Sour Chutney: The Ethnopoetics of Exploitation, Transplantation, and Violence

The feature here is the late Dr. Roi Kwabena’s musical spoken poem, Sour Chutney, from his hypnotic Y42K album, an unrecognized treasure in my view, where every one of his musical spoken word pieces is hauntingly beautiful. This is a remake of an earlier version I posted here some months ago, having produced the first version many months before that. Sour Chutney, one of my many favourites, has now been re-animated using photos and documentary footage of East Indian life in Trinidad and Tobago, most of it dating to the early part of the first half of the 20th century. It therefore seeks to combine ethnography with history and poetry, in about five minutes (!).

This story ties together the large scale forces of world capitalism with the geography of diasporic India and the personal biographies of a fictitious family of Indian, formerly indentured, labourers in Trinidad. It relates men’s violence, exerted to control women, to the history of indenture when women were few, when competition between men for women was extreme and women had to be forcibly abducted or lured by false promises to venture to Trinidad (and some used the opportunity to escape oppression and poverty at home). Aside from any “traditional” religious mores, a bride’s lack of virginity symbolized that she had already been had by others, perhaps by some at the wedding party itself, thus stunting the competitive man’s success in conquest among men. The conquest of the “right kind” of woman thus becomes a symbolic triumph over other men. Indrani not being a virgin is problematic for it also suggests that an insufficient dowry was paid. That is an instrumentalist accounting of the compulsions behind Dhanraj’s actions in this story. As always, however, the primordial and unconscious impulses are much harder to explain, and perhaps not, in analytical terms, a popular part of Trinidadian public discourse on Trinidadian social life. Moreover, it is difficult to convey primordiality without sounding like you are trying to convince people to think like and adopt the same deeply held, deeply felt, biases of the actors, assuming these are ever clearly knowable and understandable to the outsider.

I noted also the recurring motifs of the story: loss, gain, work, money, land, alcohol, drugs, food, and the world of Hindu deities. Roi Kwabena like many, probably almost all Trinidadians, knows a fair amount of “Indian culture” by virtue of being born and raised in Trinidad, where contact, exchange and communication are inevitable in what is an ethnically divided society. Food, in particular, is one popular means of contact, an avenue for learning and possible appreciation. Roi, like most non-Indo-Trinidadians, knows all the names for all of the Indian dishes. “The Indian wedding” is highlighted among many Trinidadians as the event one must attend in one’s life in Trinidad, and the great food is not a small part of it. Indian food is extremely popular in Trinidad, and if one were to accept the accusing, invidious, racially charged calypsos of Cro-Cro, it is perhaps more popular among Afro-Trinidadians than Indo-Trinidadians. But Indians harvested cane, grow rice, and of course also cook food, so it should not be surprising that one builds a food association in a society that for a long time was organized along the principle of ‘to each people, a crop.’

Shame and sin are also critical components of this fictionalized ethnographic tale. The Ramdhani family, the family of the bride, takes it upon itself to feel ashamed that their daughter was wed a non-virgin. “The vengeance of Kali” will surely be visited upon them. How then to rid themselves of the stigma of sin? This is where the sin eater figure enters the story, the mysterious character who enters the home through the back door on the day of the funeral, and who consumes all of Indrani’s food, the food of the cremated bride. He is paid to do this service.

Now, I do not know that the sin eater is a figure of Hindu Trinidadian belief — this could be one of the many things that escaped me while living in Trinidad, and I did not hear of such a figure even in passing. What the Wikipedia entry tells me is that the religious magic of the sin eater (who is an actual living person in each instance) is something found in England, Wales, and Scotland. I also see that a variety of novels and short stories, not to mention at least one movie, have been produced in North America and Great Britain, but not elsewhere. Could this have been something that Roi adapted from his adoptive home in the U.K.? That is one reason why in the video I have the sin eater paid in foreign money, which is also another way of relinking the story with the broadest framework, that of world capitalism.

In the process of telling this story, Roi Kwabena produces a short, ethno-poetic tale that shows the deep imprint left by capitalist exploitation and mass migration on the historical consciousness of Trinidadians. This is critical since some prominent commentaries, most notably by the Trinidadian-Indian-British Nobel Laureate, Sir V.S. Naipaul, have cast Caribbean people as existing in a cultural vacuum, lacking historical consciousness. Roi’s piece also shows the insidious diffusion of capitalist relations in everday life, rewritten and translated into the mores of another culture, fully domesticated.

Roi Kwabena was a Trinidadian musician, poet, and cultural anthropologist. He was a public anthropologist in the fullest possible sense of the term: he had a Ph.D in anthropology, and did not work in a university setting. None of his many books and other productions were ever advanced to gain academic recognition and academic promotion. Hence, he self-published, and maintained full authorial control. Not that he would ever dismiss peer review as such: all of his self-published work speaks to something that comes out of a deeper, more prolonged peer review than most of us academics have ever known. It arises from everyday lived interactions and collaborations and co-productions with peers, and with students — part of his career involved traveling from school to school to give performances and lectures. The negotiation between original message and feedback was constant. He frequently sought the opinions on what he wrote from myself and others in the academic profession. He always sought inputs. He was driven, bold, and adventurous, and he did what he wanted to do. This also permitted him to explore other avenues of knowledge, well beyond the social scientific, ranging to the mystical and supernatural. He was also what I would call a spiritual Egyptologist, though I have yet to really explore this side of his work despite some of his many remaining websites, and despite the fact that I purchased every single item available at his lulu store.

As mentioned before in my posts, Roi Kwabena died early in January of last year, from an undetected lung cancer. I believe that he recorded this poem when he was already very ill, and I detect a change in the sound of his voice. As I have said before, I do not mourn his passing, I celebrate his work. For me it remains a great privilege to partner with his spirit, surely the most open (as in boundless) ethnography that I could ever imagine.

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  1. Pingback: Here is not “West India”: Roi Kwabena « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

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