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Trinidad and Tobago: A melting pot of several cultures

Trinidad and Tobago: A melting pot of several cultures

Posted by Shanelle Weir on January 30, 2015

Her thickly-kohled eyes stare at me from up above as a rather chatty airport immigration officer stamps my passport. “Welcome to Trinidad and Tobago,maan!” he says in his heavy accent. Her intense gaze and beatific smile seem to follow me as I make my way towards the baggage carousel, where she appears in another avatar, this time in a line-up of portraits sharing space with other erstwhile presidents and prime ministers. And there she is again, waving down from a giant billboard, as I await my ride into town.

Kamla Persad-Bissessar seems to be everywhere this afternoon in Trinidad and Tobago’s capital Port of Spain’s (POS) compact little Piarco International Airport. As the seventh, and current, prime minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), Bissessar is not just the poster child for the elevated position of women in the twin-island nation, that is part of the Lesser Antilles islands, but also for another important group — the local, Indian-origin population. A melting pot of several cultures, be it the indigenous Amerindians, Africans, Caucasians, Chinese and yes, Indians, the Trinbagonians refer to themselves as a callaloo, or a mixed stew of different cultures and heritage. And the ones that add the most spice to this mélange are the Indians. Brought over mainly from East India by the British as indentured labourers in the mid 1800s, their descendants today are an intrinsic part of T&T’s rich tapestry of cultures.

And one of the most prominent of these is T&T’s star cricketing export back to India, Rabindra Ramanarayan Singh or Robin Singh for the uninitiated — a local Princes Town “boy”. And although Singh now calls Chennai home, the proud Trinbagonians miss no opportunity to tom-tom his all-important “born in T&T” status.

But nothing comes close to the adulation enjoyed by Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul. A short walk into the narrow lanes of the East Indian-dominated town of Chaguanas, two hours south of POS, deposits you in front of the author’s inspiration for his acclaimed T&T-set novel A House for Mr. Biswas, a white building with elaborate fretwork. This is also the author’s childhood home. India stars in T&T’s music too.Infiltrating the rhythmic beats of the typically Caribbean ‘Soul of Calypso’, aka Soca, music with its unique mash-up of tablas, shehnais and sitars with steel pans and drums, is the hybrid Indo-Trinbagonian Chutney Soca music. The current chartbuster being heralded as the greatest chutney Soca hit of all time is ironically titled ‘Indian Gyal’. Belted out by musical sensation Drupatee — a singer of Indian origin — the song talks about a visiting Indian girl who burns up the dance floor during the islands’ annual pre-Lenten carnival celebrations held in February or March.

Speaking of which, T&T’s carnival is a time when all the locals make it their life’s mission to have a good time limein’ (hanging out) and winein’ (a gyrating dance style) the night away. Over the years, besides the regular carnival characters like the ‘Midnight Robber’ and the fire-breathing ‘Jab Molassie’, a newdesi posse too has sprung up. Called ‘Indian Dancer’, this caricature is a bedecked kathak dancer, withghungroos and bangles, swaying to soca beats. Nowhere is the Indian connection more evident than in the food of the islands. No Trinbagonian breakfast can ever be complete without a staple called ‘doubles’, which is essentially two fried puris filled with a mildly-spiced chickpea curry. Sold at almost every street corner, a double is often served with a fruit-based water pickle called chow or acar (read:achaar) made from marinating fruits like pineapple, nashi pears and apples in a vinegar-garlic-salt andshado beni mixture. Essentially a coriander-like herb, the indigenous shado beni finds itself in other Indian dishes like a roti.Celebrated with as much colour, pomp and glory, almost every Indian festival is firmly and fervently imbedded in the local Trinbagonian psyche, even with those of other races. While Diwali is just as noisy with firework displays and several cultural performances across the country, Holi, or Phagwah as it is called here, is normally celebrated on the Sunday closest to the actual date of Phagwah with the singing of traditional songs called chowtals.

As home to the 85-ft Hanuman statue at the saffron-hued Dattatreya Mandir, the POS suburb of Carapichaima is where locals come to pay obeisance to the statue of the Monkey God, believed to the largest outside India. The road from the statue ends at another of T&T’s most famous Hindu monuments — the ‘Temple in the Sea’.

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