Guyana’s history, since the arrival of the Europeans, has been inextricably linked to the quest for ‘El Dorado’. For a small country, with a population of around 800,000, it has a surfeit of political stories. I call it the ‘land of narrratives’. But it is not only narratives which are aplenty. Its rivers are imposing, even if I will not see the Essequibo, which – I have been told many times – is 22 miles wide at its mouth. The Los Angeles river flows close to my home in Encino, and at its best is not much more than a creek. To be in Guyana, by contrast, is to be reminded of the elemental force of water and the majesty of rivers. In the hotel room in Georgetown, however, the water pressure in the taps was very low, and I understand that there have been water shortages. The abundance of water, and yet not enough for cooking and drinking – this story has its counterpart in many other parts of the world.
This morning Rishee Thakur and I took a wooden speedboat across the Corentyne into Suriname. The river, which must be two or three miles wide at this point, was not choppy and it took all of fifteen or twenty minutes to land at the other end. It was a lovely ride. We commenced our trip from close to the mosque in Corriverton, and at the other end arrived at a Sanatan Dharma temple in Suriname, a few kilometers from Nickerie. Hinduism and Islam both came to Guyana (which was part of Dutch Guiana, as I recall from my history, before the British purchased Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice in the 19th century and renamed their possessions British Guiana) with the indentured laborers, and it is perhaps apposite that this trip should have been prominently marked by signs of both the religions. At the landing, we were mobbed by taxi drivers, nearly all Indians – this could have been a scene from almost anywhere in India. Our taxi driver picked up his wife from the Sanatan Dharma mandir, and offered to share the temple’s prashad, a generous helping of big puris and small ladoos.
The taxi driver and I talked in Hindi. The one obvious difference between Guyana and Suriname that strikes one is that Guyana is surprisingly monolingual, just as Suriname is an astoundingly polyglot society. The Indians in Guyana have, almost to the last person, lost their Hindi or rather Bhojpuri, but my taxi driver in Suriname alerted me to the difference by conversing with me in Hindi. Dutch is the official language, and the road signs are in Dutch; but a creole, described to me as Sranan Tongo, is also widely spoken. The Indians speak Hindi, or rather I should say a dialect of Bhojpuri, and the Javanese, who account for something like 15% of Suriname’s half a million population, speak Javanese. Everyone speaks two or three languages, even more – a pleasant contrast from the monotonous monolingualism of the Anglo-Saxon world. In addition, as I found, Mandarin, Chinese, Portuguese and Amerindian languages are also spoken by some. I asked Surinamese and Guyanese Indians why Bhojpuri had survived among the former while it had disappeared in Guyana, but no one was able to give me a reply. Similarly, I am tempted to say, a greater portion of the Amerindian population appears to have survived in Suriname, compared to Guyana. Did Dutch and English colonial policies impact differently on the capacity of people to retain their language? Is it the particular misfortune of those who speak English that, given the increasing dominance of English over the last several decades, they become ‘linguistically lazy’ and lose command over other languages?
That the Indians in Suriname have not lost Hindi at all became all too evident as soon as we came into Nickerie. At Manoj’s Music Center, near the India Bazaar, I conversed with the shopkeeper in Hindi, and some men standing nearby chimed in with their opinions when I asked for some recommendations for Caribbean Indian music. I found there a collection of songs by Droopati. Nickerie is doubtless more affluent than any of the towns in Berbice, across the river in Guyana, though there too I found a sizable presence of the Chinese. Not all of the Chinese here go back to the period when Chinese contract laborers were brought to the country; in Nickerie, especially, it appears that there have been recent Chinese immigrants who run restaurants, boutiques, supermarkets, and the like. Suriname might not seem a likely place for understanding what globalization has wrought around the world, but heaven knows that the Chinese, Indonesians, Indians, creoles, Africans, and Europeans have created a society that merits more attention than is commonly bestowed on it.