Sari Optional

 

I won't be wearing any Indian garb this weekend. And no, it has nothing to do with taking a backward stance like some members of Paliament who choose to be political, petty and petulant as they try to manipulate Indianness and Hinduness in their constant game of politics and identity. I am avoiding Indian garb this year because I am fed up of the pappy show. I am fed up of the absolute pretence that happens whenever there is a religious holiday in Trinidad, especially one that is linked to ethnicity and politically charged.

 

Divali is one such holiday. And what you won't hear people say, but what will be apparent in all their careful gestures and words in this: we have an Indian government in power and must appear to comply or at least appear to be open. And therein lies our daily fiction. It can't be an error that our watchwords say Tolerance. So we tolerate each other, we don't accept each other, or even attempt to understand each other.

 

This weekend, at the various programmes being put on by social or political groups, people will attempt to outshine each other with the opulence and complexity of the ethnic garb they are wearing. Many will jostle for media friendly pictures of themselves in said garb, possibly doing serenely spiritual things like lighting a deya or performing aarti at the many poojas that will be held. And many of us know the catch phrases surrounding the holiday: Mother Lakshmi, Lakshmi Mata, Hanuman, Sita, Ram, Ayodha, darkness, light, wealth prosperity, deya, prasadum, roti and curry.

 

And after the deyas are lit, the prasadum shared, the food eaten and the fireworks set off (always the fireworks in this place), come next Wednesday we take off the cosmopolitan masquerade and go back to our lives of ignorance. And fete.

 

Far too often in Trinidad and Tobago we are happy being ignorant about issues, but putting up the front of knowledge. Everyone knows when Divali will be observed next week; many of us think we know how it is observed; but few of us,if any, truly understand the tenets of the religion that underpins Divali: Hinduism. And that starts right within the Indo-Trinbagonian community. Thanks to the annual performance of the Ramleela we can know the story of Divali, but ask the average Hindu to list for you the main tenets of Hinduism and I guarantee you going to get a lot of hemming and hawing. Ask them too what strand of Hinduism they belong to and wait for the pause. Unless the person is practicing the teachings daily, there is confusion.

 

The Hindu community here has often claimed marginalisation. When you probe deeper the marginalisation is linked to political appointments and power. The grumbled comments have little to do with practicing their religion and having their marriages be legitimized or even being allowed to observe and practice their religions at schools. By the time the country got Independence those issues were ironed out. It wasn't even a situation of not having outlets for expression because as far back as the 1920s there were numerous Indo-specific newspapers that catered to both the Hindu and Muslim community. I  remember  Indian programmes on television as a child. I do not remember the same kind of programming for other ethnic groups. The Hindu grouse about marginalisation has always been that before 1995 no prominent positions within the Parliament was granted to a Hindu. It is a grouse that is still vented today because some members of the Hindu community still feel under appreciated and marginalised.

 

In 1962 VS Naipaul talked about Hindu culture being unknown and misunderstood in Trinidad and Tobago. He also pointed out that even Hindus didn't understand all the complexities of their religion. In 1987 Dr Bhoe Tewarie made similar comments. Hindus had come into their own, because it was on their voting strength that the NAR rode into power (according to Tewarie). He pointed out too that it was time for Indians to accept the responsibility  for letting the wider society know more about them and integrating themselves into the wider society.

 

Between 1987 to the present, public knowledge about some aspects of Indian culture, but not necessarily Hinduism, has increased, mostly through music, cuisine and politics.

 

As with all of the ethnic groups located here, Indians have been stereotyped, Hindus more so because they came with a religion that marked them as different, pagan according to the colonial masters of the time. Because of the mystery shrouding this foreign religion Hindus were considered devil worshippers and practitioners of sorcery; the food they shared out after a pooja considered tainted because it had been offered to gods that the Christian communities here do not acknowledge; their gods are equated to idols; the community is thought to be enslaved to money and financial pursuits. The average Non-Hindu Trinbagonian will calmly tell you Hindus sacrifice their firstborn for money during Kali Pooja: not knowing who Kali is or what worship of that particular goddess is about. There is rank ignorance flying about masquerading as knowledge. And sadly enough, little effort is made on either side to bridge the gap. Hindu organizations focus on educating Hindus, not the wider nation, on Hinduism. Non- Hindus are mostly interested in the food and little else. Ignorance holds sway on either side.

 

 

 

We currently have a government that boasts quietly of being a Hindu government in a multicultural country where religion and state should be separated. It is a government whose actions most of the population interpret as being typical Hindu behavior. And for the religion that is a dangerous thing. Why? Because this government has become a caricature of the worst stereotypes normally applied to both Indians and Hindus. Its actions in the last 2.5 years have done little to shed positive light on the religion and its practices.

 

As a result of this government's behaviour and Sat Maharaj's silly comments, nepotism, corruption and racism are considered to be part of the Hindu value system.

So until we take end the pappy show of tolerance, and begin the hard work of educating  ourselves about each other which can lead to acceptance, me wearing a sari and continuing the masquerade is optional.

 

Shubh Divali, folks. Keep it Safe.