What Happened to East Indian Writers
in the
by Rakesh Rampertab

IN an article on Rohan Kanhai, CLR James noted, “I take Kanhai as the high peak of West Indian cricketing development…People felt that it was more than a mere description of how he batted; it was something characteristic of us as cricketers. They felt that it was not only a cricketing question, because Kanhai was an East Indian, and East Indians were still somewhat looked down upon by other people in the Caribbean.”

I noted this in light of the discussions over VS Naipaul in Guyana. On the note of writers/artists (or achievers in general) who are East Indian and the degree of recognition they have garnished in the Caribbean, it might come as a surprise to those who have paid no interest to literature, or those who are fond of speaking of “equal representation” or “one people one nation,” to discover that racial prejudice has existed (and continues) against writers/artists who are not black.

What is written below is written primarily about works of art created by East Indians, but it is in no way a suggestion that Chinese, or Portuguese, or Amerindian works have not also been ignored. This suppression, whether done unintentionally or subtly by editors or anthology compilers, has left an old and unforgiving legacy in the recent (modern) history of West Indian literature. As students in high school, one will not be taught this; as historians at universities, one will not uncover pages noting this. But, herein, I have tried to write something which, if one is really concerned of free recognition of the artist’s work, regardless of one’s skin color, one ought to contemplate seriously.

In Guyana, the first anthology of our poetry, “Guyanese Poetry (1831-1931)”, compiled by Norman Cameron lacked works by East Indians. So did the first issue of “Kyk-Over-Al” (1945), edited by Mr. A.J. Seymour who spoke of it as “an instrument to help forge a Guyanese people.” “Kyk” was one of the two most prominent (in Guyana, certainly the most well-established) literary publications to have emerged from, say, the forties, that true beginning stage of the West Indian literary tradition. A writer, dramatist, poetess, and political activist in Ms. Rajkumarie Singh, who has written and published numerous works locally, remains a non-entity to Guyanese. But we all know of Martin Carter. Is this because he is not Indian, or a woman?

In 1989, during the last heydays of the PNC in Guyana, Prof. Rex Nettleford, current Vice Chancellor of UWI, a man who has publicly announced that East Indians must integrate into Afro-Caribbean culture to truly become West Indian, delivered the keynote speech during the presentation of the Guyana Prize Award. The title of this speech itself is quite ironic, titled, “Communicating with Ourselves: The Caribbean Artist and his Society.” Prof. Nettleford spoke about the role of the West Indian artist, calling out names and genres, including the dub-poets and even rumba and mambo, Latin influences in Caribbean music, but failed to mention any East Indian artist or writer. Well, no, I correct myself; there is a brief mention of Naipaul and Samuel Selvon, the two pioneering heavyweights of Caribbean prose. He mentioned Louise Bennett, the Jamaican poetess, but failed to mention one from the country that hosted the occasion. Maybe he made an unconscious mistake.

Maybe, but I doubt it. He was just acting out a debilitating and common tradition, a pattern that reappeared in the Penguin Book of “Caribbean Verse in English” (ed., P. Burnett). In dealing with the oral tradition, one is told of a list of Caribbean singers including Sparrow, Bob marley, and even the Mighty Chalkdust, but no mention of Chutney’s Sundar Popo (Trinidad) or Suriname’s  Ramdai Chaitoe. It would have been respectful and just to acknowlege, even in a minor way, something such as the socio-cultural significance of the local Indian singer or groups (e.g., “kirtan”) that are associated with cultural concerts or functions such as Indian weddings or funerals. There is no difference between the chutney and the soca artist if both perform on the same stage to the same crowd.

Burnett listed both folk and “work” songs, all of them centered on slavery or black community life. There is no mention of “Dis time na lang time” that generations of Indo-Guyanese, especially from estate regions, regard as a musical folk staple in their existence. One encounters the “Negro Song at Cornwall,” “A Negro Song,” “A Popular Negro Song,” and “There’s a Black boy in the ring.” Of the 74 poets featured, 3 are East Indians. Dr. Ian McDonald, in his review of this book (“Kyk-Over-Al,” no. 35), wrote that the inclusion of more East Indian poetry and songs would have “strengthened representation of the East Indian strain in our poetry.”

True. But in the Heinmann Book of “Caribbean Poetry,” edited by Dr. McDonald and Stewart Brown, there are 7 East Indian poets out of the 60 writers featured; not much improvement of this “East Indian strain in our poetry.” In a book of short stories (ed., S. Brown) called “Caribbean New Wave,” 4 East Indian out of 23 writers are featured. Granted that East Indians are less involved in creative works, there are too many East Indian writers who have not been widely exposed. There is much East Indian writings that remain unknown, unrealized.

Is this a case of East Indians not being creative and artistic? VS Naipaul’s own father published one of the first (possibly the first ever) books of short stories in the Caribbean, called Gurudeva and Other Stories. Needless to say, it sold poorly. I have never read a compilation in which any of the senior Naipaul’s stories were featured. In Guyana, a mere 3 years after the nation’s first poetry anthology (Cameron’s) was published, the “Anthology of Local Indian Verses” (ed., C. Ramcharital Lalla, 1934), was published to present East Indian writings and subject matters previously ignored. And more recently, another anthology called “Shraadanjali” (eds., Lashmi Kallicharran, Kampta Karran, etc.), a tribute to East Indian ancestry, was published. Two of the few East Indian poets/writers that have fortunately made West Indian anthologies, are David and Cyril Dabydeen (no relation), men who reside overseas.

In our secular Caribbean, ethnic groups should not have to venture into publishing projects based on their ethnicity, in order to make public their artistic talents. It would be reasonable if people, in their attempts to understand the Caribbean as a secular region of diversities, would recognize what has been happening in its literature and raise a voice on what ought to be done.

Nov 2001 [Reprinted from
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