The Indo-Trinidian Family :
From Indentured to the Present Part 1
by Lisa Rampersad
The original Indian family has been described as a
"patrilocal joint family" in which a line of brothers, their wives,
and children live in a common household compound with the men's fathers as
patriarch. It is marked by a frequent co residence of nuclear families
related along filial or fraternal lines, and by a strong patriarchal system
with the seclusion of women. The joint/extended family is usually composed of
three or more generations, living together in the same house, cooking in the
same kitchen, owning property in common, and pooling their incomes for common
spending. In India,
the family was a corporate unit jointly holding title to land, which was the
general marker of wealth. The father was more or less the household head, but
it was the brothers who ran the affairs of the family property. The extended
family structure is characterized by parental selection of mates, the
transmission of property to male members within the family, the rarity of
divorce, and the subjugation of women.
The indentured Indians, from their initial entry into Trinidad
(1845) up until the 1880s and 1890s, grew up with a different set of family
relationships from which their parents had experienced. Most of the Indians
during this period were plantation residents and experienced fluid family
patterns. Between the 1890s and 1940s, the extended family was more or less
the norm in villages and among peasant Indians including the majority of
landowning Indo-Trinidadian families. After the 1940s and 1950s there was a
steady decline in the extended family form.
The move to Trinidad resulted in a
new set of rules by which the structure of relative domination within and
among families had to be arranged. First, members of joint/extended families
were separated in the estate barracks where the indentured Indians were
initially lodged. No provision was made for the behaviour patterns
appropriate to the indentured immigrants society of origin, and by the very
nature of barrack life there was minimal opportunity for exercising
traditional customs and practices. Where the family did exist, plantation
conditions conflicted with normal Indian family and other behaviour patterns
and expectations. The disparity between the numbers of men and women, for
example, created conditions conducive to change.
Because men greatly outnumbered women throughout the
indenture period, the joint family system could not be maintained and began
to fade. The disproportion of the sexes, non-recognition of customary
marriages, erosion of traditional restraints and marriage customs, produced
conditions that led to the demise of the extended family. As a result of the
disparity between the sexes, many of the indentured Indians entered into
common-law unions, which could easily be terminated. Indian religious
marriage ceremonies were not recognized by civil authorities until well after
the indenture period had ended. Islamic marriages, for example, were declared
legal in 1936, but Hindu ceremonies remained outside the law until 1946. This
legal double standard probably had the effect of weakening the traditional
bonds of marriage since a discontented husband could very easily abandon a
woman who was not really a "wife" in the eyes of the law.
Similarly, inter-caste marriage and cohabitation were
unavoidable because of the scarcity of women. Lack of land and other forms of
property, and the independent wage-earning capacity of women and sons,
evidently curtailed the authority of Indian males. Consequently, the
structure of domestic units was under the direct jurisdiction of the
plantation manager rather than under the control of the male household heads.
The housing arrangement in the estate barracks also kept people close to each
other irrespective of caste backgrounds. Although the majority of indentured
Indians came from the lower agricultural castes, many were also members of
higher castes such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas (mainly Rajputs). As the
indentured Indians settled into villages and attempted to establish
themselves, strict caste restrictions were gradually broken down virtually
irreparably. Though not as frequent as inter-caste marriage, unions also
occurred between Muslims and Hindus.
Therefore, the prevalence of inter-caste interactions as
a result of living conditions and the experience of passage may have created
the conditions for the initial transformations of one of the fundamental
cornerstone of Hinduism, namely, caste arrangements. The crossing of the
"kaala pani", or the conditions arising out of the experience of
passage itself, resulted in profound changes to the traditional Indian family
system. In India,
for example, social relationships were dominated by the patrilineal system.
In a single village in India,
the people were largely from the same "gotra", and potential marriage
partners were sought from outside. In the Caribbean,
however, this system gave way to a new system, namely, jahajibhai/jahajibahin
or ship brotherhood/sisterhood. Many of the indentured Indians did not come
from the same village, and this led to the development of solidarity as
experienced in communal life. Thus, it is conceivable that the breakdown of
caste barriers, in some ways, radically transformed particular spheres of
Indian social and cultural life in the Caribbean. In
his research on Indo-Trinidadian social organization, Nevadomsky (1982) found
that in some areas of community life the cultural content is perhaps
traditional (e.g., religion), but the organizational form is "new"
(i.e. the erosion of caste and the declining authority of the household head
in the extended family. Given the circumstances of indentureship and
plantation life, it was difficult for the indentured Indians to maintain the
joint/extended family system as was known in India.
Although a few specific features of this system remained in tact, mainly in
rural areas (e.g., the authority of the father, and a system of extensive
kinship), today, however, the extended family has become almost extinct in Trinidad.
The increasing shift from the extended family form to the
nuclear family can be attributed to a number of factors operating in
Trinidadian society. One such factor is the Indo-Trinidadian bride's growing
awareness of her subjugation and exploitation as bahu
(daughter-in-law). Many Indo-Trinidadian women, as wives and mothers have,
historically, been oppressed by their mothers-in-law. In Trinidad,
the Indo-Trinidadian bride was property, and thus needed to be abused in
order to make clear that her in-laws possessed her completely - a situation
aptly referred to as "sexual politics". The Indo-Trinidadian
bride's desire to achieve autonomy may indicate her desire to break with
traditional patterns of male dominance. Thus, the desire by the
Indo-Trinidadian bride for marital stability (i.e. away from the powers of
her mother-in-law) and independence may have also contributed to the rise in
nuclear family forms.
This emphasis on nuclear families supports Schwartz's
(1965) assumption that the nuclear family household is the group best adapted
to the socio-economic conditions present in Trinidadian society, and only
under particular conditions is the extended family household possible as an
effective unit. Many Indo-Trinidadians have made increasing use of education
as a vehicle for social mobility. People involved in "modern" jobs
outside of the sugar industry tend to establish neolocal, nuclear family
residences while maintaining ties to the wider family.
Typically, most Indo-Trinidadian families preferred to
have their married sons and wives live at home with them. They built extra
rooms to accommodate them. However, the current trend is for young couples to
live on their own, earning and managing their own family budgets. This
movement away from the sharing of residence with parents has resulted in the
emergence of nuclear family homes. It is no longer a disgrace for newly-wed
couples to find their own home. One possible reason for the adoption of
autonomous living (i.e., living in a nuclear family situation involving just
parents and children) may have to do with education. Thus, the typical
western criteria of status - education, occupation, and income - by and
large, now form the basis of the Indo-Trinidadian attitude toward education.
Another factor responsible for the demise of the
traditional extended family system in Trinidad can be
attributed to widespread industrialization and urbanization. The rapid
expansion of the economy produced high rates of urbanization and
suburbanization which may have, to some extent, outmoded the traditional
extended family system. The emergence of a profitable oil export economy in Trinidad
significantly changed the island's economic structure - one that was based on
a plantation economy to one based on an export-oriented industrial economy.
Research by Angrosino (1977) indicates that the most significant concomitant
of family styles in Trinidad is socioeconomic.
Angrosino's study points to the impact that changes to income had on the
changes to the traditional Indo-Trinidadian family structure.
This type of economic development, coupled with the
adoption of "creole values", also resulted in attitudinal changes
toward divorce. Traditional Hindu thought was definitely against divorce,
especially for females. Hinduism advocated that women should not marry more
than once even after their marriage partners died. Muslim women, on the other
hand, had opportunities for separation since Islam permitted divorce. During
the period 1870-1940s, Hindu women in Trinidad had no
access to divorce. Today, however, divorce among Indo-Trinidadians is
becoming more and more common place.
Structural and cultural factors such as those previously
discussed gave rise to other changes in the Indo-Trinidadian family. The
gradual decline in arranged marriages among Indo-Trinidadians is a case in
point. During the early indenture period arranged marriages were probably the
cultural ideal and statistical norm. Increasing educational opportunities and
wide scale urbanization undoubtedly led to changes in attitudes towards
arranged marriages. From the 1940s, marriages were not parentally arranged,
and Indo-Trinidadian women increasingly opted for their own selection of a
spouse. By the 1950s, most Indo-Trinidadian parents, including village
parents, conceded to personal choice as the best method of mate selection.
First, it was a situation where neither the bride nor the
groom saw each other until the day of the wedding. This situation was later
modified so that the couple would arrange to meet each other, and would then
indicate to their parents if they agreed to marry. Then there arose another
modification - one involving a system of arranged courtship. In this
situation the prospective bridegroom would visit a few times and shortly
after marriage plans would be finalized. Since the 1970s to the present, the
situation has become almost entirely courtship. Many Indo-Trinidadian parents
try to pass on their religion and culture to succeeding generations, and
expect the same from their children's choices in marriage. Today, arranged
marriages are usually frowned upon by the younger generation of
Indo-Trinidadians. The norm is for individual choice with parental approval.
Particular aspects of marriage customs associated with
Indian weddings were also re-adapted in Trinidad. For
example, in northern India
(where the majority of indentured Indians came from) the payment of dowry was
a common practice. However, in nineteen-century Trinidad,
the system of dowry has become extinct. The giving of gifts to both the dulaha
(bridegroom) and dulahin (bride) is the accepted practice today.
Changes have also occurred in the area of wedding rituals
and practices. No longer is the "muhurta" (the time when a Hindu
marriage is most propitious) seen as important. It has been replaced by a
particular day most suited to merriment i.e. Sundays . Also, the traditional
attire worn by Indo-Trinidadian brides has undergone some changes.
For example, it was customary for the Hindu bride to wear
a yellow sari, then a red sari followed by a white sari. With increasing
westernization, Hindu brides are now wearing both the traditional sari as
well as the white wedding gown typical of western/Christian weddings.
inspite of these transformations and modifications, Indo-Trinidadian
marriages continue to have the full force of moral and social authority
behind them. Indeed, the "Indian" character of the wedding ceremony
has become one of the principal markers of a distinct Indo-Trinidadian ethnic
identity. An Indo-Trinidadian marriage symbolizes participation in Indian
culture. As Jha (1973) argued: "the importance of the wedding feast by
both Hindus and Muslims in Trinidad is critical to an
understanding of cultural preservation and pride."