I somehow managed to write a 3,500-word essay on Trinidad without mentioning cricket, rum, or the steelpan. Can I be forgiven for that?
In April this year, I visited the Indian Caribbean museum near the town of Chaguanas in Trinidad. Set in a large hall, the museum had no other visitors. Its curator, Saisbhan Jokhan, 69, came out to greet me. Jokhan, I soon realized, not only loved to talk but was also a trove of information. As I began taking notes, he asked if I was a journalist. Yes, I said; I wrote for a venerable publication called 3 Quarks Daily, and I intended to write about the Indo-Trinidadian experience. His eyes lit up and for the next ninety minutes, he accompanied me in the museum, explaining and answering my questions.
The museum commemorates the history of a million Indo-Caribbeans whose ancestors came as indentured laborers from India between 1838-1917. Its panels include details on immigrant ships, copies of girmits, or indenture agreements, and rare archival photos of life on sugarcane plantations. Evocative objects abound: an improvised sarangi, a pair of wood slippers, a rotary sugarcane press like the ones still used in mofussil India, even a lifesize model of an indentured worker’s hut. Other displays show milestones in the life of the community, such as a 1970 photo of the first Indo-Trini policewoman; a panel on Alice Jan, the first lady of Indo-Trini culture; Indo-Trinis winning the right to build their own schools in 1952, allowing them to replace Christian teaching with Hindu teaching.
The museum is run by the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, a conservative Hindu organization that also runs many temples. Talking to Jokhan it struck me that he lived with a clear sense of ‘his people’, what they have suffered, what challenges awaited them. His tone, and the museum’s singular focus, brought to mind a pastiche of Jewish museums I have seen over the years. This too felt like a museum designed to preserve the collective memory of a people’s suffering and struggles, and Jokhan seemed to me the right man for the job: proud of his identity, devoted to his community, slightly paranoid.
Jokhan’s historical memory is alien to people like me who have joined the Indian diaspora in recent decades. We have fostered the stereotype of Indians as a model minority, led by professionals and marked by diligence and enterprise in the pursuit of opportunities around the globe. But most of the Indian journeys in the colonial era were very different. They involved harsh unskilled labor on sugarcane estates, horrible living conditions, and severe discrimination. Trinidad, which I will look at here, is one chapter of that past; others include Guyana, Suriname, Jamaica, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, and Réunion.