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FROM PILLAR TO POST: The Indo-Caribbean Diaspora by Frank Birbalsingh. 272pp. TSAR, Toronto, 1997.

Reviewed by Gary Girdhari

Guyana Journal, September 1998


From Pillar To Post is a scholarly discourse on the movement and life of Caribbean East Indians, especially in Guyana and Trinidad. But essentially, From Pillar To Post can refer to other peoples who experienced slavery and indentureship because, basically, the book deals with movement of people of African, Chinese, Portuguese and Indian origin from their ancestral homes to the Caribbean, their lives during slavery, indentureship and colonialism, and independence. To a lesser extent, it also deals with a second migration to the United States and Canada mainly-the so-called second diaspora.

However, Frank Birbalsingh, the author of From Pillar To Post, intentionally directs the book to the Indo-Caribbean diaspora. Simply thumbing through the pages clues one in on the theme, even if one does not observe the sub-title The Indo-Caribbean Diaspora.

Birbalsingh's introduction, in gist, is a synopsis of the book. And what an excellent introduction, whetting the appetite to devour and digest the rest of the pages!

The author cleverly compartmentalized the book into four parts, namely, THE CARIBBEAN, THE FIRST MIGRATION, INDO-CARIBBEANS, THE SECOND MIGRATION. In the The Caribbean, there are reviews of the following selected works: A. Edun, London's Heart – Probe and Britain's Destiny, G. Sawh's (ed), The Canadian Caribbean Connection, H. Josiah, Makonaima's Children, A. Chase, Guyana: A Nation In Transit – Burnham's Role, N. DeHaarte, Guyana's Betrayal, A. Gomes, Caught in a Maze of Colour: Memoirs of a Colonial Politician, Roy Heath, The Shadow Bride. The strategizing use of these selections and the author's reviews of them carefully trace the history of the Caribbean people (within limits of the scope of the work), explain the rightful place of all the peoples, and dispel certain cherished but otherwise biased notions of Indo-Caribbean people. For example, in reviewing Chase's book, he points out Forbes Burnham's rise to power, his excesses and his coercive use of power, even sometimes to the point of blackmail, whereby “he (Burnham) could command their [Indian] financial and political loyalty ever after”, because some “pro-PNC Indo-Guyanese...in return for financial gain, professional advancement, or simply security, prostituted their Indian identity by supporting Burnham and allowing themselves to be used as window dressing to lend a multiracial look to his administration.”

In recent times, there has been a revival in Afro-centricity in the Caribbean where the “Caribbean man” was referred synonymously as the “black man”. Also, the perception of people outside of the Caribbean is that the Caribbean is comprised of blacks, so much so that when Caribbean Studies is offered at Colleges, it always means the study of African Caribbean people. Frank Birbalsingh was able to point out that, without exception, all of the Caribbean nations have Indians, with majorities in Trinidad, Guyana (and Suriname). Yet the skewed perception is perpetuated.

Part Two similarly utilizes reviews of relevant books to discuss The First Migration. Starting with Ron Ramdin's The Other Middle Passage, the author emphasizes that “Slavery turned human beings into mere property and completely dehumanized them, but as Captain Swinton's journal shows, Indian indenture was not much better.” The other reviews are of Noor Kumar Mahabir, The Still Cry and East Indian Women in Trinidad and Tobago..., Anthony De Verteuil, Eight East Indian Immigrants, Clem Seecharan, India and the Shaping of the Indo-Guyanese Imagination 1890-1920, Trevor Sudama, The Political Uses of Myth or Discrimination Rationalized, Rooplall, Monar, Estate People, Janice Shinebourne, Timepiece, Lakshmi Persaud, Butterfly in the Wind, Neil Bissoondath, Digging up the Mountains. Part Two relates the story of the passage across the kala pani, the Indian sojourn, their “insecurity”, “homelessness”, their “indulgent nostalgia”, the conniving nature of some as “dexterous manipulators, whose adroit use of deviousness, connivance and obsequiousness help [them] to obtain favours....” This section also observes the “economic strides of Indians” and their “self-sufficiency and [financial] security” which attained an “envious level” – a false perception that “promotes a defensive reaction among Africans....” Can Guyanese and Trinidadians relate to this currently?

Part Three: Indo-Caribbeans consists of fifteen interviews of Indo-Caribbean individuals conducted by the author. These dealt with first hand information as in the case of Chhabilall Ramcharran, Margaret Jagesar and Lilian Bankay, to erudite exposition as with Dr. Cheddi Jagan and Clem Seecharan. Overall, the interviews, which were orally conducted, elicited the personal experiences, historical accounts, opinions, and attitudes of Indo-Caribbeans. Although there is no scope for audio or video, one is captured by the language and emotions in this section, and almost feels the presence of the interviewees. Frank Birbalsingh's use of interview of a cross section of people is most commendable. These interviews were done mainly in Canada. The implied suggestion is to conduct more interviews in loco, to do oral history, and recording it – from those who are still able to recall-before it is too late.

Without any discredit to others, I find the interviews of Ramabai Espinet (Trinidad) and Clem Seecharan (Guyana) most enlightening. There is transparent openness and novel analyses. For example, the statement that “the creation of wealth is a duty in the Hindu world view”, and that the “consumption of wealth, and the most vulgar, empty display of wealth” are done at the expense of later “political responsibility, then renunciation, reflection and meditation” indeed require in depth examination. Espinet further noted the “opaque intransigence of the rich Indians” which contributed to “the defeat of Jagan's PPP in 1964....” Clem Seecharan's view on racial polarization is noteworthy. His historical analysis and his dealing with Marxism, race, class and color are recommended reading for contemporary times for all Guyanese. His reference to “The Ramayana as a document of exile ... sustaining [to] indentured Indians” in the Caribbean, and his discussion of “brahmanism [as] an important component of Indo-Caribbean culture” are novel, if not controversial, but worthy of reflection.

In the final section: The Second Migration, Frank Birbalsingh reviews D. Dabydeen, The Intended, T. Depoo and P. Misir (eds), The East Indian Diaspora and C. Dabydeen, Jogging in Havana, and then expounded on Indo-Caribbean Canadians and Immigration in the Fiction of V.S. Naipaul. Here, Birbalsingh examines the “homelessness” of Indo-Caribbeans, their lament, successes and failures, naïveté, their alienation, political and social marginalization in Canada, as well as in the United States.

The second migration created the second diaspora. Why the second migration?

From Pillar To Postis intended for the mature reader. It may be an introduction to Caribbean history for some. It is controversial in some instances. It certainly will encourage one to dig deeper, having got this initial taste. It is a highly recommended University reading. It is highly recommended reading for all the Caribbean people, regardless of race, class or nationality. It is hoped that similar works will be forthcoming to tell the story of other peoples in the Caribbean – in a meaningful and factual manner.

From Pillar To Post stands out as a scholarly, academic and valuable resource.

Dr. Frank Birbalsingh is a Guyanese/Canadian. He is a full Professor at York University where he teaches and conducts research. He is a well-published academic. His other similar books are Indenture and Exile (1989) and Indo-Caribbean Resistance (1993).


Gary Girdhari is the Editor of Guyana Journal.


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