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Key South Asian Players in the New Administration

South Asians in the house! — my cousin cheers between mouthfuls of samosa and peanut chutney as Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States on screen. It’s a day as celebratory as it is surreal — especially for the ‘South Asians in the house’, who are scattered across the country watching one of the most unprecedented inaugurations in history. I knew I was going to see a female president or vice-president hold that Bible on camera during my lifetime. The world has seen female presidents and Prime Ministers from Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel; the world is growing up, and growing out of the trappings of a patriarchal society. Although we’re late, I knew I would have the honor of watching America catch up. 

But watching a South Asian-American woman help shatter America’s legislative glass ceiling was a wholly different honor altogether. 

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Indian-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the United States’ registered voter base. It’s a fact that’s difficult to forget, considering how under-studied and under-appreciated South Asian Americans are as a voter demographic. Civic engagement organizations have a history of not visiting South Asian American neighborhoods out of fear of ‘mispronouncing their names’. In the past, South Asian-American politicians at the local level have been questioned for their religious or ethnic identities, rather than their qualifications or political stances. Although the 2020 elections have marked a tremendous increase in political participation among our community, historically South Asian Americans have often been under-represented and overlooked at the polls. 

The new administration is a game-changer for our community — and not simply because of Kamala Harris. Here are some members of the wave of South Asian Americans introduced by the Biden-Harris administration. 

Garima Verma 

Formerly a content strategist for the Biden-Harris campaign, Garima Verma was named by First Lady Jill Biden as the Digital Director for the Office of the First Lady at the White House. Born in India, Garima grew up in Ohio and the Central Valley of California. Her journey in marketing and brand strategy shows her passion for both civic engagement and digital storytelling, as Garima has worked for major corporations like Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and nonprofits like the St. Joseph Center alike. Hopefully, Garima will bring her unique talent of telling compelling stories through the digital medium to the First Lady’s team. 

“While in the entertainment space at both Paramount Pictures and ABC, my passion has always been working on diverse and boundary-pushing content that allows more people to feel seen and heard, and to authentically engage and empower those communities through marketing campaigns,” Garima says. “My ultimate goal is to combine my love of marketing and storytelling with my passion for social impact and advocacy in a meaningful and impactful way.” 

Neera Tanden 

Massachusetts-native Neera Tanden has contributed to America’s political landscape for years, from advising Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign to drafting the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. For her work in founding the Center of American Progress (CAP), Tanden was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Women In Washington” by the National Journal in 2012. She has used her platforms to advocate for universal, multi-payer healthcare, and cites her childhood experiences living on welfare as a reason behind her passion for healthcare reform and economic empowerment. As Biden’s pick for budget chief, Tanden hopes to bring her years of political experience to the US Office of Management and Budget.

After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said in a 2020 tweet. “Now, I’m being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored.”

Her nomination, however, did not come without controversy. Tanden has been often criticized by her Republican counterparts for her outspoken nature on Twitter, where she fired back at Lindsey Graham for calling her a ‘nut job’ and referred to Mitch McConnell as ‘Moscow Mitch’. Many Republicans criticize Tanden for her ‘partisan’ approach to politics — an ironic appraisal, considering how nearly every politician has contributed to the radioactive battlefield that is Twitter in recent years. 

Shanthi Kalathil 

Formerly a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development, Shanthi Kalathil has been named as the White House’s Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights in the National Security Council. Kalathil’s years of dedication towards advocating for human rights and worldwide democracy demonstrate her preparedness for this role. She is known for her commitment towards addressing techno-authoritarians, or the role that modern technology plays in reinforcing the rigidity of authoritarianism. In fact, she addresses this phenomenon in her 2003 book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Within an increasingly digitized society, Kalathil’s careful attention towards the Internet in relation to human rights is certainly a step forward for the White House. She also carefully avoids implicit biases while addressing human rights abuses in other countries, discussing the importance of separating “the Chinese people from the Chinese party-state” in a podcast published by the National Democratic Institute. 

“You know one area where I think all democracies have to be careful is in making sure that there is a clear distinction between referring to the Chinese party-state and the Chinese people. Whether it’s the Chinese people within China or people of ethnic Chinese descent all around the world, that would be one area in which I think there does need to be great care”, Kalathil said. “I think in all policy discussions, it’s important to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, to really deal with very specific problems and specific issues that pose a challenge to democracy, but that we shouldn’t conflate broad-based backlash.” 

The United States government has a history of intervening in the human rights abuses committed by the other regimes of the world as an effort to maintain peace and justice. Kalathil’s balanced, nuanced approach towards democracy and human rights will certainly enrich her platform. 


Uzra Zeya 

American diplomat Uzra Zeya has been nominated by the Biden-Harris Administration to serve as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Like Tanden, Zeya has years of political experience under her belt, as she was the acting assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Obama Administration. Before that, she worked in Paris’s Embassy of the United States. Her work in diplomacy has taken her all over the world, from New Delhi, Muscat, Damascus, Cairo, and Kingston. Similar to Tanden’s experience, Zeya is also a contentious choice for this position. In 2018, Zeya quit her job in the state department, owing her resignation to the racism and gender bias promoted by the Trump administration. Calling the administration a ‘pale male’ club, Zeya advocated for the diversification of her department. 

“In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their place,” Zeya wrote in an article for Politico. “In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.” 

If chosen as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Zeya hopes to use her prior political experience to address key global issues such as peace in the Middle East, Russia’s increasing aggression in Europe, and climate change. 

In my 25+years as a diplomat, I learned that America’s greatest strength is the power of our example, diversity & democratic ideals,” Zeya said in a 2021 tweet. “I will uphold & defend these values, if confirmed, as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

Vidur Sharma

A former health policy advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, Vidur Sharma has been named by Biden as a testing advisor for the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. Sharma played a key role in shaping health policy during the Obama administration, where he advocated for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A Harvard graduate, he also has years of experience working in the medical industry, as he has worked for Avalere Health, CareMore Health, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the past. As a testing advisor at the White House, Sharma will promote equity in the healthcare space, as he was a Deputy Research Director for Protect Our Care, an organization dedicated to “increasing coverage, lowering health care costs, and addressing racial inequities in our..system.” 

Amid a global pandemic, equity will play a major role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As the coronavirus is reportedly 2.8 times more likely to kill people of color, implicit biases in our healthcare system can have potentially fatal consequences. The Biden-Harris administration, in fact, recently established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to aid “medically and socially vulnerable communities.” Sharma’s emphasis on inclusivity and equity certainly fits the values of the administration and will help ensure that the vaccine and coronavirus treatment plans reach all Americans.

Closing Thoughts 

There are so many threads of commonality among the South Asian Americans introduced to the White House — all passionate about government reform, all aware of our nation’s existing inequalities, all incredibly qualified for their positions. As a South Asian American hoping to enter America’s legislative process later in life, our community’s representation at the national level is both empowering and inspiring — a fond reminder that America, after years of underrepresentation for minority groups — is finally catching up.

Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

‘Musafir’ Marinates in Its Own Masala

It begins with only a single voice. Just a single beat, a simple six-beat dadra breaking through the silence. Then another. And in a matter of seconds, the song emerges in full force, a Bollywood-pop rhythm that’s smooth and yet hits all the right notes. So engrossed am I in the voices reverberating from my Youtube playlist that I almost entirely forget that there were no instruments present in the entire song. No omnipresent bass to emphasize a beat drop. No layers of autotune to smother the melody like fabric. Just voices, raw and powerful, somehow so American and yet unabashedly Indian at the same time. 

That was my first peek into the world of Penn Masala, a group of a capella singers from the University of Pennsylvania. Over the past two decades, the group has skyrocketed to fame, garnering millions of views on Youtube and other platforms for their creative Bollywood mashups. They’ve covered everything from Guru Randhawa’s smash-hit Suit to Justin Bieber’s chart-topping Let Me Love You, and can seamlessly pivot between classical melodies, jazz riffs, hip hop, and much more. Beyond the screens, they’ve worked with some of Bollywood’s best. A few of their live performances include sharing the stage with Ayushmann Khurana and A.R. Rahman. In 2015, they were a part of the Anna Kendrick-starrer Pitch Perfect 2, and somehow found the time to slide in performances for Sachin Tendulkar, Lata Mangeshkar, and Barack Obama

Penn Masala with Barack Obama

It’s quite the formidable resume, all right. And a resume about to be altered with their eleventh studio album, Musafir. To discuss this latest addition to their discography, I had a chat with Penn Masala, where they harkened back to the group’s humble beginnings. 

Penn Masala was started in 1996 by a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania who wanted to use this art form to bridge the gap between their heritage and the culture they lived in, explained Sahit, a group member. I think that message still resonates with all of us and is one of the main things that drew us to the group. I don’t think our founders realized where the group would go when they started it back then but we feel so lucky that our music and our message has made it so far.  

He then went on to discuss the a capella world, a powerhouse for entertainment on college campuses and beyond. Before Penn Masala, UPenn was already home to a number of successful groups, who not only sung as one, but lived and studied alongside one another, sometimes maintaining these friendships for the rest of their lives. 

While the a capella industry had already seen all-female or all-Jewish teams dominate the stage, there was a gaping void in the recipe. Then they added the masala. 

..Our founders felt, many Indian American kids have a whole separate side of their identity that this form of expression may not have been able to capture in the past. I think a cappella’s versatility and organic nature makes it especially conducive to different styles as well. In our experience, it’s been really interesting and fun to incorporate Indian sounds such as tabla and sargam into the traditional a cappella repertoire. 

With Musafir, Penn Masala went above and beyond their previous a capella pursuits, forging soulful medleys from Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’s Illahi and Ed Sheeran’s Castle on the Hill. They bounced between styles while still matching one another in technique and vigor. On the surface, Musafir seemed like yet another Masala blockbuster. But the group mentioned how this album crosses more serious frontiers, on both a personal level and for the South-Asian community as a whole. 

In this album, we came to realize that we had a platform in the Indian-American community, and that there were issues that meant a lot to us that maybe have not been explored as much as they could be. These included mental wellness, South Asian identity, and linguistic diversity. We put a lot of thought into the song selection and visuals so that they could most authentically convey our experiences. Beyond the ideas  that we explored in this album, we also pushed ourselves musically by exploring a whole new range of musical styles and languages that Masala has not covered in the past. In creating these mixes and in conceptualizing the videos, we spent a lot of time reflecting together on our own experiences. 

Penn Masala performing in Amsterdam

Penn Masala makes good music. They always have, and another album with effortless transitions and Bollywood pomp would not be a surprise. What has changed is how their concept has come of age over the years, where they act not merely as a college-wide a capella group, but as a cross-cultural liaison in new musical territory. They are evidence of the Indian entertainment industry at the height of its globalization. And so the album begins with a music video for the Illahi mashup, which serves as a heartfelt tribute to the Indian-American student life. As a Desi student myself, I was delighted to find pieces of myself in the video, which includes Bollywood movie sprees, tadka dal, cricket — staples of the brown lifestyle. Even better is the Desi Regional Medley, a mix that unifies India’s rich linguistic history while beautifully highlighting the differences. 

This is an album that does not shy away from appearing “too Indian”, but rather marinates in its own masala. 

Music is often most beautiful when the expression is unfiltered and authentic, the group concluded. And Penn Masala has lived up to that ideal, offering us a chance to find our own inner Musafir. We hope that listening to this album allows our fans to similarly [reflect on their experience], and how music can be used to express it. 

Much like the Desi identity, Penn Masala is in a constant state of metamorphosis, leaving its imprint on every continent, keeping its roots, and yet finding its voice. Musafir closes on a lingering crescendo, a fitting end to a beginning. 

To listen to Musafir, the full album can be listened to on YouTube here and an abridged version can be streamed here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the assistant culture editor of India Currents, she is the editor-in-chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton, and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

 

Guyana

“Born in the land of the mighty Roraima/ Land of great rivers and far stretching sea … ” are words sung in drunken glee by relatives of my parents’ generation. The song tells of the land of my birth, Guyana, a place called “back home” by my elders, but which to me had always been merely a source of relatives’ funny accents and the occasional bawdy provincial story; a place lost entirely in the immaturity of infantile memory, and remade incompletely through the borrowed memories of others.But all that changed as I return to Guyana, unexpectedly and unprepared, 31 years after leaving as a baby. “Born in the land where men sought El Dorado/ Land of the diamond and bright shining gold,” the song goes, boasting of the land’s natural wealth, and hinting at the plight of those who had sought it. I return as a recipient of one of Guyana’s national arts awards, undeserving because I am heretofore unable to find a connection to the ancestral land, which now honors me. That would change as the assault of sights and scents, and the camaraderie of locals, conspire to force my acknowledging of that buried organic thread of belonging.

Despite the song’s promises, I see no gold or diamonds, nor do I find the time to explore the great rivers or far stretching sea. But I do taste the sweetness of Guyana’s fruit, remark on the comeliness of her women, the brightness of her tropical sun and the seeming timelessness of her stitch within the fabric of colonial history. This is a place beaten by its history, existing at the rare conflux of a dozen trading nations, yet striving valiantly to pull itself from the status of Third World indigent to modern Caribbean power broker.

Guyana is a frequently misplaced and mispronounced nation in the Canadian travel vocabulary. Formerly called British Guiana, it is nestled longitudinally between Brazil and the Caribbean ocean, and horizontally between Venezuela and Suriname (formerly Dutch Guyana). A democracy, she remains the only officially English-speaking country in South America, and one of Canada’s most effusive sources of Caribbean emigration.

Map of Guyana and where it lies in South America
Map of Guyana and where it lies in South America

At the time of Columbus, the region was inhabited by the Arawak and Carib aboriginal tribes whose legacy is the word guiana. It means “land of waters,” testament to the region’s multitude of waterways streaming to and from the Amazon basin. The three Guyanas of history, Dutch, French and British, were a trading and farming delta operated by European powers for the past two centuries. The land was valuable for its rugged frontier against the rich South American jungle, its navigable river system, its potential for a plantation-style economy, and its position on the shore of the lucrative Caribbean shipping lanes.

When the aboriginal tribes were pushed back into the rainforest, African slaves were brought in to work the sugar plantations. With the transition to British rule in 1786, the labor structure, punctuated by violent slave revolt decades earlier, fell under the auspices of British imperial law. Hence, the abolition of slavery in the British Empire 21 years later led to a critical need for cheap plantation labor. That labor was found via the indentured servitude system wherein subjects of the empire, mostly East Indian and some Chinese, were shipped in to work on a supposedly contractual basis. The colorful songs do not tell of this history. That task is left to the pockets of angry subversive writers scattered throughout the diaspora.

Indentured Servants
Indentured Servants

Most historians agree that the British violated the service contracts and refused the indentured laborers their promised passage home. The result was generations of large numbers of people, mostly Indians, stranded in a country to which they never truly intended to emigrate. In the twentieth century, with the dissolution of British rule in favor of a fractious parliamentary system, Guyana remains a nation of essentially two races: African and Indian. This racial duality is a persistent social and political theme, occasionally sinking to riotous violence, and sometimes rising to philosophical elegance, as in the establishment of the multi-racial socialist government of the late President Cheddi Jagan, Guyana’s most beloved fallen hero.

Jagan is often called the father of the modern Guyanese nation. His 80-year old widow Janet, also a former President, remains an honored national figure who hearkens to a bygone era of Gandhi/Mandela styled social protest and political sacrifice. Even their 1943 interracial marriage (he was Indian, she a Jew from Illinois) was a daring feat, a template for a coming age.

Despite the Jagans’ heroism, Guyana’s story in the twentieth century is one of corruption and lost opportunity. As the song describes so proudly, it is a nation rich in mineral and biological wealth, devoid of the population pressures of other developing nations (there are fewer than a million permanent residents). Its rugged beauty inspired the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle who fashioned his 1912 novel “The Lost World” after Guyana’s unspoiled jungle primacy, specifically the misty Mount Roraima upon whose paleolithic peak Conan Doyle envisioned Victorian dinosaur hunters and lost prehistoric tribes.

Guyana’s enviable position as an English-speaking literate nation whose expatriate vim offers access to the resources of the West should have propelled Guyana into the role of Southern leader. Yet the nation has languished economically by virtue of recent dictatorial corruption and mismanagement. High inflation, elevated rates of maternal and child morbidity, increased street crime and official corruption, and residents poor access to infrastructure—the textbook signatures of Third World status—have been typical of Guyana up to and including the 1980s.

This was the ominous data I weighed while considering whether to undertake the visit to the land of my birth. I was taken from Guyana at the age of 2, and returned once more for a summer visit 20 years ago. I had joined the great soup of immigrants in Toronto, multicolored, multicultured, and undeniably Canadian. Despite the thickening density of Guyanese expatriates filling the Toronto-New York corridor, I had no conscious desire to return to my motherland.

However, my book of short stories titled “Sweet Like Saltwater” ostensibly about the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, surprisingly won the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Just like that, I was on my way back to this lonely tropical waystation.

The existence of the Guyana Prize is itself a window into the psyche of a nation making great strides to re-position itself as a trade-and tourism-worthy modern democracy. It is one of the English-speaking world’s most prestigious literary awards, and the only national book award offered by a Caribbean country other than Cuba.

Though the official literacy rate hovers about 98%, the country only produces a handful of books each year. But in many Southern societies, the written word retains both power and prestige, regardless of the official rate of book production and consumption. The literary legacy left to Guyana from its most culturally influential ancestral places—India, West Africa and England—is one that seemingly demands the recognition of communicative excellence, evident in the oratorical skills of local leaders and in the impressive feats of poetic recitation required from schoolchildren. Given the poor rate of domestic book production, due in part to a hobbled publishing industry, it is not surprising that the nation glories in the artistic achievements of its expatriate children. London’s Pauline Melville and Fred D ‘Aguiar of Florida are but two such non-resident writers oft honored in Guyana.

Arriving in the capital city, Georgetown, I am filled with trepidation. One guidebook describes the place as “the second most violent capital city in South America, after Bogota.” It further warns: “under no circumstances go out at night, and avoid doing so in the daytime, too.” Wariness of violent street crime was the mantra preached to me by friends and relatives, none of whom had been to Georgetown in many years.

Downtown Georgetown, Guyana
Downtown Georgetown, Guyana

But the city is surprisingly pleasant. Nestled against the Atlantic shore, it nonetheless considers itself a Caribbean metropolis, yet its official population of 200,000 would make it merely a large town by North American standards. It was once a colonial gem, still proudly bearing its traditional moniker of “the garden city”, though decades of infrastructure neglect have tarnished its floral vigor. Whitewashed wooden buildings with thatched multicolored roofs still provide a fair amount of charm and elegance, and rebuilt roads encourage the recent inundation of American sports cars and utility vehicles. All about, the signs of an economic renaissance abound.

One is struck by a distinct odor that, to me at least, is ubiquitous across all tropical domains: the scent of damp fabrics, unseen fungal growths and hot, wet sea air. Not necessarily unpleasant, it is womb-like in its familiarity. Eager surveillance from the window of a cramped Guyana Airways plane revealed dazzling green arteries of water that pulse with life, giving truth to the aboriginal name for the place. The odor and the greenery seem complementary, and one is made less aware of the urban concrete, and more sensitive to the nearby ocean and strategically planted foliage.

The streets and highways are cluttered with autos, muscular and loud. The car is a symbol of machismo here, and owners have taken to emblazoning their vehicles with personalized names. My driver has named his for the Backstreet Boys, and gestures to the photo of the cover girl on his dashboard: “That’s the backstreet girl,” he jokes.

Minibuses plow by. Lynn Mangru, a local sitcom actress and my guide for the morning, tells me that the buses are privately owned with fares set by the government. “People choose which bus to ride by the music the driver is playing,” she says. I decide that my favorite bus is one named “Sweetness” driven by a sloppy, big-bellied, very un-sweet man. On the bus’s back, the driver has written the explanation: “Your sweetness is my weakness.”

Crowds of people gather in every public locale in Georgetown. The roars of rancorous Creole, English-based and similar to Jamaican patwa but spiced with elements of French, Dutch, Senegalese, Hindi, Spanish and Portuguese, assault the ear in torrents of musical speech, sometimes joyous and sometimes angry 97the sounds of street commerce common around the world. The Creole of Guyana is a trademark of the place. It was the language of my youth, usually summoned from my subconscious only with the aid of alcohol or family prodding, embarrassing for its foreignness and inapplicability to Canadian life. Here it is refreshingly familiar, heard at last as a living language for an entire people, and not, as the locals would describe it, as simply “poor English.”

Teenage boys, both brown and black, strut along the roadways with New York ghetto attitude. Basketball shoes, fake jewelry and hip-hop mannerisms are common. Judging from fashion choices and the plethora of cheap low-quality consumer products, this could be any American inner city—except that, alongside these thrusts into the banal continuum of the world economy, there are unmistakable nods to both tropical wherewithal and a recent colonial legacy.

Indeed, while modern autos screech through crowded roads, many side streets are the exclusive domain of horses and horse-drawn vehicles. The preferred mode of transport of many goods, particularly construction materials, appears to be via animal sweat. Time does not allow me a foray into the rural countryside to visit the rice-farming village of my infancy, or to the rugged interior; it would have been interesting to see whether supreme reliance is still made upon beasts of burden for all physical tasks too challenging for mere human muscle. It is quixotically ironic, this superposition of agrarian methods against an urban backdrop of somewhat modern buildings, Western outlook and new American automobiles.

More irony befalls me as I check into the Hotel Tower, supposedly one of Georgetown’s top hotels. Half a century ago, my father worked here as a waiter and had alerted the industry minister to the hotel’s unfair treatment of workers; the pro-labor socialist sentiment runs strong in Guyanese of his generation, those touched by the crusades of Cheddi and Janet Jagan. Today, after decades of decline, the Hotel Tower has remade itself into a gateway for adventure tourism, offering “romantic” rainforest tours to mostly foreign couples. Indeed, eco-tourism is the buzzword across the nation. Industrial forces are arrayed to parcel off Guyana’s pristine jungle ecology in the name of debt reduction, and ventures within the city are positioning themselves to provide the necessary support for such activities.

The city’s center is dominated by the clock tower-crowned Stabroek market, a grand old Dutch structure whose contents today can be compared to rural flea markets in Canada. It is probably the oldest building in the country, and an enduring democratic structure in which everyone, rich or poor, shops. Some say it was intended as a railway station for another colony, but ended up in Guyana by accident. Pierre Trudeau once called it a “bizarre bazaar.” Whatever the colorful anecdote, the market is a beloved sprawl of simple commercial reciprocity where anything that can be carried by hand is sold.

Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana
Stabroek Market in Georgetown, Guyana

In addition to the basic supplies and knick-knacks sold here are the fresh produce brought in from farmers outside the city. The fruits are glorious in their ripeness, and I gladly indulge in a wide array of tropical nectars. Tourists are ill-advised to wander about the market unescorted, so I was pleased to find manning some of the vending stalls relatives whom I had never before met in person: an aunt, a great uncle and several cousins.

The place had evolved since my family’s exodus I was informed. No longer the refuge of impoverished rural agrarians desperate to hawk their undervalued goods, it is now a locus for lucrative high commerce. A vegetable stall like that owned by my aunt would be sold for the equivalent of tens of thousands of American dollars.

That night is the televised ceremony for conferring the Guyana Prizes for Literature; my reason for being in the country. Professor David Dabydeen of England takes top honors for his novel “A Harlot’s Progress”—the trend of rewarding expatriates continues. Harvard student and proud Guyanese native, Paloma Mohamed receives the award for best drama; her rousing patriotic speech would bring the crowd to its feet. While I nervously wait to make my acceptance speech for my Best First Book prize, an elderly woman strikes up a conversation with me about her grandchildren in Canada. It takes a few minutes for me to recognize Janet Jagan, former President and figure of lore. It is surreal to be making disposable small talk with a woman whose name is spoken with quiet reverence in most Guyanese households, my parents’ included. I decide that this is indicative of the informality of the place, where grand historical figures are simply citizens on about their business.

It is therefore not surprising that the sitting President of the country, Bharrat Jagdeo, proves eminently approachable. His mind is understandably elsewhere as a national election looms close. But his popularity almost assures a victory for his People’s Progressive Party, the political party founded by the Jagans. Government stability is an encouraging sign for sustained development and wealth production.

“My job is to pull government into the background and let creative people run with their innovations,” he says, sounding vaguely Ontarian in his politics. He further laments the limited experiences of many visitors to Guyana, wishing more would choose to step beyond Georgetown to see the beauty of the unspoiled interior. “Just a few hours travel and you can meet AmerIndian children who must take canoes to get to school.” Again, there is that ubiquitous dichotomy of the modern alongside the pastoral and ancient. His words remind me that despite Guyana’s bold forays into aggressive world commerce and the increasing affluence of many of Georgetown’s more visible citizens, this is still a country struggling to find its role in the globalized Caribbean milieu.

I recall the growing links between Guyana and Canada: the 1997 flirtation of Saskatechewan’s SaskPower with acquiring the Guyanese electrical infrastructure; the public health program offered by the medical school of Kingston’s Queen’s University to allow their graduates exposure to the truly impoverished in Guyana’s interior; and recent rumblings about debt forgiveness and other sorts of aid. Yet, despite its rural poverty and tiny population, this is a nation with, astonishingly, 23 television stations.

“Anyone can put up a TV transmitter from their front porch,” says John Mair, a BBC producer who moonlights in Guyana as an election consultant for Mr. Jagdeo, and who also writes a popular political satire column for a national newspaper under the pen name of Bill Cotton. The television medium tends to be so unregulated and unprofessional, Mair says, that “if you watch the Berbice news, you can hear the dogs barking on the broadcaster’s front lawn!”

Guyana is a nation much like other Southern countries in this new age, traveling simultaneous paths of spiraling rural poverty and rapid modernization. The vivacity and robustness of Georgetown is promising, though, as is the seeming genuineness of the current government. But one young entrepreneur, the owner of a rice mill, is keeping his enterprise off-line until after the coming election. When asked what difference it makes which party wins, he answers, “I need to know whether they prefer their bribe as a percentage or as a lump sum.”

The chorus of that inescapable Guyanese song seems particularly poignant to me then, testament to a people’s penchant for adaptation and renewal: “Onward, upward, may we ever go/ Day by day in strength and beauty grow/ Till at length we each of us may show/ What Guyana’s sons and daughters can be.”

Raywat Deonandan is the author of “Sweet Like Saltwater” (TSAR Books, 1999), winner of the 2000 Guyana Prize for Best First Book. Visit him online at www.deonandan.com.