By Raffique Shah
May 28, 2011
WHEN discussions on Indian Arrival Day first surfaced sometime in the 1970s, United Labour Front (ULF) founding ideologue Lennox Pierre insisted that I should intervene in the debate over a public holiday to mark the Indian presence in Trinidad. At the time, the Indian Review Committee, led by Ramdath Jagessar, vociferously argued in favour of marking the arrival of Indian immigrants in 1845.
Pierre differed with them. He felt that Indians, rather than mark their arrival in the West Indies, should celebrate instead the end of indentureship, sometime in 1917. He argued that much the way Africans were captured, shackled and rendered into slavery for more than 300 years, starting in early 16th Century, most of the Indians who boarded the Fatel Rozack in 1845, and subsequent ships, were also captives. A few of the original indentured immigrants had willingly embarked on the arduous journey across Kala Pani (dark waters), seeking to escape abject poverty in their homeland. But far too many were victims of gross deception by their recruiters, who were paid on a “per head” basis.
Pierre thought that what Trinidad’s Indians should celebrate was the end of indentureship. And he wanted me to promote the idea, which was never raised by Jagessar and others. I respected Pierre as much as I admired George Weekes, George Moonsammy, CLR James and other giants I came to know in that defining period of our nation’s history. But I declined to lead the charge because by then Basdeo Panday had jettisoned the ULF’s ideals, branded me a “traitor”, and gone ahead to seduce and win the Indian political base.
Most Indians swallowed Panday’s poison with relish: Shah was the ultimate “neemakharam”. It mattered not that Winston Leonard (an Indian) and I had actively mobilised the country’s mainly Indian cane farmers before Panday was selected leader of the sugar workers’ union by PNM agents (Rampartapsingh and Errol Mahabir). Nor did it matter that the ICFTU, which Leonard and I led, had won for cane farmers the biggest increase they had ever received in the history of the industry. “Neemakharams” we were, and every Bhim, Ali and Ramsaran would have little or nothing to do with us.
In that volatile environment, who was I to raise the issue of what day or occasion Indians should celebrate? Jagessar and others campaigned for the recognition of Indian Arrival Day, and years later they had their way. It was no big deal for me. I had arrived many moons before the public holiday came—in 1946, to be precise, the year in which universal adult suffrage also “arrived” in the colony.
I make these bold statements because never in my life, certainly from my teenage years to the senior citizen status I now endure (old people don’t exactly enjoy any special favours in this country), I have never felt inferior to anyone. I armed myself physically, mentally and academically to face whoever would dare challenge me. I did not need to proclaim my “Indianness”, wave a flag, since that who I was, who I am. Besides, I was always Trini-to-the-bone, long before David Rudder put those patriotic words into song. I don’t celebrate a day. I celebrate a lifetime of being me.
Interestingly, a few years ago I learned from my Uncle Enayat (Mohammed) that our family history in Trinidad started on the Fatel Rozack. My great-great-grandfather, one Dookie Meah, was one of the immigrants who boarded that ship in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in February 1845. It is not known whether he brought with him his sons Khoda and Elahie Baksh, or if they were born here. Dookie (a Hindu name!) apparently settled in the Freeport district and it was on his land that the first mosque in Calcutta (Freeport) was built.
Elahie Baksh married my great-grandmother (my mother does not recall her name—only that in her latter years she was mad as a hatter!), and from that couple came my maternal grandmother Mariam, Suleiman nana (Enayat’s father), “red nani” (don’t ask me her given name!) and a few others. Khoda Baksh’s son was my Hoeseini nana, whose family and descendants from Arena village include political and community activist Aleem Mohammed.
My father’s side of the family is a little vague. My late father, Haniff, remembered his grandfather, Jahangir Shah, being a drunken jahaji who frittered away his few acres of land for pints of rum! That left “dada” (grandpa) Enayatali struggling to put roti on the table, working as a “drain digger” on many sugar estates, ending his days in Forres Park, not far from where I now live. Haniff hardly attended school, unlike his younger brothers Afzal and Zainool.
This side of the family is also very diverse in religion. I have many aunts, uncles and cousins who are Hindus and Christians. Most of those I know on my mother’s side are Muslims. I am intrigued by my family’s history, and maybe one day I would delve into it further. Suffice it to say those among the hundreds that I know are largely nice people, decent human beings. They, too, are not flag waving Indians. I’m sure they are proud of their ancestry. But they are prouder Trinidadians.
Me? I am an aberration of sorts. I am agnostic. I am a member of the “warrior class”, having attended one of the world’s premier military academies. And while I am a humble person, I brook no crap from anyone, whatever his or her station in life. I am who I am.