Pass the Chutney, Watch for Soucouyant and Beware Unclean Hands

“Don’t accept no food from Mr. Ramkisoon. Neighbor say Mr. Ramkisoon hands not clean.” The names have been changed to protect the accused, but this was the warning given by my parents before I got on a plane bound for our house in Trinidad. For those who might not be aware of the phraseology, the concern about Mr. Ramkisoon’s unclean hands has nothing to do with his hygiene. It was a warning that Mr. Ramkisoon possibly dabbled in some “simi dimi,” or more likely had done something foul to earn a curse placed upon him. My parents (who now live in the US) had it on good information–an Indian neighbor on our block who kept them apprised of the goings on back home. Like the song say, “Trini talk talk talk talk talk…”

So here were my Afro-Trinidadian parents, who are nominally Christian, concerned with superstitions rooted in Hindu (specifically Indian-Trinidadian) folklore. Welcome to the cultural mash-up of my childhood, or as I like to call it, a little bit chutney and a little bit pelau.

I was born in the United States, to black Afro-Carib immigrant parents in a Jewish hospital and delivered by a Korean doctor–I know, a lot going on there. But before I was a full year, due to health-related problems in a New York climate, I was shipped off to live with my grandparents in the Caribbean island republic of Trinidad & Tobago. For the next seven years of my life I was raised a Trini. I ate saltfish and bake with some zabuca for breakfast (cereal might as well have been something eaten on Mars), drank mauby and sorrel, had tamarind ball and kurma and toolum for candy, a goat roti for lunch if I was lucky and enjoyed good solid “provisions” for dinner with some callaloo or oxtail. I learned to read from Ladybird books, did my “maths” and practiced my “penmanship.” The beginning of the year for me was colorful costumes, steelpan and a trip into town for mas. Christmas didn’t mean Santa Claus (had never heard of the guy), but ginger beer, blood pudding, my grandmother’s ham (the sacrificial pig came from our backyard) and–of course–parang! I pronounced three “tree,” had a wicked “steups” when I get vex, knew well when someone was getting on “schupid,” earned my fair share of “licks” (oh gosh!) and laughed out loud if I found someone looked “obzokee.”

And then of course, there was the magic. My grandparents warnings were endless: from not picking mangoes at night (the tree in our backyard was said to be resting) to waking me up and correcting the direction I slept in, because the living should not lay like the dead. When the dogs began their nightly barking fits, my grandmother shut our windows, claiming “the witches were out.” And she could tell if something “unseen” followed me back into the house (because unseen things, I learned to my horror, often latched onto children and snuck in behind them), making sure to burn the right bush to make it go away. People visited far off relatives to warn about a dream they had of them crossing over water, or slaughtering a cow. Grown men spoke of seeing jumbie (mischievous spirits) on a dark night road, and women gathered to shell peas or knead roti, whispered about people “putting ting” on this one or that one.

These superstitions, bits of folklore and beliefs came from the cultural mix that was my neighborhood–Afro and Indian Trinis, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I watched Shango Baptists dressed in white–the fusion of West African Orisha reverence and Christianity–called upon to bless newly constructed houses for people who were staunch Anglicans and Catholics. I listened to tassa drums beaten for Hindu holidays and watched recreations of the theft and rescue of Sita. I saw processions for the Muslim Shiite ceremony of Hosay, re-adapated as a local festival with social and political meanings that cut across Trinidad’s religious and ethnic spectrum. I grew up lighting candles for All Soul’s Day as well as deyas for Divali. And I never saw a hint of contradiction.

Trinidad’s polycultural heritage was born out of the varied migrations–some voluntary, many exploitative–that permeated the Caribbean basin and much of the Atlantic world. The indigenous inhabitants of the island were Caribs and Arawaks, decimated by the arrival of Europeans, and further displaced by the forced migration of African slaves and their white masters. The island would change hands among empires several times, ending as a British colony by the time slavery was abolished there in 1834. The African-descendant migrants had already begun to arrive more heavily in the wake of the Haitian Revolution some thirty-odd years prior, as the colonial government enticed fleeing planters from Saint Domingue to settle the sparsely populated island with their human property, helping to spark a lucrative sugar industry. Several hundred had even come from the United States, former slaves from Maryland, Virginia and Georgia who sided with the British in the War of 1812 and were granted freedom and land in the colony. As slavery ended throughout the Caribbean, more Afro-descendants would arrive, so that by the late 19th century most Trinidadians of African heritage were migrants from other islands–many of them coming from Grenada, Guadeloupe and French-speaking regions, leaving an indelible stamp upon the language, culture and folklore.

By the mid to late 19th century, a new migration took place–varied peoples of Asian origin funneled through the interlacing networks of the British colonial empire, and shipped half-a-world away into exploitative wage-contracts that amounted to a form of indentured servitude. Some came from China, and a small few as peddlers from the Middle East. The vast majority however called the Indian subcontinent home. They settled in communities throughout the island, bringing their beliefs and customs with them–and picking up new ones as well.

These varied cultures, most especially the African and Indian, would mix and meld on the island over the next century and a half, yielding some interesting results. Modern Trinidadians (both black and Indian) may speak English, but it’s a complex hybridity of Afro-French creole patois, interwoven with Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish loan words set to diverse rhythms. Spices and flavors of the East have blended in with those of the West, making Trini food as much a part of the African diaspora as it is the Indian diaspora–the latter dominating popular cuisine but prepared in ways quite different from the global East Indian community, reflecting adaptations and Afro-Creole influence. Even Chinese food in Trinidad is labeled distinctly as Trini-Chinese. Afro-French inspired Calypso would slowly adopt Indian drum beats, most notably in the fusion sound of Soca, only to be reinvented once more in the strongly Indian-flavored “Chutney” Soca. And though arguments erupt often about “who” invented what and where so-and-so actually originated, there has been so much borrowing and cross-fertilization that the answers are often a matter of interpretation.

Not surprising then that the superstitions that arose in Trinidad share in these acts of boundary crossing. Trini Afro-Creole folklore tells of Douens, the souls of children that take the form of hideous little creatures with no faces and backwards feet. Raakhas are evil newborn babies in Indian-Trini folklore, who attack their own parents. In Afro-Trini lore the La Diablese (sometimes Lajables: “La-Jah-Bless”) is a devil woman who hides her cloven hoof beneath a sea of petticoats, enticing men to their doom, while Mama Dlo is a woman with long flowing hair who hides the lower half of her monstrous body–that of an anaconda or similar giant snake–in mountain pools and lagoons. Similarly, the Trini-Indian Saapin is a strikingly beautiful long-haired woman with a cobra tattooed upon her back; she releases the snake at night to seek out her victims.The Soucouyant is probably the most popular figure in Afro-Trini folklore, shedding her skin to become a vampiric fire spirit that sucks the life from the living at night. In Trini-Indian tales, Churile is a vengeful spirit of a woman who died during childbirth, seeking to inflict suffering on other pregnant women.

The similarities between the two sets of folkloric fiends are noticeable. That they are nearly all women (with the exception of the Saapin who can also be a man, and the Douen/Raakhas which are children) may have much to do with the fact that Trinidad is a patriarchal society–a trait shared among both blacks and Indians. The other commonalities may indicate shared influences, or may just be perceptions. Whatever the case, it does lend understanding as to how some superstitions–such as being mindful of “unclean hands”–easily cross religious, ethnic and racial lines.

This is not to give the impression that Trinidad is one happy multicultural love-fest. If only. Despite the popular claim and song of being “one family” and constant attempts–especially during the high tourist season of Carnival–to portray a racial, multi-ethnic utopia, tensions and conflicts are always right beneath the surface. Lingering divisions can be seen in economic disparities, business ownership (overwhelmingly favoring Indians) and even within the government (political parties, with a few exceptions, have historically fallen sharply along racial lines)–especially following an outward migration of mainly Afro-Trinis beginning in the 1950s and 1960s. Issues of skin colorism as well remain a touchy subject, with both Afro-creole mestizos and Indians of lighter skin enjoying their “fair” share of power and privileges. And wealth inequality affects nearly all aspects of society. In a recent local newspaper, all but one respondent to a street poll questioning the existence of racial bias on the island responded with a resounding “yes;” and even the naysayer qualified her statement with, “not as much as other places.”

You can even see these tensions in the lengths some go to deny its existence, as Indian friends and neighbors often take it as their duty to inform me as a “Trini-foreigner” (a person who may have spent significant time on the island but lives elsewhere–in my case, even the accent is gone), that they personally hold no bias against blacks and that we’re all really one. Heaven forbid I go back to the states and relate that Trinidad has a race problem. “Some Indian darker than blacks!” I’m told. “What the hell we fightin’ for?” It’s those blasted Syrians (a catch-all phrase for Trinidad’s elusive, walled-off and often wealthy, white populace) and newly arriving Chinese (recent migrant construction workers who decided to make Trinidad home) we need to worry about! As most aspects of race relations go, for Trini the official Facebook status remains, “it’s complicated.”

Still, there’s no denying the small island of the Eastern Caribbean is steeped in cultural fluidity–as is the gene pool. The day after I arrived, the first night of an Indian wedding was held on my street–the Maticcor procession with the beating of Tassa drums. As I watched, I noticed that at least one of the drummers was of Afro-Indian descent, commonly known by the Hindi derived term “dougla.” It’s an occurrence that has been going on for some time, and is reflected throughout much of the populace who (despite their stated identity preferences) show evidence of “mixture.” I have endless cousins who bridge the racial divide, and the phenomenon is growing. At the wedding, I found myself playing the politically incorrect game of “guess who’s black and who’s Indian,” only to often be confounded, as persons of noticeable African descent walked by wrapped in traditional Indian garb while Indian tassa drummers at times broke into African-inspired rhythms.

“No, no,” I was told, “She father dougla but she mother Indian, so she ah Indian. You see he with the straight hair? He not Indian yuh know, he mother black but he father Trinidad Spanish.” After a while, I stopped trying. And all ah we–black, Indian and everyone in-between–sat down to partake in a meal of rice, mango chutney, potato, channa, bhajee and buss up shot served on a Soharee leaf and eaten with your fingers–of course.

Later, as I hung out with a tattooed and dreaded Hip Hop loving Trini-Indian named “Ras,” whose house boasts flags to Hindu gods and a Rasta shrine to Jah, his younger cousin–who had imbibed far too much Puncheon with his coconut water–began to drunkenly relate to me how Jesus was both a black man and also an incarnation of Vishnu, which meant that black people actually worship a Hindu god. Could it be, he asked, as if he had stumbled upon some secret revelation, that black people were really from India? Ras took time to turn down the Hindi Soca he was playing to hush him up with a dismissive wave. “Everything is everything man,” he said. “We Trini, and that’s it.”

6 thoughts on “Pass the Chutney, Watch for Soucouyant and Beware Unclean Hands

  1. Loved, loved reading this! The beginning was like reading about my own childhood…with the exception of I was born in London.. I’m going to read this again (and again) because I enjoyed it so much!

  2. Pingback: Fantast in Focus: Phenderson Djèlí Clark - The Thinker's Garden

  3. Wonderful! Revisited so many memories of my childhood reading this. I know this is an old post but had to let you know how powerful it still is to see a Trini carrying our story forward.

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