Of culture and cats and Carnival

“Tradition becomes our security, and when the mind is secure it is in decay.”

― Jiddu Krishnamurti

An Indian friend of mine once laughed at an American speaking of US history. She found it hilarious to talk of US history because America is such a young country – compared to India. Next to India, the US was practically a child! I couldn’t really join in her mirth because, well, compared to the US, Guyana is barely out of the womb.

This happened many years ago but I recall it every time there is a public debate on what our culture and traditions are or should be. I think of how very young we are as a country and how our traditions and cultures have been transplanted from multiple societies and then trampled on and diluted by colonial empire. How our ancestors were only allowed to pass on bits and pieces, patched up versions of their cultures – their foods, their languages, their beliefs – to their children and grandchildren. How these customs may have strayed quite far from their original versions not deliberately, but because that’s what happens when information is heard through second and third sources.

I think of how much of what passes as ‘Guyanese’ culture and tradition, from our language of business to our understanding of power to our laws are inherited.

There’s a story called ‘The Guru’s Cat’ by Anthony de Mello which encourages people to question their traditions and practices. It goes like this:

When the guru sat down to worship each evening, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshipers. So he ordered that the cat be tied during evening worship.


After the guru died the cat continued to be tied during evening worship. And when the cat died, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.


Centuries later learned treatises were written by the guru’s disciples on the religious and liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.

If someone had just asked the first guru why he had tied a cat, poor subsequent cats wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate! The story is generally used in churches (Anthony de Mello was a Jesuit priest) to encourage “living” traditions – honouring the past while being open to innovation.

In Guyana, we’ve had some recent lively debates surrounding last month’s Carnival. Many found it to signal a moving away from our roots, our culture. They think we are copying from our Caribbean neighbours. What we’re supposed to do is just triple or quadruple our resources or efforts into what we’ve already been doing since the dawn of our independence. Let us not pour our energies into new endeavors. Particularly if those enterprises resemble our neighbours’ too much. After all, we’ve only spent centuries together in the trenches of colonial exploitation, followed by years of common struggle for our freedom. We only share a common history, a similar legal-political framework and our people only come from the same places. How can people expect this to bind us together in some sort of unity?

Pere Labat must have been seeing things in 1722 when he said:

“I saw it first with the dance… the merengue in the oreille morte, the echo of calypsos from Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, Dominica and the legendary Guiana… It is no accident that the sea which separates your lands makes no difference to the rhythm of your body[i].”

He saw a kinship among us. But some believe we must define ourselves as separate from others. We are not Trinidad, we are not Barbados, etc.

Decades ago, writing on the collapse of the Federation of the West Indies, Sir Shridath Ramphal cautioned against the “facile romanticism[ii]” of automatically linking secessionism and self-determination.

Along the same lines, I think that we might need to stop linking separateness (and tradition) with identity.

If we are optimistic, we must imagine that Guyana will be around for a few more centuries to come. Although some traditions may seem eternal, we know all things have beginnings. At some point, all cultural practices have a beginning. The first Mashramani, the first Phagwah, the first Carnival…

We are currently laying the groundwork for what generations to come will see as firm tradition.

Culture is essentially what we make of it. We get to decide what we’re going to do over and over again over generations. We choose what best suits us and celebrates who we are or what we hope for. We must understand current practices are not sacred and can be changed or questioned.

As current caretakers of this land, we have to critically analyze our repertoire of customs and make decisions about what makes sense for us and what doesn’t, what is impractical for the times, what’s missing and where we can find sources of other enriching and insightful customs to teach our people.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – we can borrow from our neighbours, we can borrow from across oceans. Who made the best curries? Who had the best dances? Who knew how to throw a damn good celebration? Who honoured their ancestors in the most moving ways? Who did democracy best? Who was the most successful at peaceful, communal living in diversity? Who excelled at nurturing curiosity and innovation?

We are only as limited as our imagination.


Photo taken from @kesthebandofficial

[i] F Jean-Baptiste Labat, Nouveau Voyage aux Iles de l’Amerique, 1722.

[ii] Sir Shridath Ramphal, Why Federation Failed, Inseparable Humanity: An Anthology of Reflections of Shridath Ramphal, 1988


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