Dara E Healy
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, and all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
– Silent Night by Joseph Mohr
WHAT DO Silent Night and a Hindu pundit have in common? Why would Ravi Ji’s memories of Christmas be tinged by reflections on the damaging effects of colonialism on traditional sociocultural values?
This week, our journey takes us to the village of Caparo, where Ravi Ji spent his early years. In this rural community, Christmas was an important part of his coming of age, but not all of it made sense. Eventually, the answers would come, as he viewed the Christmas of his childhood through the eyes of an adult.
Indian immigration to TT was not originally viewed as a permanent arrangement. Members of the local African or Creole community were still employed on the estates “for heavy field work and factory labour.” To save money, the colonial government offered land instead of return passage to indentured workers who had completed their contracts.
Indians came from Hindu and Muslim belief systems; the majority were Hindu. However, as Uncle Ravi recalls, Christianity was considered the national religion, while traditional beliefs were scorned. Bridget Brereton notes that “Christianity and Western culture were accepted by virtually all groups as the norm to be aspired to…the superiority of Christianity to all other creeds was hardly questioned…”
The influence of missionaries helped deepen suspicion towards non-Christian beliefs. One missionary described Hinduism as unclean and accused Hindus of low moral standards. Schools based on Christian teachings ensured further indoctrination.
Uncle Ravi attended Caparo RC School.
“My first song was not a bhajan, it was Silent Night. Imagine that, from a staunch Hindu background. But I still love it. It belongs to my childhood.”
Carols became more significant than bhajans because they were taught in school. Children looked forward to Christmas. By contrast, Divali was viewed almost like punishment, because of the mandatory fasting.
Christmas was seen as an escape from tradition.
“This was one time you were sure to get meat. That time, people had goat and other kinds of curry.”
Sadly, Christmas warped traditional values in other ways.
“We had a table out in the gallery. Every Christmas, they would buy a tablecloth with plenty pictures of fruits. Not local fruits, foreign, like grapes, apples and all of that. My father, who never ate meat, never drank or smoked – on top of the table he would put a bottle of rum and some kind of soft drink…
"The children of the village would go from house to house singing songs and there was an expectation that every household would have alcohol, meat and cake. I think my father was sensitive to the children who would feel embarrassed if their friends came over and they didn’t have anything to give them. Christmas forced that on us.”
Uncle Ravi does not remember having Christmas trees or gifts. Boys would usually receive cap guns and play games like "Stick 'em up." They might also get mouth organs, which they loved to play. The girls got dolls, but: “I never felt the irony of it. The dollies were always white-people babies. It was never Indian or African. My sister cut her hair because she wanted a donkey mane (short hair covering the forehead) like the doll.”
Tere dwaar khara Bhagavaan (Treat even the beggar with respect; he may be the Lord standing at the door.)" At home, children would sing and dance to this popular song. Uncle Ravi’s mother would put aside some of the rice that they planted in a pitch oil tin, “so any time a sadhu or holy man came by the gap begging and calling out, 'Sitaram,' she would put some in a cup and give one of us to run and put it in his
jhori or bag.”
How can we put community at the centre of Christmas? How do we protect our beliefs? What is our collective future as a nation? These are some of the lessons from Uncle Ravi’s story. Further, the way we educate our children is essential to avoid separating us from our rituals.
So this season, as we enjoy the sentiments in Silent Night, it is important to remember that the fight to preserve our traditions is unceasing. On this issue, we must never be silent.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist and founder of the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN