In the film of Charles Bukowski’s Tales of Ordinary Madness, Ben Gazara stands on a podium and says: everything you do you can also do with style. Even if you open a tin of sardines, do it with style. In the end, style is what makes human beings different from animals. A tiger walks like a tiger; it can never walk like an elephant. Only human beings can walk like tigers or like elephants.
Creoles have style, we Hindustanis in Suriname always thought—that little spring in their left leg and that slow swinging of their arms. We practised hard at these movements when we thought no one was looking. But we never managed more than a limp and a hobble.
Culture in the broadest sense of the term is actually nothing more than a collection of styles, from the smallest ways of doing things to the grandest ways of life. Culture is an aggregate of knowledge, which means that lived culture, as the British researchers Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson suggest, is a practical impossibility. When you live inside it, you do not see a culture but only a chaos of styles. To distinguish between the short-lived, superficial style we call fashion and the more deeply rooted, long-lasting style we call—yes, why not—“national character” is by no means a simple matter. Culture is by definition the observation of an outsider.
The person who is being observed sees around him only little ways of doing things: small Hindustani children rubbed with coconut oil until they look like glowworms in the sun. Hindustani teenagers who try to dress just as hip the Paramaribo Creoles but never succeed—the size and cut are wrong because their build is too small for ready-made clothes, and they have to rely on tailors who will give them a discount but who have no feel for fashion. Hindustani families who often eat curry but on Sundays prefer fried sardines in tomato sauce. I remember a national uproar in the neighboring country of Guyana, when the government decided to forbid the import of tinned sardines because of a currency shortage. The Hindustanis’ Sunday had been ruined. On the same Sunday, Hindustanis faithfully attend cinemas that show Indian films—to dream of an India without slums, beggars, injustice, or stench. They enjoy their homesickness for the country of their forebears; they feast on the deceptions dished up for them, precisely because they know it is no more than a delusion. Cultivating homesickness, no matter how artificial the means, is part of your upbringing as a Hindustani. That’s why you learn to speak an Indian dialect, to recognize film stars and singers, to love the music and practice the religion. You have to be aware of your background, as long as you do not try to make it your future; no Hindustani wants to go back to India.
Typical of the Hindustani national character, they say, are tolerance and marital faithfulness. I would prefer to talk about resilience. Mahatma Gandhi described nonviolence in terms of fundamental moral principles, but the average Hindustani simply takes his beating in the hope that his opponent will eventually tire out and stop by himself. And of course a Hindustani woman would not dream of leaving her husband, no matter how badly she is treated, because [End Page 523] she knows that a single mother will be isolated, tormented, and cursed by the entire Hindustani community. She uses her common sense and stays with the brute that she knows.
Hindustanis respect the elderly, start drinking at eight o’clock in the morning, hoard their money, cheat their customers, laugh only at corny jokes, are prone to melodrama, and have an unconditional aversion to people of African origin. The mildest term in the Hindustani language for a Creole is “Kaffrie,” 1 and that says it all.
These are just a few of the hundreds of stylistic traits and identifying features, but you never experience it as culture. In the colony we reserved the word culture for the other country, the far-off Netherlands. There was culture, there they...