Three years ago, a group of us ventured into a small boat on the Hooghly River, and headed toward abandoned buildings and warehouses on the other side. The river was calm and brown, the day high, and we were also in high spirits, almost child-like in our excitement. We glided past the craggy hulks of old warehouses, window panes punched out; piers jutted into the brown water. A haze hovered on the edge of the horizon.
That haze of imprecision has cloaked the history of indenture. For many of us, fascinated with this history, pursuing either scholarly or creative works, have been delving into that fog of the past, drawing out stories and information for articles and books. I have been working on a historical novel, Sweetness, which is now completed, along with a nonfiction book on the history of sugar, Sugar Changed the World. In my boat that day was a curator from the Gandhi Centre in Mauritius, and when someone pointed, “That’s where the Mauritius depot was!” I could hear her sharp intake of breath. No matter how many booklets she has produced; how many records we have all pored over, there is nothing like seeing and feeling the actual place. Now, we are actually embarking on a project that will make that experience available to all.
The haze, which lingers over the past, also gives us nostalgia, imagination, myth, which are as vital as precise records. Every immigrant group holds to their stories, passed down through generations. For instance, one of the great myths about America’s Ellis Island is that surnames were changed. It is entirely untrue—the officials simply wrote down the same names that appeared on ship logs. But almost every family still clings to this notion that uncaring bureaucrats made this change with a swipe of a pen, for it symbolizes the dramatic change, the rupture of identity that occurred when people reached a new shore.
This is the moment to pierce the haze, to honor and make clear the passage that 1.5 million Indians made from the Calcutta depots. We are now, more than ever, globally linked; where a satellite image can zoom into one’s ancestral village, to the village they settled in, thousands of miles away, on another continent. The world shrinks, and the danger is, so too can our imagination. As a novelist, there is some part of me that already mourns that loss of the unknown, for my practice is that of invention, delighting in the leaping fancy of created sentences, characters, stories. And I do believe that a monument and eventually, a museum, can meld the twin impulses of imagination and scholarship. In fact, it must.
For years, within the Indian context, the story of indenture, the notion of those who had crossed the Kala Pani, carried the tinge of inferiority; a sense of shame; of not being ‘real’ Indians. I must confess, I am less interested in these distinctions, for they draw upon a essentialized identity, when in fact, identity always encompasses flux, change. Especially in the 19th century, people were restlessly moving, forced to leave, searching work. We know the Bhojpuri songs women would sing of their men, gone upriver. To this day we have Biharis driving taxis in Mumbai, Keralites in Dubai. We must, in erecting our monument, also bear down hard on the urge to make the past static, preserved and mummified, undynamic. That says more about our need for a fixed homeland, than the truths of that era.
A monument, and eventually, a museum, will be a glorious achievement. I look forward not just to this plaque, with its engraved words, but to our 21st imagination leaping ahead to create a cutting-edge museum. We must study some of the great museums of the world that have done this—the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, in Tel Aviv, Israel; the marvelous exhibit on the Surinamese diaspora at the G.B. Pant Social Science Institute in Allahabad.
I envision exhibits with found objects, photographs, transcribed songs and recordings; interactive google maps where one can trace a particular jahaji-bhai’s journey. I imagine map displays that light up, showing all the regions where sub-depots and arkatis roamed; testimonials from the emigrants and the officials, responsible for this massive bureaucracy. I imagine a recreated depot area, where the recruits waited, mingled with those from other regions; explanatory panels along the river showing the various ghats and process as the recruits unloaded from their pontoons, and then boarded again, to their ships. I see trained docents and guides, leading us through this immersive experience, and school children learning this important piece of history—their history.
Just as those of us, generations later, no longer see ourselves as on the edges of history, so too must this museum. For most importantly, I see this museum as illuminating not a marginal piece of history, but one that is central to Calcutta’s past as world port, and thus, a crucial link in India’s national history.
What better way to honor those people, who took their own leap of faith and dared to cross the Black Waters—but with imagination?