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Need for multicultural policy
Sometimes one word can cause a huge imbroglio, sometimes one image. As the impact of images go way beyond the visual, they can lead to unintended and unwarranted conclusions, particularly if they are misunderstood; unintentionally or deliberately. It is therefore, a necessity in culturally diverse societies to ensure that its education programmes, at all levels, have sound and compulsory multicultural education modules. These are intended to be different from those on comparative religion. Some baby steps have been taken in mainstreaming the cultural practices and imagery of the so-called hidden cultures of T&T but the journey ahead is long and turbulent if one is to judge from the recent brouhaha that erupted as a result of the PM touching the feet of the President of India.
There is thus a clear and present need for open and frank discussions as to what are the cultural components that constitute the mosaic culture of the country, inclusive of every day cultural practices, dress, greetings and proper pronunciation of names. Some sort of guiding principles must be adopted so that a way forward may be determined. So for instance, are dhoti and kurta acceptable as formal wear and equivalent to the jacket and tie? Presently dhoti and kurta, the sari and shalwaar are viewed as ethnic wear that would be accepted at the work place at Divali and Indian Arrival Day. What would be the response of employers if they were worn as regular working clothes? We live in a tropical country and jacket and ties are not really the ideal wear. At dinner parties and other formal functions, knives and forks are still the standard table equipment despite the fact that many a time roti is served. Knives and forks were and are used in western culture to cut the food and particularly the meat.
The practice among most Trinidadians is to cook mouth-sized food and rice is a staple. So while there may be no real need for the knife at the dinner table, uses for it have to be found; like heaping the rice on the fork. It would appear that western-based dinner etiquette is viewed as the “civilised” standard. In Hindu culture, eating with the left hand is discouraged for it is viewed as improper. So Hindus face the double whammy of dispensing of their cultural eating tradition and having to learn to use their left hand, the hand which holds the fork, to eat if they want to appear as “sophisticated.” Why can’t finger wash bowls be included as part of the dinner setup? Interestingly, when the Colonel from Kentucky is at the dinner table it would appear that eating with the hands is not only fine, but is the cool thing to do, if one is to judge from the television adverts. Good morning, hi and hello are the required greetings. But to Hindus, Sita Ram is the reflexive greeting. One would think that in a multicultural space all greeting words should be known. So a Sita Ram would elicit a greeting of good evening or salaam and there should be nothing unusual about that.
In a multicultural society, there must be a common core of cultural practices that are understood by all. More detailed traditions need not be forced upon the society as a whole. This is desirable as it gives credence to the constitution and the idea of an inclusive society. For this to happen, a policy on multiculturalism must be articulated, debated and agreed upon; together with a strategy for its implementation. There may be those who would argue against it and advance the argument that those who propose the mainstreaming of unrepresented cultural practices are ungrateful and maybe hypocritical for enjoying the benefits of western culture while seeking to diminish it. Such arguments are flawed and reflective of the insecure, as giving another culture its due is not diminishing any other. An examination of our history would indicate that the cultural practices of both those of Afro and Indo origins were suppressed, like Carnival once was. It has become main stream. Why not the others?
• Prakash Persad is the director of Swaha Inc
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