Coolies — How Britain Reinvented Slavery

Via Tipster BNB, a searing one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world — only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by… who else? The BBC! (“The BBC: Bringing You… Post-colonial Guilt in Excruciating Historical Detail”)

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I’ve watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed — some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC — in case you’re going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little “light” entertainment. (You will also need to download Google’s Video Player application.)

127 thoughts on “Coolies — How Britain Reinvented Slavery

  1. Amitabh – enjoyed your contributions, and thanks for answering the Naipaul question.

    I saw the video last night. Quite powerful and eye-opening. I think I can honestly say that I now think of the Indian diasporic experience in a new light. The claim is made in the documentary – that Indians are the most dispersed people in the world – and I now find that quite believable. Transported solely for the purpose of extracting their labor – treated horribly, before, during and after – and then left to fend for themselves. The sheer tenacity and will-to-survive of these folks – in Fiji, Mauritius, South Africa or West Indies – has to be saluted. I don’t think I can easily forget the centenarian and the grandmother in the video and their personal testimony of being treated as slaves.

    It also forces a closer examination of our own time – with ‘outsourcing companies’ and ‘H-1Bs’ and ‘L-1s’ – are the ‘outsourcing companies’ who send people to the US ‘on bond’ with H-1B visas – really that different from the ‘labor contractors’ who went into the villages to recruit the ‘indentured’ servants? I think there are some essential similarities, which are worth pondering, and many 1st-gen people may then realize that their situation is not that different from that of the Indo-Caribbeans in the 19th century.

    I think Elitist? and proactiv are articulating widely-held views among 1st (and 2nd)-gen folks from India about the Indo-Caribbeans. The views are distasteful, but there is no need to be in denial about how prevalent they are. Apart from the obvious snobbery, classism (and Elitism?) – there is also insecurity – about both the socio-economic present, and the religio-cultural future of the Indian diaspora in these views. The Indo-Caribbean experience has many encouraging and uplifting aspects – as well as many cautionary lessons in this context. I hope more people with direct knowledge of that will contribute their views and experiences on this thread.

  2. 50 proactiv “it’s because of their color, accent, educational status, and caribbean influence( yea you know what i am insinuating). i wonder in what proportions do the above factor into the desi mindsets. please view this as a rhetorical question if you are feeling uncomfortable.”

    I am not uncomfortable answering your questions, which I presume are sincere and not trollery. At the same time, if I am able to correct at least some desi prejudices against a group of people that is so much a part of my life, I think I should take the trouble.

    The desi culture, as you know, is extremely hierarchial, with color, accent, education, wealth and everything else used as pefectly legitimate metrics for judging people – PC be damned. Given our mindset, we are just as prone to berate fellow desis with less education, money and “culture” as Indo-Caribbean people with similar demographic traits. Our British commenters, for example, will attest to the fact that in the UK, where Indians of all socioeconomic strata exist in great numbers, the upper crust desis do look down upon the “innit” desis. Ain’t that true, Brits?

    It just so happens that due to the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the western world, the population’s facility with English, the lower pressure on their immigration quotas, and their generally higher income level (Trinidad’s per capita is $10,400 vs. India’s $720, after accounting for PPP), even the less educated Indo-Caribbean people are able to emigrate to the US, Canada and Europe. In fact, the better educated have less incentive to leave because of the economic opportunities and near-western lifestyle available to them back home. Unfortunately, the socioeconomic level of the Indo-Caribbean people living in New York, Toronto or South Florida make them easy targets for the desis. However, if you were entrenched in the Indo-Caribbean community as we are, you would have friends from all walks of life. There are Trinidadian and Guyanese doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, as well as truck drivers, handymen and electricians. I have Trinidadian/Guyanese friends and relatives in all those categories.

    43 Amitabh: “if you go to Trinidad for example, and look at young Indian kids, you’ll find that the ‘creolisation’ process is largely complete”

    I don’t know how much time, if any, you have spent in Trinidad, but there is absolutely no creolization of Indians. Just stand near a school in St. Augustine, which is not even a conservative Indian stronghold like Chaguanas, and you will get an instant demographic research on the Indian children. Among girls, “choatis” (pigtails) rule. The dirty little secret of the Indo-Caribbean people is that they hate blacks and merely tolerate the other races. Go to Movietown in Port-of-Spain on a Saturday night and out of the thousands of couples on dates, you will be lucky to find ten interracial couple where the mate is of Indian descent. The Indian opposition to creolization in Trinidad and Guyana, which account for nearly 80% of the Indo-Caribbean population anyway, still continues after 150 years of co-existence with other races. This is not to say that there has not been interracial marriages in the history of Indo-Caribbean people, but the few racially mixed Indians are just as susceptible to exclusionary treatment there as anywhere else. When my wife’s younger sister married a white guy, there were seismic aftershocks throughout the extended family that lasted a good few years.

    A few casual observations on various aspects of the Desi-Indo-Caribbean divide: 1. ACCENT: The Indo-Caribbean people can adopt North American or British accent far more easily than South Asians. And even when they are speaking in their native singsong accent, their English is mostly correct, whereas the English of some of the first generation Indians can border on the ridiculous. Ain’t that true, desis? 2. Their generally darker skin color has nothing to do with interracial marriages. They came from a part of India (East UP/west Bihar and the South) where the color spectrum skews towards darkness. 3. Having commented on the educational level of Indo-Caribbean immigrants, I must say this. Their high school education, which is mandatory, turns out a far more literate and aware individual than the high schools of small towns in India.

    Does all this mean that desis will stop looking down at Indo-Caribbeans? Heck, no. Don’t forget, at the bottom of our superiority complex (if there is such a thing) is the undeniable fact that we know something first-hand that “they” only know second-hand. ALL YOU ABD’s TAKE NOTE BECAUSE YOU ARE VIEWED THE SAME WAY BY SOME, SOME, SOME (I qualified it 3 times) OF THE INDIANS.

  3. Paging Dr. Amardeep!

    I am so tempted to talk about Naipaul, but I will leave it alone. Amardeep, aren’t you a Professor of Literature? Do a Naipaul post, will you, so some of us who have had this love-hate thing going can jump in?

  4. I don’t know how much time, if any, you have spent in Trinidad, but there is absolutely no creolization of Indians.

    Hi Floridian, thanks for your comments. I had a good friend in college who was Indo-Trinidadian, and I spent one weekend in Trinidad over ten years ago, so I’m not an expert by any means. The weekend that I happened to be there, the Indian political party (UNC?) had just won elections, and Indians were all over the streets celebrating. As Camille alluded to, there was an amazing cultural mix going on…flatbed trucks with 20-30 people, playing Indian drums (somewhat similar to dhols), blaring Bollywood and Chutney, but also local Caribbean music too. They had headbands with UNC written in a font that was made to resemble Hindi lettering. But at the same time, when this one desi politician’s car came to a stop and was mobbed (in a friendly way) by throngs of desis, this young Indian woman got in front of his car and did a very lewd dance for him, Caribbean style, that you would never see in India. So sexually they are far less conservative than folks in India. Other aspects of creolisation that I noticed were the hybrid food (although I had excellent ‘chicken curry’ and roti too while I was there), the hybrid music, and the hybrid behavior. You know, this is only natural after more than 150 years living in a land where you are not the dominant group, and where the dominant group exerts huge pressure on you to assimilate…which in fact the Indians have resisted to a remarkable extent.

    If you look at if from the other side, in terms of how much desi stuff has survived, you’ll find countless examples. I agree with you that the predominantly Indian areas like County Caroni, with very few blacks, do give you the impression of being in India to an extent…temples and mosques everywhere, Indian music and food everywhere, and so forth.

    Family ties are another important way in which Indian Trinidadians differ from African ones. I stayed at the home of my buddy’s desi family in Caroni…it was almost like a joint family system (not quite), because all the brothers had homes next to each other, with their families…and their paternal first cousins all had homes on neighboring streets…so in that way it was similar to what you find in India, patrilocality I guess it’s called. People there have very strong ties with their paternal (and maternal) extended families, which is a trait largely absent in other groups on the island (who mostly maintain ties with maternal relatives). Of course these are just generalities, exceptions abound.

    Anyway, this is getting too long.

  5. “this young Indian woman got in front of his car and did a very lewd dance for him, Caribbean style, that you would never see in India.”

    This is not to contradict you but to expand everybody’s knowledge base. Correlating Trinidadian women’s lewd dancing with sexual, ahem, liberation, is about as incorrect as mistaking Latin women’s bare cleavage with an invitation. (This is something you learn in South Florida. Latin mamas with bare cleavage and the crucifix necklace). It is just their way, with no sexual connotation. Trinidadians of all ages love to dance, and yes, alcohol to them is not a forbidden fruit as it is in our first generation desi culture. My wife, who loves her scotch at parties, is usually the only Indian woman sipping hard liquor. Other women are either drinking coke or wine. I tell her to stop, but do you think she listens!

    Hey, I am glad you got to see Caroni, the heart and soul of Indians in Trinidad, with Chaguanas as its unofficial capital. My in-laws live in Chaguanas, only a few blocks from Naipaul’s ancestral home near the market. Unfortunately, the sugar mills of Caroni are now shut down. Sugar and coco, the two commodities that built Trinidad, are relics of the past.

    Keep up the good comments. I do read you whenever I get a chance.

  6. This is really well made, and creates a real sense of kinship, but why is the Beeb also showing something called ‘Lost World of the RAJ’ and The Legacy Of The British Empire — or Channel Four is — all at the same time? It’s not on BBC America though.

    I didn’t even know about the Indian diaspora beyond Uganda-Kenya-South Africa until I came here to go to college.

  7. Paging Dr. Amardeep!

    I am so tempted to talk about Naipaul, but I will leave it alone. Amardeep, aren’t you a Professor of Literature? Do a Naipaul post, will you, so some of us who have had this love-hate thing going can jump in?

    Floridian, I’m actually a bit surprised that I’ve never actually written on Naipaul here — I do have lots of thoughts about him, so a post may be forthcoming. (He’s discussed many of the issues introduced on this thread in his non-fiction books, as you may be aware.) I have written about Naipaul a fair amount on my personal blog.

    Meanwhile, feel free to jump in — especially on the question of “coolies” and the unusual cultural formation of the Indo-Caribbean.

  8. TO Floridian: I appreciate the fact that yes you do know the truth about Trini/Guyanese indians. Everybody else just assumes and dismisses us but, you know the facts. I am an ABG and guess what,1. There is NOT a mixing of races down there, due to history, Indo and Afro Guyanese/Trinis have deep divides, with the blacks thing that they are far superior to everyone. So no we are not mixed race mutts.2.It’s not that easy for us caribbean folks to get into the us, as you think. There are lenghtyexpensive wait times, and green card lottos. Must people use the bacjk-track system to get into the US and Canada. 3. And yes some Guyanese/Trinis are rich doctors and lawyers and some of us came form low to middle class families (convenience stores, motels) AND THAT DOESN’T GIVE ANYBODY THE RIGHT TO LOOK DOWN ON US!4. We in Guyana are what you call stuck in a time warp when you consider the religious aspects and the old hindi music that is available to us, so what? So we do listen to music that was out in 1970′s India, and still have pretty set religious beliefs even if they are out-dated in India. 5. We know that we are looked down upon by “Indians” from India, because they think that we are lower than them for what we are. Truth is, we don’t fit into their bullshit class/caste system, we have our own culture that grew out of a new continent, and interacting with new people. We are not desis and will never be. I am proud of who I am and I would never diss another desi because they’re circumstances are different than mine.
    I want to just ask all these “real” indians, why they have to judge so harshly other people: by skin color, by socio-economic class (ex. the motel clerks are less than the doctors), by location? DOes it make you feel better to put people in little categories and assume that you’re better than them because even though they’re brown, they are not just like you and they are not good enough? If that is the current desi mentality,then I’M SO GLAD I’M NOT A DESI.I DON’T WANT TO BE THAT IGNORANT AND INTOLERANT.

  9. nice comments jenn. it is time someone said those things.

    but dont expect alot of feedback/support here since the diaspora in that area has often been ignored and not for the reasons they might tell you.

  10. Has anyone seen the movie Guyana:1838? I had wanted to see it, never got a chance. Any comments on that?

  11. We know that we are looked down upon by “Indians” from India, because they think that we are lower than them for what we are.

    Jenn, Er.. no. Please, please do not start generalizing about all Indians from India because one self -professed ABCD ( commenter’s term not mine) made some brain -dead and absolutely hateful comments here.

    We are again going to get into a long discussion about how desis from the des are racist/casteist/religious/ linguistic fanactics etc. Some desis are but NOT ALL !!!

  12. Very moving documentary. Wow. I never realised the extent to which the indentured servant system was really just a continuation of slavery. I’m kind of stunned.

    I think that the current descendants of those 19th century migrants have every reason to be proud of their ancestors…not only their more remote ancestors, who left India and braved the long voyage and endured unimaginable conditions, but also their more recent ancestors, born and raised in farflung lands like Trinidad and Fiji, who through sheer hard work and perseverance, managed to raise their and their descendants’ overall standing and lifestyle, and achieve in many cases very impressive success. For whatever it’s worth, I salute these unspoken, unsung, utterly nameless and totally obscure heroes, whose suffering ensured a better life for their coming generations.

  13. A bit of an omnibus comment…

    Wow! WOW! That was one power-packed documentary. Indeed, the BBC serves up a healthy dose of British funded post-colonial guilt yet again! I had never cohered my scattered knowledge about Indian workers in Fiji, the Caribbean, Malaysia, South Africa etc. as part of one unified, diabolical plan for slave labor by the British. It was also nice how the article tied the indenture servitude problem in South Africa to the rise of Gandhi as a political force. One question I’d have liked to seen explored is the past and ongoing relationship between the Indians and “natives” in these countries. The program does mention the animosity towards ethnic Indians in Fiji towards the end, and has a scathing indictment of the effects of British imperialism at the end (as well as selective memory), but that topic in and of itself could probably merit a full hour, if not more. Most amusing quote: As a Hindu, I’d definitely want to come back as a 19th century plantation owner.

    One interesting tidbit: It seems like the Hindi spoken in Fiji is very close to that spoken in India, whereas the woman in Guyana spoke pidgin English (don’t mean to use that term in a derogatory fashion). Is it because she had spent her entire life there, and not in India? Of course, that doesn’t explain Brij Lal’s speaking Hindi with his family.

    muralimannered, I love Naipaul. He is, as I’m sure he’d self importantly describe himself, “awesome”. Yes, he is increasingly becoming almost a caricature of his own curmudgeonly self (hates novel length fiction AND muslims, two for the price of just one mean old man!), and is prone to long rants, but I can’t help but smile when I remember how he lashes out at poor silent, tongue-tied Vinoba Bhave towards the end of India: A Wounded Civilization. That, and the criticisms of R. K. Narayan resonate very strongly with me, as I’d never understood India’s fascination with his writing.

    Slightly off-topic, I was impressed at how much impact Gandhi’s South African program of civil disobedience and passive resistance had in Britain, even in an era before widespread dissemination of news, and trial in the court of public opinion. One question I’ve always had is how effective Gandhi’s freedom struggle in India would have been in the absence of the Second World War. To my completely uneducated and untrained self, it seems that Indian Independence was much more a fact of Britain’s weakening than moral or political domination by Indian non-cooperation (and it seems to have been backed up somewhat by the flood of other colonial independence that followed in the next 10 years). I would love to hear people’s opinions on this (Amardeep, maybe a post on this too? :-) , and will now hide under my desk to brace for the saturation bombing of contempt that I’m sure to receive for asking.

    And finally, Amardeep, between this and the affirmative action post, you’ve touched on two relatively opposite ends of the Indian diasporic experience. Keep the deep posts coming! I’m loving the mutiny’s vacation. I learn a lot from posts like this, and associated comments, and that’s what keeps me coming!

  14. whereas the English of some of the first generation Indians can border on the ridiculous. Ain’t that true, desis?

    Do me one thing, mr. floridian. Please to explain vaat you are saying.

  15. 66 Rahul: “Do me one thing, mr. floridian. Please to explain vaat you are saying.”

    Do I dare disturb the Universe?

  16. I saw the documentary. It was interesting, however what is puzzling is that, if the indentured labor was as unjust and harrowing to the victims as slavery, why was it allowed to continue well into 20th century, while slavery was banned in the early 19th century

  17. I saw the documentary. It was interesting, however what is puzzling is that, if the indentured labor was as unjust and harrowing to the victims as slavery, why was it allowed to continue well into 20th century, while slavery was banned in the early 19th century

    I think the answer is something like this. The ending of slavery in the British Empire was due to several reasons including the moral/theological arguments made by people like William Wilberforce (inspired by his christian beliefs). But when slavery ended there was still a huge demand for cheap labor for the sugar plantations and so some enterprising Brits (one of whom is named in the doc… i forget) organized the system of shipping people from India to these sugar plantations in the Caribbean. But it went under the radar (of the anti-slavery movement in britain) because it was not technically slavery and was seen just as capitalism functioning as it should. It’s kind of like asking, “if slavery ended in the 19th century why were western consumers happily buying products made in sweat-shops into the 21st century”.

  18. I think the answer is something like this. The ending of slavery in the British Empire was due to several reasons including the moral/theological arguments made by people like William Wilberforce (inspired by his christian beliefs). But when slavery ended there was still a huge demand for cheap labor for the sugar plantations and so some enterprising Brits (one of whom is named in the doc… i forget) organized the system of shipping people from India to these sugar plantations in the Caribbean.

    I appreciate your insight. I think if these anti-slavery movements ignored the new practice, their opposition to slavery should be based on theological beliefs about “Free Will”. Humanitarian concerns, if any, would have played very negligent role as there seem to be little difference in the way slaves and these laborers were treated.

  19. One question I’ve always had is how effective Gandhi’s freedom struggle in India would have been in the absence of the Second World War. To my completely uneducated and untrained self, it seems that Indian Independence was much more a fact of Britain’s weakening than moral or political domination by Indian non-cooperation (and it seems to have been backed up somewhat by the flood of other colonial independence that followed in the next 10 years). I would love to hear people’s opinions on this (Amardeep, maybe a post on this too? :-) , and will now hide under my desk to brace for the saturation bombing of contempt that I’m sure to receive for asking.

    Rahul, I think you’re right with respect to WWII being the breaking point for the Empire. After 2 world wars, massive depression, and growing unrest in the periphery I think it became impossible for Britain to keep it together. It also became politically more sticky to explain why Nazi takeover of the continent/world was bad, but colonial takeover of the world was ok. I don’t know that, without all these factors coming together, we would have seen independence when we did. After all, the movement had been gaining momentum for nearly 30 years before we saw actual results. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure how history would have played out. I guess the next logical question would be (assuming post-war decolonization was inevitable), why did each country decolonize when it did? While there was a huge wave in the 50s and again in the late 60s/70s, I’m always interested in why the UK clung to some of its colonies and let go of others so “easily.”

    It was interesting, however what is puzzling is that, if the indentured labor was as unjust and harrowing to the victims as slavery, why was it allowed to continue well into 20th century, while slavery was banned in the early 19th century

    I think a lot of this has to do with Britain’s shifting political economy. The 1800s saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution and a shift from agriculture to manufacturing on the island proper. Even within the agricultural sector we see a mechanization of labor that increases productivity and decreased the need for human labor on British farms. At a certain point it becomes economically more efficient to go with mechanization over slavery since maintaining a machine is (generally) less expensive than maintaining the minimum health of a human being, depending on the nature and type of economy in a region.

    However, in the Caribbean we have a plantation economy which demands lots of human labor, and it is expensive to ship equipment out there for mechanization. From what I remember of the Atlantic slave trade (someone please correct me if I’m wrong), slaves in the Caribbean were treated the most brutally and had the shortest life spans post-arrival (I think it was something like 10 years compared to 20 years on the North American continent). I’m sure part of this was the industry in both regions, part was because slaves were cheaper (I think) in the Caribbean because of the U.S. ban on new imported slaves. I reach back into history just to illustrate that the Caribbean plantation economy had been run as a vampiric beast for a while, creating world-wide demand where there had been none and reinforcing a demand (and disregard for the health of) for slave-like labor, i.e. indentured servitude. At this point we see Britain trying to dominate the world in trade, and we also see the demand for coffee, sugar, tea, and tobacco continue to climb (in part because these are all stimulants and help keep domestic workers awake). I think it’s really similar to the rise in demand for opium as well. All these things come together under the political philosophy of colonial thought, and voila — modern day slavery. Is it so different from many of the diffuse systems of labor we see today?

  20. One interesting tidbit: It seems like the Hindi spoken in Fiji is very close to that spoken in India, whereas the woman in Guyana spoke pidgin English (don’t mean to use that term in a derogatory fashion). Is it because she had spent her entire life there, and not in India? Of course, that doesn’t explain Brij Lal’s speaking Hindi with his family.

    In all likelihood, that old man they interviewed in Fiji was born and raised in Fiji. But Fiji Hindi is a living language to this day. Hindi/Bhojpuri suffered different fates in different places. It died out very quickly in Guyana (barely making it past the 2nd gen), remained a bit longer in Trinidad (survived into the 3rd gen), and remains spoken to this day in Fiji and Suriname, although it is not exactly the same as spoken anywhere in India (being a mixture and simplification of different dialects like Bhojpuri and Awadhi, and also lots of influence from Dutch (in Suriname) and Fijian and English (in Fiji). Apparently now even in Suriname and Fiji it’s dying out, but it survived an impressively long time in those two countries. Ironically, importation of Bollywood movies, and attempts to teach standard Hindi in schools, all contributed to the decline of local versions of Hindi in these lands, as people there started seeing their own versions of Hindi as inferior and substandard to that spoken in India.

  21. If you notice, Brij Lal at the end recited a Hindi poem to some schoolkids. That’s because Hindi is taught in Fiji as part of the curriculum, and most Indians there know it pretty well. In fact the poem was about a ship carrying laborers that sank on its way to Fiji, so it was probably a Fiji Indian who wrote it in the first place.

  22. My bad, the old gentleman was born in India. But probably came to Fiji when he was very young.

  23. Rahul, I think you’re right with respect to WWII being the breaking point for the Empire. After 2 world wars, massive depression, and growing unrest in the periphery I think it became impossible for Britain to keep it together.

    Camille, I was especially interested in this question after the documentary because it describes how much responsibility Gandhi’s non violent protest in South Africa had in ending indentured servitude throughout the empire. Again, maybe WWI was a precipitating factor, and his actions created the perfect storm. But, the political outrage and the press in Britain about oppression of some dark-skinned folks in far flung South Africa was quite impressive, certainly not something I’d have expected in the early 1900s. The story of the high taxes in South Africa gives me this idea for a movie: Charlize Theron cracking her whip on the local Indians saying “ab tum dugna lagaan dega, saala“, and Akshay Kumar challenging her to an all-or-nothing game of rugby. Get on it, Johannesburg-y-wood!

    Another off-topic question I have is how well non-violence would work in today’s world. Apart from my personal inclination towards peaceful means (yes, I’m woolly-headed), it also seems like it would be the most effective strategic mechanism to “win” against a disproportionate power, because international opinion would force a change. I am thinking of South Africa specifically as a successful model in this regard. Sure, the ANC had violent factions (were they important in showing the powers-that-be that they would make good on their threats?), but it seems like their dominant face to the world was the Gandhian resistance and that made international condemnation of apartheid a reality, and forced even a developed nuclear power to change its ways. I don’t know much about the IRA’s struggle in England, but it seems like they had to forswear violence before progress was made. Again, I’d love to hear from people who, unlike me, actually know something about this topic.

    Amitabh, thanks for the information. I was surprised that I could understand all the Hindi spoken (including the poem!) without the help of subtitles, and was curious if there were specific reasons for this.

  24. Rahul:

    Yes, he is increasingly becoming almost a caricature of his own curmudgeonly self (hates novel length fiction AND muslims, two for the price of just one mean old man!),

    he isn’t a fan of religion in general. He was married to a Pakistani-Muslim last time I checked. His writing indicates that he does’t care for mainstream Hinduism ,outside of Vedanta or philosophical strains, as it has some tendencies that he believes lead to barbarous ritual. I think where he differs from the rest of the intelligentsia is that he reads Islamic conquest as another form of colonialism/imperialism. I think he misread the BJP early on, a I did, in a way that someone who was primarily raised in the West might when reading their platform (which was quite different than the ground reality created by the VHP types it also attracted)

  25. His writing indicates that he does’t care for mainstream Hinduism ,outside of Vedanta or philosophical strains, as it has some tendencies that he believes lead to barbarous ritual.

    Not just ritual, he clearly condemns the fatalism that he believes it inspires among the Indian populace.

    I think he misread the BJP early on

    Has he changed his tune on that? I was honestly shocked to hear his comments on the BJP before the election (which they thankfully lost), and haven’t heard more about that (but also haven’t specifically been looking). I know he’s married to a Muslim (I have no idea if she is practicing in any way), but I don’t know what opinion I should derive from that about his well-documented opinions about the religion at large.

    As an aside, I was in India around the time of the previous elections, and went to a book reading of his in Bangalore, where he and his wife showed up (about an hour late, as is to be expected, I guess). Boy, were they pompous and full of themselves!

  26. #66 Rahul: “Do me one thing, mr. floridian. Please to explain vaat you are saying.” Do I dare disturb the Universe?

    I believe you already have by even responding to my comments which are but yellow smoke rubbing its muzzle on the window-panes of SM. Maybe, sometimes it is better not to eat a peach, after all.

  27. Just a small correction to the original post: I believe most people from Guyana refer to themselves as Guyanese rather than Guyanan.

  28. Rahul: Good points, I am not sure what his most recent views are on the BJP.

    Getting back to the core thread, I wonder if there are any art forms/stories/songs that exist in the Caribbean community that have been lost in their places of origin in Bihar/Bengal. I recall that someone surveyed/recorded the music of the Appalachian region about 50 years ago and found songs that had been lost in the British Isles

  29. 66 Rahul: “Do me one thing, mr. floridian. Please to explain vaat you are saying.”

    67 Floridian Do I dare disturb the Universe?

    78 Rahul: I believe you already have by even responding to my comments which are but yellow smoke rubbing its muzzle on the window-panes of SM. Maybe, sometimes it is better not to eat a peach, after all.

    I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker many times before this, but in short, I have never been so afraid. Besides, Rahul, my comments on first-generation’s English is not what I meant, at all.

    (Should we really be passing notes to each other like this while there is a world history class in progress here. Wouldn’t the professor be PO’d?)

  30. Floridian, I LOVE IT! I’ve dragged you down with me, and soon you will be but a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

    (Should we really be passing notes to each other like this while there is a world history class in progress here. Wouldn’t the professor be PO’d?)

    Well, I’ve always been the troublemaking backbencher. But, would you rather I leave soulful quotes from Keats, Wordsworth or Celine Dion (“Far across the distance, And spaces between us, You have come to show you go on”) in your locker for you to discover at lunch-time? Alright, I’m done now :)

    Besides, Rahul, my comments on first-generation’s English is not what I meant, at all.

    Sorry, I missed the tone, then. What did you mean by them?

  31. I wonder if there are any art forms/stories/songs that exist in the Caribbean community that have been lost in their places of origin in Bihar/Bengal.

    I don’t know about art forms continuing that have been LOST in India, but there are still quite a few folk songs (in Trinidad at least) which have a lot of Bhojpuri influence. I suppose it’s possible that some of those songs are not to be found in India anymore. Even the language used in ‘chutney’ music is Hindi with a lot of Bhojpuri touches (and a lot of English of course). A custom which may not exist in India anymore is putting up prayer flags in the yard after doing a puja…Floridian maybe you can tell us, does that custom still exist in Bihar? In Trinidad, most of the homes had prayer flags flying in their yards.

  32. Besides, Rahul, my comments on first-generation’s English is not what I meant, at all.

    82 Rahul: “Sorry, I missed the tone, then. What did you mean by them?”

    Rahul, you take me back 30 years to a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, to halcyon days when my Harris tweed had leather elbow patches, my pipe smoke licked its tongues into the corners of the evening, my existentialist angst was expressed through verse libre, and then one fateful soft October night, I made the tragic decision to cease upon the midnight with no pain by chucking all this for the daily toils of chasing filthy lucre.

    83 Amitabh: “A custom which may not exist in India anymore is putting up prayer flags in the yard after doing a puja…Floridian maybe you can tell us, does that custom still exist in Bihar? In Trinidad, most of the homes had prayer flags flying in their yards.”

    In Bihar, the “jhandis” are found around temples, not homes. In Trinidad, jhandis are displayed prominently in front of the house to tell the public that this is a Hindu home.

    A comment about chutney music. Most educated and “cultured” Trinidadians despise the lewd dancing and double entendre that are intrinsic to this art form, not realizing that even in its original Indian version, this folk genre is supposed to be lewd. I was at the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi two years ago, and there were performances every night by each state. We went to the Bihar one, and guess what the show was? Chutney! Duly sponsored by the ultra conservative Government of India. (Of course, it is not called chutney in India.)

    Chutney’s growth in the last ten years echoes Bhangra’s – both folk genres, with dance beats, and both “fusioned” in the past decade for a faster, louder, more vibrant effect. For chutney, check out Ricky Jai, Kanchan and Babla and of course, the master, Sunder Popo.

  33. In Bihar, the “jhandis” are found around temples, not homes.

    Flags are found in temples all over North India, Nepal, and even in Buddhist temples and shrines in Tibet.

    In Nepal, they are found even outside homes.

  34. A am a little fuzzy on this one but I believe that the red, triangular flags Amitabh was thinking of are specific to Hanuman temples in East India. My mother said they were foumd in Mahabir mandirs. Isn’t Mahabir another name for Hanuman? (I am not confusing him with Mahavir, the Jain saint.)

  35. Isn’t Mahabir another name for Hanuman?

    Would it be ok for me to market an alcohol named Mahabeer? I mean, dude’s a bachelor, what’s he going to do on a Friday night?

  36. Some excerpts from V.S. Naipaul’s Nobel Lecture speech relevant to this discussion:

    It’s been like this because of my background. My background is at once exceedingly simple and exceedingly confused. I was born in Trinidad. It is a small island in the mouth of the great Orinoco river of Venezuela. So Trinidad is not strictly of South America, and not strictly of the Caribbean. It was developed as a New World plantation colony, and when I was born in 1932 it had a population of about 400,000. Of this, about 150,000 were Indians, Hindus and Muslims, nearly all of peasant origin, and nearly all from the Gangetic plain.

    This was my very small community. The bulk of this migration from India occurred after 1880. The deal was like this. People indentured themselves for five years to serve on the estates. At the end of this time they were given a small piece of land, perhaps five acres, or a passage back to India. In 1917, because of agitation by Gandhi and others, the indenture system was abolished. And perhaps because of this, or for some other reason, the pledge of land or repatriation was dishonoured for many of the later arrivals. These people were absolutely destitute. They slept in the streets of Port of Spain, the capital. When I was a child I saw them. I suppose I didn’t know they were destitute – I suppose that idea came much later – and they made no impression on me. This was part of the cruelty of the plantation colony.

    I was born in a small country town called Chaguanas, two or three miles inland from the Gulf of Paria. Chaguanas was a strange name, in spelling and pronunciation, and many of the Indian people – they were in the majority in the area – preferred to call it by the Indian caste name of Chauhan.

    What was past was past. I suppose that was the general attitude. And we Indians, immigrants from India, had that attitude to the island. We lived for the most part ritualised lives, and were not yet capable of self-assessment, which is where learning begins. Half of us on this land of the Chaguanes were pretending – perhaps not pretending, perhaps only feeling, never formulating it as an idea – that we had brought a kind of India with us, which we could, as it were, unroll like a carpet on the flat land.

    My grandmother’s house in Chaguanas was in two parts. The front part, of bricks and plaster, was painted white. It was like a kind of Indian house, with a grand balustraded terrace on the upper floor, and a prayer-room on the floor above that. It was ambitious in its decorative detail, with lotus capitals on pillars, and sculptures of Hindu deities, all done by people working only from a memory of things in India. In Trinidad it was an architectural oddity. At the back of this house, and joined to it by an upper bridge room, was a timber building in the French Caribbean style. The entrance gate was at the side, between the two houses. It was a tall gate of corrugated iron on a wooden frame. It made for a fierce kind of privacy.

    So as a child I had this sense of two worlds, the world outside that tall corrugated-iron gate, and the world at home – or, at any rate, the world of my grandmother’s house. It was a remnant of our caste sense, the thing that excluded and shut out. In Trinidad, where as new arrivals we were a disadvantaged community, that excluding idea was a kind of protection; it enabled us – for the time being, and only for the time being – to live in our own way and according to our own rules, to live in our own fading India. It made for an extraordinary self-centredness. We looked inwards; we lived out our days; the world outside existed in a kind of darkness; we inquired about nothing.

    The world outside existed in a kind of darkness; and we inquired about nothing. I was just old enough to have some idea of the Indian epics, the Ramayana in particular. The children who came five years or so after me in our extended family didn’t have this luck. No one taught us Hindi. Sometimes someone wrote out the alphabet for us to learn, and that was that; we were expected to do the rest ourselves. So, as English penetrated, we began to lose our language. My grandmother’s house was full of religion; there were many ceremonies and readings, some of which went on for days. But no one explained or translated for us who could no longer follow the language. So our ancestral faith receded, became mysterious, not pertinent to our day-to-day life.

    We made no inquiries about India or about the families people had left behind. When our ways of thinking had changed, and we wished to know, it was too late. I know nothing of the people on my father’s side; I know only that some of them came from Nepal. Two years ago a kind Nepalese who liked my name sent me a copy of some pages from an 1872 gazetteer-like British work about India, Hindu Castes and Tribes as Represented in Benares; the pages listed – among a multitude of names -those groups of Nepalese in the holy city of Banaras who carried the name Naipal. That is all that I have.

  37. Elitist, you should take a trip to Guyana someday…I’ll make sure to let em know you’re coming, you’ll have alotta fun down there! In fact, you should just make it over here to DC sometime where I and some of my Guyanese friends live…I’d love to meet you someday and show you and any other @$$hole on this site how low-class us Guyanese folk can be…

  38. Thanks for this great post, Amardeep. Regarding the descendants of indentured labourers in Malaysia (where I grew up): yes, the pro-Malay economic policy leaves Indians screwed over as a community, but I want to point out that there is also a significant Indian upper/upper-middle class in Malaysia, and there is a lot, really a LOT of Indian money. The difference between the Indian community and the Chinese is, alas, that the Indian money rarely goes back into helping those perceived as, well, “low-class” (see above for full exposure to this pernicious way of thinking). I’m not sure exactly what you meant by “social capital,” Razib, but it sounds like you might have been hinting at what I’m talking about. The Malays get all the government handouts, yes. The Chinese dominate the private sector and they tend to help their own. But the rich Indians fatten their bank balances and do everything to distance themselves from the “rubber-estate” types, even though both classes are principally Tamil. There is no snobbery like the snobbery I witnessed growing up (and I’m not speaking out of resentment of the effects of said snobbery on my own life, which were and are close to nil because I, like almost any other Malaysian Indian you will run into abroad, come from a background of relative privilege). For a concrete example: look at each community’s vernacular schools. Private Chinese-medium schools are flourishing, equipped with the best facilities in the country. Tamil-medium schools are in such dire straits that even those committed to preserving the culture — and yes, as a rule, the Tamil community in Malaysia has held on to its culture quite successfully — rarely send their kids there.

    Please read everything above as a generalisation, of course — it should go without saying that there are exceptions. Don’t mean to offend, only to give a quick overview that might serve as comparison to the communities in Trinidad, Guyana, and Fiji.

  39. P.S. Um, DynaMix, can I come to Guyana instead of Elitist? I’m totally down with your low-class ways, plus I’ve always, always wanted to go to Trinidad and Guyana. The only reason I haven’t been is that I don’t personally know anyone from there and I don’t want to go and have the average tourist experience. I want the kind of trip where people will invite me into their homes and feed me and I’ll attend weddings and sleep on some relative’s floor. How can I arrange that?

  40. Regarding Hindi being taught in schools, my mom is a second generation Indo-Fijian, and she was taught Hindi in school. In fact, on a recent trip to India, she had no problem making herself understood, and people even told her that she spoke good Hindi.

    It’s funny, growing up, I always considered myself an Indian, even though my parents both were born in Fiji. I was raised as a Hindu, and it wasn’t until I got older and met people who looked down on me for having parents from Fiji, did I realize that there was a divide. At any rate, this seems like a fascinating documentary, I can’t wait to see it.

  41. Response to Spycandy, #92: We consider ourselves Indian, too, in Malaysia. People back home define themselves by ethnicity, rather than nationality: we will say “I’m Indian/Chinese/Malay” and rarely — usually only when we meet other Malaysians abroad — “I’m Malaysian.” For a long time, only the government used the word “Malaysian,” and then only when it suited them (i.e. come election time). Even in the US and Europe I’ve always said I was Indian, though people (both desis and non-desis) will often stop me and say, “But I thought you were from Malaysia.” I’m curious, Spycandy, are you unusual among Fijian Indians in considering yourself Indian? If not, do you and others consider yourselves Indian because you feel separate from other Fijians, for political or other reasons? Or does the clinging to Indian identity have a different source in the Fijian case?

    I also wasn’t aware before the reaction to this post that many Indians from India (and some ABDs?) looked down upon Indo-Trinidadians and Guyanese. This makes me curious: what’s the general/plebeian attitude to Indians from Malaysia and Singapore?

  42. I’ve only read the first twenty or so comments, but wanted to add something from experience. I live in a part of Queens(Richmond Hill/Ozone Park) that has a vast majority of people from Guyana and Trinidad.Incidentally, this area also has a large number of desis from India. Two of my close friends are of Guyanese descent. Over the years, they’ve shared with me the fact that most first generation desis they come in contact with do not want to acknowledge any shared history. And really think of them as the “other”. Frankly, I can second that because my own family sees them that way. I’ve attanded Guyanese weddings and they follow all of the rituals of a traditional hindu ceremony, but it’s true-they don’t understand most of it because of language. However, all of you who use that as an excuse to strip them of their heritage, just give your kids two or three generations in America and we’ll see how many of them speak Hindi, Gujarati and so on…

  43. I’m curious, Spycandy, are you unusual among Fijian Indians in considering yourself Indian?

    Not Spycandy, but offering my perspective. I think most Indo-Fijians consider themselves Indians first and Fijians second. My parents (3rd gen) when asked where their from, always respond with, “we’re from Fiji, but we’re Indian.”

    Like Spycandy it wasn’t until I got older that I caught on that being from Fiji was looked down upon.

  44. Like Spycandy it wasn’t until I got older that I caught on that being from Fiji was looked down upon.

    from the bronx and proud!

  45. Wonderful posting amardeep, many thanks to the interactors for all the information. My salaams to all the desis who crossed the seas under such difficult circumstances. And retained so much of their culture and traditions to this day.

    As for Elitist and his type of bevakoof, yaar, what can I say? I guess such strange people will always be around, both in desh and videsh.

  46. The definitive resource on the issue of indenture from 1834-1917, is a book titled, “The New System of Slavery” by Hugh Tinker. I highly recommend it for anyone pursuing serious academic research on the issue, as well as those with casual interest. The title should be available at a good university library.

    Someone pointed out that indentured labor existed before India. Yes, that’s true. Many of the Irish who initially arrived in the US were indentured. Ireland, after all, was Britain’s first colony. You should also note how this system was bureaucratized over the course of colonial expansion. So, that by the end of the period of acquring lands (1870s), Britain had in place an elaborate human resources system for managing their many colonies.

  47. Floridian #52 –

    “It just so happens that due to the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the western world, the population’s facility with English, the lower pressure on their immigration quotas, and their generally higher income level (Trinidad’s per capita is $10,400 vs. India’s $720, after accounting for PPP), “

    Impressive – all the more so for a country built by the descendants of slaves and indentured labourers (look at Haiti or Jamaica by comparison.)