*Pizzas, Pigs, and the Presidency: Happy Lucky Three-some in Guyana

It is my last night in Guyana, and I am struck by the fact that Guyana is surely the only country I have been to where I have yet to see a pizza restaurant. Pizzas, Chinese, and Indian food have become the global food of our times, and I wonder why pizzas have not found their way into Guyanese society. A friend remarked that somewhere in Georgetown is Guyana’s only pizza shop, but he described its pizza as rotten. One bad pizza joint cannot tell the whole story. The absence of pizza is all the more surprising considering that the New York area has become a mini-Guyana, with, I am told, something like 200,000 Indo-Guyanese or more settled in that area. Some entrepreneur could surely have taken the New York-style thin crust pizza back to Guyana?

Every country in the world has its version of Chinese food. The generic Chinese restaurant has a sound, I should say thriving, home in Guyana. With names such as Happy Lucky, Fat Boy, Silver Dragon, New Moon, Jade Inn, China Moon, Happy Garden, and Golden Dragon, one should perhaps expect little better than slightly greasy noodles or sweet and sour pork. Chinese restaurants remain one of the principal employers of the Chinese. A new albeit small class of upscale Chinese restaurants, something akin to the Hong-Kong style Chinese restaurants that dominate the landscape of Monterey Park and the San Gabriel Valley in the Los Angeles area, has arrived on the scene in Georgetown. The signature piece is the never-more aptly named “The New Thriving Restaurant”, a glassy palace or Shangri-la or sorts for the elite of Guyana. Not far from the modest residence of Guyana’s President, this huge restaurant on Main Street was described to me as having replaced its namesake that was burnt down some years ago. At its opening, its Chinese proprietors staged a cultural show highlighting Guyana’s multiculturalism before an audience comprised of senior members in the government. What was I was not told, but read in the Kaiteur News yesterday, is that the President, Bharat Jagdeo, and the Agriculture Minister feasted on a pork buffet yesterday, apparently in a demonstration of the fact that diners should not be deterred by the swine flu pandemic from consuming pork.

If Guyana’s pork is good for its president, it ought to be good for everyone else as well. Some might be inclined to remark that this encroachment on the dignity of the office of the president is a sign of debased politics, and politicians are now not much more than glorified salesmen. American presidents make a pitch for their weapons and cars, and Guyanese presidents do so for pigs and sugar. Nevertheless, in this story there is more than meets the eye: indeed, the story is a pointer to the democratization of politics in our times. Monarchs and despots have been noted throughout history for having the food that was prepared for them tasted by their servants. Some of the Mughal emperors had official tasters, and Louis XIV, ever fearful of being poisoned by one of the many intriguers who populated his court, had all his dishes tasted by someone else before he would consent to consume them. The tables, it appear, have been reversed. Who would have thought that a President would now consent to become a guinea pig, a high-order salesman for the pork industry?

*Indian Guyanese and the Police Functions of the State

Earlier this week, I met with the Reverend Juan Edgehill, Chairman of the Ethnic Relations Commission. The commission has come under much criticism, and I was not altogether surprised by Rev. Edgehill’s observation that the withering criticism to which the commission has been subjected by the Indians and the Africans, indeed by people representing all shades of political opinion, is better testimony than any that could be given of the useful work that the commission is performing. Apparently, if the approbation of everyone is clearly a mark of success, so can one claim similar success, and certainly dedication to objectivity, if one’s work meets no one’s standards of satisfaction. As the Chairman remarked, it is hard to please people in Guyana!

Interesting, eloquent, and evidently diplomatic as he was on nearly every question, I found Edgehill especially engaging on the question of Indo-Guyanese participation in Guyana’s police force and armed services. The Indian population of Guyana has declined from something like 53% to about 41% over the course of the last two decades, but Indians are numerically still the largest ethnic group in the country. However, Indians account for less than 10% of the country’s police force, and their representation in the Guyanese Defence Force is about the same. What might account for this lop-sidedness, I thought to myself? The Reverend himself was certain that the lack of Indian presence in the police and armed forces can be attributed to the insensitivity of these arms of the state to Hindu and Muslim diets. As he put it to me, beef and pork still comprise a substantial portion of the food dished out to recruits. Edgehill then advanced a more startling proposition, one that I have not encountered previously either in my conversations or in the scholarly literature. Guyana is, he argued, a Christian state, and it is his submission that in its predominant features it still exhibits most features of the dominant Anglo-Christian culture, notwithstanding the advent of independence or even the fact that Hindus are still the largest religious group, unless one counts all the Christian denominations together under a single head.

Over the last few days, the Indians to whom I spoke, while not entirely dismissive of Edgehill’s argument that Hindus and Muslims will steer clear of the police and armed forces so long as beef and pork continue to be the mainstay of the food served to recruits, were quite certain that this argument is considerably overstated. Many Muslims and, especially, Hindus no longer are observant of the food taboos. That seemed so to me from my own observations. This morning I met with Mike McCormack, Chairman of the Guyana Human Rights Association, who is of the view that Indians do not think of the police or the army as a career option. His explanation hovers largely around the economic: when economic prospects are dim, the Indians are more likely to join the forces; however, just as soon as they have an opportunity to improve their life prospects, the Indians abandon the police and army. This seems to be a largely sensible view, except that the economic prospects of most Guyanese, Indians and Africans, have not been too brilliant for a very long period of time. In Guyana, as elsewhere, the idea that one should be able to make lots of money, and in short time, has certainly taken root among the young, and may explain why the young are more likely to turn to become drug traffickers rather than apprehenders of drug traffickers. The culture of modernity has introduced a different slant to the old question of economic advancement.

Considering the racial tensions that prevail in Guyana, it is understandable that the Indian population might feel exceedingly nervous that the policing functions of the state are overwhelmingly in the hands of Africans. But I have the sense that Africans feel even less safe than Indians from the long arm of the police. It seems to be the case that victims of crime are predominantly Indian, but whether this is a ‘racial fact’ as some suppose is not at all clear. Crime is a predominantly urban phenomenon, and the African population tends to be more urban-based than the Indian population. In British India, large classes of Indians was kept out of the army in the aftermath of the rebellion of 1857 on the grounds that, as so-called “non-martial” races, they were not equipped to fight just as their loyalty was suspect since they led a comparatively cerebral life. I wonder whether such a sociology of knowledge was carried into the other colonies. I am reminded that one should not reach easy conclusions about these matters when I reflect upon the fact that in Mauritius Indians are well represented, perhaps overwhelmingly so, in the police forces.

*From Masjid to Mandir: Across the Corentyne, into Suriname

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.

*Gandhi in Guyana

Is it sheer coincidence that in the three days that I have been in Guyana the name of Mahatma Gandhi has come up repeatedly? Or is it the case that in a troubled country the invocation of his name is not only a plea for sanity and nonviolence but also an expression of the hope that where everything else appears to have failed to heal the country’s racial wounds it may well be the teachings and example of Gandhi that will bring some relief to the country?

It had not been more than an hour after I had checked into my hotel room at Sidewalk in Georgetown on Friday morning and had gone to cash some US Dollars for Guyanese Dollars at one of the cambios that I first heard mention of Gandhi’s name. My friend, Rishee Thakur, and I were seated in a taxi talking about the racial politics in Guyana when the taxi driver, having overheard us, intervened with an observation. He asked if we were Guyanese, and was told that I had come from India via the US. ‘The saintly Mahatma’, intoned our African driver, ‘taught us humility’. He then proceeded to narrate the incident where Gandhi, in his early days in South Africa, learned what it meant to be a ‘coolie’ when he was tossed out of the train for daring to travel in a first-class cabin. That incident has resonated very strongly with nearly everyone acquainted not only with Gandhi’s life in South Africa but with the history of resistance to racism and colonialism, and I found it remarkable, and inspiring, that a taxi driver in Georgetown should have recalled this incident.


Yesterday, one Mr Harold Khan of Bassant’s Taxi Service took me to West Coast Demerara. Though he claimed (as did many others) to be speaking from the heart, letting me have the truth unvarnished, it soon transpired that he is a hard-core member of the PPP. To gauge his assessment of Cheddi Jagan, it is enough to say that he described Cheddi as Guyana’s Mahatma Gandhi. I have, of course, far too many reservations about this comparison. It requires an enormous stretch of the imagination to think of Cheddi and Gandhi in the same vein, but I suspect that, by the same token, no one who is not familiar with Cheddi can understand the much larger-than-life figure he was in Guyana, particularly for the country’s Indians.

This morning, my friend Deo Persaud took me into Indian villages on the East Coast road, and we also stopped by the African village of Buxton. On Sunday mornings, the action is all at the local rum shop. In Good Hope, we spent the better part of the entire afternoon at a rum shop. The 20-20 final was taking place between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, but we nevertheless entered into a conversation with some of Deo’s friends. In the three days that I have been in Guyana, I have heard much talk of rampant corruption. The prevailing view is that politics has ruined what is a beautiful country and might otherwise have been prosperous. Our conversation veered at one point to a discussion of the violence that occasionally grips the country. One of the brothers, Rudy, who drove a truck in the US for two years, was articulate in the expression of his political sentiment that Guyana sometimes appeared to be lurching towards racial violence, even if he was clear that in their everyday relations the Indians and Africans exhibited an intermingling about which official or scholarly views of the country are more or less clueless. Rudy then quoted Gandhi, ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’

Listening to Rudy and thinking of how Gandhi has been invoked so often in the three days that I have been here, I wonder why, in some 20-25 years that I have lived in the US, I have rarely heard Gandhi’s name come up in table-talk or everyday conversation. Gandhi’s name evidently has cultural capital everywhere in the world, particularly so, perhaps, in countries which are desperately seeking solutions to what appear to be insuperable political problems. In the US, Gandhi’s name has been mentioned in conversations I’ve had with political activists, liberals, Quakers, peaceniks, and (occasionally) academics, but seldom with people from ordinary walks of life. This is not altogether surprising when we consider that the US is most likely the most apolitical and insular country in the world.