A village school in Faizabad district bears a cornerstone—“Built by Paltu Persad of Sorzano and Queen Street, Arima, Trinidad”. It is the story of an indentured labourer who travelled half way across the world for work and his grandchild who came back in search of her roots.
Not many in Bassi village would recall that Paltu Persad left his village to go to Trinidad in 1910 and returned 37 years later. But a hundred years later, his granddaughter Leela Maharaj was moved to tears when she saw the plaque. Leela Maharaj and her husband Balliram Maharaj had travelled from Trinidad to attend a function to mark the centenary of her ancestor’s departure to the Caribbean island.
To the Maharajs, the trip was a “pilgrimage”, the result of a “discover your roots” search. They not only located the ancestral village in Faizabad district but also discovered some relatives still living there, descendants of Persad’s brother. “It was on the invitation of Ram Jokhan, second cousin to my wife Leela, that we visited the area,” Balliram Maharaj said.
“It was on the invitation of Ram Jokhan, second cousin to my wife Leela, that we visited the area,” Balliram Maharaj said. “This visit is the biggest highlight of my entire life because of the experience, respect and honour bestowed on my wife Leela, our son Navin and myself by the people here,” he added
“This visit is the biggest highlight of my entire life because of the experience, respect and honour bestowed on my wife Leela, our son Navin and myself by the people here,” he added.
Paltu Persad had travelled from India as an indentured worker to work on the sugarcane plantations in the West Indian nation. He was one of the thousands of Indians who returned home from a successful stint in a foreign land with the zeal to contribute to his native village.
Independence was in the air when Persad decided to return home to India in 1947 to spend his last years in his village. On returning home, Persad decided to set up a school in the village. The school was completed in 1953.
Leela and Balliram had been keen to find out more about their ancestors who had come to Trinidad from India, but were not sure how to go about it. Their families had lost touch with the relatives in India, and they had very little information about their ancestors. They hired a prominent genealogist, Shamshu Deen, who carried out family searches in Trinidad.
Says Shamshu Deen, “It is this mutual love that drives us in the Diaspora. People like Balliram Maharaj and Leela Maharaj have a deep and abiding love for his Trinidad and Tobago but they still have the love for India through their grandparents Changa and Suggi and Paltu Persad who left their India villages so many years ago.”
The Maharajs had a couple of old documents which gave some clues; these bits of information helped Deen locate the ancestral villages of the Maharaj couple. Incidentally, Persad and Balliram’s grandfather, Changa Maharaj, were friends and belonged to villages in the same district in Uttar Pradesh. Changa went to Trinidad in 1911 from Channauli.
According to the Maharajs, Persad endured many hardships, like the hundreds of thousands of indentured Indians in many parts of the world. He left the security of family, friends and community, in order to develop his vision. That vision was a better future for his family.
“He worked hard all his life and then decided to return home to his village to live among his relatives. He did not just look after the people of his village in India but he also established several businesses for his Trinidad family—such was the vision of this simple yet great pioneer,” Balliram said.
A prominent businessman of Trinidad and president of the Trinidad Supermarket Association, Maharaj disclosed that Persad’s family still owned the premises on Sorzano and Queen Street which had been converted into a supermarket.
While visiting the school, Leela learnt that it had 668 registered students. An estimated 30,000 children had studied there, Leela said, many of whom had gone on to become doctors, lawyers and university professors.
To mark the anniversary, Leela announced the institution of the Paltu Persad Achievement Award, an annual grant of Rs.10,000 to the top achiever of the year. “For a long time we were longing to visit India. But pressures of work kept us away. So when this invitation by Leela’s cousin came it was not only to celebrate her ‘ajah’s’ (grandfather’s) 100 years of departure, but to visit the school he started,” Balliram said.
Now Balliram plans to organise a grand family reunion next year to mark the 100th anniversary of his grandfather, Changa’s departure for Trinidad.
At a function in Delhi organized jointly by the Antar Rashtriya Sahayog Parishad and Trinidad’s High Commissioner in Delhi, Pundit Maniedeo Persad, Balliram rolled back the years by talking about the past that had led to the present. “Let us learn from the past, to look to the future. Our ancestors went to Trinidad under a contract system, one which had them in a bond. They were ridiculed as Bong Coolies.”
He added, “but they arose from this with their heads held high, their values intact. They prospered with dignity, respect and devotion which they passed on to their descendants. Let us today have another bond actually one which has already been started. Let us tie the emerging economic powers of India and Trinidad and Tobago not only industrially and culturally but along the lines of family bonding. This is my suggestive way forward in order to strengthen the Diaspora Connection.”
Balliram Maharaj and his wife discovered their roots, and the unbridled joy of family reunion. Now, they are convinced that this great connect with one’s roots should be the privilege of every descendant of the indentured class, wherever in the world. “Let us do whatever we can to support the efforts of those who are trying to make such linkages possible,” he says. Indeed, this has been a life-altering experience for the Maharaj couple.
—With INDIA EMPIRE Bureau (Shubha Singh can be contacted at