Caribbean chronicles

Sun 18 Jun 2017

The elimination table has delivered another ‘Super Sunday’ for cricket enthusiasts, with India and Pakistan squaring up once again today at the ICC Champions Trophy. The result will be what it will be, but the Indian team might perhaps be already looking ahead to its next destination, the West Indies. It’s a short tour, five one-day internationals and one Twenty20, with stopovers in just three of the cricket-playing Caribbean’s many magnificent islands, Trinidad, Antigua and Jamaica. The West Indies team is a yet-more-pale shadow of its old fiery self, having lost the first of this month’s three ODIs against Afghanistan, and then drawing the series 1-1 when the last match was washed out, leaving the hosts’ hopes for a direct entry for the 2019 World Cup in doubt.

But the West Indies will remain cricket’s most special destination as long as the game continues to be played in these islands. Much is said about the ‘international’ entity cricket has woven in bringing together independent territories into one team — but as Indian cricketers island-hop over the next few weeks, it’s intriguing to consider the wider region too as one entity. The inquiry is prompted by a recent encyclopaedic book, Island People: The Caribbean and the World , by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, an American geographer who has travelled over the past decade all across the region — from Jamaica to Montserrat, from Cuba to Barbados — to understand ‘Caribbean-ness’.

Each island is its own delineated self, as even a causal visitor on the cricket trail will find upon visiting, say, Barbados and Antigua. But the claim that Jelly-Schapiro makes is this: that the Caribbean islands are “places where phenomena we think of as belonging to our own age — mass migration and mass industry and transcontinental trade — have been facts of life for centuries.” One of the biggest political questions of our time, he argues, was “birthed” in the Caribbean, with the Haitian Revolution, more than 200 years ago: “How universal, really, are human rights?”

Cheerful tourism pamphlets mostly gloss over the dark history of slavery — Jelly-Schapiro points out that the Caribbean “received” six million African slaves, compared to the four lakh who reached the U.S. Along with people from almost every other part of the world, including India from where indentured labour started moving to the sugar plantation colonies in the mid-19th century, they “built island societies”, finding selfhood in a multicultural ethos, and setting up, in the most difficult circumstances, the big ideas of what it meant to be free, to be equal, to be a society.

Search for roots

That pursuit, the search for ‘roots’, in its deepest political iteration, suffuses every enterprise in the Caribbean: music, sports, literature, spirituality. Take Trinidad, from where C.L.R. James, historian of the Haitian Revolution, cricket’s greatest writer and much else, came and whose spirit guides this book, no doubt because he was Jelly-Schapiro’s “first big intellectual crush”.

It became a Spanish colony after Christopher Columbus claimed it in 1498. In the centuries ahead, the Spanish gave land rights to French Catholic planters. The British took the island in 1797, and after slavery was ended in 1835, indentured labour was brought from India to work on the sugar cane estates.

In an aside, Jelly-Schapiro then adds a little known detail, that after the Second World War, American soldiers brought along with them 55-gallon oil drums, which local musicians used for the steel pan drum, famously “the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century”, and whose sounds you may be lucky to hear during telecasts from Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Oval if the commentators just quieten down for a few minutes. Explaining Trinidad’s reputation for “extreme literacy” with the unique ways in which, say, calypso and the steel band were encouraged by post-independence governments as “intrinsic to the nation”, he suggests that Trinidad is “a place… where the emergence of C.L.R. James makes sense”.

It’s also the place where the emergence of V.S. Naipaul makes sense, even though he went on underplay the Trinidadian influence. Writes Jelly-Schapiro: “But what bonds him to Trinidad, as lettered Trinidadians all know and one suspects he does on some level, too, is the truth that though he produced as huge and varied an oeuvre as you’d expect of a Nobel winner, with books set all over the world, the books he wrote about growing up in Trinidad — The Mystic Masseur (1957), Miguel Street (1959) and A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) in his early phase; A Way in the World (1994) later on — have remained in many ways unexcelled both in their vivid rendering of a society’s audible surface and in their grip of its internal dynamics.”

The West Indies is a place, if it may be called that, without which cricket cannot be truly embraced. Jelly-Schapiro is not really cricket literate. (He puzzles for a while at the meaning when someone in Antigua complains that “as great a batsman Viv Richards was, ‘you can’t forget that man Roberts: he took five wicket’.”) But, being a James devotee, he knows its importance. As we watch cricket from the Caribbean, it’s valuable to read this account of travels and the region’s great musicians and writers to be reminded of the Jamesian truth: What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?


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