My first, vague recollection of India occurred around 1955 in British Guiana (Guyana), when I was five. Sprinkled frequently in my maternal great-grandmother’s Bhojpuri, which I could not follow, was a discernible reference to Calcutta or Kalkatta [Kolkata]. For me and other members of our large extended family, this was obviously the place whence our ancestors came. There we left it. We had no interest in locating precisely whence our people came. Indeed, the stories of the Ramayana had infinitely greater resonance for us that any other narrative of India. The imagined India of Gandhi and Nehru, because their pictures adorned the walls of our homes, also evoked another conception of Mother India: the champion of colonial freedom. The real India of our origin remained a closed book. It did not matter: geographical accuracy and historical inquiry did not belong to our universe, our exposure to a British colonial education notwithstanding.
It was many years later (when I was studying in Canada and had discovered Hugh Tinker’s seminal work of 1974, A New System of Slavery), that I first learnt that the overwhelming majority of the Indian indentured labourers, taken to the British sugar colonies, originated in eastern U.P. and western Bihar. To my compatriots in Guyana that would have meant nothing. But, even with this new, hard knowledge, what still lingered in me was the fact that my people left India at Calcutta, and that some vague place, called Garden Reach on the Hooghly, was the last place that their feet had touched in Mother India. More of this knowledge, I did not seek it was as if I were afraid to discover more. The idea of Calcutta (Kolkata) was enough. After all, the city had produced two great men who meant a lot to some of our early thinkers in Guyana and Trinidad: Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore. I was fortified by what I had gleaned from Nehru’s The Discovery of India in my teens—the land of my ancestors was once great. I claimed that. No further exploration was required. This could carry my Indianness; it could also atone, in a strange way in my childhood imagination, for the shame that came with China’s military humiliation of India (carried copiously in the local newspapers) and the publication of Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness in the early 1960s.
But it was not until 1985, after I had returned to Guyana for three years and was demoralised by the racial politics that I ventured tentatively to the ship’s registers of indentured labourers to British Guiana. I discovered much that has since impelled me to pursue a quarter-century research on aspects of Indo-Caribbean history. I ascertained that my first known ancestor to British Guiana, a ‘bound coolie’ (girmitiya) named Sohan, boarded the ‘Rohilla’ at Kolkata on 11 February 1875. He was 22 years old and came from Doobaree Village, Azamgarh District, in eastern United Provinces (UP). He was of Ahir caste (Yadav), and at the completion of his indentureship, he bought land near to the sugar estate to which he was bound, and started to raise cattle. Many members of my family would continue as cattle rearers. The caste calling had survived the kala pani. I found out later that my paternal great-grandfather, Sewnath, too, was an Ahir, from Kharaura Village, Ghazipur District, eastern UP, and that he was taken to British Guiana, aged 11. He boarded the ‘Avon’ at Kolkata on 8 October 1892. He also took up cattle rearing after his indentureship ended. It is entirely appropriate, therefore, that the memorial to my ancestors and all those who ventured to the sugar colonies as ‘bound coolies’ from UP and Bihar (the overwhelming majority of girmitiyas) should be located in this great city.
It was interesting to learn that Sewnath’s wife, my paternal great-grandmother, was a Muslim who was born in British Guiana. My family had followed their caste calling but they were obviously much more flexible than their compatriots in Azamgahr and Ghazipur. They were great rum drinkers and they ate pork; some also ate beef. I was discovering a lot about my family, a lot about myself. Hugh Tinker had made me think of the Kolkata depot and to imagine how the world of the girmitiya was already permeated by the imperative of change: ‘Despite the strict segregation of single men from single women in the depot, if the emigrants remained for more than a few days they began to establish relationships…These ‘depot marriages’ were of course unblessed by religious rites and almost never followed the pattern which caste and custom required: indeed, it was not uncommon for couples to marry who belonged to different religions. But although the practice was frowned upon by the authorities, if a man and woman came forward and declared themselves married this was duly entered down, and the marriage was recognised when they arrived in the colony of their abode’. They were going beyond boundaries: rebels in their own little ways.
However, it was not until the late 1980s, when I discovered Brij Lal’s fine study of the origins of the Fiji Indians who had left from Kolkata, that I began to realise the centrality of eastern UP and Bihar in shaping my ancestors and, of course, the many societies to which the girmitiyas had gone. It is the foundation of most of the work I have done in Indo-Caribbean historiography. Yet Kolkata looms large in my scholarly imagination. This was reinforced by my discovery, in the early 1990s, of Bechu, the great ‘bound coolie’ radical in Guyana between 1894 and 1901. He was from Kolkata, a Christian Bengali (rare, indeed). His well-argued, lucid and combative letters to the press in the colony were a fount of learning, fortitude and embryonic resistance to all forms of exploitation of his compatriots. Bechu’s faith was shaped by the theology as well as the practical, benevolent work pursued by various Christian denominations in late 19th century Kolkata. He was a product of the Anglo-Indian intellectual encounter, epitomised by the ferment of ideas sustained by the bhadralok, the progressive intelligentsia in Kolkata. He carried this rebellious intellectual temperament to the colony; and it is arguable that because Bechu was Bengali, an outsider among Indians in colonial Guyana, he was better able to conquer the procrustean mould of custom rooted in caste instincts, so stultifying in rural UP and Bihar and inhibitive of initiative and innovation. He gave to his compatriots in Guyana the will to go beyond boundaries, to challenge oppression, often at great personal cost.
I also discovered that about two-thirds of the female girmitiyas who were taken to the Caribbean (elsewhere, too) went alone, unaccompanied by any male. Most were under 20 years of age. This speaks to the strength of character of these women. That they could break away completely from a static culture that defined them as virtual slaves especially if they were young widows or of low caste, suggests a rebellious streak, hitherto unrecognised, among a minority of young women. They stepped into the unknown, created a new persona and a new universe that retained the imprint of their Indian homeland while assimilating what they deemed best in their new home. This was what Bechu’s intellectual resistance embodied. I hope his spirit will be felt on this auspicious occasion, in his hometown.
May this memorial to the girmitiyas stand as a monument to the best in the Indian tradition, which over many millennia, has demonstrated the courage to adapt and celebrate the freedom of the human spirit. Peter Ruhomon, an early Indo-Guyanese intellectual, often exhorted his countrymen to read the great Kolkata poet, Tagore, particularly a celebrated poem from his Gitanjali. It evoked the life of the mind in which humankind is eternally indignant at, and subverting, moribund orthodoxies: racial, religious, caste and gender bigotry:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high:
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into
fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost
its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by Thee into
ever widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
I hope that these words are imperishable, in India and in the Indian diaspora; and that this memorial comes to symbolise freedom and magnanimity of the human spirit. The girmitiyas would have been proud of those in Mother India and in the diaspora who have erected this monument to their