DR ERROL NARINE BENJAMIN
TODAY WE are celebrating Indian Arrival Day but what are we celebrating for? To be uprooted from your traditional way of life somewhere in a "land so far” (Sparrow’s Slave) to fulfil a dream of a better life is indeed a worthy initiative. Never mind the one who recruited you, much like yourself but an instrument of the master, would have painted a picture of milk and honey when it would be one of rigour and toil, dehumanisation and disrespect.
At least you were spared the horrors of our African brothers and sisters depicted in film on their Atlantic voyage, or were you? Perhaps the journey across the Kala Pani may have been equally degrading and inhumane with the stories of men, women and children in the crowded holds of ships like the Fatel Razack. But you survived.
On arrival, the census at Carrera was an indignity you had to endure, being treated like chattel, losing your name and individual identity in the process, but at least you were given a roof over your head, like at the barracks at Golconda from whence I came.
But you were also given a piece of land to cultivate and call your own, the significance of which often eludes many, for the land was your soul from the beginning, working the rice fields of Uttar Pradesh, and with it you were given the opportunity to build on that tremendous cultural inheritance. Today that inheritance is very much alive in our rural communities.
And not only the land. The food, the music, the language, the customs and practices, et al, were all alive within us and as we settled into barrack life, the seemingly impossible dream of Uttar Pradesh began to take root and grow.
Which is why I frown on historians who would treat barrack life with such disdain, for with the work ethic in the cane fields, the clang of the puja bells, the sound of the tassa drums, the camaraderie of people in a strange land, the barrack became the well spring from which a new community was to be born.
But as a people we have gone beyond that, for our forefathers, understanding that their offspring must be spared the rigour of indentured labour, saw the need for them “to take learning" to achieve this, and in this they found a worthy partner in the Canadian missionaries and their Presbyterian Church and their now enduring places of learning like the numerous schools all over the country and the successful colleges like Naps Boys and Girls, St Augustine Girls and Hillview.
The Maha Sabha is now part of this worthy endeavour, but the role of the Presbyterian Church in the education of East Indians in this country cannot be overemphasised and it is instructive to understand why.
In attempting to Christianise the East Indians they never sought to do away with their cultural heritage. Instead they worked within it, never averse to visiting the humble abode of parents, using the Sunday school in the barracks as medium both to teach the children about Christ and to educate them, inculcating in them a desire “to take learning” as the parents would have wanted and establishing the institutions for such desire to bear fruit.
But in building a new society away from a home far away will always have challenges and our greatest as a people comes with the original antipathy that arose between East Indians and our African brothers and sisters who, in being set free at last, saw us as a threat to their bargaining power with their former masters.
And that original tension would become the combustible material it is today, with both tribes, East Indian and African, being the unhappy victims of politicians on both sides of the divide seeking to preserve their political longevity with the promise of a “mess of pottage” for their unquestioning loyalty.
This ethnic division epitomised in the PNM/UNC dichotomy is the single most devastating threat to building a unified society. But East Indians as a people can only truly “arrive” when we can be an example to our African brothers and sisters, and they to us in reciprocation, in saying enough is enough to those politicians who continue to exploit our unwavering loyalty for their own gain and, instead, savour our togetherness outside the politics, in the mix of our food, our music and in our relationships, et al, as markers of one nation where “ever creed and race finds an equal place.”