For Both Parties, Race in East Texas is Vital

Outcome Could Shape Congressional Politics
By Gaiutra Bahadur
Austin American-Statesman (Texas)

Polk County in rural East Texas is a place where hosannas electrify the airwaves, churches anchor the main town at a rate of six per square mile and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt once reigned almost as supreme as God.

It is also a key battleground in a race that gives the Democrats a chance to reclaim a 17-county state Senate district — lost in 1994 to Drew Nixon, the GOP incumbent tainted by his arrest in an Austin prostitution sting.

The outcome of the race could alter the shape of Texas and even U.S. congressional politics for the next decade. The party that controls the state Senate, where Republicans now have a one-seat edge, will also control the drawing of electoral boundaries early next year, based on the Census Bureau’s account of the state’s growth.

Not convinced of the near cosmic scale of the race for partisan maneuvering? Just look at the campaign finance reports of the two contenders — Silsbee lawyer David Fisher, the Democrat, and state Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, a rancher and businessman. It reads like a who’s who list of Texas politics, past and present: Contributors to the two campaigns include Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, Land Commissioner David Dewhurst, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, former Gov. Ann Richards and a slew of state legislators.

Each candidate reports raising more than $1 million since last fall, a record amount for a state Senate race. In the first half of this year, Staples collected $484,248.70, and Fisher raised $648,111.30.

Campaign coffers aside, the contest promises to be a hard-fought one. Changes in the past decade have made this meandering stretch of Bible Belt near the Louisiana border less of a stronghold for the Yellow Dog Democrat — a party loyalist who would vote for any Democrat, even a yellow dog, over a Republican.

Polk County, a bellwether for the district where both candidates stumped last week, once might have been an easy victory for the Democrats, but today the picture is more complicated.

Outsiders — mainly Yankee retirees, drawn by a forested landscape fringed by lakes, and mainly Republicans — have moved in, causing the county to grow 41 percent since 1990. And the inheritors of the land, the descendants of Depression-era farmers saved from ruin by Roosevelt’s New Deal, are also less and less inheritors of their forefathers’ politics.

Muddling matters even more, the race pits two people who consider every voter game, to the point of blurring party lines. Staples, who in 1995 was the first Republican elected from his House district , reaches for the mantle of the working man’s candidate. And while Fisher probably would not match his rival’s 100 percent imprimatur from the Christian Coalition, he is socially conservative.

Hopes to be first

No Republican has held a local office in Polk County since Reconstruction, but Bob Willis, a former Democratic tax collector who joined the GOP in January to run for county commissioner, hopes to be the first.

“I didn’t feel like I was leaving the Democratic Party,” he said, using words long associated with Ronald Reagan. “I felt like it had already left me.”

The defection would have been unimaginable in the time of his great-grandfather, the county’s first district clerk who also ran the post office and dry goods store in Livingston, the government seat. Or in the era of his grandad, when Roosevelt brought electricity to outlying farms, subsidized the price of cotton and timber and built roads so those crops could be taken to market.

Until the mid-1980s, the Democratic Party “was the only bus ride there was,” as Willis puts it. “We had no organized Republican Party, period. No precinct elections. No precinct conventions.”

How did this corner of rural Texas — 12 percent African American and 5 percent Hispanic, mainly blue collar, with a median rent of $218 a month — begin to move from Roosevelt to Reagan, or in some cases from Roosevelt to Goldwater?

“The Republican Party now seems to represent the working class better from the East Texas perspective than the Democratic Party does,” Willis said. “The party’s values closer fit mine.”

He echoes a feeling of alienation voiced by some East Texans, based on their passion for small government, their devout Christianity and their distrust of policies they say favor minorities.

Lloyd Stephens, the son of working-class Democrats, a gospel musician and a barber in Livingston, associates the party of his parents with special interest groups, such as advocates of multiculturalism. That — and the Democrats’ stance on school prayer — has driven him away.

“My ancestors came to this country and became Americans,” he said. “We ought not to have all these ethnic clans. That’s what’s happening in Europe.”

He and his colleague Becky Miller, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico who comes from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers, don’t talk politics in the barbershop for fear of losing customers. Polk County is still, in their eyes, Yellow Dog Democrat country as much as it is God’s country.

“It’s been ordained, sanctified and anointed that way, and that’s the way it is,” Miller said.

But she added that high taxes for social welfare programs could push Democratic loyalists over the edge.

“If it keeps going the way it’s going, if they keep giving everything away. . . . The working people are sick and tired of paying for the lazies. We’ve become beasts of burden.”

Julie Bergman, a 40-year-old businesswoman who runs nine communication towers in Polk County, has also strayed from her family’s Democratic roots, primarily because she is against abortion rights. But like many other Texas voters, Bergman splits her vote between parties, depending on the candidate. “I’m not going to vote straight down the ticket,” she said. “I want to know the person.”

That independence springs from a war within the soul of the Yellow Dog Democrat that is decades old, says Charles Elliott, a former East Texas State University political scientist who is running for state representative as a Democrat in a nearby district.

“Since the Civil Rights Act of 1965, some Democrats in the South have migrated en masse to the Republican Party,” through a populism based on race and religion, he said. “That same pattern has penetrated pretty deeply in East Texas.”

Club of retirees

But the decline of the Yellow Dog Democrat might have less of an impact locally than the rise of another group: the Escapees Inc., a national club of retirees who travel the country by trailer.

An RV camp that now serves as home base for about 9,000 of them sprouted near Lake Livingston in 1984. It accounts for more than 90 percent of the growth in Polk County, where the population ballooned from 30,687 in 1990 to 43,295 in 1999, according to the Texas State Data Center. And it is local Republican Chairman Benny Fogelman’s Shangri-La.

“All around the lake, there are lots of retired folks, and they vote conservatively,” he said.

Fogelman estimates that 70 percent of the escapees are Republicans.

They have become such an electoral force that last year local officials, arguing that most of the retirees call the county home for a scant few months of the year, petitioned the secretary of state’s office to disqualify their votes. Not only did it fail, but it might even have organized the retirees politically.

John Bracken, 73, a retired trucking company vice president from Ohio, became an accidental activist to fight the attempt. He compiled an e-mail list of sympathetic Republicans, a list that still exists. He became connected to the local Republican Party. The ties remain, so much so that he hand-delivered the red-and-white “Bob Willis for Commissioner” signs that have cropped up on lawns throughout the RV park.

“The local boys tried to take our voting power away from us,” he said. “They had the ballgame all to themselves. Up until the escapees, they had no opposition.”

Another outcrop of Republican support sprawls out from Houston, amid the cul-de-sacs of Montgomery County — the only county in the district with a growth rate, 52 percent, that outstrips the Livingston area’s. Many of its 87,000 newcomers are upper-income fiscal conservatives. Many live in the north, the half of the county that belongs to the district. And many helped elect Drew Nixon in 1996, although he lost in 15 counties.

But Democrats have not written off the retirees, the suburbanites or anyone else in the district.

“Losses in the past really woke (us) up,” said Livingston chiropractor Dennis Teal, a state party committeeman. “It was a message the people of East Texas sent to the Democratic Party, and it was heard by the Democratic Party. They wanted us to get back to addressing core issues in their lives, pocketbook issues” such as Social Security and pay raises for teachers and corrections officers.

Among retirees, the Democrats plan to highlight a Republican proposal to privatize Social Security and the need to protect the natural environment that first lured them to the area. “It’s amazing how fast they become environmentalists once they move here,” he said.

The numbers, party officials say, also show that Democrats still have a slight edge in East Texas, at least below Gov. George W. Bush’s coattails. In March, 8,000 more people in the district — 1,200 of them in Polk County — voted in the Democratic rather than in the GOP primary for state Senate.

Also — in the words of Gary Hanlon, who writes the “Sideline Observer” political column for The Tyler County Booster — “There’s a thin line between a conservative Democrat and a Republican, and (Fisher) straddles that thin line.”

A church deacon, Fisher opposes abortion, belongs to the National Rifle Association and favors school prayer, stances at odds with the image of a “Hillary Clinton-like carpetbagger” that the Staples campaign paints of him. “He wants to reflects the values found in the district, rather than the values that might be established by the party platform,” said Shaun Davis, the campaign’s political director.

© Austin American-Statesman (Texas). All rights reserved.

Black Girl in Paris

Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
salon.com

“Black Girl in Paris” is the story of a young woman’s pilgrimage to the city that nurtured her literary gods, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Eden Daniel, the 26-year-old narrator, sets out from the American South to the French capital in search of love and language. She wants to be a writer and expects the metropolis that was muse to her creative forefathers to launch her in much the same way. In the first pages of the novel, she informs us that upon arriving in the Paris of 1924 in his early 20s, Langston Hughes had $7 in his pocket; that an equally youthful James Baldwin followed two decades later with $40 to his name; and that when she landed in Paris in 1986, there was $140 hidden between her sock and the sole of her shoe. “They dared to make a way when there was none and I want to be just like them,” she writes. “This is the place where it happened. Where it will happen again.”

The novel is at its best when it accentuates the contradictions Eden faces in Paris, the difference between the city’s romantic image as a promised land where “being black won’t hold me back” and “even the prisons … are beautiful” and its reality in 1986. That was a year of terrorist bombings, student demonstrations and the mass deportation of African immigrants.

At one point in Eden’s story, perhaps its most astute, she is strolling the square in front of the Church of the Sacre Coeur with her lover, Ving, a white musician from America, and Olu-Christophe, a Haitian exile who is seeking political asylum after fleeing the dictatorship of the Duvaliers. The setting, 100 steps above the city with a commanding view, captures all that is bewitching about Paris. Couples are huddled in the dark, candles burning from wine glasses and cigarette tips glowing. Artists are selling their paintings. Performers are singing, dancing, eating fire. And all this to the soundtrack of a Bob Dylan song.

Enter two policemen with their pistols poised at their hips. They demand to see passports. When Olu-Christophe has none to offer, they carry him off brusquely, shouting over their shoulders that they are taking him “a L’Afrique avec les autres singes” — to Africa with the other monkeys. “This was a bad night to be a black man without papers,” Ving observes.

The chapters of “Black Girl in Paris” each bear the name of one of the roles Eden assumes in Paris: Lover, Thief, English Teacher, Poet’s Helper. And most contain, quite literally, a how-to list on performing the part well. The narrative of Eden’s experience as an au pair, for instance, is broken by such admonitions as “Try not to lose the children” and “Don’t kill the dog.” The device draws attention away from the content of the story to its form, and for the most part it’s distracting rather than clever.

Shay Youngblood is a lyricist, the winner of a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award, but there are pitfalls when writers decide to tell us the tale of their artistic awakening. We might not be as interested in the process of their finding a voice as we are in hearing it speak, especially if the way is as littered with clichéd bohemian characters as Eden Daniel’s is. What’s more, Eden’s blunt desire to emulate, to follow in the footsteps of greatness, gives her story an eager, somewhat breathless quality that makes her journey of discovery seem contrived.

Race is as much the backdrop for this book as Paris, and I couldn’t help thinking that Youngblood, whose prose has the rhythms and sensual detail of poetry, might have put her talents to better use by tackling this theme head-on. She might have skipped the account of Eden’s writerly, self-obsessed quest for a subject and gone straight to her subject instead.

© Salon.com. All rights reserved.

Interview with Jhumpa Lahiri

20 Questions with Jhumpa Lahiri
Interview by Gaiutra Bahadur
Philadelphia City Paper
September 16-23, 1999

In her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies (Mariner Books), Jhumpa Lahiri chronicles the attempts of married couples, adulterous lovers and immigrants to cross borders and, as E.M. Forster wrote, “only connect.” In “This Blessed House,” a recently married couple finds Christian bric-a-brac – a 30-pound bronze bust of Christ and a 3-D postcard of St. Francis of Assisi – in their Connecticut house and also discovers the jagged outlines of each other’s personalities. In “The Third and Final Continent,” set in 1969, an Indian immigrant takes up temporary lodging with a 103-year-old woman who clings to Victorian culture. Months later, when the immigrant’s wife arrives from Calcutta, it’s the woman who bridges the gaps of an arranged marriage. Lahiri’s work has received plenty of accolades. Three of the stories were published in The New Yorker last year, and the title story was selected for the O. Henry and Best American Short Stories collections. Lahiri, 32, spoke from her home on the fringes of the East Village and Gramercy Park in Manhattan.

Q: You were born in London and raised in Rhode Island, and your parents are from Calcutta. Yet your stories are not preoccupied with issues of identity. Does identity interest you as a writer, or is it a cumbersome expectation to be “multicultural”?

A: It’s always a bad thing to try to answer people’s expectations. There hasn’t been a lot of writing from the perspective of Indian-American writers and some people will look to my writing to answer some of those questions. But I never think of self-consciously trying to answer issues of identity. I work from a character and a conflict in a character’s life.

Q: Two of your stories that are set in India, “A Real Durwan” and “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar,” are not portraits of upper-middle-class life, but of servants and marginal figures. Why did you make that choice?

A: Both of those characters came out of observation, my own observations of people when I was there. What drew me to writing about them was partly a projection of my own feelings of being marginal when there. Of not being a part of the culture. Of feeling foreign even though this was a place my parents call home and refer to in their minds as home, even though they’ve been away for 30 years.

The reason I portrayed these characters out of the fray was because I felt that. I could imagine it more easily than assuming the role of a more “ordinary,” adjusted Indian character. I didn’t have very much mobility when I was there. As a young adult and an adult, I wasn’t really able to leave on my own. I felt not only sort of alienated, but trapped.

Q: Which story was the most difficult to write and why?

A: “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine” was hard. It was the first time I began to write closer to my own experience, though it’s not an autobiographical story. It took several years to come to that point of view and to feel secure working from that point of view. “The Third and Final Continent” was difficult, because it was written from the point of view of a man and in the first person, which seemed like an extra step. There was the added challenge of writing something based in real life. It was based on my father’s past. There was the challenge of working with real facts and preserving truth, yet having to disguise them to make it fiction.

Q: Did being a second-generation American play a role in your aspiring to be a writer?

A: It didn’t make me want to be a writer so much as it made me want to write. To seek solace through observation and recording my impressions in a space that was very much my own, on the page. That’s the place where I answered only to myself, from a very young age.

One of the things I was always aware of growing up was conflicting expectations. I was expected to be Indian by Indians and American by Americans. I didn’t feel equipped even as a child to fully participate in things. In the act of writing, it was more justified to withdraw into myself and have that be a vital experience, rather than just feeling neglected or left out.

© Philadelphia City Paper. All rights reserved.

The Professor of Light

Caught Between Worlds, Shadows and Light: The Professor of Light
by Marina Budhos
Review by Gaiutra Bahadur
Newsday

DON’T LOOK BACK, if you’re racing, pursued by the flames of Sodom and Gomorrah. Or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt. Don’t look back, if you’re Orpheus on the threshold of escape, holding your Eurydice by the hand, leading her out from captivity in the Underworld. Steal a peek of your beloved, and the game will be up. She’ll fall back into the abyss. Whether it’s horror or longing that compels the glance, fight it, or the costs will be tragic.

The Western canon offers many examples of the dangers of looking back, and it is this anxiety about memory that animates “The Professor of Light,” Marina Budhos’ lyrical but schematic second novel. Her characters, immigrants to successful addresses in the First World, wrestle against the impulse to cultivate “home” and its habits, once permanently abroad.

For Warren Singh, a philosophy professor in New York City and the novel’s namesake, the claims of the past are psychological blocks to achieving his ambition: to write the definitive book about the dual nature of light, as both matter and energy.

The past asserts itself through ever more insistent letters from his mother and sisters in Guyana – the second poorest country, after Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere and a place that some might argue is its own Underworld of political burlesque and economic need, its own Sodom and Gomorrah of racial sins.

Warren’s relatives report, in blue aerograms “sliding through the mail slot with a scary hiss,” that the house is falling apart. That, in a country “that once shimmered with green paddy fields,” there is no rice to buy. That they never receive the money he sends to the village gas station. And that his brother Joseph (once upon a time, his partner in dissecting Descartes) is close to death.

If it were not for Sonia, his Jewish-American wife, the letters would pile up unanswered in the room where he paces, mulling over the paradox of light and wishing he could disentangle himself from his roots long enough for sustained flights of scientific inquiry.

Soon, the letters arrive with coaxing gifts: guavas wrapped in pink tissue, pillows embroidered by Singh’s sisters, glass bangles for his teenage daughter, Meggie, the book’s narrator.

The plot, or what there is of plot in this highly meditative novel, unfolds over several summer holidays in England with Warren’s favorite sister, Inez. Married to a dry Englishman, Inez has become a caricature of English propriety, “hushing the sunny vowels of her accent,” hating the way that Guyanese men wear their shirts to show their curly black hair and dismissing them as “rum-headed fellows” who “don’t know how to get on with their lives.”

“I didn’t come to England to listen to their stories and moan about the old country,” she declares. “I married a good man.”

In one of the novel’s most vivid scenes, two of those “rum-headed fellows,” childhood friends whom Warren rediscovers quite by accident at a cricket game, come like a cyclone into Inez’ home. Liquor cabinets fly open. Talk alive with old times and dialect flows like rum. Much that is English – the porcelain miniatures of Big Ben and the London Bridge and the meticulously kept flower beds – is ruined. And, in the end, as Inez had predicted, they demand money, leaving Warren to conclude: “The people from my past, they want so much. They want more than I can give.”

The reasons for the Singhs’ denial of the past, ironically, lie exactly there. Even before Warren, bound for the United States, says goodbye to his weeping mother on their veranda, “leaving” is central to his identity. He is a descendant of Indian indentured laborers in the former British colonies of the Caribbean. “They say,” Inez tells her young niece, “that every season when the old folks plant their seed cane in the fields, they remember their lost homes in India and weep tears of longing, which mingle in the earth. The rum they brew muddles their children’s heads and makes them slow-footed and melancholy, so they can never leave home.”

The ancestors conspire to keep their offspring close. The Singhs’ mother, in Budhos’ poetic idiom, ties red ribbons around her daughters’ waists. She sends letters that weigh like stones in the pockets of her son Joseph, then a government worker in Aruba, to force him home.

She buries an egg under the steps every time her daughter Didi, a beauty in love with the wrong man, looks wistfully beyond their yard. Those eggs hatch into “half-born bird-ghosts” that push through the earth, rising to “let out their fury on those of us who dare run away and live out our dreams.”

This image of the bird-ghost recurs throughout “The Professor of Light,” a book that gains its momentum not from character or plot, but from the progress of a series of ideas and symbols, chief among them: light.

It is held up as an ideal, both particle and wave, in a fictional world charged by many opposites (flesh and intellect, roots and flight, man and woman, superstition and reason). It is even able to serve as a metaphor for transnational identity.

As Meggie Singh, a young woman with multicultural credentials much like the author’s, says, summing up the novel’s overarching conceit: “It’s like this. My dad always taught me that we were in between. He’s Indian from the West Indies and my mother is not. We live in the States, but we come here every summer to be with Uncle Tom and Aunt Inez and George and Timmy. Light is like that. Here and there. In between.”

© Newsday. All rights reserved.

Cookin’ with Chutney

By Gaiutra Bahadur
Newsday

UNDER THE elevated tracks of the J train – in a squat warehouse across from a Queens branch of the U.S. Post Office – midnight means the swish of hips against hips, feet pounding the floor and hands writhing in mock Bharata Natyam, an Indian classical dance form.

The doors open at 9:30 p.m. at Calypsocity, a 4-year-old nightclub set amid a sprawl of working-class houses in Richmond Hill. But until the neighborhood sleeps, bouncer Anand Goswami stands by the door, brawny arms hanging idly at his sides, ready to begin the business of frisking for weapons. In August, the city raided Calypsocity and issued summonses for overcrowding and disorderly conduct. It’s not quite the image of intrigue that Peter Gatien, the don of Manhattan’s night scene indicted on drug conspiracy charges last year, brought to his clubs, the Tunnel and Limelight.

But the club’s location on Jamaica Avenue, in an otherwise sedate patch of frame houses and sycamore trees, has made it necessary for Goswami to keep a vigilant edge. Calypsocity has raised the ire of some neighbors, who say it brings unwelcome rowdiness to the area. Mary Ann Carey, district manager for Community Board 9, even tried – unsuccessfully – to get its liquor license revoked.

Mohan Jaikaran, the Trinidad-born owner of Calypsocity, sees the complaints as an inevitable reaction to changes in the demographics of Richmond Hill, once a German and Irish stronghold and now adamantly Caribbean. For him, as for his gatekeeper Goswami, running a regulation nightclub has become a matter of cultural pride.

Inside, the amplifiers pump out song after song, switching from hip-hop to soca (a hybrid of soul music and calypso) as if to lure patrons with the insistent beat. And, sure enough, as the first two hours wane, the patrons come. They come in staggered fashion: couples, posses of young men with slicked-back hair and silver rings in their pierced lobes, groups of women wearing DKNY fashions, brown spice lipstick and high heels. They fill the hundred or so gray formica tables and stand on the sidelines of the dance floor, against the blue-black of the walls, striking poses.

“Wherever you go, there are always eyes following you,” says Mala, a regular who didn’t want her last name used. Like all clubs, Calypsocity is a place set aside for being publicly sexy. When they move their bodies, one hand twisting high over their heads and one hand on their swinging hips, the dancers know they’re on display.

At Calypsocity, the dance floor becomes an ethnic stage every weekend. For a generation of immigrants in New York City, it becomes a tight and sweaty space to flaunt the fact that they are cultural hybrids.

A little past midnight the DJ spins music that has a complicated pedigree. Its hot-hot-hot rhythms show the influence of hip-hop on a Caribbean art form with roots in India. The music is the perfect pulsing symbol for a group of New York’s newest arrivals, who have their own complicated pedigree. In the 1990s, the third-largest group of immigrants to New York City came from Guyana, a former British colony at the northern tip of South America. About 100,000 Guyanese – equivalent to about 10 percent of Guyana’s population – live in Queens, in the neighborhoods of Ozone Park, Jamaica, Corona, Queens Village, Far Rockaway and especially Richmond Hill.

In the past decade and a half, the main thoroughfare in Richmond Hill – Liberty Avenue – has become a feast of the foreign. As immigrants from Guyana and from Trinidad – its cousin in the Caribbean – bought modest houses in the neighborhood, tiny replicas of their West Indian past started to spring up along the avenue.

In 1977, a year after leaving her town of Port Mourant in Guyana, Joyce Jarbandan and her sister opened the first West Indian grocery in New York City at 124-02 Liberty Ave. “This was a lonely area,” she says. “There was nobody around but us.”

Now, more than a dozen West Indian shops line Liberty Avenue, their shelves stocked with Sanatogen Tonic Wine, Ovaltine, Seven Seas Cod Liver Oil and Birds Custard Powder – all British brand-name goods coveted as signs of prosperity in the poor villages of Guyana. Tall rods of sugarcane rest against freezers filled with fish from the Caribbean: hassah, gilbacka, bangamary and salt fish. There is a mosque and a Hindu temple in Richmond Hill. The neighborhood is that hidden nook of America, where an employee of McDonald’s may say, “Wan arda a fries to go,” when taking an order in the inflections of Berbice, a region in Guyana. Walking along, it is possible to imagine being in another country – that the plane flights that brought these Indo-Caribbeans to Queens in the past two decades were only flights of fancy.

“They come from Bombay. They come from Bihar,” sings Sharlene Boodram, above the steady beat of Indian drums. “They take up de bundle and boarded de ship. One hundred and fifty years ago was de trip.” Boodram’s recorded teenage voice fills Calypsocity as she belts out a song that touches on the ancestry of almost every patron in the club.

Boodram describes their passage to the former British colonies of Guyana and Trinidad as indentured laborers: “No room for our comfort, so little to eat. Sickness take them, some die in defeat. The rights for their freedom, they lose on de ship.”

On their arrival in the West Indies, the great-great-grandparents of the Calypsocity clubgoers survived floggings, wretched quarters and vagrancy laws that tied them to plantations. They were, as emissaries from Abolition societies in England saw it, virtual slaves.

In Guyana today, about 50 percent of the population traces its history back to India, mainly the northern region of Bihar, where the Hindi dialect Bhojpuri is spoken. About 45 percent of the population is African. After being freed in 1833, black Guyanese fled the rural sugarcane estates for the town and never returned, while the Indians still remain in villages in large numbers.

For 26 years after independence, the Indian political party languished underground, after the CIA engineered the ouster of its socialist leader, Cheddi Jagan, and installed Forbes Burnham, head of the black political party, as president. Through the continued fiasco of rigged elections, he maintained a rule that systematically discriminated against the Indians in the civil service, armed forces and higher education. This and the terrible poverty the country slipped into during his regime led to a mass migration of Indo-Guyanese to the United States, starting in the early 1980s.

“They struggle for respect. They struggle for rights,” continues the Sharlene Boodram song, the first on her Indian Arrival cassette, distributed by Jamaican Me Crazy (JMC) records in Richmond Hill.

“One hundred and fifty years ago. Remember the fight. They salvaged a language, a culture alive. Through the voice of our ancestors cry out, Chalo” – “let’s go” in Hindi.

Boodram lives in Trinidad, and her pop-history tune tells the story of the first departure of Indians to her island nation in the Caribbean. The indentured servants brought with them a body of Bhojpuri folk songs: bawdy wedding songs, seasonal and birth songs and devotional hymns. As the Indo-Caribbeans lost their Hindi dialect over the decades, these songs became bastardized, with slurred and surmised pronunciations. They also became faster, as traditional Indian instruments (the harmonium, the tassa, dholak and tabla drums and the dandtal, a metal rod struck by a U-shaped clapper) blended with African-inspired bongos and congas. The music became known as chutney, after the hot relish used to spice up food.

In the past decade or two, chutney has co-opted the electric guitars and synthesizers of Caribbean soca to become a new hyphenated musical style. Chutney-soca blends the Creole dialect Indo-Caribbeans adopted from their African countrymen with bits and pieces of Bhojpuri Hindi, and it blends the musical instruments of Africa, India and the West.

“Chalo, Chalo,” Boodram gives the dance floor at Calypsocity a chant. In its rhythms, chutney contains the jolt of both Chalos in the Indo-Caribbean past – in one century, to the West Indies on ships curving around the Cape in Africa from ports in India, and in the next, to the United States on Boeings headed to Kennedy Airport from tarmacs in Guyana and Trinidad.
It’s the music of a double diaspora.