I used to commune with cows. A cow. I used to commune with a cow. Not so much commune, as stare out my window at as distraction from homework. With her flicking tail and seemingly incurious eyes, she dawdled about the gentle slope of the graveyard just over my neighbour’s fence, ruminating. Her terrain’s gradient and the elevation of my second floor window were such that we observed each other easily, even if one of us was more absorbed than the other. Dark brown and moody, she was wont to lowing plaintively or combatively depending on her longings. When loud and consistent enough, her owner— who lived two houses down— made his way over, repeating his concern: is what you bawling for, Mary? Usually, Mary simply wanted a drink, some pani to ease the heat or her digestion, but often enough her declarations were left unattended and unexplained.
I now distract myself with a surfeit of world news. I refresh the live crisis feed and often find my perspective wanting. I felt helplessly safe as I consumed descriptions of the violence Delhi saw in February 2020. In the wake of the Citizenship Amendment Act and an increasing number of beef lynchings, mobs attacked Muslims while Modi hosted Trump. Headlines spell a faltering capacity to represent this violence: inter-communal clashes, religious riots, nationalist rampage. I mull these phrases’ imprecision before a weighty word jumps from screen to tongue: pogrom. I suck on its solidity as I stare at exhausted grimaces gone viral. The emergent question for me is not why purgative violence blossoms out of Hinduism but how—as an East Indian—to contend with any bigotry in what I’ve inherited. My handed-down religious sensibilities appear as a generational boon, yet when it comes to cultural inheritances, complacency conceals moral rot.
These pressing uncertainties fire my nostalgia. To my young eyes and ears, Mary was an enigma— a loner who could be loud or mellow in her yearnings, lackadaisical or mechanical in her grazing. In the evenings and on the weekends, I observed her with childish candour. One of her horns had a break halfway, but she was hardly self-conscious about it. A devil of an egret— prone to bullying— visited regularly, keen to scarf down any disturbed insects. But Mary, out of shyness or indignation, typically turned the other cheek.
Mary’s owner and caretaker was the affable Roger. He used to drive a tasker, hauling sugar cane, until he took a corner too hard, flipped the vehicle and decided to fire the work. He once was, I’m told, a budding sagaboy. That means style and swagger, yes, but a sagaboy is nothing without his sweet talk. Neither sultry nor saucy. Not a simple, beckoning “dahlin” or cooing “dulahin” tacked onto cozy compliments, but strings of honeyed words that enwrapped and deceived. Sweet talk less stush than charm, but is still mamaguy. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can attempt sweet talk, but the successful declaimer tends to be simultaneously narcissistic and attuned to the audience’s appetite, intermittently flexing and masking a presumption of superiority while selling homemade satisfaction. Roger didn’t ply Mary with such sweet chatter though; her inscrutability led to more plain tête-à-têtes. I felt guilty eavesdropping, but the hill and my window were so neatly coordinated that I could not help the feeling that these intrusions were meant to be edifying.
When my Ajee had pooja, a not infrequent occurrence given her piety, my father, who is more devoted to his mother than their religion, took me and a split rice bag to gather gobar on Mary’s hill. I didn’t often intrude on Mary’s domain, though it was a mere minute from my home. It was really and truly a cemetery, but in a small village that largely comprised Hindus who cremated their dead at Mosquito Creek, it held few graves and inspired little of the trepidation and curiosity that define cemeteries on television. I didn’t venture up there by myself simply because I was convinced there was not much to investigate aside from Mary, who I was still getting acquainted with from a distance. But Ajee’s preparations for prayers were characterized by such exquisite care and urgency, that her words sent me scurrying up the rough track cut into the slightly swollen slope. On the left lolled the modest, askew tombstones, faded names once etched lovingly. On the right was the narrower strip of land that contented Mary. She was usually lashed to a stake near the top but her escape was habitual, and as a result, her droppings tended to catch me unawares.
Gobar in tow, we returned to Ajee’s and I observed my father mixing it into a gloopy paste that could smoothen the surface of the bedi. During previous poojas, Baba had explained that the bedi is an altar of sorts, a square box of dirt upon which deities may sit and receive offerings. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but see it as a stage for my play. Jesus, whose visage also surveilled my home, was the one to fear. But the murties on the bedi were less Gods than characters, sacrosanct fodder for my fancy. I was certainly made aware of the sacredness of it all, whether it was the charming fig tree in the centre of the bedi, the flagged bamboo poles that lined the bedi’s perimeter, or the unanimous utterance of “Swaahaa” that accompanied each offering my sticky fingers fed into the havan. Still no one could tell me Mother Saraswati’s vahana wasn’t named Jerry who was doing some PH work because his son wanted some cricket pads because he think he the next Chanderpaul. If she knew—I never told her—maybe Ajee would have thought my practice sacrilegious, as rudening her reverence. Or more likely she would have indulged me, re-creation being central to our rehearsals of gratitude and generosity upon that box of dirt.
The gobar dried into a thin, hardy layer atop this soil. If at first this use of Mary’s shit befuddled me as a child, it quickly subsided into something not unusual. I was made privy to the stories of Ajee and her mother lepaying the mud floor of her home weekly and the floor of her kitchen daily. It was a cardinal ritual that kept their home, with its walls of plaited roso wood and roof of thatched carat leaves, cool and insect-free. I went through phases of naïvely perceiving such practices, to learning how to shame poor people, to now noting shared sarcastic pride. The generations that grew up using datwan— that always had a reusable market bag, that were ashamed of waste— now smirk at some countries’ belated green initiatives.
Favouring local produce, picking up trash, planting trees, and other practices of conspicuous environmentalism have become trendy, leaving some relieved and some bemused. These reactions are complex. There is laughter at the West as the Johnny-come-lately to moderation amidst a valid valorization of local pragmatism. But woven within is a mimicry of the insipid mockery characteristic of FOX News, as well an unnerved caution about the future. Climate change has led to fear, pride, condescension, and uncertainty, which each define the dominant ways we speak about yesterday’s traditions and tomorrow’s promise. When a harsher future is made present— as with the arrival of Hurricanes Dorian, Irma and Maria, for example— many are left with a stunned feeling of helplessness and anger that the Caribbean will bear a disproportionate amount of suffering for decisions largely made by other nations. Yet paradoxically, cries of ecocide have also become banal and attempts to address it are blithely dismissed by many.
In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh wonders what literary forms render climate change (un)engageable, pointing out that the anthropocene’s “essence consists of phenomena that were long ago expelled from the territory of the novel.” His observations push me to investigate the types of speech that allow ecocide to be discussed in the Caribbean. Authoritative scientific expertise in research articles and tweet threads, catastrophization through disaster porn, righteous rage from young leaders, and apathetic memes abound. Nonetheless, it remains unclear which speechifying acts maximize that galvanizing potential and which ones will be rendered moot. All I know is sweet talk sound nice. Too bad when you have worries on your head, worse yet when you too busy feeling yourself to worry.
While sweet talk suggests endearment, it is based in selfishness and deception. It contrasts with intimate, vulnerable honesty, typified for me in interactions that I did not witness, but that are often re-enacted. My father frequently recalls Shirlin, a cow belonging to his mother. Pale brown and just as moody as Mary, Shirlin was loved by Ajee. She was a subsistence farmer with ten children to feed and an alcoholic husband to boot. Fair to say, there were times when things were frighteningly lean. She would confide in Shirlin, “I need this milk, Shirly. There’s nothing else, Shirly girl.” Shirlin’s milk eased rumbling bellies during these periods, and tellingly, my dad says, Shirlin did not have to be manipulated. While they would have to tie the back legs of the ornery cow who wanted her calves to nurse, Shirlin was attentive to Ajee’s needs as Ajee was to hers. When Ajee shared her woes, Shirlin listened. When Shirlin was forgotten in her grazing spot by harden children, Ajee’s palm would itch. Shirlin’s mournful bellows at dusk would signal the impending lashes momentarily delayed by Ajee’s anxiety. “Yes girl, ah comin.” Her pace would be brisk, I’m told, as her palm would be instructive.
When Shirlin passed, Ajee’s grief began and endured. Refusing to approach the corpse, she directed her eldest and some of the other men in the village to bury her near the caimito tree at the edge of the lot. Their collective funereal toil was rote. Years later, I would play on that selfsame soil ignorant of whose flesh fertilized it. Slowly, my father’s storytelling would allow me to perceive the landscape more fully and to appreciate why Shirlin is still talked about like she was a big daughter of Ajee’s.
If Ajee’s life and mine are dissimilar to a comical extent, one durable connection comprises the religious rituals and mythology I largely learnt seated next to her. I choose to maintain those beliefs so that I do not feel bereft of guidance in my current circumstances. Such comfort I treasure. Consequently, I do not eat beef, maintaining Hinduism’s view of the cow as a sacred provider, and perhaps because of the storied cows I grew up knowing. Personal choices regarding beef consumption, however, fit into larger social schemes. In his introduction to B.R. Ambedkar’s Beef, Brahmins and Broken Men, Kancha Ilahia Shepherd considers the history of cow protection in India and “beef-eating as a right and tradition,” speaking to today’s tightened rules surrounding cattle trade. He asserts that “the rules made communities working with cattle—communities overwhelmingly composed of the oppressed castes and oppressed-caste groups that converted out of Hinduism—look like enemies of the cow, even though these communities had nurtured Indian cattle, and the cattle economy, for centuries.” He argues that maintaining the taboo about beef in India means being complicit in the demonization of already vulnerable groups.
Shepherd’s work is separate from the Caribbean context where we assume Hinduism functions differently, but I cannot prematurely dismiss his line of questioning. I am a Hindu East Indian West Indian, so I’m Indian but not Indian Indian. The redundant Indian Indian suggests not simply a racial designation but racial and national, though nation is not defined by race. In other words, there are Indians who are not Indian. But I am redundant in a different way— an Indian so separated from the nation of India, that the responsibilities of that identity seem abrogated by distance. Simultaneously, my Caribbean positioning means that caste does not overtly figure into my religious or racial identification. However, I’m unsure how it can be separated from the Hindu beliefs passed down to me. If the caste system spawns from Brahma’s body and the Ramayana works to justify brahminical patriarchy within India, then what bigoted inclinations have I unknowingly internalized?
What especially drives me into these considerations are conversations with friends and family whose enthusiasm for Modi, and all he has come to stand for, echoes the enthusiasm exhibited at the “Howdy, Modi!” 2019 extravaganza in Texas. These examples of zeal are discomfiting because of Modi’s role in legitimizing the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism. Violence committed in the name of Hindus calls for a re-interrogation of my motivations for maintaining this identity. Leaders who validate such violence make me wonder what motivates the effusive support they receive in India and elsewhere. Modi’s rise in India has been detailed by analysts like Arundhati Roy. Such expertise is necessary as India in its fullness—the history of Assam, the suppression of Kashmiris, the unfolding effects of demonetization, the legacy of partition, Dalit resistance, Whatsapp disinformation campaigns and all its other complexities—remains unfathomable to me. I combine layers of India to build a sample model that cannot adequately represent its reality. There is no book, news article, or literary form that can render India fully accessible to me, so I layer the India my Ajee mourned, but never saw, the India my parents both adore and chide, the India I grew up largely unconcerned with and then belatedly began learning about from a distance. Building a new layer by memorizing its historical facts, and being mesmerized by its dizzying cultural milieu, still leaves my model wanting.
Nevertheless, closer to home, the fervour I can analyze emerges from those degreed and undegreed, wanting and comfortable, and everywhere in between. I could finagle workarounds and excuses to avoid this inconvenient examination. Their views are theirs. Their support is harmless given that they, like me, are neither participating in electoral decisions in India nor actively advocating for Hindu nationalism in Trinidad or Canada. I might turn a blind eye because I’m no neemackaram, no turncoat. I might shirk responsibility by asking with what authority could I possibly perk up their ears. But those around me suggest what I may be about. If I’ve always been shaped by the stories of those close to me and they now voice politics that surprise me, then I have to inspect the foundation of my sensibilities. I want to say I plant jhandi, I visit the temple in the sea, I take picture with the outsized Hanuman in Waterloo, so I know my Hinduism. But I know that these external manifestations have little to do with my Hinduism. My religious proclivities are the muscle memory trained by my kin and I have to make my choice between exercise and atrophy.
I can’t easily pin down how the rhetoric of Hindu nationalism functions in the Caribbean. Take Modi’s infamous response to a query about his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom. When asked if he regretted the violence committed under his purview, he said, “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.” Roy characterizes these words as “pure, well-trained, RSS-speak,” referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who are advocates for a Hindu Rashtra and are adept, according to Roy, in “chameleon-speak.”
Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” could be adapted into an alternative framing for Modi’s words. He argues that “the motive guiding and controlling [the bullshitter’s speech] is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.” While useful, these frames do not provide me with sufficient attention to the audience’s enjoyment— as many find such palaver not only palatable, but delectable. In the Caribbean context, Modi’s words are tantamount to sweet talk, chatter that comes from a detached place of superiority and that appeals to an audience with a ready appetite. It lulls those already suitably primed into savoring, rather than condemning violence. Comparable speech patterns are exhibited by figures like Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte, reaching listeners who to some degree already believe in what is being said, whether regarding cultural superiority, entitlements, or who should be excluded. Vapid dog-whistling, scapegoating, and lies now appear appetizing, and tackling climate change becomes superfluous or sententious.
Such audiences do not mysteriously materialize; they have to be conditioned and produced. I am not so bold as to assume that I’m immune. And distance muddies my thinking. Here I am massaging words until they are greasy with touch, far from those lashed and lynched in India. My mediated thoughts on India can only be unfinished just as my yarns about Mary and Shirlin must drip with nostalgia and guilt that Ajee never had the chance to share her stories as she pleased. If I stick to what is immediate, then I admit I do not converse with any cows in Canada. From arm’s length, I have learnt of those cows who came home after the “Save Our Prison Farms” campaign in my city. These activists fought against the senseless moves of Canadian politicians, advocating for the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals through farm work. The only cows I see are those I glimpse on the highway between Kingston and Montreal. There were five in colloquy under a tree, and I wondered from a distance what they were about.
My close encounters of the bovine kind are now linguistic in nature. Here— where one can be a beefcake or a heifer, beefy or bullish— to have a cow is not what Ajee would think, and is quite often advised against. Yet my disinclination toward beef finds some company as the perception of it as an ethical conundrum has gained some steam. With Canada’s position as a prominent consumer and exporter of beef in mind, it may be sufficient reason to maintain my avoidance of cow meat given the industry’s entanglement with ecocide. I could sidestep the question of Hinduism altogether and tout products like Beyond Meat: The Future of Protein. But this would be a disingenuous shift in faith as I remain skeptical of a product whose very name betrays an investment in the illusion of perpetual progress. Any shift of mine requires vigilance, as new products and alternative faiths can so easily bring more of the same. Indeed, this frustrated desire for alternatives is part of Hindu nationalism. Unconventional— euphemistic as it may be— is the political byword of the era, though it should be ecocide. And, unsurprisingly, what was welcomed by some as change also bolstered existing inequalities.
Responding to Hindu nationalism depends on generating effective counter-discourses, which fortunately or not, the Caribbean is practiced at. Consider the inimical start to Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. It offers a hearty boof to the tourist in Antigua, a verbal rough up that makes plain the implications of paradisiacal perceptions of the island: “their ancestors were not clever in the way yours were and not ruthless in the way yours were, for then would it not be you who would be in harmony with nature and backwards in that charming way?” Or consider two poems from Ishion Hutchinson’s House of Lords and Commons, a collection that spans a range of topics, including the impervious influence of monocrop plantations and the sugar cane factory in Jamaica. In “Pierre,” the speaker details a classroom and “a boy named Pierre Powell / who was in charge of the atlas / in the cabinet.” Children make stalled attempts to access the locked away knowledge of the world’s geography before “Tropicana / Sugar Estate, so close we could smell the sugar / being processed / whistled its shift change, / and terminated Geography.” This poem lays bare the enduring legacy of the sugar factory as it organizes many Caribbean worldviews, then and now. The factory, which is immediate, produces the default senses of geography, time, purpose, and play. Unsurprisingly, in Trinidad, when the factory—Caroni 1975 Ltd—closed its doors, a popular response became Adesh Samaroo’s “Caroni Close Down” whose chorus puns “can’t go fuh cane” and “can’t go fuckin.” The conflation of work in the canefields with pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction reiterates the factory’s generative role. There are other such sites in Trinidad, of course. Perhaps the parlance that has emanated from the oil fields in recent decades is comparable. It is one I’m mostly separated from, but I wonder when Petrotrin closed down in 2018, what act was pre-empted?
In “Fitzy and the Revolution,” the speaker of Hutchinson’s poem surmises the canefield’s consequences: “that dry rustle / you hear after the crop is torched and the wind bristles the / ashes.” He examines how individuals are strained into anonymity: “every year the same men, different cane, and when different / men, / the same cane: the cane they cannot kill.” At the same time, the poem explores the surrounding economy for when their pay stops, the rum shop, the betting shops and the whorehouse lose customers. The furor of these men at the rumour of missing their payday is real, but they cannot carry out the suggestion of torching the factory. Instead “they were roaring money, then rum, pounding Fitzy’s shutter, / shouting his name for him to set them on fire.” Hutchinson’s noisy lines reveal what organizes the men’s emotions: work, its absence, or the exhaustion that follows its presence. Either way, the men arrive at a fraught state of immobilization. The poem concludes with Fitzy letting them into the rum shop with “an overseer’s scorn,” they having proven themselves as lifeless as a burnt out canefield. The men here choose the way of their conditioning, sweet, intoxicating order rather than the bitter uncertainty that comes with biting the hand that supposedly feeds them. This is the sugar hangover that combines with imperfect hand-me-downs and uncertain tomorrows, positioning many of us as too ready to suffer the sweet talk of the next leader. Hutchinson and Kincaid are instructive in their capacity to cut through the blather.
The reasons for the rise of each of the leaders of today, and the surge of Hindu nationalism, are more complex than I have so far described. None of these administrations, for example, are one man shows. But there are comparable frustrations and responsibilities that arise in each case. Many now have cause to rethink the collective identities we subscribe to and our preferred rhetoric. The triggers for such contemplation are close to heart. Perpetrators and defenders of beef lynchings, for instance, have become associated with the chant “Jai Shri Ram.” These are words that still resonate with me as I once chanted them ardently alongside other temple-goers. They still represent to me not spiritual peace, but community in effect, even if their capacity to energize the sinister simultaneously sends spams of shame shooting through me. In this time of upheaval, as I deliberately inspect and unravel the knots of my beliefs to ensure I know what holds me together, I remain wary of what is familiar and what is advertised as new. I do not renounce recklessly for I am keen to hold on to what is handed down, yet unwittingly remaining in chorus with the hateful, is for the feckless.
Kris Singh is originally from Mendez, Trinidad, and is currently a determinate Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College of Canada. His scholarly attention spans the legacy of indentureship, the relationships among writers of the Caribbean diaspora, and the ways in which social media and popular culture shape each other.