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The Introduction to Sweet Like Saltwater


The relationship between the peoples of India and their English conquerors is sometimes characterized as a partnership, an amicable exercise of political and social design that has resulted in the transplantation of Indian societies to all earthly domains pacifized by British military might. The flourishing homogenous Indian communities in Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, East Africa, and, later on, North America are offered as the outcomes of such a “partnership.” In truth, of course, the design was entirely one-sided: a conscious attempt to impose a ready-made Indian middle class to provide a buffer between the conquering rulers and the angry masses of ruled.

Thus was the founding and the administration of a global empire made far simpler by the provision of an unconsciously cooperative race of brown-skinned merchants, bureaucrats, farmers and intellectuals. The nature of imperialism is such that, in the final analysis, all conquered peoples become base and purposeful human capital.

Nearly two hundred years ago, indentured servants were brought to the Caribbean from places scattered throughout the British empire. Among them were my ancestors who chose the terrors and hazards of hard labour and sea voyage rather than face a horrible famine in their mother country, India. Betrayed by their overlords who refused them their promised passage home, these men and women resignedly carved out unique societies in Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica, desperately attempting to recreate the ancientness and familiarity of their South Asian motherland.

Though their descendants would call themselves Indian, they would be in essence something new, yet both exciting and somewhat sad: cultural hybrids of Indian, British, Portguese, African and Chinese influences, grasping for stronger connections to the homogeneous societies left generations in the past.

We grasp in the food we eat, the tales we tell and the dreams we concoct in uneasy slumber. In these ways we contemplate the Indianness of our new societies, enhanced by remembered Hindi words, fables and songs, reinforced by a few Indian foods that remained unchanged, but spiced with the conflict and desires introduced by alien fraternal races, and lovingly corrupted by the inescapable caress of the warm Caribbean ocean.

When my family moved to Canada, the grasping continued, spurred further by the daily reminder of one’s own foreign nature, and necessitated by the realization that a reconciliation must be made between one’s chosen home and the ancestral memories that scream from within the veins. The memories of blood extrude into one’s nightly dreams and waking desires, forcing a reckoning of racial identity with cultural history and with the uncertainty of every step taken in a life that spans continents. I wonder, sometimes, if dreamers in those other pockets of transposed cross-culturization –Malaysia, Singapore and Africa– are also visited by messengers from deep within ancestral memory.

The history of a people can indeed be imprinted into its children’s blood, to be tasted by the subconscious in times of introspection, love and candour. And for we displaced Indian children of the Caribbean, as distant as as our birth from that realm may seem, the taste of our blood’s history is as sweet as the saltwater of that warm sea.

Raywat Deonandan, 1999