Conscripted by (western) modernity

Conscripted by (western) modernity

Photo : Ravi Dev

Some years ago, taking my son to write his CAPE Literature exams, he waxed enthusiastically about the poet Olive Senior whose “Gardening in the Tropics” was an assigned text. The Jamaican, of mixed racial and cultural heritage, used the everyday, West Indian activity of “gardening” as an extended trope to analyse the brutal colonisation of the Caribbean by the Europeans and their influence in the formation of our identities.

Gardening does involve “rooting out”, discarding” “cultivating”, “nurturing”, “grafting”, “hybridity” and so many activities that are also at work in cultures and relationships in the construction of identities. Call it “hegemonisation”, “discursive practices” or what you will; all of us have been - and continue to be -“cultivated”, whether we like it or not.

Even when we were uprooted from homelands in Asia, Africa and Europe, we were all already “hybrids” that had been variously constituted. The North Indians of the Bhojpuri belt, from where I originated for instance, were the ‘work-in-progress’ of continuous invasions for thousands of years, of which the Moghul invasion and its Islamic world view was only the most extensive. The music and the religions and their culture of the people were dramatically “cross fertilised”. The British presence in the century before the end of Indentureship had already begun to have its impact, not only in the famines that made millions hungry and homeless and willing to seek their fortunes across the “Kala Pani”, but also, for instance, so many lower casted enlisted into their armies.

In the Caribbean, the Indians and Portuguese and Chinese indentureds would encounter the Africans who had been subjected to hundreds of years of European imposition of culture and religion – forcibly and not so forcibly. While against all odds, the Africans retained elements of their cultures in Africa – they were drawn from all across West Africa – it was into their “creolised white-bias” culture as described by RT Smith, that the new arrivals would be exposed in the Caribbean. As the anthropologist David Scott wrote, we have all been “conscripted by modernity” – which of course, is teleologically western.

The Africans were expected to inculcate “English culture”, even though their humanity was denied. This was interesting since most of the overseers they interacted with were Irish and Scottish, who had themselves “colonised”. The indentured servants inevitably imbibed much of their new culture from the African creoles who preceded them in the plantation, and who were expected to “season” them into the new dispensation. Think about eating “boil and fry” and holding “wakes”.


Out of this experience with independence we were told that we were “One people; One Nation; One Destiny”. However, in Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean, people of African origin sought to counter the European hegemonic cultural imposition with the ideologies of “Black Power”, “Negritude” and “Pan Africanism” all of which privileged the African culture as the “root” of the tree of “national culture”.

But reviewing the broad sweep of Caribbean history, Senior sought to make the point that there is no “pure” origins and no “one root” that we can discover on which to construct our Caribbean identity. She borrowed the metaphor of the “rhizome” – with its multiplicity of roots that privilege no one root for Caribbean identity from the Martiniquean Edouard Glissant. He was consciously reacting against the construct of “negritute” and of “hybridity” that been proposed to describe French Antillean identity. The former excluded all others such as people of Indian origin and the French and the latter still privileged the “African root”.

Glissant himself had adapted the image from the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who introduced the rhizome as a metaphor for “multiplicity,” rather than a “multiple”. In a more abstract plane than Glissant and Senior, Deleuze and Guattari emphasised “there are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.” They also emphasised that we need to stop focusing on sameness since what holds all existence together is difference, not resemblance.

I am happy CXC had chosen a text like “Gardening in the Tropics” which can help make our (reflective) young people move away from the binary of “African” and “Indian”, which enviably creates divisions and towards a more fluid, permeable conception of self in which “Guyanese” can be a mosaic rather than hierarchical strata of dominator and dominated.