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The Indian connection in the Windies

Though marginalised and insignificant, it is the rural Indian communities of WI from where much of the future is coming, writes Rahul Bhattacharya.

india Updated: Mar 06, 2007 17:09 IST
Rahul Bhattacharya
Rahul Bhattacharya

It so happened that I was in Berbice, a sugarcane district in Guyana, when the Guyanese team played the knockouts of the big West Indian cricket event of last year, the Texan billionaire Allen Stanford's Twenty20 tournament.

Twenty20 was already buzzing at a local level. Shapoorji Pallonji, the Indian builders of the new World Cup stadium outside Georgetown, had sponsored a tournament that seasoned officials felt, was the best club competition in decades.

Berbice is Indian territory, or East Indian, to use the term given to the descendants of indentured labourers brought to the region intermittently for 80 years after the abolition of British slavery in 1834.

Though a minority in the wider Caribbean, in Guyana and Trinidad they comprise roughly half the population, and the principal rural one.

To spend a week there in the beautiful flat mud villages, among the cane fields and brown water, was to imbibe of three essential passions of Berbician life: Hindi film and music, alcohol, and cricket.

About half the team that won the Stanford tournament had come from these villages, many employed on the plantations, and so there was a great intimacy among the people with the players.

As Narsingh Deonarine, a young batsman who's been in and out of the West Indies team, lost his wicket in the semifinal, the post-mortem was quickly delivered. “The bai head all wrang, he sport too much.” Deonarine would go on to win Guyana the final with a penultimate-ball six: the million-dollar shot as it came to be known.

I practised a few days in a plantation community centre with Young Warriors, who would go on to win the Shapoorji event. There was something pure about what the game meant in the country.

In my mind, I was playing back the marvellous opening words of an interview with Ivan Madray, an East Indian cricketer, that I had recently come upon: “I remember the first time I ever thought about cricket was one day when I went to the Port Mourant Cricket Ground, peeping through a hole in the zinc fence, watching the big men in white play."

"There was something about their clean, white clothes that made the whole thing look like magic. And as I peeped, with no shirt on and my black ass exposed to the public — my pants tried to hide my willy but it would pop out — I felt like I wanted to be like those men.”

Two decades on from then, in the 50s, as much-needed reforms were made to plantation life, Madray became one among a wave of Berbicians to play for the West Indies. Three of the four were Indian; the other, Basil Butcher, was mixed.

The greatest was Rohan Kanhai; and Kanhai is the hero of the book in which Madray's conversation with the historian Clem Shiwcharan appears, Indo-Westindian Cricket.

In a lovely short story about growing up in Berbice, Elahi Baksh describes a visit by an Indian cricket team: “Indo-Guyanese who had never seen a proper cricket match in their lives made the long journey to the city of Georgetown simply to catch a glimpse of these cricketers who, if they were not film stars, were at least true Indians, original models of which we Indo-Guyanese felt ourselves to be mere debased replicas.”

A key event in the story revolves around a man offering a reward to a young boy to unearth evidence that Vijay Hazare had indeed scored two centuries in a match against Australia: he wanted to quell the boasting of an Afro-Guyanese whose claim it was that George Headley, the legendary black batsman, alone had achieved the feat.

Shiwcharan puts forward Kanhai as the emancipator. For the East Indians – “coolies, illiterate labourers; many of us went to school barefooted – Kanhai as well”, Kanhai's every stroke was a stroke of liberation. Against India his success was “a triumph over the pretentious, cruel rigidities of the homeland and its dubious obsessions with purity and cant”.

Even so, it remains not unusual till today for East Indians not just to support India against any team, but to support any team against West Indies. The sociologist Kevin Yelvington noted the high tension in Trinidad during the 1976 tour by India.

Many East Indians supported India; many Afro-Trinidadians were disgusted by this; things came to a head when an East Indian umpire, Ralph Gosein, issued a decision that favoured India, and a flood of letters to newspapers demonstrated how deep feelings ran.

As later entrants into the Caribbean society, East Indians have suffered a sense of marginalisation, of being expected to adapt into a creolised culture that was defined in predominantly Afro-centric terms.

In cricket, the feeling was strongest in the 1980s, a period where no East Indian cricketer broke through and Viv Richards, a vocal supporter of the Black Power movement, would refer to the West Indies as a black team.

So when Shivnarine Chanderpaul from the Guyanese village of Unity made it to the side in 1994, he felt adrift, not rejected, but not understood either.

The first breakthrough had come from Trinidad. In 1950, Sonny Ramadhin, a young peasant spinner, was taken to England. He went there with two first-class matches and returned immortalised in a calypso, one of “those two little pals of mine, Ramadhin and Valentine” instrumental in West Indies defeating the mother country for the very first time.

Yet while researching her excellent forthcoming publication, the Trinidadian writer Vaneisa Baksh could find scant documentation about the life and times of this remarkable cricketer, a voice “not to be heard through biography or autobiography”.

Yet it is the rural Indian communities of Trinidad and Guyana from where much of the future is coming. Youth in the countryside are still relatively free from the clutches of cable TV.

And the emotional connect with cricket, because it is a culture not only of the West Indies but also of the Indian subcontinent, is deeper than with football.

Trinidad has won the first-class championship for the two seasons running now; Guyana last season won the one-day, the Twenty20 and the under-19 tournaments. These are teams with more than half East Indian representation.

Some weeks ago, 16-year-old Adrian Barath became the youngest ever centurion in West Indian first-class cricket. It is likely that one, two, or all three of Ramnaresh Sarwan, Daren Ganga and Denesh Ramdin will captain West Indies in the next 10 years.

What we are seeing is a definite demographic shift. How the process plays itself out is significant well beyond the boundary. When Guyana won the Twenty20, at the same time, the nation was preparing for elections, a bitterly racial affair, an editorial in the Stabroek News observed the temporary but “complete suspension of racial identities and their attendant tensions.

For a quarter of an hour, Afro- and Indo-Guyanese ran around the ground hugging and kissing one another, jumping up and down like children, delighted by their great victory”.

The grand narrative of West Indies cricket, in black and white, is no longer relevant. Black and brown, the forgotten struggle of the past, is the one with any meaning.

(Rahul Bhattacharya is the author of the acclaimed Pundits from Pakistan.)

First Published: Mar 06, 2007 17:07 IST