Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad

Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad

Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad

Callaloo or Tossed Salad? East Indians and the Cultural Politics of Identity in Trinidad


Callaloo or Tossed Salad? is a historical and ethnographic case study of the politics of cultural struggle between two traditionally subordinate ancestral groups in Trinidad, those claiming African and Indian descent. Viranjini Munasinghe argues that East Indians in Trinidad seek to become a legitimate part of the nation by redefining what it means to be Trinidadian, not by changing what it means to be Indian. In her view, Indo-Trinidadians' recent and ongoing struggle for national and cultural identity builds from dissatisfaction with the place they were originally assigned within Trinidadian society.

The author examines how Indo-Trinidadian leaders in Trinidad have come to challenge the implicit claim that their ethnic identity is antithetical to their national identity. Their political and cultural strategy seeks to change the national image of Trinidad by introducing Indian elements alongside those of the dominant Afro-Caribbean (Creole) culture.

Munasinghe analyzes a number of broad theoretical issues: the moral, political, and cultural dimensions of identity; the relation between ethnicity and the nation; and the possible autonomy of New World nationalisms from European forms. She details how principles of exclusion continue to operate in nationalist projects that celebrate ancestral diversity and multiculturalism. Drawing on the insights of theorists who use creolization to understand the emergence of Afro-American cultures, Munasinghe argues that Indo-Trinidadians can be considered Creole because they, like Afro-Trinidadians, are creators and not just bearers of culture.


I first encountered the Indian presence in the Caribbean when the West Indian cricket team visited my native Colombo. Unaware then of the colonial history shared by the West Indies and Sri Lanka, as a child I remember puzzling over the “Indian” names and faces of Alvin Kalicharran and Rohan Kanhai. the twists and turns that ultimately brought me to study the Indian diaspora in Trinidad capture poignantly the paradoxes of “naming” and the politics of identity, interwoven as they are with those fraught relations between empires and colonies. When I was a child growing up in Sri Lanka, the neighboring Indian people were the significant “other” that fascinated me. Ultimately traveling to the United States to pursue graduate studies in anthropology and believing in the fundamental tenet of the discipline that one needs to immerse oneself in a radically different conceptual world, I found it only natural to focus on India.

It was in the United States that I learned about the Indians in Trinidad and elsewhere in the Caribbean. the thought of Indians who had lived for more than a century in this part of the New World immediately piqued my interest. But when I went to Trinidad first in 1986 and then in October 1989-October 90 to learn about the “other, ” the “Indian, ” in a geographical, cultural, and social setting that was totally unfamiliar to me, I soon realized the disjunction between my own categories of “Indianness” and those of Trinidadians. Many Trinidadians claiming Indian ancestry tended to include me as “one of them.” I would explain to them that I spoke a different language (Sinhala), that I was a Buddhist, and that Sri Lanka and India are independent nation-states. Yet these criteria seemed to matter little to them. They acknowledged some dif-

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