Vishal Sharma on Making Sense of our Indo-Caribbean History
Written by Rebecca Dass
Sunday May 7, 2023
“Articulating an Indo-Caribbean identity in India was very difficult because either, A) it didn't translate, or B) they didn't understand that as an Indian identity.” — As Indo-Caribbeans, our hyphenated identity can be somewhat difficult to articulate. For Vishal Sharma, understanding the history of Indo-Caribbean culture has been fundamental in making sense of his own identity.
Vishal Sharma is a 32-year-old academic in Sanskrit Literary and Cultural History at the University of Oxford. As one of the original members of the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association (ICCA), Vishal joined in 2021 as a regular contributor for the heritage and historical posts. He currently holds the title as the Treasurer at ICCA. I got the chance to chat with him about his experiences of studying in India, grappling with what identity means, and the importance of getting to know your roots.
“Discussing with Ryan [Singh] at the time, he had this germ of an idea for an organization that would do multiple things and eventually grow into something bigger,” he says. “One of the things was to raise awareness about what it actually means to be Indo-Caribbean, to different audiences groups of people, including people from India who don’t completely understand the culture. That really resonated with me and I thought this would be a good idea and opportunity, and I could put some of my work to use.”
Vishal was born in Canada to Indo-Guyanese parents. He spent some time in both India and England to pursue his studies in Sanskrit literature and the history of Hinduism. Immersing himself in India’s vibrant and rich culture, Vishal's experience as an Indo-Guyanese in India sounded both intriguing and eye-opening.
What was your experience like studying in India?
“It was interesting. We can perhaps talk about my time in England as well because there was sort of a parallel experience with this, but when you go to either England or India, or anywhere, a common question is ‘where are you from?’ When you go as a brown person in India, the question of where you're from is them trying to locate you or your roots within India.
For my research I do a lot of work on the history of religion itself in India and in my interactions with people, they would ask me, ‘where are you from?’ The first answer would be ‘I’m Canadian’ or ‘I’m from Canada.’ Sometimes I know what they're getting at beyond just that initial question, and I would say Guyana and South America, and get some puzzled looks.
One time I was talking to one of my Sanskrit teachers and he seemed to know where Guyana was, and he said ‘No, where are you really from?’ and I understood implicitly what he meant by that, which is, ‘where in India are you really from?’ I found that to be a common thing. Articulating an Indo-Caribbean identity in India was very difficult because either, A) it didn't translate, or B) they didn't understand that as an Indian identity. They see this person with brown skin and some folks just didn't make sense of that, so you had to go back to this generation and say, ‘Oh yeah well I guess my great grandparents would have been from Bihar.’ That became the go-to in those interactions, that's eventually where those interactions would culminate to. Even though I’ve been to India many times I've never been to Bihar, I have no familial connections there. But that's how they would locate me, because even for those who understood the Indo-Caribbean identity, they saw that as a stepping stone to another identity that they were trying to understand. So that was very common in India."
"Another type of reaction you would get is that there is a sort of suspicion about, ‘you're not fully Indian, you're not Indian.’ So on one hand they would rather dig further to locate your Indian identity, or the other and they're like ‘oh okay, where is that?’ There's a sense of like, you're not one of them when you say that, even though you have brown skin and you seemingly look Indian to them. So those are the kinds of experiences I had when I was in India, just locating my identity became a bit of a challenge for them, and sometimes for me in articulating it.”
Did you feel like you belonged there?
“To some extent, yes. I actually track that up to my Canadian identity, because so much of what I learned about South India and the food and the culture and things like that, I actually learned being in Toronto and growing up amongst other South Indians. Making friends in Toronto who then helped me navigate the world and South India. I also started learning Tamil. I know Hindi, but I was in South India so I learned Tamil. Starting to speak the language sort of helped navigate things a little better and feel a little more comfortable in this area where I would go for months on end.
And then of course there's the specifics of where I was going to do my work; I work on Sanskrit literature, history of religion, so I was very often in traditional circles. Not only was it my Indo-Caribbean identity, but then my caste identity often gave me privilege because I had a Brahmin last name. So even if they couldn't locate me or where I was from, they could see that part. So that was a privilege that I had that opened the doors for me, but that was not necessarily part of my Indo-Caribbean identity.”
Why do you think it’s important for Indo-Caribbeans to learn about our ancestors?
“I think it's important because it can give us a sense of ourselves, it helps us learn about ourselves in a way. I think being Indo-Caribbean implies a sense of displacement to some extent because it involves a move from India to the West Indies, and then eventually to Canada or the United States. So, it's a way, not to maybe rectify the displacement that our ancestors experienced, but it's a way for us to understand it and make sense of it. Maybe if we can understand that, we can understand our lives a little better. We can understand the people we encounter in our families and friend circles better, and understand the culture better.”
Where in India would you recommend Indo-Caribbeans visit? Do you have any specific recommendations for places to visit, or things to see that are important to our history, etc.?
“There are examples of people who have gone to Guyana or Trinidad or other parts of the Caribbean and trace their roots back and have gone back to India, usually to Bihar or Uttar Pradesh to trace them. Some of them have been successful, and some haven’t. I would say that it can be a risky thing, it could work out and it couldn't. But for those who just want to understand more about that history, I would say the starting point would definitely be Calcutta, or modern day Kolkata, which is where many of our ancestors lived. That would be the harbour from which they left, and there are some sites there. For example, you can see the Surinamese government set up a memorial for the Indentured labourers who left from there, there's a lot of things to see there. If you look hard enough, you can find the depot where they were housing and basically holding the Indentured labourers before they went out. It's been repurposed as a factory or something, but those sites are still there in Calcutta. I think that would be valuable for those who are in the region visiting to go see that because it would give them some kind of visual of what likely their ancestors would have experienced. And the same thing goes to the South. We have a decent amount of South Indians who came to Guyana and Trinidad and they would have left from the Chennai and Pondicherry portals, and so those would be interesting too.”
What are some moments that stood out to you so far during your time at ICCA?
“In the first few months when we launched, we were still on lockdown and we started doing these webinars on different topics such as health in the Indo-Caribbean community, what it means to have a hyphenated Indo-Caribbean identity, and a special for pride month. It was a great way to start the organization around these conversations and have conversations with other people in the community. We brought people together in the time when we were all basically physically distant from each other, so I was really proud of the work we did in those first few months and some of that is thanks to the pandemic. We had the time then to rethink what it means to start an organization like this. I was really proud of that. We're not just a social media handle but I am proud of our Instagram and the content that we put out there. Sometimes I get feedback from folks who happen to follow saying they really like this or that post, that really drives it home for why we started it. So I would say the social media aspect and even when we started these webinars we were doing.”
What do you like to do in your free time apart from work and volunteering?
“I do like to travel, my job thankfully allows me to do that. Travelling is something I’m really passionate about and in the past few years I've been able to take advantage of that. That passion has actually allowed me to reflect a little bit more on identity and what it means to be Indo-Caribbean, because you encounter different people and they try to locate you, and you try to locate them, depending on where you are. So, as a passion that's aided that journey of trying to make sense of my Indo-Caribbean identity.”
What is your favourite Indo-Caribbean food?
“I think dhal puri. I appreciated it before I moved away but when I moved to England I actually appreciated it. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, when I moved away I actually found myself missing it and I always used to bring that back from Toronto. And while I was at Oxford I met these other Indian students and I met a student from Bihar who actually knew what dhal puri was and he explained to me the Bihari version of dhal puri which is probably what it came from, and that was really interesting.”
What difference are you hoping to make through your work with ICCA?
“On a personal level I'm hoping to actually use the tools of my trade at my day job to better understand and make sense of the history of my culture. ICCA does great things with great initiatives on all different grounds, but that's one of the things that is really close to my heart and my work with ICCA. My first post for ICCA was a post on maticore, what we have in Hindu weddings, and that was a learning experience to go and try to recreate that history and understand how these things sort of came together to become the maticore that we've come to understand. I hope to, on a macroscale, bring awareness to those things, bring awareness to our history and how that's informed our present.”
About the Author
Rebecca is a Toronto-based writer and digital marketer, currently working in book publishing. With a BA in Sociology and a minor in Caribbean Studies, she joined the Indo-Caribbean Canadian Association to continue her interest in researching and writing content about Indo-Caribbean history and culture.