“Dougla” is a slur meaning “bastard” or “mutt.” It has its origins in Bhojpuri, the dialect of Hindi spoken by the majority of Indians who migrated as indentured laborers in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In North India, the word was used to describe someone with parents of different castes. It had the strong connotation of pollution, since orthodox Hinduism saw relationships across caste as illegitimate. In the Caribbean, the word was applied to the children of black and Indian parents. Its sting was no less in this transplanted setting.
Despite the shortage of Indian women in indentured societies, very few relationships developed between Indian men and black women. Mutual distrust began with the first encounter, on boats from India where West Indian Blacks were seamen and Indians the human cargo. Indian women were sexually exploited by seamen of all races, but the crew were typically Black or white. And suspicions of the other persisted on plantations in Guyana, where Indians lived under a pass system that restricted their movements and kept them residentially separate from Africans — and where British colonial masters divided-and-ruled by placing Blacks in positions of authority over Indians, as “drivers” or sub-overseers in the sugar cane fields and as the policemen who often broke labor strikes and protests, sometimes with fatal violence. Africans, meanwhile, saw the Indians as imported scabs, a cheap and exploitable labor force meant to undercut their own bargaining power as newly emancipated workers. Cultural differences — language, religion, food — kept the two groups further apart. Exceptions existed. I found some century-old examples in British Colonial Office archives of black and Indian couples, but for the most part the two groups remained sexually separate, and “douglas” continued to be stigmatized. It remains a difficult identity to negotiate.
In recent years, however, the word has been reclaimed, with scholars of the Caribbean from Yale to the University of the West Indies exploring what precisely the imaginative category “dougla poetics,” a sensibility in music and literature based in mixed roots, might mean. I wonder if it might also be fruitful to explore the parameters of a “dougla politics.” If the mixed-race voters, and mixed couples, I interviewed are any indication, it might mean a resistance to definition, a volatility that could challenge the traditional way of conducting campaigns and practicing politics in Guyana. As a group, they were difficult to pin down and open to contradiction. Concrete, sometimes seemingly minute matters influenced the way they voted rather than the epic, abstract canvas of race.
A rice farmer in his early thirties, whose mother is Indian and father African, talked to me about the poor state of draining and irrigation in the Berbice countryside. He complained about the (now former) government skimming off the top when selling rice to foreign markets, so that he got only half of what he should have with recent crops. To make ends meet, he works as a taxi driver. And it irks him that the police harass drivers on the road with speed guns. A supporter of the Alliance for Change, a party that was part of the opposition coalition, Troy Fraser spoke of a government that was increasingly remote from the concerns of ordinary people. “The law is so mixed up, you can’t even go talk to the police,” he told me. “Only the rich survive in this country. … As a small man, I cannot go to a minister and talk to him.”
A 55-year old former security guard in the bauxite industry, who drove two hours to cast his vote for the People’s Progressive Party and who calls himself a “dougla boy,” told me that race had played too large a role in the campaigns, sidelining actual issues. “There’s been too much looking back at Burnham legacy, Jagan legacy,” he said, naming the country’s two political patriarchs, shorthand for the country’s two ethnic-political camps. Rudy Fanfare voted for the former ruling party because he said he believes they attracted foreign business investment and stimulated economic progress. When he went to the mining town of Linden to cast his ballot, his friends there, mostly African, ribbed him about the beard he was growing. With the head he ordinarily kept bald, and the chin he kept clean-shaven, with his soft hair hidden, he could pass as black. They joked that he had come as a spy. For his part, Fanfare takes pleasure in the in-between place he occupies, free to move in either direction or reject both.
He took me to meet the calypsonian Mighty Enchanter, who runs an eco-resort with his wife Farida, an Indian. Famous for the song “Dularie Betty,” which asks in subversive refrain what a daughter (“beti” in Hindi) bearing the name lovely (“Dularie”) would do with the son of a low-caste man (“chamar ka beta”), the musician told me that he had written a political chutney for the People’s Progressive Party’s former president, Bharrat Jagdeo. Without skipping a beat, the Mighty Enchanter offers both: an anthem for a political party very Indian in its cultural messaging and a song about an Indian girl who rejects caste boundaries (and by innuendo also racial ones: many African Guyanese believe that Indian racism and the anxiety about mixed race couples stems from the belief that dark skin marks Blacks as low-caste).
With a similar straddling of political and cultural codes, twenty-three year old Zamir Kasim wears dreadlocks, listens to reggae and voted for the PPP in this election, his first. The son of a Rastafarian citrus farmer and an Indian woman, he told me: “Most people voting PPP are Indian, plus a few Africans who benefited from this party.” His father voted for Granger’s coalition, his mother for the PPP. As for Kasim, who left his job as a clerk in a ministry to drive a taxi because his government salary was anemic, he believes that the PPP created economic opportunity. They might be corrupt, but their rivals were likely to be too, he said.
If anything unifies interracial couples and their mixed-race children, it seems to be a tendency to defy expectations. Kelvin and Shabana Clarke, an engineer and a home health care aide in their mid-thirties, did so when they married three years ago. Each had grown up in a fairly homogenous community, he in a mostly Black neighborhood in the capital city, she in a largely Indian village along the Demerara River. Her parents stopped talking to her for a while when they were dating, and her best friend’s family told her to stop hanging out with Shabana. As in their personal life, the couple flouts the expected in their politics. As a Jehovah’s Witness, Shabana did not vote but welcomes the coalition’s victory. And Kelvin cast his ballot for an oddball independent candidate who garnered 262 votes across the entire country. He has voted for the People’s Progressive Party in the past but he isn’t affiliated with either major party. “One should watch the other,” said Kelvin, who studied engineering in a small village in South India on a Guyanese government scholarship. “Both of them have their faults. None is superior.”
Shabana and Kelvin
Shabana and Kelvin
The couple knows the relevance of race in Guyana’s political history. In the racial disturbances of 1964, right before independence, when pre-elections violence claimed both African and Indian lives, Kelvin’s grandfather had to be hidden in the fields by Indian friends in the largely Indian rice-growing community where he lived. And during the food shortages of the Burnham administration, Kelvin remembered his mother lining up for rice, flour, sugar and getting those scarce staples, while others did not. “The influence of the party, I could see it,” he said. “We were able to get.”
He and Shabana, new parents, choose not to pay attention to race. They tuned out of this campaign, because of its charged tone and because daily life requires enough from them without that burden. “The racism in Guyana, it’s not that it’s not there. But it rears its head during elections. Every five years. That’s the cycle,” Kelvin told me. “It’s peddled a lot through the media, and through hush-hush, sous-sous conversations. That’s how it’s peddled. But deep down, people don’t really hate another race.” What instead galvanizes Kelvin and Shabana as voters, is everyday red tape, the corrupt bureaucracy that they say transcends any one party and interferes with their quality of life. In the future, Guyanese politicians should perhaps pay attention to their disaffection and their independence, if they are at all representative of the growing mixed-race and mixed-couple population that the new president, David Granger, whose wife is of Chinese origin, placed hope in as a candidate.
Gaiutra Bahadur is an American journalist and book critic who writes frequently about global migration, literature and gender. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Dissent, History Today, Washington Post Book World, The Nation and Ms., among other publications. Gaiutra is the author of "Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture" (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the 2014 Orwell Prize in the UK. She was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States with her family at the age of six.
Bahadur’s work in Guyana has been supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Feature image © Gaiutra Bahadur