His Excellency Chandradath Singh, High Commissioner of Trinidad & Tobago to India, comes across as a suave, well-read, thoroughly groomed,
soft spoken personality, who proved to be a veritable encyclopedia of
knowledge about his country, its peoples, culture, mores and ethnic interrelations.
We bring you here excerpts from a conversation NRI ACHIEVERS had
with him and his gracious lady..
“L ike so many other people
in the diaspora, my ancestors too came from India. On my father’s side, from a place called ‘Gonda’ village in UP, and I am now looking for my ancestors who had originally come from the Bhojpuri belt in Bihar. I am like any typical diaspora Indian, but having said that, I must hasten to make a distinction between the old and the new diaspora … the old diaspora meaning those who went as indentured workers to Guyana, Suriname, Fiji, Mauritius and other places. I belong to that kind of history. I would belong to the fourth generation, from forefathers who migrated about one hundred and sixty years ago. I have a document which came down to me from my father, which serves as the starting point in the quest for my roots.
“In physical terms, we cannot compare T&T and India. But size is immaterial when you compare people, so when it comes to culture, lifestyle and tradition, most of T&T and India is totally connected, via all those things we have inherited. We have India to thank for a large measure of our national culture in T&T. But you will note that our Culture, though it resembles and sounds like the very culture we inherited has undergone a seachange, when you witness it and listen to it more carefully. You would be amazed at the extent of our culture we have been successful in preserving, especially Indian music, song & dance, the religion,
and other elements of our culture. I think the people of T&T made an incredible effort to do so as well, because
to preserve one’s culture in the absence of a formal tutelary, schools, other institutions teaching Hindi and all that in the early days, to deal with this very difficult environment must have been very challenging.
“Added to that was the fact that they were a people essentially uprooted from their families in India unsuspectingly, not really very formally educated, promised all sorts of things under the migration program,
that they will undertake a short journey, earn a lot of money, then they will return to their families and so on, so a lot of them left their families behind, thinking that they will come back.
“And that return journey never happened. That trauma, that emotional baggage, plus the difficulties of working in a strange land in a strange environment, that’s a challenge very few peoples can really carry with them. But look at the strength of the Indian immigrant in this new world, who was able to overcome all those hardships and still prosper, make an equal contribution like other members of the multi-ethnic Trinidadian society, to the point that they have risen to be Prime Ministers and Presidents. So our country one where people have known how to live with pain, but not to complain.
“Nowadays it is a lot different, our generation has had a lot of opportunities and is quite well exposed to Hindi, Sanskrit and dance and music, so we have come full circle now, but I think there is a learning process here, as what we have lost, by having been cheated away from India, we have gained by developing a personality that can well help India. By that, I mean we have developed a multi-cultural comfort level, religious tolerance, and racial tolerance to the point where I think several countries can do well to emulate T&T.
“More Trinidadians & Tobagonians live outside the country than in it, and they all come back home very often, from New York and Canada and England and other places, and the population of people with Indian origins is 43 percent. They celebrate almost all festivals with equal fervor, particularly Diwali.
The way T&T nationals celebrate Diwali, I have not seen it being celebrated elsewhere. There is no meat eating and no booze, and fasting for about a month before Diwali. Religious songs reverberate everywhere, and throughout the region, it is an authentic Diwali that is celebrated, with the poojas, and the lighting of earthen lamps. No fireworks though, but people make huge, beautiful decorations, sculptures, and all religions join in. Competitions take place, on who has a better designed Diwali. The Africans, the Chinese, those that participate actively, also abstain, staying away from meat and alcohol, alongside the Hindus. And it is all voluntary, stemming from a strong Trinidadian tradition of respect for each other’s religion, and participation in each other’s festivities.
“Apart from Diwali, we also celebrate Phagwa (Holi), we celebrate Eid, Ram Navmi, Janmashtami, and of course Ram Leela, which is done in a very big way. We are now setting up a Ram Leela Center with the help of the Government of India. And this warrants a word of explanation. While in India, Ram Leela is performed on stage, and the people gather and listen to it, see it, in Trinidad & Tobago, Ramleela is performed on a large ground, where the geographies of all the important places in the Ramayana are recreated … Ayodya, Lanka, and so on, and the players (Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman etc.) move from one place to another, enacting the story and performing the Leela, as its trajectory takes them.
“There are also a couple of other things that have bound our people together for 50 years or more … one
is cricket, and the other is Hindi films. In the olden days, with infrequent or no travel back to India, it was Hindi movies that sustained our culture to a certain extent. So we have all grown up with Lata Mangeskar, Mohammed Rafi, and Mukesh as our staple diet … we may not be able to understand all the lyrics, but we hum along and play the melody, and that helps us to feel like we never left India. I, personally, like all of Mohammed Rafi’s songs … in particular “Suhaani Raat” … suhani raat, it is so popular, that it is sung in family gatherings, birthdays, weddings and many, many other occasions. What naturally attracts me to Hindi films is the music to begin with, and in that context, one movie I liked and will never forget is “Pakeezah”. The music in it was fabulous. So much so that I saw it four times. Among the recent ones, we liked Lagaan, it was very nice. As for Indian actors, well, everybody loves Amitabh Bachchan. Sharmila Tagore is well-known, and among the new ones, Shah Rukh Khan is popular. So is Aamir Khan, and this young boy Randhir Kapoor, his films Rock Star and Barfi were well appreciated.
“Of late, some bollywood films have also been using T&T as a locale for parts of their films, and we are already on the radar of Indian film producers as an established film location. We are now seeking their help as we try to build an indigenous Trinidadian film industry. So we have been talking to Subash Ghai, the SR group, and to some people in the South about starting a fullfledged film-city, so that we can attract film-makers from the entire
region, including India.
“On this present assignment, we landed here in the January of 2011. I am quite familiar with India, this being my third time here: first as a student in the 70s, and second when I came to work in the High Commission between 1988 to 1993. Your current Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh was the Finance
Minister then. This is my third time. I love India … I am here for the third time, my wife is from India, and I know I have family ties in India. And for those like me who are deeply into cultural pursuits as well, there can be no better place in the world to immerse oneself in culture like India. And coming back after two decades, I am quite taken aback by the graphical changes that have taken place in Indian society between then and now, especially among the young people. They do not dress like Indians, speak like Indians, eat Indian food, nor listen to Indian music. So when I see them, I wonder, wow! where am I ?
“But then, India is such a country of diversity, that you just have to look the other way, and while you see there are contrasts, there is also progress, and I have immense faith in this country, which has overcome many invasions of lifestyles, cultures and traditions, and has survived. And I am fascinated to see how the people, and the government of India are meeting these challenges. Delhi for example is completely changed in terms of infrastructure. And that’s also happening elsewhere in India, that is very apparent. There is a building boom, massive malls are coming up, airports are getting modernized, world class infrastructure is being created. That is the most dramatic change for me, because when I was last here, the landscape was very different.
“I am also very impressed with the new business culture and the entrepreneurial class that has emerged. In my earlier days, I had observed that there were a few big joint families that controlled the commanding heights of the Indian economy … now, we find there is a vast burgeoning middle class, a large set of entrepreneurs with world vision, well traveled and educated, who can get to the crux of the matter in a business conversation immediately, as they are so well connected, well informed. All of which points to a growing appetite for investment. So, business conversations are more satisfying, and the excitement of doing business with India has never been so great before, as there are so many people who are capable of delivering projects abroad. Competition among them is great, and you have the choice of selecting the very best, who can suit the development pattern in your country. That is another change that I see and am impressed with …
“In the past two years I have been here, we have also been reasonably successful in actualizing some ventures in T&T with Indian participation. Right now, we have not less than 7 companies whose projects have advanced to the point where by early next year they will actually start operating. That is a big accomplishment, because when I took charge, there were a lot of delegations coming to T&T, lots of money and time being spent, and of
course headlines were made, but no real investments took place. I wanted to be realistic about how we
position ourselves vis-a-vis India. As we do not have much to export to India, I chose to highlight the ample opportunities for India to get involved with T&T, utilize our market connections, and so on. So in that context these Industries getting operational will be a significant point of progress. There are quite a few others in the pipeline as well.
“From the point of view of investment, there is ample scope for Indian Investors in oil & gas downstream
processing, and in oil exploration. There are also opportunities in Tourism, as we are among the prime tourist destinations in the world. T&T is extremely good in eco-tourism, we have wetlands, beautiful bird sanctuaries, pristine beaches and a unique diversity of culture. We are now encouraging Indians to invest in the health and
wellness sector, not just in conventional medicine, but also in Ayurveda, covering medicines to massages and wellness centers, spas et al, as there is a big demand for that. From the government’s side we offer a fairly
generous package of incentives, varying from project to project. For example if a project brings significant employment and revenue generating benefits, government would allot land and lease it out on long-term at preferential rates. Cash incentives are available for the film industry, in terms of rebates plus sumptuous
duty and tax benefits that can help make investments profitable. We also offer a very versatile workforce of technically competent people. So that too is an incentive to come and invest in T&T.
“There exists an ‘Investor Protection Agreement’ in force between India and T&T guaranteed by law, so government changes and all that do not affect your investment. Added to that, we have a 43% population
of people with Indian origin, and a strong Indian cultural milieu that can make any Indian feel right at home. Being bang in the center of the Caribbean, we are also the most well connected in the whole region. So if you put all these things together, and factor in the kind of one-stop-shop procedure T&T offers investors, where you do not really have to go running around to get your business approved, it is quite a win-win proposition .