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The Indo-Trinidian Family :
From Indentured to the Present Part 1
by Lisa Rampersad

Email : lisarampersad@yahoogroups.com

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.

But, 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."

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