Transition 096 - Featured Article
In Search of Walter Rodney
And then I found that I was an object in the midst of other objects.
When I went to work at a newspaper in Guyana, it was the longest journey I had ever made. It was also the most improbable. Growing up in sleepy cantonment Bangalore, I belonged to a distinct class of South Indians—children of government employees—whose expectations wildly exceeded our means.
I was thirteen when my world met the New World, in the form of one Cyril Rodrigues. Geography had been a pointless exercise in memorizing the properties of coniferous trees, but with the arrival of Mr. Rodrigues our geography lessons plunged us deep into the social history of Brazil. Mr. Rodrigues was said to have come from Trinidad— which is to say, nowhere—and soon a cult sprang up around him, a gawking society of admiration and mystery. Then one day, in the middle of the school year, he disappeared as suddenly as he had arrived.
This would prove to be a typical event at my school, a centuries-old Jesuit institution deep in the heart of Bangalore. Some profoundly unlikely people passed through our lives. They came from Ireland and France, Brazil, Portugal, and Poland, and we accepted them with equanimity despite the sadistic delight certain of them took in corporal punishment. It was no cause for alarm that our drama teacher was named Father Claude, or that he could be heard cursing softly in French as he caned students into submission.
Fifteen years later, I sat on a flight from Port of Spain, Trinidad to Georgetown, Guyana, looking out as we made one last loop over the gas pipelines, tall buildings, and occasional bursts of seashore. The improbable was now half an hour away. When we first caught sight of the continent of South America—an impenetrable mass of forest green—I thought of Mr. Rodrigues’s geography class. The only thing I thought I remembered for certain was that Brazil got its coffee from the Guyanas. It inspired hazy notions of dark, rich coffee in a dark, rich land.
As it happens, most coffee drinkers in Guyana are content with Nescafé, and Brazil mostly grows its own.
• • •
From “Wednesday Ramblings,” Stabroek News:
A PEOPLE-FRIENDLY VERSION OF THE CONSTITUTION
Article 1: Guyana is an indivisible, secular, democratic sovereign state in the course of transition from capitalism to socialism and shall be known as the Co-operative Republic of Guyana.
Translation: Guyana has many religions, especially very many marginal Christian sects that exist only to broadcast sermons on Channels 9 and 13. Democracy exists in the form of elections held every four years, usually resulting in bloodshed. Guyana was in the course of transition from capitalism to socialism, but it is now capitalist again, though political leaders still call each other “comrade,” which is kind of quaint. As for the “co-operative” bit, this is going to have to stay because there is no way we are going to be able to organize a referendum on this one.
Article 2: The national anthem of the State is “Green Land of Guyana.”
Translation: It is NOT “How many more Jah?” or “Scorpion sting me (I feel like I go dead).”
Article 3: The source of growth of people’s social wealth is labor.
Explanatory note: Also money laundering, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and illegal arms sales.
• • •
My first assignment for the Stabroek News was to cover an academic conference on the Caribbean Indian experience. Scholars had begun to see radical promise in the “subaltern Diaspora.” They referred to a migration that had begun some two hundred years earlier, when legions of laborers from Kabul to Calcutta to Madras were enticed by the Empire to unknown lands: today’s Fiji, South Africa, and the West Indies. In Guyana, their descendants are now a majority of the population.
I woke up early in the morning, caught a minibus to Rosignol, took a ferry across the Berbice River, and groggily arrived at the satellite campus of the University of Guyana. I needn’t have rushed. The audience consisted of the participants—all of them friends, apparently, and many of them related— along with a handful of bewildered schoolchildren who fidgeted through the speeches. Struggling to justify my adventure, I wrote reviews of the talks I liked. The article ran to five thousand words. My editor let it go partly out of kindness, but mostly from sheer exhaustion.
No one seems to have read it, for which I am grateful. In the introduction, I described a set of old tires floating down the river as “gently frolicking dolphins.” While inexcusable, my depiction of the scenery was superior to my analysis, as evinced by this passage: “S.H., while critically assessing the spatialities by which ownership of land mediated a woman’s identity in early 20th-century Trinidad, suggests that an emotional attachment to lived environment was more apparent in residential and domestic spaces than on commercial land, leaving us to wonder how eco-feminist ideology would converse with this patriarchal notion of agriculture.”
My next job started out innocently enough. One of the newspaper’s editors had a keen interest in Guyana’s architectural history. Long ago, V. S. Naipaul had described Georgetown’s wooden homes as having “a fragility most apparent at night, when light comes through verandahs on the top floor, through windows, through open latticework, and the effect is of those Chinese ivory palace-miniatures lit up from within.” By the time I got there, Naipaul’s Georgetown was almost unrecognizable. Timber had become an embarrassing relic from the last century; Hindu temples, once carved exclusively from wood, were now built with bricks and mortar. My editor thought there was a story there.
There was, but not the one she had in mind. The old wooden temples were changing, but so were their patrons— and this had more than a little to do with those radical subalterns. In 1992, a mob of Hindu revivalists had torn down a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, the small North Indian town believed to be the birthplace of Rama, the hero of the Ramayana. The mosque—Babri Masjid—commemorated the conquest of India by the Muslim ruler Babur; the mosque’s destroyers wanted to build a temple to Rama in its place. Though the project had stalled, it had become a cause célèbre among Hindu revivalists everywhere. On the 10th anniversary of the mosque’s destruction, an assortment of Guyanese Hindu organizations declared solidarity with the global Hindutva movement, renewing the call for a temple in Ayodhya with an advertisement in the Stabroek News.
Hindutva (“Hindu-ness”) was hardly a new phenomenon. The term had been coined by a Hindu nationalist in 1923, but its claim to India went back nearly seven thousand years. Hinduism was supposedly a completely indigenous affair, fully formed before the arrival of the Aryans (some three thousand years ago) and unfortunately suppressed and distorted during the past half-millennium of colonial rule (Muslim and British). Hindutva’s obsession with history bespoke its desire for purity, but the movement’s history was rather, well, murky. Organizationally, it was comprised of an array of acronyms, including the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an old boys’ club) and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a young men’s demagogic association), as well as the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a fullfledged political outfit.
Though efforts to build Rama’s temple got tangled up in the courts, the stampede at Ayodhya energized Hindutva’s advocates, and in 1998 the BJP won India’s general election, casting a giant saffron cloud over the country. Long critical of postcolonial India’s “pseudo-secularism,” the BJP’s message was simple: India was a “Hindu country,” and Muslims and Christians would only be tolerated if they behaved.
But Hindutva had global ambitions, as that ad in the newspaper attested. While progressive religious movements from India had done little to establish themselves abroad, VHP leaders had been jetting in and out of Guyana since the 1960s. Their rhetoric was rousing, and their message of Hindu victimization highly adaptable. To the traditional canon of victimizers was added another, more specifically Guyanese: Africans. (Descendents of enslaved Africans were politically and culturally dominant across the Caribbean, even in Guyana, where they were outnumbered.) The identity wars reached their nadir in 2001, when Naipaul, whose early work was set among the Indians of Trinidad, won the Nobel Prize. To the disenchanted Caribbean Hindu, marooned in a region overwhelmingly African and Christian, it was vindication for years of official neglect.
That was the real story, I thought. Of course, having traveled halfway across the globe, nothing seemed less appealing than spending time with the local Hindu fanatics. But my editor was unsympathetic. Who better to bell the cat, she asked, than an authentic sub-continental Hindu? I was immediately redeployed, my new mission: to “encounter” Hinduism, whatever that meant.
• • •
From the Guyanese Indian Heritage Association:
GIHA’S DAY OF DIGNITY RECLAIMS REPUBLIC DAY
The Guyana Indian Heritage Association held its first Day of Dignity celebration and its second Republic Day Observance yesterday at the West Demerara Secondary School, Pouderoyen.
The Day of Dignity was conceptualized to reclaim Republic Day as a significant and sacred national day that should be marked by dignity, pride, and decency. . . .
There were speeches by Indian rights activists, Messrs. Wendell Persaud George, Amar Panday and Vedram Persaud. Mr. George’s address centered on the need for Indians to work for the upliftment of themselves and for all Guyana, while Mr. Panday explained the significance of Republicanism and presented a brief history of Republic Day. Mr. Persaud, in his address, queried why Indian Guyanese, the majority population, should have to fight for dignity and respect in their country. . . .
The Day of Dignity ended with naras (call-and-response chants) of “Jahaji Zindabad” (Long Live the Brotherhood) and “Kiska Desh Pyaar Hai? Mera Desh Pyaara Hai” (Whose Country is Wonderful? My Country is Wonderful).
• • •
A lonely Anglophone outpost in South America, Guyana is only slightly smaller in size than the United Kingdom. In its vast interior, porous borders with giant neighbors like Brazil encourage a diffuse sense of sovereignty. On the coast, people distinguish between the country and the bush. The country is where the plantations are, and therefore, the Indians. The bush is sparsely populated with Indians—Native South Americans, that is, or Amerindians, as they are known, along with the occasional coastal buccaneer. Georgetown, the only real city, is African territory.
My first interview was with Ravi Dev, a suave lawyer in his mid-forties who had traded a corporate career in New York to become a political activist in Guyana’s farming heartland. Dev was a rising star of Indian identity politics, and he clearly enjoyed playing the east/west game, quoting from the Vedas and from Aimé Césaire in the same sentence. The subtext was clear: I’ll see your organic intellectuals and raise you one ancient culture. The founder of an organization called Rise, Organize, And Rebuild (ROAR), Dev’s rallying cry was racial federalization. In his view, Guyana’s teeming masses (all 750,000 of them) would be better off in ethnically sequestered entities. Though he had links to Indian Hindutva—he had previously been the VHP’s local rep in Guyana, and Swami Aksharananda, his closest political partner, ran the local wing of the RSS—his organization stood for equal-opportunity extremism. Salem Nazaruddin, a devout Muslim who was also a key functionary in ROAR’s political apparatus, said he was unperturbed by his leader’s associations. “There is nothing wrong with that,” he told me. “Even I communicate with many Muslim fundamentalists.”
Like their Indian counterparts, Guyana’s Hindu empowerers had to navigate a complicated political landscape. While many Indian Guyanese supported the idea of Indian rule, this didn’t require a Hindu revival; Indians were in the majority, after all, and the ruling party was Indian. Some supported the flowering of “Indian culture,” defined exclusively as Hinduism and Islam. This was tougher, since Hindus and Muslims accounted for only 35 percent and 10 percent of the population, respectively (50 percent were Christian). Then there was Hindutva, delicately walking the edge between three religions and two races, and often falling flat.
A major hurdle facing aspiring Hindu radicals was typified by one of my sources, an aspiring Hindu radical named James Alexander. I was not unprepared for such an unlikely combination, as nearly everyone I met seemed to be playing with the politics of self. Sanjay from Bangalore was now Kabir, and his spiritual guide was an African Sufi leader called Kerry. Sandra and her Swedish husband bathed themselves in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean every Sunday morning to pay homage to “dem Hindu Gods and so.” Drupti was Catholic but liked to pray to the Hindu Gods that lined her mantelpiece, while her son Rajesh vaguely thought of himself as an Indian Dread. (If nothing else, he had the locks.) So when the man I had been told to look for as James Alexander told me he wanted to be called Ram Bhajan as a sign of his spiritual transformation, I readily assented. It was still in progress, apparently; when I called him Ram he looked around in confusion, and when I called him James he admonished me. I asked him if he had a problem with Muslims. “Not yet,” he said after some thought. He took me to an outdoor meeting of the Mahatma Gandhi Organization of Guyana, where a group of Hindu activists were lunching.
Ram Bhajan introduced me to a prominent judge, who promptly told me to buzz off. “Everything written about Hinduism is negative anyway,” he said. Fair enough, I thought, and trundled on. I ran into a man wearing a heavy silk kurta—not the most appropriate clothing for a humid Caribbean afternoon. Beads of sweat sluggishly descended from his generously oiled hair, and the sun glinted off his gold rings. He turned out to be a yoga teacher, transplanted from Kerala by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations as part of the diplomatic mission to Guyana. “You are from India,” he said without introducing himself or asking my name. “And now you are a journalist here. What is the connection?” I had no idea how to respond, so I didn’t. “But what is the connection?” he pressed, gesticulating angrily.
I retreated toward the buffet, which looked fantastic: puri, channa, and phulouri with a dash of “sour,” a pepper-spiked mango concoction that lent new meaning to the word. And I was followed. Soon I was flanked by a group of people who had overheard the Yoga teacher. One of them, a plump man bursting out of his shirt, shouted, “So you just came here and you are already working? That’s impossible! Tell us what you are really doing here.” His moustache, an oblong, bushy object, bristled with indignation. “What do you think of Babri Masjid?” he barked. I think I managed to enunciate a syllable—“Well . . . ”—before he cut me off with a long and familiar litany of historical abuses. He concluded his lecture with a warning: “Hindus have had enough!”
A sudden gust of wind threatened to bring down the tent. Several of us rushed to brace the swaying poles. “Jai Hanuman!” one of the young chaps shouted cheerfully. “Jai Bajrangbali!” a lot more whooped. It sounded perfectly innocent here. But ten thousand miles away, it was just the sort of thing a Hindu mob might chant when, say, lynching a Muslim family. I had arrived in Guyana a few months after riots in Gujarat had claimed the lives of thousands of Muslims, and the chanting made me homesick— though not in a good way.
I took advantage of the distraction and made a break for it. My visit, I later discovered, was a highlight of the luncheon. The Yoga teacher, an expert on everything Indian, had explained it all to the assembled businessmen. I was just another “impressionable Indian boy who had been seduced by Pakistan.”
The week after my article, “Hinduism at Large,” was printed, we were flooded with furious letters. The anger should have been predictable. The Stabroek News was independent; its only serious competition, the Guyana Chronicle, was a government-owned enterprise. That government was “Indian,” which made the newspaper I worked at “African.” Since power was continuous with race, any sign of dissent was tantamount to racism.
The Indian High Commission sent me a stern summons. Word was that “people” wanted to know why I was bashing Hinduism. Amazingly, some of them considered me an actual Pakistani spy—an agent of Islam, dispatched to foment unrest in the Hindu Caribbean.
If only. Guyana, with its sub-million people, on a tiny patch of South America, barely exists for most Indians. (I’d wager the same for Pakistanis, but I don’t know, honest.) When strangers, particularly Indian Guyanese, asked me what Indians back home thought of Guyana, I found it hard to frame an answer that wouldn’t seem insulting. Guyana was connected to India at the frayed end of a thin postcolonial thread, and aside from the occasional tug of a televised cricket match, it barely registered.
• • •
From “Wednesday Ramblings,” Stabroek News:
REPORT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEE ON HOLIDAYS Out of respect for all races in Guyana, “Indian Arrival Day” will now be called, simply, “Day.” This follows a submission by Ivor John of Kaikushikabra Creek, Berbice, who noted that Amerindians have been in Guyana for over 7000 years and therefore, that the term “Indian Arrival Day” is confusing and exclusionary.
For Emancipation Day, we received a submission from the House of Nyabinghi which indicated that in fact Emancipation was, and we quote, “Nutten but a tool, bredren, of de Babylonian system to enslave I and I even more. The evildoers are to this day still bringing hardshiperation upon we people.” The committee has therefore arrived at a compromise and decided to call it “Partial Emancipation Day.”
In relation to Independence Day there was much debate, and it was observed that Guyana, despite attaining its independence on May 26, has never been independent (in the true sense of the word). And even today, multilateral financial organizations tell the government how to spend its money. As such, the committee has decided that the day will now be known as “Co-dependence Day” in the spirit of bringing nations together. After all, no country is an island. “Co-dependence Day” will now be observed on May 26 once the committee gets the permission of the IMF, the World Bank, and the IDB.
• • •
I lived in a room that had been cut out of a larger building. To the immediate left was a video library run by a young woman called Shirley. Our bathroom window opened directly onto her place of business; quite understandably, she had blocked up her side of it with a television set. Shirley was a cinema addict who screened films all day, such that every time I used the toilet I would be tantalized by bits of displaced dialogue. Perhaps a hysterically low-slung voice saying: “Agar tum haan nahin kahoge to main mar jaunga, jaani, sacch, main . . . mar . . . jaunga . . . (If you don’t say yes, I will die, my love, truly . . . I . . . will . . . die . . . ). Or a woman saying something sublimely American like, “Which one of you bitches is my mother?”
Shirley’s library, with its wall-to-wall stacks of Hindi cinema and a steady, knowledgeable clientele, was a constant reminder that while Guyana might lie in India’s cultural blind spot, the reverse wasn’t true. Shirley knew far less about contemporary India than she did about Barbados, Trinidad, or Suriname, but when it came to Bollywood, she heard it as it happened. Indian film stars regularly came to Guyana for wildly popular song and dance shows, just as, not so long ago, visiting Indian cricket teams could send the Guyanese Indian community into a nationalistic tizzy. Back then, in the years when the West Indian cricket team was almost exclusively African, cultural commentators of all races grappled with the fact that Indian Guyanese were cheering for the other side.
Cheddi Jagan, perhaps the most famous Indian Guyanese, found this displeasing. By all accounts an endearing, handsome man, Jagan studied dentistry at Howard University, spent his formative years in Harlem, and tried—genuinely or naively, depending on whom you ask—to forge a racially plural national identity. Jagan was one of the two architects of Guyanese independence. The other was a successful lawyer with a penchant for repartée, State Express 555 cigarettes, and Jaguar automobiles. His name was Linden Forbes Burnham.
Jagan and Burnham started out in the independence movement together, but fell out in 1955. There is some debate over whether the split signified general African resentment against Indian dominance or Burnham’s personal desire for the top job; Jagan had been the clear leader of the unified faction, so the result was the same either way. Guyana then came to have two main political entities: Jagan’s People’s Progressive Party, or PPP (the “Indian” party) and Burnham’s People’s National Congress, the PNC (the “African” party). Fifty years later, they continue to define the horizons of politics in Guyana.
Recently declassified documents from the U.S. State Department confirm the suspicion that the terms of Guyana’s independence were settled at cocktail parties in Washington and London. Technically it was Britain that was transferring sovereignty, but by then the Empire had new minders. And the Americans, inevitably, were concerned about Jagan’s leftist politics. Though Arthur Schlesinger dismissed him as a “naïve, London School of Economics Marxist, filled with charm, personal honesty, and juvenile nationalism,” the threat of Guyana “going Communist” was a political reality in the age of Castro. What’s more, Jagan had won the popular mandate in the 1957 elections, though perhaps less for his socialist politics than for his ethnicity.
By the early 1960s, in the heyday of decolonization, nervous imperial powers in Washington and London devised the perfect exit. A new system of “Proportional Representation” was the answer, a new “democratic” deal for Guyana that put Burnham in the driver’s seat. Independence was officially granted in 1966, the first year of Burnham’s government; four years later, the Co-operative Republic of Guyana was born.
Until his death in 1985, Burnham held absolute authority. For a non-socialist, he did an admirable job of driving Guyana’s economy into the ground. Exports plummeted, commodities became scarce under tight import restrictions, smuggling was rampant, and shop shelves were bare. Burnham flirted with American- style Black Power politics, even as his supporters became increasingly brutal in enforcing his rule. Though elections were widely considered to be fraudulent— the PNC won every time—Jagan’s sulking acceptance of defeat settled into a mild, inconsequential opposition. Guyanese politics remained bipolar. On the one hand there was the PNC, autocratic, divisively racialist, crony-capitalist (despite its rhetoric). Then there was the PPP: ineffective, multiracial in theory (though exclusive in practice), nurturing an unreconstructed Marxism, and hopelessly mesmerized by the romance of the state.
In the early 1990s, under pressure from the international community, Guyana held what may well have been the first fair election since independence. The PPP won; Jagan finally assumed the presidency, a post he would hold until his death in 1997. But the PPP’s nineties renaissance went strangely unappreciated. Liberals and capitalists feared the PPP’s Marxist rhetoric, while leftists derided its capitulation to the World Bank and the IMF. The pious were threatened by its secular modernity, while the intellectuals complained that their country was in the hands of a dentist. Even the party’s “base” seemed singularly unsatisfied. Indians who had opposed the PNC less for its authoritarianism than for its Africanness considered the PPP’s much vaunted pluralism, however farcical, as salt on the wound of racial insecurity.
• • •
From FHM South Africa:
Q: How often do you have to explain to people that Guyana is not in Africa?
A: Very often. In fact, my counsel in Toronto was telling me that when he had a large independence-day party the hotel delivered a cake that had a picture of the flag of Ghana on it.
Q: If Bill Gates offered $20bn to turn Guyana into a massive jungly theme park, would you take the loot?
A: Yes! If the people could maintain sovereignty, then that’s a deal I would make—the resources generated would improve the lives of the people.
Q: Does Guyana have its share of babes?
A: We used to do very well at Miss World, it was quite a big deal here. You know Shakira Caine, the wife of actor Michael Caine? She is from Guyana and she once came third in Miss World.
Q: There’s no FHM Guyana—can we launch there?
A: Yes, you can do that—there is no censorship in Guyana. Although ours is a country that is 98% religious, we have lots of magazines that have girls on the cover in bikinis.
Q: Have there been any assassination attempts on you?
A: No. At election time I can walk through the city and speak to the people face to face—even the opposition. We did have a political leader assassinated in 1980, but it is far more civilized now.
• • •
For a brief time in the 1970s, there appeared to be a way out of the numbing duality of Guyana’s political conundrum, and the symbol of that possibility was a man named Walter Rodney.
Long before I set foot in Georgetown, I had been obsessed with Rodney. One day, while idly browsing the collection of a cultural studies institute in Bangalore, I found Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual, a slim pamphlet published by the Africa World Press. There was Rodney, a young, working-class activist, campaigning door-to-door for the PPP before falling out with it; years later, there he was again, reprimanding Stokely Carmichael for inciting Africans against Indians in Guyana. He tackled Soviet Communism and local Marxism, socialism and the state, the Pan-African world and his Guyanese location. The text was incredibly sophisticated, a vivid mix of theory and experience, every word of it ringing true—the sort of book that you read with a secret smile and trembling hands, since it seems to have been written especially for you. The French Marxist Louis Althusser might have called this “interpellation.” But then Althusser was criminally insane, and I was so awed by Rodney that I could only think of it as an invitation.
It helped, of course, that Rodney’s idea of “blackness” was big enough to include a boy from Bangalore:
If a Jamaican black man tried to get a room from a landlady in London, who said “No Coloreds,” it would not impress her if he said he was West Indian . . . When a Pakistani goes to the Midlands he is as colored as a Nigerian . . . The black people of whom I speak, therefore, are non-whites—the hundreds of millions of people whose homelands are in Asia and Africa, with another few millions in the Americas.
Rodney’s life and work seemed like a challenge. Andaiye, a close friend from the WPA, wrote of the seriousness, the urgency with which he lived:
He wrote everywhere, in the car if he wasn’t driving, standing on the street corner, on the stelling waiting to board the Berbice ferry, waiting for public meetings to begin in Linden, on the Corentyne, in Leonora, in Buxton, often surrounded by police. He wrote everywhere because, he said, people who were trained as intellectuals had a duty to write and to publish as part of an ongoing debate of ideas. A thought that you didn’t communicate was a wasted thought.
Then there was the photograph, a snapshot of Rodney waving goodbye to his wife, a radiant smile on his face, a sheaf of papers carelessly tucked under one arm, every bit the militant intellectual off to start another radical day. It was all just impossibly glamorous, this roving revolutionary who worked in Kingston, London, Dar es Salaam, and Georgetown, the brilliant scholar who wrote his doctoral thesis at age twenty-four, the fiery activist who was the scourge of at least two governments. Rodney was like the James Bond of social theory, an international man of mystery with a PhD and a conscience. He liked his governments shaken and stirred.
Much later, as I struggled to understand the racialism that surrounded me in Guyana, especially as I tramped down from my landlady’s apartment after our obligatory monthly dinner (typical conversation: “You must go to the country, boy, it’s where the civilized people live”), I turned to Rodney for comfort. Georgetown became an adventure into Rodney’s past. And my curiosity was satisfied. A senior colleague at Stabroek News revealed that Rodney had worked on the first volume of A History of the Guyanese Working People in her home, stashing the manuscript in her piano, while various sympathizers smuggled the material on his bibliography out of government archives. Brackette Williams, an anthropologist, couriered the manuscript to Johns Hopkins University Press on the way home from doing her fieldwork. Karen de Souza, a firebrand activist and long-time colleague, remembered his ill-conceived and unconvincing disguises, especially the one they gleefully called “Big Afro.”
It was all very hush-hush, and for those in the know, palpably thrilling.
The secrecy was essential, for immediately upon returning from Africa in 1974, Rodney was declared persona non grata. Burnham cancelled Rodney’s appointment at the University of Guyana, doing the left a favor in the process—free of obligations, Rodney spent his time transforming a group he had joined that same year, the Working People’s Alliance, into a political party. The WPA’s early rallies were raucous exhibitions of anti-state sentiment in a state that allowed none. A valiant Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew Morrison, had pushed the limits with his newspaper, the Catholic Standard, but he was a candle in the wind until the WPA came along. Drawn by Rodney’s charisma, thousands showed up for WPA rallies. The crowds tittered as their lofty president was rudely dismissed, “Maximum Leader” and “King Kong” the epithets of choice. Still, it’s difficult to imagine that the WPA could have posed a real electoral threat to the government; perhaps Burnham overestimated the WPA’s prospects. What is certain is that Rodney overestimated Burnham’s sense of humor.
One evening in June of 1980, an explosive device went off in a car in Georgetown, leaving Walter Rodney dead and his brother severely wounded. In the months leading up to his murder, Rodney believed that he had infiltrated the PNC. Those days, radio equipment, so vital to underground movements, was hard to come by. Rodney arranged to buy a walkie-talkie from Gregory Smith, a Sergeant in the Guyana Defense Force whom he had come to trust. After the exchange was concluded, Smith apparently instructed Rodney to drive some distance away and test the receiver.
Rodney was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at an unknown spot, and even today that is exactly where you won’t find him.
The story behind Rodney’s death may be Guyana’s most public secret. Burnham personally arranged for Smith to receive political asylum next door in French Guiana, where he refused to talk about the killing. As long as the PNC remained in power, Smith was safe; more curious, then, that even after 1992, when the PPP took power, little attempt was made to hunt him down. In 2002, Gregory Smith died in Cayenne, carrying his secrets to the grave. Every year on the anniversary of his death, what remains of the WPA holds a memorial service, and every year the PPP makes the same promise to release a definitive statement about the murder.
These days the WPA is barely a political party—it has one seat in parliament. Rodney’s old comrades, people like Rupert Roopnaraine, Clive Thomas, Andaiye, Karen de Souza, Eusi Kwayana, and Jocelyn Dow are well liked, their activist struggles well admired. But they have become the national conscience no one listens to.
Rodney’s enduring legacy is less the institutions he tried and failed to build than the body of writing, scholarly and otherwise, which he created. His books include a history of the Guinea coast and an exploration of Europe’s African past, as well as his classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Pamphlets document his political speeches. But he also wrote a pair of children’s books, Kofi Baadu: Out of Africa and Lakshmi: Out of India, and they somehow managed to be as controversial as the rest of his work. I read them in Karen de Souza’s office. After I had finished the second, she looked at me curiously and asked whether I had found it insulting.
Insulting? It was hard to find anything objectionable in this fictionalized account of a young girl’s journey from a North Indian village to Guyana. It seemed sensibly written, and the illustrations were pleasant enough. Karen proceeded to tell me a story. A few years ago, at a function to celebrate Rodney and the republication of his kids’ books, a former WPA member lodged a vocal protest. A devout Hindu, he was enraged on two counts. Though he had worked with Rodney, he did not understand how an African could presume to tell the story of an Indian. And by choosing to make the Indian character a female, he felt, Rodney was deliberately emasculating the entire Indian community. In his youthful WPA phase, the dissenter had been known as Odaipaul Singh. Years later, after studying in Varanasi and Madison, Wisconsin, he would become Swami Aksharananda, Guyana’s staunchest proponent of Hindutva.
• • •
From the Guyanese Indian Heritage Association:
LAUNCHING OF “FOR ANITA’S PRIDE” SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGN
On August 4, 2001, three armed bandits . . . terrorized and robbed a family (Ms. Anita Singh, her mother, Ms. Savitri Sukhdeo, her 12-year-old son, Ryan, her 11-year-old daughter, Oma, and 2 other children.) The bandits not only terrorized them, but one of them proceeded to commit what is undoubtedly a very racial act—he proceeded to cut off Anita’s long hair using his “Rambo” knife. While cutting her hair, he said that he was doing it because he did not like “coolie” (meaning Indians).
The Guyana Indian Heritage Association (GIHA) will host a NEWS CONFERENCE on Friday, August 16, 2002, at 10:00 am at the Hibiscus Room, Tower Hotel to launch the “FOR ANITA’S PRIDE” SOLIDARITY CAMPAIGN and THE GIHA-JAHAJI FUND.
“FOR ANITA’S PRIDE” is a solidarity campaign in which members of the public will be able to demonstrate their solidarity for Ms. Anita Singh as she re-grows her hair. Simultaneously, GIHA will launch the GIHA-JAHAJI FUND. This special fund is setup to assist victims of ethnic violence to receive professional counseling, medications and direct financial aid where necessary.
• • •
With my Hindu credentials in disrepute, I was reassigned to the regular beat. Actually, I was grateful, having almost come to dread exchanges with other Indians. The conversations would inevitably circle back to “those Muslims” ruining things back home and “these black people” ruining things here. Total strangers would confide to me their most alarmingly racist thoughts. There was nothing I could do; my politics, it seemed, were written on my face.
Many of my stories took me out of Georgetown altogether. In Wakenaam, a small island on the Essequibo River, I spent some time with Harry, an occasional journalist and general man-abouttown. I was there to gauge the state of basic services like water and electricity, and Harry ably guided my survey. At the end of a very productive day, he invited me to his home. “It’s ours,” he said, showing me around. “We worked hard and saved.” Then, with a knowing look: “Not like those black people.” I was taken aback. I had assumed Harry was African. I suppose I thought I could see his politics on his face.
“I’m half Indian,” he explained, quickly but affably, “and only partly African.”
If one were to compile self-projections and accusations into a list of Guyanese racial stereotypes, it would look something like this:
• Indian: industrious, thrifty, rich, insular, racist, drunk, crude, unsophisticated, weak.
• African: slick, strong, modern, crafty, drunk, poor, lusty, philandering, murderous.
Amerindians were usually too marginal to be stereotyped, and people of “mixed race” had a whole set of names and derogations, depending on the races mixed.
In 1998, a local television show called Agree to Disagree caused a minor uproar. Its principal characters were sharply drawn: Puddock, the bumbling bumpkin, and Franklin, the cool cat. Swami Aksharananda wrote a typically provocative response to the editors of the Stabroek News: The first and most important polarization in Agree to Disagree is the one based on ethnicity, African and Indian. In terms of their representation, the African (Franklin) is richly endowed as intelligent, mature, strong, and very masculine. The Indian (Puddock), on the other hand, is portrayed as essentially and fundamentally weak, dependent and effeminate, a groping immature child who keeps fainting at the sight of blood. Puddock is spineless, literally unable to stand or walk without constant wobbling. The distinction is further accentuated by the fact that the principal African character possesses and is addressed by his proper name, Franklin. “Puddock,” on the other hand, is a misnomer, a “false name.” He has no true name, no proper name, hence, no true and proper identity.
Agree to Disagree struck at the heart of a deep-seated racial anxiety. Guyanese Indians of a certain cultural orientation looked to the glory that was India for affirmation, reveling in the knowledge that there was no specific African country— or culture—that the other race could turn to. At the same time, even in Guyana and Trinidad, the two countries in the region with sizeable Indian populations, national culture bore a distinctly African stamp. Of course, this African dominance was in large part a legacy of the colonial labor system. Most Indians had been indentured laborers on the sugar plantations, and most Indians continued to engage in farming even now. On the other hand, most Africans who didn’t already reside in the city moved there after emancipation. For the apostles of Hindu revival, this divide continued to undermine any assertion of cultural superiority. Ravi Dev could cite Césaire and Said and his ancient Indian culture all day long, but his rural constituents were no match for the urbane, sophisticated African.
But there was more to the Hindu critique of African dominance, as could be observed in the old debates over Guyana’s national music. Though calypso and chutney were both indigenous to the region, each the beloved token of a racial identity, they had completely different fortunes. Calypso was known across the region and the world, and had even vied with rock and roll for the hearts of American teens in the 1950s; the most famous calypsonians sold hundreds of thousands of records in the States. Chutney singers, on the other hand, would be lucky to sell a few extra tapes in neighboring Trinidad.
The problem, according to the Indians, was what they called Creole culture. And the most vexing thing about African cultural dominance was that it was phrased not as separatism or Black Power but as worldliness. The logic of Creole culture was assimilation; accordingly, any attempt to assert a distinctive Indian identity was unpatriotic, even racist.
It did not help that some of the most influential critiques of Creole culture were, in fact, racist. The Guyanese Indian embrace of Naipaul was a case in point. For decades, Naipaul had been the West Indian literati’s favorite whipping boy. On the basis of his early Trinidad novels, he was adjudged racist for ignoring “the confrontation of different communities,” or, more plainly, for his “repulsion toward Negroes.” But the early Naipaul was easily repulsed, and his scathing accounts of life and politics in India did little to endear him to Indian cultural nationalists. By the late 1990s, though, Naipaul had become Hindutva’s poster boy. Recent travels had convinced him of the “calamitous effect” of Islam on converted peoples, and he was excited about the “corrective force” of Hindu militancy, especially the demolition at Ayodhya. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, Guyanese Indians went back to the early novels and proclaimed them good. The Indian setting of his Trinidad novels, they said, was a blow against Creole hegemony, a deliberate attempt to put East Indian West Indians on the cultural map.
Is there a truer reading of Naipaul, an author who is, after all, ceaseless in his quest for “truth”? Imagine a boy born and raised in Chaguanas, a small town in Trinidad. In his early teens, he moves to the capital to complete high school. For a country boy with a “limited social background,” living in Port of Spain is an enormously significant experience. His sojourn in the Caribbean city is brief and bewildering, a period in which he is confronted by a people whose cosmopolitan culture includes his own. He would like to participate in their construction of his world, but he doesn’t know how. So he leaves the city. He goes on to Oxford and becomes a great writer, though the awkwardness of those high-school years, the anxiety of a bumpkin in the big city, do not appear, as such, in any of his narratives. And how would a man like that—always proud, now worldly and articulate—retrospectively dignify his youth? By fashioning a world of minutiae so dense and so detailed, it frantically fences in everything that belonged to him.
Derek Walcott, the epitome of Creole sophistication, opened his own Nobel acceptance speech with an account of a Ramleela celebration (a restaging of the Ramayana) in Felicity, a small Trinidadian village. In a self-critical turn, he mused about how little he and the rest of black Trinidad knew about the Hindu gods being represented. The moral of the Ramleela story was to recognize the essential hybridity of culture, to embrace it, and to include the “other” as one’s own:
I was filtering the afternoon with evocations of a lost India, but why “evocations”? Why not “celebrations of a real presence”? Why should India be “lost” when none of these villagers ever really knew it, and why not “continuing,” why not the perpetuation of joy in Felicity and in all the other nouns of the Central Plain: Couva, Chaguanas, Charley Village? . . .
Break a vase, and the love that reassembles the fragments is stronger than that love which took its symmetry for granted when it was whole. The glue that fits the pieces is the sealing of its original shape. It is such a love that reassembles our African and Asiatic fragments, the cracked heirlooms whose restoration shows its white scars. This gathering of broken pieces is the care and pain of the Antilles, and if the pieces are disparate, ill-fitting, they contain more pain than their original sculpture, those icons and sacred vessels taken for granted in their ancestral places.
For the critic of Creole culture, this plea, however sincere, was more of the same; indeed, all the more dangerous for its eloquence.
I should admit that this question of Creole culture was confusing to me. As it turns out, I was confusing to it, too. Long after we met, an African colleague at the newspaper confessed that I had been a disappointment to him. I wasn’t Hindu enough, Basil explained; he had been hoping for some vague combination of a soulful ascetic and Shahrukh Khan circa Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman. I was floored. Indians weren’t the only ones addicted to Bollywood.
Basil and I had become friends when he bailed me out of a futile search for an Indian man called John Michael Aziz. One of the many thousand “deportees” that the United States had returned without thanks, Aziz left the West Indies at the age of five and committed his first felony at twenty. At thirty he was out of jail and on a one-way flight out of Miami, courtesy of U.S. Immigration. Technically, Aziz was a citizen of Jamaica, where he was born, but Guyana was close enough for the Americans.
I wanted to interview him for the paper, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single lead. After days of searching, I asked Basil for assistance. He took me straight to Globe Yard, a crack house less than a mile from our office. Aziz was there, all right. “Don’t worry about things,” Basil said reassuringly, as I sat down to conduct my interview amid disarrayed narcotic paraphernalia. “You are with me. They think all black people are policemen, so they’ll leave us alone.”
• • •
Letters to the Editor, Stabroek News:
THE BIBLE SUPPORTS CORPORAL PUNISHMENT
St John 2:15: Jesus made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple. Note the word “drove“ suggesting force, and what he drove them with. A whip. From the passage it is clear that Jesus knew the effect of the whip and he used it.
Further, Luke 12:47: Jesus says, “That servant who didn’t do according to his master’s will shall be beaten with many stripes.”
And yet further, in St John 15:2: he used the metaphor of he (Jesus) being the vine and we his children the branches; it says he prunes every branch in him. The process of pruning involves cutting and chopping.
Translated: children should be trained and beating should be used in the process. The Bible supports it. The problem is that man sometimes feels that he is wiser than God. It is also ludicrous to compare beating a child in the same light as beating a woman. The average mind would recognize the difference. The difference is in the intentions.
• • •
I punctuated my working day with coconut water breaks. Harilal, my preferred coconut vendor, had gold caps on his teeth. One of them bore the prestigious Nike swoosh, and I had to stop myself from staring at it. Our little chats were frequently interrupted by thundering gospel music. Mobile music carts cruised Georgetown by day, infusing the air with unapologetic religiosity, plying their trade at an unconscionable decibel. If the music hadn’t been so catchy, I might have objected. But the word of God was borne along a calypso beat, and secretly I loved it.
For the most part, daily life in Georgetown revolves around the church—St. George’s Cathedral, to be precise. Built in 1894, the cathedral is the world’s tallest wooden structure. Parliament is a few blocks away from Carmichael Street, and legislators drive past the church on their way home. Coincidentally, it is also where, come dusk, Georgetown’s transsexual prostitutes gather to ply their wares to passersby.
Most Christians in Guyana formally subscribe to the Anglican, Catholic, and Presbyterian faiths, in that order. Several other Christian denominations flourish—virtually every one you can think of, in fact, including Methodists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Congregationalists, Nazarenes, Moravians, and Ethiopian Orthodoxists. As much as each jostled with the other to carve out an exclusive territory, it was evident that God was perfectly comfortable with being in several places at once, as illustrated by the cheerfully named Hallelujah Church, which connected Amerindian traditions to Christianity. Another, more furtive God lived in the crease between tradition and modernity, in Obeah—a set of practices vaguely ascribed to African folklore, though its followers were not exclusively African—and its Indian equivalent, Kali Mai.
Furtive gods and fugitive priests have played an inordinately large role in Guyana’s political life. Especially in the 1970s, the era of the cult. In 1972, Burnham gave permission to an obscure group of self-described Black Hebrews to take up residence in Guyana. By 1979, the House of Israel, as it was called, had become Burnham’s de facto Dirty Tricks Department, breaking strikes, disrupting WPA meetings, and occasionally eliminating opponents of the regime—most famously a Catholic Standard photographer, Father Darke, as he chronicled a WPA rally. They carried on with seeming impunity until 1985, when Burnham’s sudden death led to a new PNC government, which promptly threw the whole lot in jail.
In 1974, the Reverend Jim Jones leased 4,000 acres of land on the outskirts of a remote Guyanese town called Port Kaituma, not far from the Venezuelan border. A Pentecostal minister, Jones had led a series of interracial congregations in Indiana and California, where his People’s Temple became heavily involved in progressive politics. Jones cast himself as a champion of equality, and became friendly with members of the Democratic Party as well as more radical figures like Angela Davis and Huey Newton. But rumors persisted that his predominantly black Temple was actually a cult, with its charismatic leader enforcing brutal physical and psychological punishments against those who strayed.
In August 1977, Jones relocated the Temple and its 900-odd members to Guyana. Back in the bad old days, people joked that Burnham had “banned tourism”— he had long dismissed other Caribbean societies as obedient lickspittles to the sun ’n sand crowd. But Jim Jones had been welcomed, not least because of his association with Black Power.
Things heated up late in 1978, when rumors of torture and unlawful confinement in the jungle began to reach the ears of legislators back in the States. One day that November, U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan jetted in to check things out for himself. What he saw, we will never know, for he was shot dead before he could leave. Later that day, the charismatic preacher induced nearly all of his followers to drink a lethal cocktail of Kool-Aid and cyanide. The sad, sordid saga of Jonestown was over.
But Guyana’s own saga had just begun. Droves of reporters arrived to cover the “revolutionary suicide.” Jonestown was the sensation of the season: a shadowy cult, a mysterious leader, an exotic tropical setting, and piles of dead black bodies. Big-name reporters from London and New York camped out in Georgetown; one of them was Shiva Naipaul, brother of the future Nobel laureate, who ended up gathering enough material for a book, Journey to Nowhere.
Twenty-five years after that fateful night, I made my own pilgrimage to Port Kaituma. Today it is home to some five thousand people. My plane arrived early in the morning, just as the town came to life, and the deserted streets only added to the prevailing atmosphere of abandonment. Mining equipment lay chained to the backs of monstrous 4x4s, which lined the unpaved roads. Electricity came from diesel-powered generators, which kicked sputtering to life as I drove in.
My official assignment was to write about Youth Challenge, a volunteer group working on HIV prevention. At Port Kaituma’s sole high school, an expansive wooden building with rotting floorboards, I met kids who were cheerfully frank about their complete disinterest in condoms. It was a revealing session. In the afternoon, I got to talk with some of their minders, including a thirty-year-old teacher and artist named Ignatius Adams.
Adams was Arawak, from an Amerindian village not far from town. Like his students, he was disarmingly blunt; he was also a bit of a stoic. Yes, there were no jobs in Port Kaituma, except when the Brazilians came in to start another mining operation; no, the clinic hadn’t received any condoms for the last eight months, so the kids couldn’t really practice safe sex even if they wanted to; yes, the school was a mess, because the principal was lazy and corrupt. But, he loved his students, and his art was going well—he had just designed the Guyanese ten dollar coin. Things could only get better.
When the formal interview was over, I asked Adams about Jonestown. “My uncle was a driver there,” he said. “We were grateful when they came.” And when they . . . left? “People like my uncle, and others from Port Kaituma who worked in the kitchen or as guards— they were the first ones to know what happened.”
On the subject of the suicides, Adams was almost cheerful. “My uncle’s home is built with wood, and it all came from there. After they died, the place was stripped apart. A lot of people here made new lives for themselves from material they found in Jonestown.”
I stayed an extra day in Port Kaituma. The next morning, I hired a minibus to take me to Jonestown. It was a good forty-minute drive along dusty, bumpy roads, and the driver thought I was crazy to be going there at all, since there was nothing to see except bush.
He was right.
• • •
From “Wednesday Ramblings,” Stabroek News:
WHERE ARE ALL THE SMILING FACES
The nation owes an apology to one Hema Persaud, a returning Guyanese who complained about her recent visit to the country of her birth (S.N. June 28th). “Good grief . . . Georgetown stinks,” she writes, probably wrinkling her nostrils in recollection. She asks with disgust, “When did all these beggars and unkempt people arrive? Ugh!”
If Mrs. Persaud had only notified the authorities of her intention to visit Guyana well in advance, plans would have been put in place to make her stay more comfortable. As for the beggars, the City Council could have put cardboard boxes over them in any location Mrs. Persaud planned to stroll. As for the lack of happy faces, the government could have arranged for actors to mill around this eminent visitor, laughing and showing signs of contentment.
In the meantime, all Guyanese will try harder to portray the traditional image of a carefree Caribbean people even when they are being shot at.
• • •
I had not come to Georgetown at a good time. The day before my arrival, five hardened criminals had broken out of the Georgetown Jail, inaugurating the worst crime spree in the country’s history. Newspapers, government officials, and calypso singers lamented “Guyana under siege”; drive-by shootings became commonplace. But the killing did not appear to be random, a fact that lent itself to contrasting interpretations. Depending on whom you talked to, you would hear that Indians were being racially targeted and gunned down at the rate of a family a day, or that a small band of Africans had declared war on an unjust, racist state. In any case, the police did not seem to be up to the task. The city became more polarized than ever, as the rich retreated to their compounds, protected by high walls and expensive security guards. The poor floundered on, while the middle classes were left to dart out of the way of murderous minibuses on desolate Georgetown roads. Few people ventured out at night if they didn’t have to.
The crime wave always seemed slightly abstract to me, though. I lived in a modest residential neighborhood in the heart of Georgetown, but I had little on me that was worth stealing, I didn’t own a car, and I didn’t frequent expensive nightclubs. The main effect the crime wave had on my life was a slight inconvenience when the Chinese restaurant next door started to close an hour earlier. I would frequently walk to the movie theater and back, even late at night, without giving it the slightest thought. The crime was real—newspaper stories confirmed it every morning. And yet it was also unreal; no one I knew had been personally affected. In time I would realize that my sense of security was a product of living and working in Creole Guyana. My assignments often took me out of the city, but I never stayed long in the “country.” What would I know of the everyday fear that Indians felt?
To be honest, I liked where I lived: Lamaha Street, on the stretch between Camp and Carmichael Streets. It was just the sort of West Indian experience I had been hoping for. But I did find myself becoming more tolerant of extremism— or at least, more understanding of what led Indians to ROAR. Coming from a country where Hinduism mediated the national identity, often to catastrophic effect, I had gotten used to the idea that the enemy was us. But this was a foreign country. Hindu activism was often progressive activism. This lesson was driven home one day when I discovered with a start that Ravi Dev and Swami Aksharananda were among the few Guyanese politicians to publicly champion gay rights.
And my time at the newspaper was instructive. My colleagues and informants were the people who produced the nation—writers, academics, and bureaucrats. Though it took me a while to notice it, they exhibited a distinct but subtle diffidence for anything non- Christian. Months into my tenure, few of my colleagues could pronounce my last name. And I had second thoughts about the freedom I had been given with my big Hinduism article. On that occasion, I realized, I had willingly played the native informant—in a country I had just parachuted into, on behalf of a religion I couldn’t recognize, for a group that comprised roughly one third of the entire population.
I had too much baggage—a general suspicion of all “those Indians,” the Hindu revivalists and the Muslim extremists, the nativists and the racists— and it was weighing me down. I only realized it by going to Brazil. Officially I was to write about gold mining on the Guyana-Brazil border, but mainly I was going to the Amazonian port of Manaus with my friend Kabir to have a good time. Manaus is only a short plane ride from Georgetown, but we took the scenic route—by car and bus—and the trip ended up taking four days. It was monsoon season, and the road had degenerated into a series of watery pits. Our first night we stopped at Mabura Hill, a small logging town. Some of us slept in the 4x4, and a few of us decided to brave the outdoors. At about five in the morning, I woke up to find my friend, a recent and enthusiastic Muslim convert, preparing for morning prayer outside. As he knelt down, I noticed that we were being watched.
Minutes later, we were sitting in a dimly lit room across from two police officers. Both were Indian, which led me to think that this was a punishment posting. They asked for our passports and lingered on them, surprised by our nationality.
“So you are Muslim,” an officer said.
I explained that only one of us was.
“But you both have Hindu names,” he said, looking at my friend.
I explained, again.
“Muslim . . . with a Hindu name,” he said, shaking his head.
That was enough. I got really annoyed, and I told them so. I informed them, furthermore, that I had seen them the night before accepting bribes from the Brazilian miners in our entourage. Later, I would learn that this was completely normal: all Brazilian miners had irregular documents, and all of them paid bribes. For the miners, it was easier and cheaper than getting official permits.
“Why you boys getting so vexed?” the man said with astonishment. “You don’t want to be here?”
The other officer, an older man, rose from his seat. “You watch out,” he said, coming threateningly close.
I was furious. Had I been rested, it would have been easier to take. Had I been rested, moreover, I might even have seen our run-in with these two bored men for what it was. Indian passports were unquestionably rare in the Amazon; in their own gruff way, these officers were trying to be friendly. And I think that they were genuinely curious about us—about where we came from, and what we were doing there.
Sure, they expected us to be Hindu, but all they were looking for, perhaps, was a moment of ethnic communion here in the middle of this South American forest. Instead they got two snotty Indians, both evading overtures from their brothers, one sullenly denying his Hinduism, the other imperiously rebuking them for doing their job.
• • •
Letters to the Editor, Stabroek News: SPECIALLY TRAINED DOGS SHOULD BE BROUGHT IN TO LOCATE CADAVERS
Once again there is a possibility that a murdered dead body may lie buried in a public place. When added to the long list of the bodies reportedly buried at the back of the Botanical Gardens, I find it particularly strange that this government has not sought the assistance of the American government in borrowing one of their specially trained dogs used in the detecting and locating of cadavers.
Mr. Editor, while on this topic would you be so kind as to find out who is responsible for the fencing and upkeep of the section at the back of the Gardens. The place is fast becoming a real dumpsite.
• • •
My first week in Georgetown, I decided to go vegetarian. I try it at least once a year, though it never lasts. The best places to satisfy my new diet, I discovered, were run by Rastafarians. The food was delicious, wholesome, and cheap. When I reported this to a colleague with fresh-off-the-boat fervor, she raised her eyebrows. It turns out that Rastafarianism in Guyana had come to be synonymous with African extremism. After she said that, I did start noticing that the most belligerent letters to the Stabroek News were from one Ras Tom Dalgety, who liked to remind readers of the pressing need for a Pan-African renaissance to wipe out Hinduism. On the way from Jamaica to Guyana via Ethiopia, it seemed some wires had got seriously crossed.
For the Rastafarian absolutists of today, Walter Rodney is an enigma. Too important to be dismissed, yet not at all down with their program. (“Rodney was a magnificent emissary for us to Africa and a great historian, but an awful politician,” Dalgety once wrote.) It wasn’t always that way. In Jamaica in 1968, Rodney infuriated his hosts at the University of the West Indies by spending his free time off campus, in the “dungle”—the rubbish dumps—with the Rastas. Rodney called them the Brothers, and he was wont to spend hours sitting with them, engaging in what the Brothers called “reasoning” or “grounding.” (Rodney’s first published book was called The Groundings with My Brothers.) After a trip to Montreal to attend a writers’ conference, the Jamaican government banned Rodney from returning—and the streets of Kingston exploded. The Brothers had begun to stand up for their rights. It was a vindication of one of Rodney’s sayings, itself influenced by his conversations with the Brothers: that Black Power was “a sitting down together to reason.” It’s hard not to think that Guyana would be a very different place now if Walter Rodney were alive.
Read the PPP’s communiqués today, and you’ll come away with the impression that the PNC consisted of precisely one man: Linden Forbes Burnham. Listen to the Hindu revivalists at ROAR, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the PNC consisted exclusively of African racists. But people were just as complicated then as they are today, and for every Muslim compadre of Hindutva, there was, and is, an Indian in the PNC. Two such men proved to be among the canniest survivors of the old regime. One was Burnham’s Foreign Minister; the other, his Attorney General. One would present Burnham’s humanitarian vision to the world; the other manipulated the courts and the constitution to secure his presidency for life. Both went on to greater things. Sir Shridath Ramphal (“Sonny” to pals) ran the British Commonwealth as Secretary General from 1975 to 1990, while Judge Mohammed Shahabudeen capped a cushy career at the United Nations with an appointment to the International Court of Justice.
One can only imagine what the PNC Indian represented: good, inclusive, non-racial patriotism, Creole culture at its finest. Today, the veterans of the WPA still turn up at the forefront of every fight for justice, but it is the Burnham men who are more admired. Neither said a word when Rodney was murdered, nor when the government they served sheltered his murderer. If there is a lesson in these tangled histories, a moral for small countries that barely exist, it is that complicity will be rewarded.
• • •
From the Stabroek News:
ON CENSORSHIP AND THE CALYPSO
Yesterday we reported that the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation had pulled reigning Calypso Monarch Vivian (VJ) Jordan’s 2004 entry from the airwaves . . .
In neighboring Trinidad, where the art of the calypsonian has reached its apotheosis, it is considered a bad year if there are no controversial calypsos; the whole point about them is that they should unsettle people.
The current controversy surrounding Cro Cro’s calypso in Trinidad, for example, which advocates that corrupt politicians and businessmen be kidnapped and made to repatriate the money they have in foreign banks, is a case in point. On the face of it, it clearly constitutes incitement to commit a felony; however, at a practical level it might be asked how likely it is that people who normally would never consider kidnapping anyone are going to be persuaded to do so after having heard the calypso. In addition, given the publicity that the lyrics have received on account of their subject matter, would it really make any difference to the safety of citizens in the twin-island republic if Cro Cro’s composition were to be banned at this stage?
Whether VJ’s commentary is right or wrong is neither here nor there; it certainly comes well within the definition of acceptable political comment. If we start censoring this kind of stuff, we will kill calypso altogether.
• • •
In 2003, Vivian Jordan, also known as VJ, was looking to execute a palace coup. He had been crowned King of Calypso the previous year with “VJ For President,” a cheeky number in which the singer boasted of his unique qualifications for the job, including his ability to steer a canoe. VJ was, after all, an Amerindian from the northeast, straight out of the bush, and his mocking, cheerful song outshone his competitors.
No one had ever managed to retain the crown for a second year, but VJ had his campaign mapped out. In “Power Sharing,” his new song, he burnished his quixotic run for office with still more outlandish boasts: he was so popular now, he sang, that Jagan and Burnham had returned from the dead to talk politics.
“Power Sharing” not only won VJ the Calypso Monarchy; he managed to land a job with the government. The King was appointed to the Ministry of Culture, Youth, and Sport, to drive a new state-sponsored campaign: the “War on Bad Manners.” Naturally, VJ kicked it off with a festival that included “an opportunity to hear and draw lessons from the timely and well put-together lyrics that wage an aggressive ‘War on Bad Manners,’” according to the Guyana Chronicle. (Other attractions included a merry-go-round, dancing, and “fascinating portrayals of Indian and English fashions.”)
One year and one crime wave later, VJ seemed to have become pretty bad mannered himself. His entry for 2004 was “I Will Resign,” a starkly serious song that began, “I owe this nation an apology” and continued:
After two terms in office
I am ashamed to tell you this
I have not kept my promise
Now the country is at risk
The song was about the crime wave—“Never before in our history/ So many policeman died on duty”—and when VJ said, “I must take de blame,” the contrast with the sitting government was clear. The PPP tried to ban the song from the airwaves; though a popular uproar forced them to back down, “I Will Resign” did end up costing VJ his title. (Tempest, the blind calypsonian, took first place for her “Don’t Dis My Ability.”)
I had seen VJ the year before, at the height of his popularity, and I shared the insane enthusiasm of the calypso crowds. The Calypso Monarch was crowned at Mashramani, an event that the PPP government vigorously promoted as the definitive Guyanese festival, though if the audience and the music were anything to go by, it fell short by one race. Mash was a distinctly Creole affair, and its participants were not shy of expressing themselves; songs offered searing critiques of society with a casualness that made politicians—and us journalists— squirm. Besides VJ’s “Power Sharing,” the finalists that year included Singing Coo Coo’s “No Respect,” Blazing Fyah with “Nation Builders,” Sweet Kendingo’s “Is PNC,” Sweet Monix with “Guns Plenty Guns,” Tempest with “Survival of the Fittest,” Blackhat with “Contract Killings,” Professor Clem with “United Are We in Mash 2003,” Winfield James with “We Can’t Take It No More,” and Mighty Voter with “Corruption Works.”
At the competition itself, VJ was introduced by his seven-year-old son, who declared, “The president will be arriving shortly.” Newspapers recorded the frenzy: “As he took the microphone and began singing, the crowd went wild again, shouting and dancing. There was excitement around the ground and everyone, young and old, were on their feet. . . . When the Calypso Monarch ended his song, the audience shouted and begged for more—‘We want VJ again, with more power sharing.’”
When I heard that song and considered VJ’s journey—including his change of heart—I thought of Walter Rodney. Mind you, it’s hard to imagine Rodney in a white three-piece suit, arriving at a WPA rally in a car flanked by motorcycle outriders. But I suspect that he would have been just as thrilled as I to learn about VJ, and I know he would have approved of the sentiment. Two years ago, I saw VJ perform at the Main Street Lime. That evening, VJ was competing with several simultaneous performances, all of them packed into one narrow stretch of road, their collective sonic output so massive that the ground literally shook. It was the defining moment of my New World experience. Even today, I can see the ocean and the glowing sky from that evening converging on me, an Indian from the subcontinent, on the coast of South America, listening to an Amerindian perform the music of the African West Indies.
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