The first woman to become the leader of the Hindu Prachaar Kendra at Enterprise in Chaguanas, Geeta Ramsingh is just 40 years old and the only female head of a Hindu
organisation in T&T. She took over the reins of power from the Kendra founder, Ravi-ji, earlier this year, after returning home from India where she spent the last three years at ashrams in Chennai and Varanasi. A graduate of Holy Faith Convent in Couva,
and at UWI in events management, she has studied the texts of both secular and sacred knowledge and has been
influenced by the teachings of gurus and pundits. She is, too, a pichakaaree composer and performer of note.
Choosing to be known as Geeta Vaahini, (meaning one who is a vehicle), she has been married since she was 24, represents a new era in Hindu leadership-bright, learned and disciplined, with strong views and a positive outlook.
How do you feel about Indian Arrival Day?
I think we need to rethink what we are doing and how we approach Indian Arrival. The celebration and the awards to acknowledge those who have contributed are very important, but Indian Arrival should be an occasion for reflection for our people.
We have forgotten the importance of being a reflective people, of examining our roles as Hindus, Muslims, as citizens of a country, how we are progressing, what we can do to help or to change things, to be part of the change that we want to see.
And the kind of spirit that our ancestors had, the perseverance-I feel somehow we have lost that in the activities of Indian Arrival.
I ask the question against the backdrop of the outcry against how much money was given for Indian Arrival Day compared to what was given for Emancipation and Carnival. But then again, you have to ask, why don't the Indians come together and take care of their own?
Well, it doesn't matter which government is in power. The fact is there is no policy on giving out grants. Up until now, it is not clear what is the cultural policy of the Ministry of Culture. This is something we'll be talking about every time there is Phagwa, Divali, Indian Arrival-simply because people do not know what they qualify for.
There are no clear guidelines?
No guidelines. It's important that the Ministry have some kind of dialogue with all the groups, not just Indian groups, so that they feel there is a kind of partnership and interaction, that you can discuss things for the development of the whole country, not just Indian culture, or African culture.
And that kind of dialogue is not forthcoming. [The Kendra returned the Ministry's cheque for $5,000 for its Phagwa celebrations this year. For Indian Arrival the Kendra received $30,000.]
Let's be real: we're going through a recession. Wouldn't it have been better if we had four or five major celebrations: one or two in the south, one in the East, etc? The $750,000 would have easily paid for those. Does that make sense to you?
Yes, it does make sense. And the Ministry can be instrumental in something like this. But you have no dialogue going on, nothing of the sort. And this should be the role of the Ministry because you can help the groups to come together also.
Now you see there's also a complication because the way that the Kendra might want to approach something might not be the same way that a group down in Penal or in Arima might want to approach things.
But $750,000 compared to money used for other activities throughout the year is just a drop in the bucket. It's not fair at all, when you measure and you see how much is being disbursed.
I think the Ministry is not quite sure how to propagate the cultural traditions and the arts. If they had criteria for giving out grants - your proposal...should have different components: educational, creative, innovative, historical...
Groups that have a track record of having educational, creative programmes, preserving the culture, nationalistic in nature, that is important. The Ministry should have some mechanism to look at this when they are disbursing funds. Whether this is there or not, I'm not sure.
How have men reacted to your ordainment as leader of a mainstream Hindu organisation?
I have not had any animosity from the ones I've met. They've all said very kind and supportive things to me. Within this community, everyone has been supportive. This is like a comfort zone for me because many of the congregation would have seen me grow up and they know me.
Did Sat Maharaj call to congratulate you?
Having read some of Ravi-ji's columns...it's not a total shock that he would have taken the bold step of passing on the mantle of leader to a woman. But was there a male heir apparent?
No, we didn't have that. You've hit the nail exactly on the head. Ravi-ji's approach has been - I shouldn't say not traditional, because Hindu tradition has a long history of woman philosophers and scholars from the Vedic period. So it is not breaking the tradition, but nurturing that which existed in ancient times.
Now I think our community is a little more enlightened than say 20 years ago when our work was now started. In 1990, I conducted a Ramayan yagya, a series of nightly discourses, and it was the first time that it was being done by a woman-and I received such horrible letters from members of the community who were against it, really unpleasant. The first night I was so scared because people were threatening to protest.
The letters were anonymous so we had no idea where they came from. And on the day of the yagya I received calls, people saying abusive things-now after so many years of continuing that struggle and persevering, the community has become more comfortable with it and they probably understand why it's necessary, why it's important for the women to have access to the knowledge and teaching. Knowledge is for everyone.
There's a saying: When you teach a man, you teach an individual. When you teach a woman, you teach a civilisation.
Anand Ramlogan said something very interesting the other day, about how the dynamics between young Indian women and Indian men have changed over the years. How has this been reflected in say the issues that people come to you for guidance on?
Well, the Kendra is mainly an educational institution and we try to enlighten our congregation in different ways. On Sundays we take the children aside and we have this box so that they can write down questions they want to ask.
They don't have to put their names. Once, a child asked, 'Why don't we Hindus talk about things like abortions and homosexuality?' When I read it I became very aware of how the psyche of our children is changing.
I have to agree with Anand. And it has a lot to do with mothers and how they raise their sons. The women are forging ahead and the men don't have to catch up, but they need to adapt.
We used to give out an award called 'Wake up de beta too'. We were saying that parents need to understand that the male child should not be pampered and spoiled. When you leave your son sleeping until late and he can't put his dirty dishes in the sink, simple things like that, what is he going to become later on in life?
Domestic violence is still a huge problem within the Indian community. What part do organisations like the Kendra play in dealing with it?
People need to know they have somewhere they can go to, to talk about their feelings. And this includes men. They keep things bottled up. Institutions have to make themselves available and make people feel comfortable enough to talk to. Like the panchayat system long ago.
Indians have come such a long way from the circumstances that our ancestors endured when they first came here. Can this generation really appreciate that? I think Ravi-ji understood why it was important to go to India because it is indeed another country, another world. Indians here are not really Indians- they're Trinidadians who practise a religion that was brought here 164 years ago.
But you see, you can be very Indian and very Trinidadian. Ravi-ji often talks about this: I am a trinity: I am a Hindu, I am an Indian and I am a Trinidadian. And do not ask me to give up any one of those things because the three are who I am.
You know it seems that the more we progress the further we stray from the legacy of the ancestors-they had their own unique value system of hard work, honesty, fraternity.
Yes, and frugality. And it seems that the more we prosper, the more we digress from what is the value system. It really is a challenge. Everyone wants things fast and easy now. And that is not our tradition. I'm not saying that we need to go back to the way things were, but the values need to stay with us. And it's a real challenge to pass on these values to children who are professionals at a young age and earning phenomenal amounts of money and so on. And who are very independent. This is why we have to find creative programmes to engage their thinking.
I have heard Ravi-ji use this quotation often, I'm not sure it's his so I don't want to credit it to him: Parents now and in decades gone by were so focused on giving their children what they did not have - prosperity and so on - that they forgot to give them that which they had - the culture and the tradition.
Like all other religions, Hinduism would have lost some, perhaps a lot, of its followers over the years because of influences from the outside world. The young Hindu woman may have felt that the religion was too restrictive. So, she goes off to UWI or to study abroad, and seizes the opportunity to break away and she wants nothing more to do with it. How do you feel about that?
Well, there are some things you can change and others you can't. Some fall by
the wayside. It's a very unfortunate thing. It's like a lost generation-but I think it is important for parents to be well informed. My parents were very strict.
When I wanted to get married [at 24], it was almost a chaotic situation. Now people have a kind of freedom that we never had. The thing is, I don't know if we can recover such individuals. But what we can do is ensure that we do not continue to lose more of our young women.
In terms of Indian Arrival and the process of creolisation, because you cannot be in a place and not absorb something from your environment. Although the Kendra is trying to maintain tradition and keep that connection with the Motherland...
Well, first, when we say Motherland, for us, our Motherland is Trinidad. We have absolute reverence for India - that is the home of our heritage - but for us, Trinidad is the Motherland. This is the Kendra's policy and we have always said that.
If you look at the songs we have written - we were brought here by a cosmic leela for a purpose that is beyond indenture and we were born here: 'Meh navel string bury here/you could fret and get on bad/but me eh leaving Trinidad.' Whether it's the view of other groups, I can't say.
How do you feel about inter-racial relationships?
Well, I am not a supporter-that's my personal view. We can't escape some influences, okay? What people cannot find within their space, they will seek out elsewhere. And this is the only reason I say that. We will go through this period-almost like a transition where you find that where we had strayed a bit, people are trying to come back to traditional values. I feel this is what is happening now, a period of rediscovery.
I used to write calypsoes. It reached a point where I wished I could have sung calypsoes because I just loved the commentary and creative writing. I have been to calypso tents. We used to go in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But now because of what has happened to the artform, we don't go. We feel insulted. I think the whole nation is familiar with what's been happening.
My brother, if you see him doing the break dancing and all of that. I love pasta more than I love Indian food. We can live with all of these influences but it doesn't have to change who we are. My mother went nuts the first day she saw my brother doing this break dancing. But I could have understood and appreciated what he was doing and it didn't change who he was. We live with the influences but we don't have to be radically changed by it. Remember being Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian?
How would you feel if one of your students, a girl, said to you, I have a boyfriend and he's black. Yes, I am Hindu, Indian and Trinidadian. AND I'm in love with a black man. How do you feel about that?
...We can only make an effort and there are only certain things we can change. At the end of the day, you really want to have your children happy. While you will want certain things for them and want them to go in a certain direction, if this is what has to happen, you can't twist their arm and force them.