselves to it.
- Remember this day is also important for Afro-Trinidadians and douglas, Trinidadians who identify with a mixed heritage of African and Indian ancestry. There is a ton of anti-blackness that goes on in Indo-Caribbean communities and frankly, its atrocious. Of course, this is much more complex than I have described here but remember that we have the privilege of having a national holiday to celebrate our heritage and reflect on our pasts. I do not know if many Afro-Trinidadians could say the same. While indentured labor involved traumatic events, massive prejudices and violent acts of racism, the transatlantic slave trade was a system that is incomparable to what succeeded it. The ramifications of that violence is felt actively today in ways that I as an Indo-Trinidadian will never understand. However, as we reflect on this today, it is also important to acknowledge that the prejudice that was enacted upon us has dramatically diminished in comparison to the overt acts of racism that the black community faces. Be cognizant of these narratives and be willing to listen. #BlackLivesMatter
Happy Indian Arrival Day everyone. ❤ #Woiiiiii #SweetSweetTnT