By Annan Boodram
Liminality (from Latin limen: ‘boundary or threshold’) is the state of being neither-this-nor-that, betwixt and between, neither me, nor not me, like the mythic Cynocephalus (dog-headed human).
According to author, poet, essayist and scholar, Cyril Dabydeen, “Liminality, is one of these jargony esoteric terms, that might have gained currency via people like famed post-colonial scholar at the University of Chicago, Homi Bhabba. The latter is perhaps one of the most quoted of that school. Another such scholar is Edward Said. And liminality may be the kind of twilightness, as it appears, and through this metaphor, it’s the state of being here and there: where we came from, and where we are now, and coalescing the two in some subliminal, even unconscious, way; and you know, the whole sense too of “imaginary homelands,” as Rushdie describes it.”
This paper attempts to address the issue of liminality in relation to Indo-Guyanese (and by extension Caribbean) within the context of his Guyanese/Caribbeanness (geo-national), Indianess (cultural/ancestral) and current habitation (various Diaspora nations).
While Indians have been living in the Guyana for over 160 years the interplay of politics and ethnicity (resulting in the feeling of not belonging even though he belongs) have forced many of them to flee overseas. Yet, especially for the first generations, living in the Diaspora has not meant self or otherwise acceptance as permanent citizens of the new land. Indeed there remains the metaphorical straddling of the old and the new home with a nostalgic yearning to return home once enough money is made or once retirement comes around. And even though he knows that he is Indian culturally and ancestrally this acceptance of his Indianness by his kit and kin from the Asian sub-continent has not been what was expected, again placing him in a sort of limbo vis a vis Bharat Mata or the ancestral homeland. As author Raywat Deonandan puts it in an article in The Caribbean Voice newspaper, “Just as French-Canadians might not be French enough for the French, and Azoreans insufficiently Portuguese for the Portuguese, we Indo-Caribbean types often suffer rejection from “true” Indians from the subcontinent, though we are apparently similar enough to share the same epithet and insults.”
It is in the process of grappling with the question of ‘Who am I truly?’ (in the words of Deonandan) that a number of Guyanese authors have contextualized their works.
Historian Basdeo Mangroo handled this issue of liminality by debunking the myths of plantation Indian docility. His research and writings reasserted the Indian’s plantation existence as one underpinned by militancy and protest against his state of servitude.
Considered to be the expert on Indian plantation life in Guyana, Dr. Mangru pointed out that until the last decade the prevailing notion of Indian docility affected the psyche of the Indian in a number of ways: they could not see themselves as having substantive participation in the political process in Guyana; they refused to consider the concept of struggling for social space and chose rather to migrate and/or they allowed themselves to be subsumed by the dominant political strata and survive in a marginal existence if not in total anonymity.
In his seminal work, “History of East Indian Resistance on the Guyana Sugar Estates: 1869 to 1946”, published in 1996 by Edwin Mellin Press, New York, Dr. Mangru chronicled the history of Indian militancy and detailed its impact on the development process. And in a subsequent review, Donald Wood, a professor at the University of Sussex concluded that Dr. Mangru’s book had debunked for all time, the myth of Indian docility. Mangru’s landscape has been painted in greater detail by Clem Seecharran, in his book “Bound Coollie Radical in British Guyana 1894-901”, a study of the ideology and activity of Bechu, the Bengali indentured servant. In a review of this book Eusi Kwayaan stated, it “is in part a study of this triumph of purpose and mission over circumstances. It shows that it is possible for a person to live two lives, one in the grip of multiple oppression of the self and its Kind and another in the ideal of an alternative regime for which one strives and strives”.
While he does not want to make the claim that his book has contributed in any change in the Indian psyche, Dr. Mangru, in an interview with this presenter, noted that over the last decade or so Indians have become much more militant in Guyana. He pointed to the work of Indian activists such as Ravi Dev as reflective of this new militancy. The result has been that Indians are finally claiming their own social and political space in Guyana, armed with the knowledge that their contribution to the developmental process has not been insignificant and they have as much right to political participation and socio-cultural expression as any other group.
A significant sidebar to this process has been a rejuvenated interest in the affairs of Guyana by Indo-Guyanese in the Diaspora who now exhibit greater pride in being known as Guyanese and who often passionately expound of things Guyanese – from politics to religion, from jamming to liming.
In short there has been a reconnection with the fatherland that has replaced the sense of alienation, in limbo existence (referred to as a second exile by Dr. Jeremy Ponyting in his book ‘The Second Shipwreck’) with respect to national self-identity. One sees this in the many events such as the Big Lime in Toronto, the Guyana Awards in London, the work of the Tri-State Alliance in New York, to some extent, the Folk Festival of which this conference is a part, among many other happenings. There is more self-debate, discussion and affirming expression by Diaspora Indo-Guyanese in both the back home media and the Diaspora media. A greater number of Indo-Guyanese are coalescing in various entities – alumni associations, area support groups, charity organizations at al and realigning their focus on helping Guyana because of this reconnection.
Is there a nexus between all of this and the writings of Dr. Mangru? This is a question that will perhaps be addressed in time as this reclaiming of their national space by Indo Guyanese becomes more substansive and impactful to offer scope for research and study.
Another sidebar of note is the view that Indo-Guyanese attempts to reclaim their space and heritage as Guyanese has been met with a horrific response by a tiny segment of the Afro Guyanese brethrem. This response is manifested in the spate of violence against Indo Guyanese that has been happening in spurts, especially so for the last three years. The robbing, brutalizing and killing of Indo-Guyanese and the destruction to property has created fear in some geographic areas of the nation. But more frightening, has been the argumentation in some quarters that serves to provide justification of sorts for this horror. The simple fact is that crime cannot be justified regardless of the political, economic or social climate.
Of note also is the fact that a number of creative writers have established the Guyanese Indian as the main protagonist within a heroic context. Cyril Dabydeen comes to mind, in relation to a number of his short stories as well as his novel The Wizard Swami published by Peepal Tree Press circa 1980. So too does Gowkarran Sukhdeo, in his award winning The Silver Lining. In the latter case, whether consciously or unconsciously the author locates his hero within a context whereby he reclaims his space as a Guyanese after returning from overseas study.
The author, indicated that he used the hero to comment upon concepts such as racial harmony and the hold of the plantation on the community as exemplified by issues such as sexual exploitation. Sukhdeo also stated to this presenter that his hero was a composite thereby suggesting that in everyday life there exists many Indo Guyanese who are heroes in their own way.
And that is the crux of the matter, especially since ordinary Indians had not hitherto viewed themselves as heroic and consequently held on to the classical literature such as the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, to reference heroes while flocking to the cinemas to vicariously live acts of heroism through the stars on the silver screen Thus writers such as Dabydeen and Sukhdeo brought to the fore the reality that heroism does not have to be a vicarious experience but in fact, is something that abounds in daily life.
To what extent these works have impacted on the psyche of Indo-Guyanese is difficult to determine because enough time and space does not exist to gather evidence. Certainly, however, in activists such as Ravi Dev, Moses Nagamootoo, Khemraj Ramjattan and others, Indians are not only displaying heroism but also giving esteem to their compatriots while leading the struggle for the reclaiming of political and social space.
Secondly, with respect to liminality vis a vis the cultural/ancestral author and poet, Sasenarine Persaud , is one writer whose articulation stands out. In a school of writing he calls Yogic Realism, Persaud has sought to “articulate the ancestral connection” thereby giving the Guyanese Indian the right to that heritage that he feel is denied him by his kit and kin from the Indian sub-continent.
As Persaud pointed out in an interview with this presenter, “Yogic Realism was not so much a way to establish an ancestral connection as to articulate such a connection. The ancestral connection was there in my/our writing long before I knew it was there, long before I thought of Yogic Realism. For those of us who grew up in Indian homes, even before we were born, even in our mothers’ wombs we were being exposed to Indian/yogic literature as our mothers took us around to Kathas, pujas, yajnas, as they sang songs to us – often the poetry of Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas, Kabirdas without even realising the source and Songs/poems/literature which themselves came straight out of Vedic,Upanishadic, Mahabharic/yogic literature.”
This unconscious influence of Indianess in one’s writings is also alluded to by author Cyril Dabydeen. In email communication with this presenter, Dabydeen stated, “I don’t think I dwell consciously on my Indianness as such, though it comes out all the time, inevitably; and the way I am moulded, and social contexts too: my being born and raised in the Berbice/Canje Rose Hall sugar plantation, and with seminal socialist ideas, invariably, PPP-type ideologoical things.”
Like the Afro-Caribbean in relation to kith and kin from Africa, the Indo-Caribbean has found cultural / ancestral acceptance by kit and kin from India to be somewhat elusive. And so one could argue that this intrinsic cultural connection underpinning the writings of Indo-Guyanese authors provides the existential framework catalysing a back to Bharat Mata movement. The result has been a conscious effort by Indo-Guyanese to form community with Indians from the subcontinent in Diaspora politics and culture, an ongoing stream of Indo-Guyanese going back to India to visit, connect, study, research and be astounded, spurred on by tour packages organized by travel agencies such as Hillside Avenue, Queens, New York City based Kali Travel, which, in fact, pioneered tour packages to India for Indo-Caribbeans in the Diaspora.
Of note also is that while at the person to person level, Indians from the subcontinent display respect for appreciation of Indo Guyanese/Caribbeans, because of our preservation of the culture and our work and other ethic.
With respect to the current habitation the most important point of note is that there has been a flowering of Indo-Guyanese writers, whether self-published, coop-published or published by stand alone houses. A significant amount of these works are somewhat autobiographical – many have been, in fact, been reviewed by The Caribbean Voice and the Guyana Journal. This would seem to suggest that Indians are beginning to believe that their life stories are worthy enough to be told to a larger audience.
But perhaps too, this telling of these stories can be viewed as the beginning of a movement to claim legitimate space in the communities in which we live, a movement that is also manifested in other ways – for example seeking for political office, contesting leadership positions in professional and community organizations that extend beyond their own communities, establishing a presence in corporate America and developing a vibrant media. All of this and other manifestations would also seem to say we exist as a group, separate and distinct from the Asian groups and certainly from the Hispanics. And finally, it would seem to want to debunk a myth about who Caribbeans are, a myth that especially exists in the corporate world and one fueled by certain Caribbean organizations that are uniracial in structure and membership. Combatting the misperception that all Caribbeans are descendants of African slaves has not been easy but one can argue that the body of writers have played a part in giving recognition to Indo-Guyanese as legitimate Caribbeans. And this recognition is manifested in many ways – invitations to various social functions, individual and community profiles in mainstream media, inclusion of Indo-Caribbeans in functions that honor Caribbeans.
But the process of claiming our space as Guyanese and Caribbeans is far from complete. Far too often Guyanese functions are patronised predominantly by one of the two major groups especially if the event is kept in Queens or Brooklyn. In this respect one must give kudos to the Guyana Folk festival Committee, which is one of the few organizations that have begun to become more inclusive. But even here more work needs to be done. For example, a perusal at the names of the organizers of the Folk festival indicate only one Indo Guyanese in a group of 22 persons. By the same token I would be amiss if I do not chide Indo-Guyanese for not seizing opportunities such as this to continue to reclaim their Guyaneseness and help portray Guyanese as a multiracial group.
And once we succeed in doing that in the Diaspora, then perhaps we can go back to Guyana and show them how it is done.
PS: This paper was presented at a conference in July 2008, at Columbia University organized by the Guyana Cultural Association.