Musdu is a playful word coined by a young Trinidadian to describe his religious identity. It is a mix of his Muslim and Hindu heritage and he uses it to deflect the pressure to choose between them.
Among the shiploads of Indians arriving to fill the role of indentured labour in Trinidad, there was roughly a proportion of 85 per cant Hindus and 15 per cent Muslims, essentially the same ratio as in India. The faiths took root in the villages and fields, continuing traditions, including a deep dislike for each other’s practices and beliefs.
For a Trinidadian society that had been imperiously converted to Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian followers, there was as little distinction to be made between these two ancient religions as there was between those that arrived from Africa.
But the differences were plentiful and ran deep. If there were similarities in the cuisine, the music and the language, the religious practices constructed a formidable barrier that would chop families apart should members venture outside prescribed traditions.
Does that hostility still exist in modern Trinidad?
There are many stories with multiple versions and there is no way to fully represent them, so I have been writing mainly about what I’ve been told, and what I have seen in the last few decades.
A young couple eloped because of their religious difference, which was exacerbated by the dark complexion of the boy. Her father was not having it and he went to his grave without speaking to them afterwards.
A girl marries into a Hindu family (yes, into the family), and visits her Muslim mother, wearing her sindoor mark on her forehead. Before she could enter the house, her mother angrily wipes away the red symbol of her marriage. Why did she wear it? Why did her mother remove it? They had a deep bond, this mother and daughter, but religion’s little rites were enough to provoke a wounding act of intolerance.
Muslims believe they are superior, said the mother of Musdu, trying without rancour to describe the root of the dislike. She had converted to Hinduism when she married, but found herself going through the motions without conviction.
She was referring to a corpus of practices that include the fastidious attention to cleanliness and the covering up of women and the details over who and what is unclean.
I was born into a Muslim family and grew up quite immersed in its culture. At the Aranjuez Government Primary School, there was a period known as Religious Instruction, and because this was a secular school, students would go to different classrooms according to their faith. There were no Muslim teachers at Aranjuez, so a teacher from the nearby Islamia school would come across to instruct us. He would read us stories; versions of what my Muslim grandmother would ask me to read aloud to her from a book of Bible stories she had by her bedside. Typically, the stories were the most fascinating aspect for me.
But then puberty came and I was told I could not go to the mosque or fast while I was menstruating. It confused me. But nothing has changed, I protested. I am still the same person with the same beliefs. Yes, but you are unclean, I was told.
How could I be considered too unclean when I was experiencing a biological function over which I had no control? I couldn’t understand why my prayers would only be accepted on prescribed days. I withdrew.
But that is a digression, the kind I am always on the verge of running away with, especially when it comes to the discriminations all religions inflict on women.
I was trying to trace the clashing beliefs between Muslims and Hindus. The abhorrence for unclean pork by Muslims; the reverence for the cow that forbids the eating of beef by Hindus; the bountiful deities of Hinduism versus the singular God of Islam. The covering up of women.
In a temple one day, I observed that the female statue was bare from the waist up, and I asked the pundit how come. He explained that a woman’s legs were considered the erogenous zones and thus it was more important for them to be covered. Exposed belly, back, breasts and arms were not a big deal. I suppose the coverage of breasts has a western root.
In Trinidad, where compromises have been made across the spectrum as we have had to learn to live with each other, many religious observations have been relaxed, some completely abandoned. A butcher in Aranjuez once complained to me that he could not abide this hypocrisy. He said that many of his pork purchasers were Muslim who would stop buying the meat during Ramadan, and many of his beef buyers were Hindu, who would stop buying it in the month leading up to Divali. His sales suffered.
This is a country where a supplicant sees nothing contradictory in supplementing prayers in a temple or mosque with candles in churches or offerings to La Divina Pastora. It is the ultimate commingling; a space where one covers all bases, just in case.
I still hear stories, not as horrific as the “honour” killings still coming out of India and Pakistan, but ones where people are willing to sacrifice their family relationships on the altars of religion. It is yet another legacy; but to what end?