By Marcia Braveboy
Caribbean News Now Senior Correspondent
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad -- Indian Arrival Day is being celebrated in Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday 31st May. On the eve of the occasion we are summoned once again by our foreparents to contemplate this burning sense of our past that engulfs our thinking with sparkles of thoughts about who we are and where we really came from.
This gentle meliorism by a conscious people whose gaze is set only on progress, must through active aspirations wonder into the deep and beyond the stars to find answers of a sometimes forgotten past, to reconnect the links for future generations.
The flames of 200 years ago by our ancestors and predecessors refuse to go out under a people it still challenges to define their purpose on this journey to a better Trinidad and Tobago.
Writer, author, journalist Kris Rampersad says that, more than a people defining themselves, there must be a better understanding of who we are and not allow political allegiances to mark out lines of segregation among our peoples and for the removal of denominational and ethnic inhibitors to national development and to see the dream of a people becoming one come true.
“We as a country and a region are losing so much of understanding ourselves when we define and confine ourselves through all kinds of narrow allegiances, and that is not to downplay the value of identity to all of us.”
Rampersad is a Caribbean woman. What that means is that she takes a keen interest not just in Trinidad and Tobago but also in our regional neighbours and the importance of that interconnection to each other as a Caribbean people. She sits on the UNESCO executive board in Paris representing Trinidad and Tobago and has been working across the Caribbean to build resilient communities through heritage and culture; developing policies, infrastructure and institutions while at the same time involved in journalism and new media as an independent media operator.
But first, she is a Trinidad and Tobagonian national, passionately wanting us to celebrate our people-hood. She has just issued a call for artistes to produce nonviolent content in their music and to work and she is working towards producing music and songs for the soundtrack to a biography film she is working on to highlight the life and times of assassinated Senior Counsel Dana Seetahal. Rampersad hopes to use this brand to help music producers define spaces for non-violence with their art.
“The dimensions of crime, for instance, in our societies cuts across ethic identities; to address those problems we have to be able to look beyond those lines.”
Many Trinidad and Tobago nationals have been pulling at the skirt tail of governments to abolish the various celebrations and establish just one national holiday and call it “Arrival Day”, the thinking is that we all came, and it will be a true representation of the rainbow country that is Trinidad and Tobago. Kris Rampersad has a different view:
“Do we need one arrival day? If an arrival day is important to people they should have their day - separately or together - I'm not sure I have an opinion on that. I celebrate all of them: how could we not?
“I like to think of migration – departures and arrivals – the process that brought us here as an evolutionary flow – as only one stopping point in a long history of such migratory movements into antiquity. In a long view of history beyond the recent colonial past, implies that we can look ahead too with a longer view - and there might come a time when we as a nation would agree that we do not need many arrival days but one, to mark our national presence. I am sure the people associated with the rare 7,000-year-old skeleton discovered on our soil – a people we seem to have no curiosity about – would have celebrated an arrival of sorts at some point in time. Our coming here was one frame of migrations and from my research, when the truth is known, the story of ‘Banwari’ is likely to upset and overturn a whole lot of long held theories of migration, etc. Societies evolve. People come into contact with each other and change the space they occupy. The ancient history is replete with recounts of those – the Shrutis, the Vedas, the oral stories of the African and Chinese folk tales.”
While Indian Arrival Day places the Indian community on the radar on such an occasion, the celebration of that day, like Emancipation Day, symbolizes the amalgam that is a ‘Trini’ (as they say in local parlance); a productive and talented people, as Rampersad describes the people of Trinidad and Tobago. It seems, however, that as citizens too much has been relinquished through old systems. While the British gave this twin island its independence, the people held on firmly to the institutions left behind by that British system, Rampersad declared.
“As a counter to the erosion of identity the colonial system imposed on us, self-governance following independence sought to repair the damage with such national days. But the challenge of governance is really minimising the sense of threat to identity that has been ingrained in so much of our operations and many of our governance institutions have been unable to meet that challenge.
“Because of our recent history and the striping of self esteem and identity of post slavery and indentureship part of the post independence process of regaining self was establishing these national days of recognising the presence of various groups, but as our society evolves; as we strengthen our national fabric and if our governance system can assure each group of its self identification – there is so much insecurity in our system you see – that would become less relevant….”
The author and journalist sees Trinidad and Tobago as a country that is full of talent and flowing over; a country that is replete with individuals who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps – generations building on the struggles of the previous one – like the now assassinated senior counsel Dana Seetahal and others like her who fully occupied their own spaces, doing what they do best, when all the frames and structures and institutions mitigate against that -- that is what Carnival and Phagwa and Baptist Liberation Day represent, Rampersad believes.
In spite of its avalanche of talent and skills flowing in this twin island Republic, the islands remain underdeveloped. Kris does not like that.
“We may feel now that we need to celebrate days like those, but my concern is that we -- as a society – by trying to define ourselves by those parameters we are also narrowing our vision of ourselves in silos rather than the collective strengths that we are. The insecurity that makes celebrations necessary forces the kind of chest thumping in trumpeting such national days – to, beyond colonial pains and hurts to trumpet the glorious ancient civilisations that are behind us. But it is also a divisive championing, that delimits us celebrating all the mother cultures that contribute to our national being.”
What about those who define us by our ethnic and cultural antecedents?
“We are also that,” Rampersad agrees, citing that we all came from somewhere. “We also came from somewhere, from a mother, and from a motherland – India, Africa, China, Europe – they are all our cultures as Trinis; and then there is that other space you can lay claim to based on ethnic origins; in fact, I think that is the process of evolution I attempted to trace in my first book, and maybe too in much of my journalism – on the one hand it was about how fiction influenced journalism Finding a Place; on the other it was how we evolved from one culture into another, to make us the people that we are – Trinis....”
The multiethnic as well as multi religious society that Trinidad and Tobago is makes it equally a beautiful and complex society. The fight for space in every sphere, especially economic, political spheres creates antagonism primarily between the African and Indian groups.
“Our jostle for space here, represented in the so many different celebrations, is depriving us of the opportunity to fully explore and appreciate the larger sense of self. To do so, we need to level the playing field and create an environment that is more secure for people’s self-identification before we can start thinking of relinquishing those isolated symbols of identification,” Rampersad explains.
She thinks governments can turn the wheel of understanding in all the right directions once they exercise the will to do so.
“The governance processes through since Independence has been challenged to do so and hence so often seems to be going in the opposite direction to creating the kind of society we envision ourselves as – ‘rainbow country’, multicultural, diverse, ‘every creed and race finds an equal place’, et al.”
A scholar in her own right and of East Indian descent, Dr Kris Rampersad sees herself simply as a Trinidad and Tobago national and a reflection of all Trinidad and Tobago nationals of different creed and races.
“For example, I am the sum total of being born and nurtured in Trinidad and Tobago but also of all the people I have encountered, all the places I have visited and lived in and all the experiences I have. Every travel, every encounter, and every experience changes and alters us in some way. I feel blessed to have been given such opportunities to meet, work play and share ideas with so many different people. I feel somewhat that I never return to Trinidad the same person I was when I left on some meeting or the other having been enriched by those experience.
“It is an ancient wisdom, to embrace life as a journey, a series of journeys; a continuous process of departures and arrivals. The arrival of Indians and each other group, including the ‘Banwari’ people more than 7,000 years earlier, here ought to be seen in that context, as a universal experience and not as the be all and end all struggle it becomes in a political context; in a context of a society built on insecurities and pitching one group or ne ethnicity against the other, each vying for national space when equitable policies and approaches could address all that,” she said.
Dr Kris Rampersad has authored three books: “Finding a Place”, which traces development of a literary sensibility among Indians who migrated with their own languages and cultures, through writings in newspapers, education and production of a Naipaul: acclaimed lord of the English Language.
Her second book: “Through the Political Glass Ceiling” looks at the race to prime ministership by Trinidad and Tobago's first female holder of that office – Mrs Kamla Persad-Bissessar -- and explores the sociocultural and political situation that gave rise to first woman prime minister in the context of the 2010 general elections.
In her third book: “LiTTscapes” (Landscapes of Fiction from Trinidad and Tobago) Rampersad features more than 100 works by more than 50 writers through visualising their fiction in landscapes, cultures photos and more. Look her up on Facebook to see the photos and to journey through her other works.