Friday, April 27, 2007

Searching for a namesake?

The Telegraph, Calcutta, (April 15, 2007) recently published an interview with well known novelist, critic and poet David Dabydeen while he was visiting India. He has stated thet he wanted to name his son Ganesh in a Hindu ceremony; last year, he had been named Ganpati at a temple in Tirumala. It was intriguing to me that Dabydeen who teaches at the University of Warwick and directs their Caribbean Studies Centre and who has gone on record saying that he is comfortable with the concept of England as home would want such a rite of passage for his son. David Dabydeen was born in British Guyana and travelled to England when he was 13 where he has lived ever since. If on the face of it, his connections to India had seemed tenuous, his given name for his son and the choice of naming ceremonies made me think again. It highlighted all those questions about identity in another context. What does it mean for David Dabydeen to be Guyanese and British and how is his Indian heritage connected to all of these plural identities? If identity is a name given to the process of positioning ourselves in the narratives of the past, then Dabydeen’s quest for identity seems to be linked not only with the name of his grandfather, but almost in a reverse move, with the name and naming of his son. He has, in order to excavate a history for himself, associated his past with his future.

>Dabydeen’s actual search for his ancestral name has drawn a blank. What he has discovered is that his grandfather sailed from Calcutta as indentured labourer on the ship SS Appollinaire (ironic connotations of reaching for the moon?). He tried to google his grandfather’s caste but to no avail. Dabydeen has to be satisfied with conjectures that his name is probably an oral distortion and cannot be traced now. So here he is, with an Indian heritage that cannot even be substantiated beyond a point. Gogol in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake felt burdened by the name of a literary genius. Dabydeen, with more literary credits to his name -- he is the only West Indian other than Sir V.S. Naipaul to be awarded the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature -- can merely talk about an empty space that he has inherited. Gogol could come back to Calcutta and re-connect with a history and a language that was still accessible to him. But Dabydeen admits to feeling discomfort in India where he does not understand the language; in Guyana he feels like an expatriate who lives in a hotel. So, in this history, twice removed, how do David Dabydeen and other Caribbeans of Indian descent insert themselves? It is not a history that can assert itself through daily rituals or through language or even daily customs. How does one connect to a history that is taking place elsewhere and can only be made accessible to you through memories – other people’s memories?

In literary terms, Dabydeen has tried giving a voice to the silence and the silencing of his ancestors. In The Counting House, the young couple Rohini and Vidia, troubled by caste prejudices in rural India, are easily tempted and misled by the recruiter’s promises of plenty. The reality in British Guiana is a stark contrast where the local population is hostile and life as a coolie is hard. The promised El Dorado is conflicted territory barely emerging from practices of slavery. Even more poignant is his epic poem, Turner based on the acclaimed painting of J.M.W Turner – “Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead & Dying.” Reading it while negotiating my life as a student in the U.S., I had found it extraordinarily powerful. In this moving poem, Dabydeen, re-writes a history for the drowning slave, articulating his covert desires; his peculiar amnesia does not however, allow him to create an idyllic past for himself as he can still recognize himself as “a nigger.” The dual themes of alienation and the inescapable burden of history run through Dabydeen’s works.

Growing up in British Guiana, the only English speaking place in South America, was an alienating experience. They were separated from the other Caribbean countries, if not by language, certainly by the rainforest topography. He remembers celebrating Diwali and being members of the Anglican Church. But identity is never a source of comfort – he was ashamed of his Hindu name and of women wearing saris and speaking in Urdu. Cultural identities are continuously re-made and never essentialist and David Dabydeen’s journeys vindicate that. He has obviously travelled a long way from that shame. His ancestors’ homeland has conferred upon him the Hind Rattan Award and he was invited to Delhi to receive it. He, in turn, has not taken any easy short cuts. I mean, he could have named his son Peter or Martin and be done with it. It would be easier certainly because everyone around us seems to be saying that national identity is passé in the age of globalization. It is one thing to impart history to a literary creation and another thing to try and reclaim a past for your child who can turn around and question your motives. Courageously, Dabydeen forges a link to his past that connects the personal, political and the representational.


ishani said...

This is an interesting post and also highlights the distinct identities that people of Indian origin (PIOs) and non-resident Indians (NRIs) have, even though we sometimes tend to club them together. Of late, there has been a couple of projects by the academic community in the Caribbean with the help of Indian governmental agencies to help people of Indian origin trace their roots in India in villages of Bihar & Uttar Pradesh. I think the first such case was Bharat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, who travelled to Bihar to his ancestral village at the invitation of the Indian govt a couple of years ago.

ishani said...

Following is a PTI news report on the Guyana President's homecoming

A homecoming for Guyana's president

August 24, 2003 21:31 IST
Last Updated: August 24, 2003 23:23 IST

It was an emotional return for Guyana's president to his ancestral village in Uttar Pradesh on Sunday.

Bharat Jagdeo went to Pure Thakurain village in Amethi and met his 90-year-old aunt and other relatives wallowing in abject poverty.

"It is like a homecoming. It is an experience," the 39-year-old Jagdeo said after spending nearly 40 minutes in the village, which was spruced up after his visit was finalised.

Accompanied by a 13-member delegation, which included six persons of Indian origin, he arrived to a red carpet reception.

Rose petals were showered as members of his extended family lined up to receive the grandson of Ram Jiyavan, who had left home for greener pastures as an indentured labourer way back in 1912.

He visited a small piece of land, which the villagers claimed belonged to his grandfather, and lighted an earthen lamp there.

Though Jagdeo conversed in English, the language did not act as a barrier between him and the villagers, who stood outside their small thatched houses to welcome him.

Tight security arrangements were made for his visit and barricades erected in the village. A brick road was laid overnight and uninterrupted power supply ensured. Minister of State for External Affairs Digvijay Singh and Congress MP from Rae Bareilly Satish Sharma accompanied him.

Holding the trembling hands of his aunt, Ram Dulari, the president said, "I am happy to meet you."

"Welcome to your motherland," Ram Durali said staring at the president's moist eyes.

The president told reporters: "I am very happy. I am thinking of 1912 when my grandfather left this place.

"I have returned to my roots."

Guyana abounded in Indian culture and cuisine, he said, adding "there are some variations but the essence is Indian. The people of Guyana love Indian music."

The president was given gifts like copies of Gita, Ramayana and other religious books. "We want to give him books related to Hindu religion," Prem Shankar, a relative, said.(Source: PTI)

Debjani said...

Yes these histories are different. The history of indentured labour cannot be the same as that of a migrant who has "chosen" to leave for economic/material betterment.
The PTI report is interesting. Religion seems to be a very strong cultural bond as the gifts to the Guyanese President indicate. I wonder if any religious rituals or traditions were practised by the grandfathers of the Guyanese president or David Dabydeen; or had religion as a whole just merged with that of the Church. Either way, religion must have been experienced as a blank space which those who have 'made it' want to re-write.

ishani said...

I've met quite a few people of Indian origin from the Caribbean including diplomats in India. They all tell me that they have strong cultural bonds with India that include language, food and traditions - I guess religion would also form a part of those bonds. There are Hindus, Muslims and Christians among the PIOs in that region and religious traditions, too, I guess would differ from sect to sect. An interesting detail is that the language that they speak is often a local dialect of Hindi and may not have evolved at all - as it may have done back home in India.
So that makes their language pretty different from either Bihari or Hindi as we know it today.
An interesting cultural offshoot is the Caribbean chutney music of which Kries Ramkhelawan, a Chutney pop singer from Surinam, is perhaps the best known exponent. He is known to be very proud of his Indian roots and feels that the unique cultural wealth of India gives many Indian settlers in Surinam a special identity.

divy said...

This is indeed an interesting article. I believe that there has to be some scientific explanation too, to this tendency of trying to get back to ones roots.
I would try to relate it to Maslow's Hierarchy. Probably people like the Guyenese president have reached the top of the pyramid which talks of self actulisation. Agreed that by naming his son Peter of some other English name he would have been able to identify with the local peer group, but he has risen above that level in the pyramid. And I dont think that this would have happened in one day. This journey up the pyramid would have started by his ancestors way back.
There ca be another explanation too ..the migratory instinct. In fact I am not able to get a word for that. let me try and explain.
There are species of birds which migrate to distant places in the winters from places like Siberia. Now all of them get back to their own land once the adverse climate passes off. similar kind of instincts could be responsible in humans too to make them to trace their origin and trying to get back to them.