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Re-Imagining the Guyanas

Lawrence Aje
Thomas Lacroix
Judith Misrahi-Barak

Remembering Rose Hall and Beyond

A New World for Kaila1

Clem Seecharan

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  • 1 This excerpt from Finding Myself: Essays on Race, Politics and Culture has been revised for the pu (...)

1It was my illiterate maternal great-grandmother, Kaila (1889–1956) who kindled my curiosity in the antecedence of the girmitiyas (indentured labourers from India). When she died on 6 December 1956 I was only six years old; but she still possesses a niche in my memory—a revered mythical presence—though dimmed by time. I think this idealised image of Kaila is compounded of the adulatory recollections of my extended family, and my own faded snapshots and later embellishments of her. But there’s a rationale for harbouring this somewhat ethereal being: her abundant sacrifice for the family that betrayed no selfish motive; the absence of petty jealousy—that bedevilling feature of many Hindu joint families; the inexhaustible energy that fed her resolve to make life better for Ramdularie, my maternal grandmother (her only child) and her five children. The fact that Kaila never deviated from what she saw as duty to family, until the day she literally dropped collecting firewood in the cemetery at Plantation Rose Hall (in Berbice, Guyana), enhanced her persona of unsullied magnanimity. It was a life of steadfast devotion to the making of a new family—from scratch—in a strange place very far away from home, for she had journeyed alone to British Guiana as an indentured labourer, in 1909, aged 20. She would never have contact again with anyone in India—nor, strangely, mention anyone specifically from the place of her birth, including her own family. Her professed amnesia of the India whence she came was unalterable.

2Much of what I remember of Kaila is a blur, yet it is a haziness that is of a piece, for there is much that is resonant in the faint image. It still has the capacity to draw me into its submerged complexity, to evoke ways of self-reflection that speak to a larger context: the dynamic of our evolving Indian community in colonial Guyana. I can vaguely visualise her visits to my grandmother, on Saturday afternoons, walking the six or seven miles from Plantation Rose Hall to Palmyra, and retracing the journey on Sunday afternoons. Palmyra, the place of my birth, was also the village of my maternal grandfather’s family, the Sohans. Kaila with her husband, Jagarnath (1888–1958), had bought several adjacent plots of land there, in addition to cows, for my grandmother, Ramdularie (1916–1985), after she was married to my maternal grandfather in 1930, aged 14. But they continued to work and live at Plantation Rose Hall, in the rent-free ‘logies’ or barracks in the ‘nigger yard’, much of it built during slavery―and looked it. Abstemious to the bone, every penny they earned was guarded. That is why Kaila walked those long miles to and from my grandmother’s at weekends, whatever the weather. Yet she was unstinting towards her daughter, her grandchildren and me, her first great-grandchild, apparently the apple of Kaila’s eye. She always brought fruits, Indian sweetmeats, clothes, toys, all manner of things she made, for us.

3A little black woman, she was not quite of the Guyanese landscape. After nearly 50 years, she still looked and dressed foreign, as if she were from some distant place. She was of that remote, incomprehensible India that, inexplicably, permeated my boyhood fantasies. In my imagination she fused with those surreal framed images of Hindu gods and goddesses looking over us, from the walls of our living room. They appeared to hover in mid-air, ominously. They awed me. As I played at being a boss, a white overseer on the sugar plantation, ordering menial toilers about, my bizarre boyhood gift for wonder would magically transport Kaila of Plantation Rose Hall to this India of which I knew nothing–the abode of Hanuman, the monkey god, fetching the mountain of curative herbs in his hand, as depicted in that hanging image on our wall.

4(The last ship taking former indentured labourers back to India, the ‘M.V. Resurgent’, left Georgetown for Calcutta in September 1955. Everybody talked about it at the time. I have no doubt that this did reach my imagination.)

5But there were fleeting, day-to-day recollections, too. Kaila was adept at the minutiae of wet-rice culture, as she was adroit in making all kinds of sweet (very sweet) Indian goodies. Even now, over 60 years on, I can still locate her on the kharian or threshing floor, driving our big-horned bullocks in endless cycles (I recall the names of two: Trueman and Statham), tethered to a pole around which were packed tight bundles of freshly cut rice stalks (padi, unhusked rice). I am able to conjure up this busy little woman winnowing the padi, or helping to fill it into jute bags, ready for the mill, sweeping up every grain with practised frugality. Nothing was wasted: the straw was fed to cows; the husk (bhusi) and broken rice after milling, to fowls and ducks; the cow cakes dried for cooking or manuring the vegetable garden, or burnt to sustain a lingering smoke, its peculiar smell warding off the ubiquitous mosquitoes away from the cows. The draconian thrift, imperative for survival in village India, was not squandered in the relative prosperity of village Guyana. Fact and fantasy are inextricably interwoven in my apprehension of Kaila.

6What I know for sure is that her heartfelt affection for the former girmitiyas, particularly those few with whom she made the crossing and were indentured to Rose Hall, was inviolable. And I do remember Kaila being in tears once–it stayed with me–and long after she was gone I asked my grandmother, Ramdularie, the reason for those tears. She said it was occasioned by the recurring deaths of several of her old friends from India, who were passing away month by month by the mid-1950s. They were jahajins–ship-sisters, to the end–like blood relatives, their children forbidden to intermarry. Ramdularie related to me her upbraiding Kaila, a couple times, for wailing inconsolably at the funeral of one of her jahajins, imploring her to ‘take’ her soon. She longed to join them in the next life. Such was the bond among these extraordinary women! It was emotionally consuming for them as their ranks dwindled in the late 1950s.

7Professor Brinsley Samaroo has reflected on the making of this bond:

  • 2 Samaroo, Brinsley. ‘Chinese and Indian “Coolie” Voyages to the Caribbean’, Journal of Caribbean St (...)

On board ship the castes and regions of India were mixed as in the depots, and the common tasks, assigned with little respect to persons, served as a great leveller. The only separation on board was by gender and marital status. . .[R]eplacing the previous ties of caste and region was a new form of bonding which was started in the depots and strengthened on the ship. This bonding became greater on those ships which underwent difficult passages, for example in the churning, swirling waters of the Pagal Samundar (Mad Sea) so often encountered off the Cape of Good Hope. This brotherhood/sisterhood of the boat (jahaji bhai/bahin) was cemented when the immigrants joined together to resist ill-usage by European seamen. For this reason, the Indians resented being separated into different colony batches when they arrived in the Caribbean.2

8It is not surprising, therefore, that the enigma of Kaila has accompanied me throughout my life, engendering unfaltering inquisitiveness, as if there is something concealed in her life that belongs to me: a kernel of truth that epitomises who I am. I learnt to call this identity, an exercise of the imagination that seeks to give shape to one’s essence, grounded in family and a sense of community, and conditioned by the peculiarities of the wider environment, ancestral and contemporary. The transplanted individual harbours an urgent need for community; the imperative to belong is compulsive, however complex and difficult of attainment. But this was a mature conception for me, arrived at after much internal cultural conflict, turmoil and agonising over the meaning of India―rather, many Indias of the imagination that will ever evoke ambivalence in me. Kaila and my other girmitiya great-grandparents are at the source of this quandary.

9Yet Kaila’s India remained recalcitrant, elusive to my curiosity. From time to time my grandmother had tried to coax fragments of that past out of her, hoping to draw anything from apparent lapses in her taciturnity. She did not get beyond the exhausted tale that she was deceived into going to Demerara (British Guiana) to ‘sift sugar’. Kaila was 20 when she went to the colony; she was ‘single’ and travelled alone. How credible was her fragment of a tale? Was she married in India? Did she have any children? What was her mother like? Did she have a happy childhood? What did they do for a living? Did she miss those whom she would never see again? Did she dream of returning one day? Why did she leave home? Did she tell anyone that she was going away to work, possibly never to return? Why did she travel alone, unaccompanied by any relatives? How did she find the strength to break completely from her past and establish a foundation for people like myself to acquire ambition and self-belief? Some area of darkness! These questions, if asked at all over the years, were never answered. The gnawing secrets are interred with her. But, for me, the questions would not go away. They were sustained by my liberal education and the emerging historical temperament that was tormented by the historical void. The darkness shrouding this woman, whose quiet consistency of purpose lodged in my imagination, fed my intellectual curiosity. It would later endow my pursuit of Indo-Caribbean history and historiography with the aura of a mission. This submerged history, Kaila’s and mine, had to be reached, if not fathomed. The problem was how.

  • 3 See Seecharan, Clem. ‘Introduction with notes and appendices’. Joseph Ruhomon’s India: the Progres (...)
  • 4 See Seecharan, Clem. Bechu: ‘Bound Coolie’ Radical in British Guiana, 18941901. Kingston, Jamaica (...)

10Joseph Ruhomon, Dwarka Nathand Peter Ruhomon, local Indian amateur historians, had initiated a bold survey of Indo-Guyanese history.3 However, the social origins of the girmitiyas are silent in their pioneering studies. Even Bechu’s fearlessly partisan letters to the Daily Chronicle on behalf of the ‘bound coolies’ in the late 1890s, never did hint at their antecedence, although many thousands were still arriving on the sugar plantations in British Guiana when he was writing.4 Agency was denied them. Given the omnipotence of the colonial elite and the primacy of imperial definitions, individual Indian lives, as well as the universe of the girmitiyas in India, were rendered nugatory—invisible. Therefore, the intellectual conviction for the exploration of Kaila’s world, including a general empathy with the likely personal promptings of the girmitiyas, never materialised. The context of their migration became enmeshed in the still-resilient arkati thesis—anchored in the sole agency of the infamous recruiter actuated by venality into duplicity and kidnapping.

11This is explicable by the fact that the freed Africans in the colony were appalled by Indian ‘scab labour’, for whose introduction they were being taxed in order to undercut their own bargaining position with the planters. Therefore, the idea that all the ‘coolies’ were tricked or kidnapped into indentureship appealed readily to the girmitiyas themselves. It was a means of seeking to assuage African apprehension of their presence on the plantations. Moreover, the arkati thesis, denying personal agency to the indentureds, brought closure of sorts to inquiry of their difficult and painful personal details, which they themselves had absolutely no desire to resurrect. They were all categorically averse to opening that can of worms. A collective amnesia took shape and prevailed—it still does. But, unlike Naipaul, I could not ‘live easily with that darkness’. It grew worse the older I got. My intellectual raison d’être was provoked by this gaping void in self-knowledge—a fault-line in my identity.

12It was a circuitous route towards an adumbration of Kaila’s world. A few years ago I reflected on my passion to know:

  • 5 Seecharan, Clem. ‘Tiger in the Stars’: the Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana, 19192 (...)

My family grew rice but they had been cattle people for nearly a century in British Guiana. I took this for granted. It was many years later, in the [early] 1980s, when I became engaged in my father’s cattle business that I began to explore this family obsession with cattle. I turned to the Ships’ Registers of indentured labourers, kept at the National Archives in Georgetown (Guyana).5

  • 6 These Registers are in the National Archives, Georgetown, Guyana. There are 188,917 individual emb (...)

13This helped me to discern the vague contours of my girmitiya ancestors; no more. I recognised quickly that their caste pedigree had governed their adaptation to the coastland of British Guiana—a submerged, yet potent, force in shaping their new world. The Ship’s Registers lightened the darkness that had enveloped my ancestral roots;6 but Kaila’s elusive India was only just peeping through its Himalayan clouds.

  • 7 I have relied heavily on the following two people for information on Sohan, Jagarnath and Kaila: R (...)

14My first known ancestor in the colony was Sohan, my mother’s paternal grandfather,7 who went to British Guiana as a ‘bound coolie’ on the ship Rohilla, which left Calcutta on 11 February 1875. He was 22 years old and came from Doobaree Village, Azamgahr District, in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). He was indentured to Plantation Rose Hall, the same sugar estate to which Kaila and Jagarnath were indentured over three decades later, in 1909 and 1908 respectively. When Sohan left the estate, sometime in the late 1880s (with the termination of his indentureship), he bought a plot of land at Palmyra Village, the place of my birth, on the edge of that sugar plantation. He started to graze cattle on the common pasturage, which abounded before the meteoric rise of rice cultivation during the First World War, when rice from India was unobtainable in the West Indies. But Sohan continued to work as head cattle minder on neighbouring Plantation Simpson (called Smithson locally), an estate owned by a Mr Gill, one of several hardy Scotsmen in the district. I felt as if I had cracked an ancient code when I discovered in the Ship’s Register that Sohan was an Ahir, the cattle-rearing caste of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. I had grown up with a faint idea of our Ahir caste provenance, but I could not be sure that our cattle pedigree was a caste calling. The necessity for official authentication was prompted by the absence of discrete caste rituals that could have validated the claim.

15(I learnt later that this was not a ‘twice-born’ caste, not one of high status. It was a low Shudra caste, despite their absorption with cattle and their ‘sanskritisation’ today as Yadavs, with considerable economic and political clout in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The cow was holy, not so the herder! So we had done well in British Guiana, coming from this background, in one of the most backward parts of India—until today an area of immense deprivation and palpable shame in ‘ascendant’ Hindu India. I knew nothing of this until I was well over 30. It is arguable, therefore, that my ancestors had escaped to freedom—none I knew would have concurred with the mantra that indentureship was ‘a new system of slavery’.)

16Many of Sohan’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren were also cattle-rearers. A few became infamous cattle rustlers. My maternal grandfather, Latchman Sohan (1908–89), was not unimpeachable. The last of Sohan’s ten children, born when he was 55, he was pampered by his creole Indian mother, Surat (Sohan’s second wife). He turned to heavy rum-drinking early and did not depart from that passion for the rest of his life. He was also prone to violence in the home. Outside of the home, Latchman was a warm, magnanimous man, prodigal with his generosity: a bit of a rogue, and something of a folk hero. Young and old called him Skipper; this was done out of affection. That he was a legendary cattle-herder―masterful at the lasso―sustained a heroic image of Skipper long after he had passed his best. His image in the home was less heroic. In the late 1930s, already a father of five, he would deftly escape urgent domestic chores, especially the demanding seasonal tasks of rice-planting and rice-harvesting. Skipper was not overly concerned with the maintenance of his young family, a responsibility stoically assumed by his wife and her parents, Kaila and Jagarnath, over many years.

17Skipper’s life was one of perpetual flight. Escape through booze and excess of all sorts; escape to the hinterland of British Guiana, to the inhospitable grasslands of the Rupununi, on the Brazilian border, encountered in Evelyn Waugh’s Ninety-Two Days of 1934 and A Handful of Dust, his novel of the same year. For many years in the late 1930s-early 1940s, Skipper drove cattle on the Rupununi Cattle Trail, the 180 miles from Dadanawa, through Surama and Kurupukari, to Takama, on the Berbice River. Often, after that hazardous drive through the rain forest―the recalcitrant beasts (some of which got lost in the forest); the heat; mosquitoes, sand-flies and a million things that bite aggravating itches and sores; the dog-tiredness―he would abandon himself to a week’s whoring in the brothels of Takama, until body and money were spent. He would hitch a ride back to Dadanawa for another drive. The cycle could be repeated several times, before he ventured home. Something of the Ahir cattle-herder had fused with the celebrated lawlessness of the Brazilian vaqueiro, thus replicating images of the hard-drinking, brothel-hooked, heroically anarchic cowboy of the American west. To Skipper, money was a handful of dust. Eventually, he would drink his way home until he was broke. From time to time, he threatened to shoot his whole family: wife and children would scatter into the darkness and the bush. The bravado spoke of futility: spineless assertiveness in a home that had learnt to do without him. He never did fire the gun, except once―when he killed a ‘tiger’ (possibly a leopard) and made it into the newspaper. He had become a legend.

18I was groping towards the diverse forces reshaping us, removed from that India we could not apprehend. Yet, somehow, India still mattered. Throughout the 1960s I was captivated by one of Skipper’s older brothers, Kaywal [Kilpax] (1901–72), a self-taught man who gave me another kind of India. A reformist Hindu, an Arya Samajist—he thought Brahmin priests were scoundrels—he devoured several daily newspapers, apart from the writings of Gandhi, Nehru and Swami Vivekananda. A chain smoker, possessed by the World Service of the BBC and All-India Radio, Kilpax was glued to his little pale green, indestructible ‘Ferguson 208U’ radio as it crackled into the night, unimpaired by a discernible yellow coating of nicotine.

19He would seek me out almost daily for a survey of world affairs (less so, obviously, when I moved to Queen’s College in Georgetown): Nehru’s speech to the Lok Sabha on Pakistan or China; President Johnson and Vietnam; chaos in the Congo; Castro and Kennedy, Sukarno, Nkrumah, Ben Bella, Nasser; and, inevitably, back to Nehru, Gandhi and names that I learnt to associate with India’s freedom movement: Motilal Nehru, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Abdul Kalam Azad, Sarojini Naidu and others. Jawaharlal Nehru, of course, was inviolable: Himalayan in intellect, political dexterity and looks! Kilpax always seemed to have lots of time, despite his job as a shovelman at Plantation Rose Hall. When I thought we had exhausted the political deliberations of the day, he would deftly throw in a name to conjure with, and start firing again, provocatively: ‘Krishna Menon! Weak! All talk! And now the Chinese have walked into India! Ladakh stolen!’ Sometime afterwards: ‘Jagjivan Ram, a Chamar, and Defence Minister! Another India, Nehru’s post-colonial experiment, was taking shape in me, oblivious of any flaw.

20Although Kilpax always voted for Cheddi Jagan, for reasons of race, he thought he was a fool to embrace communism, to become a friend of Castro. He often declaimed, the eternal cigarette now a cinder: ‘Janet, communist agent of Russia, leading Cheddi to the grave!’ I was drawn into his web, despite my disagreeing with him for I was a young Jaganite. But Kilpax was also offering me his passion for argument and his enchantment with the spoken and written word, in English. And throughout my apprenticeship (between 14 and 20), he treated me as his equal, despite being his junior by 49 years. But I always called him nana: maternal grandfather.

21Skipper’s and Kilpax’s father, Sohan, this patriarch who died in the mid-1920s, had achieved much. His youngest daughter’s grandson, Len Baichan (born 1946), was a Guyana and West Indies cricketer. He toured India and Pakistan in 1974–5 and Australia in 1975–6, and played in three Test matches. In his first, in Lahore in 1974, he made a century. He did not play a Test in India, but he played first-class matches and travelled widely there bringing back lavish tales of the sub-continent, from the Khyber and Kashmir to Karnataka and Kerala, of legendary cricketers and film stars, of great palaces and maharajas—as well as Ganges water in miniature bronze pots—which he shared with me during many spacious hours, over rum, under the big samaan tree in the village. The visions of India cascading before me were inexhaustible. The accompanying enchantment, too, was imperishable. So my eventual journey through the Ships’ Registers, in 1985, came out of a life-long curiosity to find Kaila’s India. It would offer some light, feeding new questions and leaving many unanswered. But it was an exercise whose time had come.

  • 8 I have relied heavily on Sarran Jagmohan (1920–2005) for information on Sewnath, Etwarie, Harpal, (...)

22I discovered that my father’s maternal grandfather, Sewnath (1881–1956),like Sohan and Jagarnath, was an Ahir.8He came from Kharaura Village, Ghazipur District, eastern UP, and embarked at Calcutta on 8 October 1892, aged 11. He went to British Guiana in the Avon, accompanied by his sister, Sonbersi, aged 22, and her husband, Raghu, aged 30. Raghu, also, was an Ahir. It is noteworthy that the Register recorded them as the parents of Sewnath. That is incorrect: nothing is known of his parents, but they did not go to the colony. The assumption of parenthood by his sister and brother-in-law was a ruse to evade scrutiny of his credentials: he was a minor and would have needed the approval of his parents to board the ship at Calcutta.

23The trio were indentured to Plantation Albion, on the lower Corentyne Coast, some 11 or 12 miles from Rose Hall. Young Sewnath would acquire a formidable reputation on the estate as a shovelman. Sometime during the First World War, he moved from Albion to Plantation Rose Hall where he continued briefly as a shovelman of distinction. His earnings were therefore better than most fieldworkers; and his astounding frugality and gift for spotting a bargain or a niche for profitable investment, enabled him to acquire several properties at Palmyra Village and neighbouring Sea Well, at the junction of the East Canje and Corentyne districts. Sewnath, like Sohan and Jagarnath, retained the Ahir’s passion for cattle: he bought several heads and soon established a lucrative source of income.

24A self-assured, orderly and meticulous man, Sewnath was scrupulous about time. He often spoke in parables, many encompassing a particular theme: time is money; laziness is a curse; woeful waste brings woeful want. He had little time to spare, and was intolerant of those who wasted his time. He managed that time dextrously, combining estate labour with cattle, sheep and poultry rearing, rice farming, the cultivation of fruits and vegetables, and a bit of money-lending. The idea of a holiday or a slack period did not rest easily with Sewnath and his wife, Etwarie. On Sundays, whatever the weather, they would work on their vegetable farm at Blendaal, on the west bank of the Canje River, several miles from Palmyra. Only the rapid descent of the enveloping darkness would halt their toil. The weary miles home were made in their donkey cart laden with plantains, eddoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, pumpkins, mangoes, sour-sop, sapodilla, a range of other fruits and vegetables. As their first grandson, Sarran Jagmohan (1920–2005), narrated to me this tale of resilience, industry and utter devotion to the welfare of their eight children, he recalled: ‘that donkey cart, with a small lamp dangling beneath it, had enough to feed several families. They grew most of what they ate; and they ate well, although they were extremely careful with every penny’. He emphasised for me that they treated boys and girls with impartiality: some of the produce of their farm was always reserved for their three married daughters who lived near to them.

25Etwarie, my father’s maternal grandmother, was a creole Indian, born in British Guiana around 1883. She was a Muslim; but when she married Sewnath in 1898, she took a Hindu name. This would have been unusual and daring. She was hardworking, energetic and thrifty. But she must have been a rebel in her time. I can still call up an image of her, in her last years in the late 1950s-early 60s: a wiry old woman, almost skeletal—in retrospect, reminiscent of the desert women I’ve encountered in Rajasthan, India. I never saw Etwarie sitting still. For many years she was a weeder in the fields at Plantation Rose Hall (Kaila’s estate); but her reputation as a rice planter was legendary—considered the fastest and neatest in the area. Both Sewnath and Etwarie were impelled by a passion to uplift their children. They gave one of their properties to their eldest child, Sukhia (1899–1969), my paternal grandmother, and her husband, Jagmohan (1891–1938), whom she married in 1913, aged 14. Their second daughter was married to Jagmohan’s younger brother, Mangal, who owned the best shop (a general store) in the village in the 1930s. One of their grandsons, Cecil Dhurjon (born 1928), was Chief Parliamentary Counsel fol. 33 years, having served in that capacity to seven Attorneys-General of Guyana; another, Tom Kharran (born 1944), a son of their eldest son, practised as an attorney in Guyana and in the UK. Etwarie died on 21 August 1961 (the day of the general elections), hours after she had voted for Cheddi Jagan’s PPP. She had been practising for days before, on sample sheets, marking an ‘X’ in the box against his party’s symbol: the cup. Because of her illiteracy, she could not bear to spoil her ballot. It was entirely in character that she should have done her duty before moving on; her reliability, resilience and consistency of focus were as unfaltering as Kaila’s. Somehow, I must have absorbed their instinct for according girls the same respect they gave to boys—nothing less! Etwarie could hold her own in any argument and never flinched from plain speaking or taking firm decisions.

26The background of Etwarie’s first son-in-law, Jagmohan (my paternal grandfather),is fascinating. It is enshrined in family lore. The tale is told of a man named Harpal (1846–1934), an Ahir girmitiya who had returned to India with his eldest son, Balgobin, in 1888. He left his wife in British Guiana, having counselled her that if he did not return by a certain jahaj (ship), she should feel free to take another man. He did not return by that ship, and his wife, a Brahmin born in the colony, my father’s paternal grandmother, befriended a Brahmin man, another former girmitiya, Ramsaran Maharaj, and soon invited him to live with her. But, in early 1891, unannounced, Harpal (with his son, Balgobin) returned from India and went straight to his home at Warren (East Coast Berbice), as if nothing had happened. There he met the wife he had left behind (abandoned) pregnant by Ramsaran. Harpal had an amicable exchange with him and implored him to return to his home in a neighbouring village. Ramsaran pointed to the potential difficulties thrown up by the pregnancy, but Harpal assured him that he could handle that: he would bring the child up as if it were his own. Ramsaran left. This child, Jagmohan, my paternal grandfather, was born on 15 August 1891. He became a cattle-herder, fathered 13 children and died prematurely, of pneumonia, on 17 September 1938, aged 47. He and his eldest son, Harold, who also died of pneumonia, were buried on the same day, their coffins taken to the cemetery on the same donkey cart. Jagmohan grew up at No. 7 Village (East Coast Berbice), and worked for many years on Harpal’s cattle farm. In his last years he was a cattle-herder on an estate, Goldstone Hall, not far from Plantation Rose Hall. Ramsaran Maharaj returned to India for good, around 1898; there is no evidence that he had any part in Jagmohan’s upbringing. The latter―a full Brahmin by birth and quite light in complexion―had taken to Harpal’s Ahir calling, so when he married my paternal grandmother, Sukhia (Sewnath’s and Etwarie’s eldest child), he probably saw that as keeping within his ‘father’s’ Ahir fold, his mother’s Brahmin stock and the Muslim antecedence of Etwarie virtually erased.

27I had gone to the Ships’ Registers looking for my girmitiya ancestors in chronological order, so Jagarnath and Kaila came last on my roster. My mother’s maternal grandfather, Jagarnath (1888–1958), went to British Guiana in the ship, Ganges, which arrived there from Calcutta in late 1908. He was indentured to Plantation Rose Hall. He was 20 years old and, like Sohan, also from Azamgahr District in eastern UP; his village was Azampur. He was Ahir, like Sohan, Harpal and Sewnath, my other great-grandfathers. I was, hitherto, unaware how far the Ahir pedigree permeated the family. From time to time people had spoken of our Gwalbans Ahir background, but the Registers had established for me that our passion for cattle was not fortuitous. It originated in ancient caste promptings; and our settling on a section of the British Guiana coast, with ample land for grazing on the perimeter of Plantation Rose Hall, must have rendered the ancient calling imperative. We would pursue it assiduously for some 120 years, until one by one our numbers dwindled as we fled hapless Guyana for the greener pastures of the Indo-Guyanese diaspora: New York, Toronto and London primarily; in recent years the warmth of Florida.

28However, Kaila’s antecedence fractured this essentially Ahir tale of continuity. I could not have anticipated this. She went to British Guiana on the Ganges, in September 1909. She came from Bhagwanpur Village, Gonda District (eastern UP), near to Basti on the border with Nepal. As noted earlier, she was 20 years old, and travelled alone: no relatives, man or woman or child, accompanied her. The Register gives her caste as Pasi. I had never heard of it, so it took me some time to discover that it was a very low caste, indeed an outcaste (Dalit), of palm or toddy tappers (makers of booze), hunters of wild birds and small game, as well as pig-rearers—all ritually low occupations. It soon dawned on me that her black complexion was, indeed, a badge of her low caste origin. Pasis are descended from an aboriginal tribe—black people—so her name, Kaila, is probably a corruption of ‘Kala’: black. I learnt that the name Pasi derives from a word meaning, noose, used in trapping small game. I have reflected on this often, and reached the conclusion that by escaping her outcaste ascription, this remarkable ‘untouchable’ woman had, indeed, escaped the noose.

29My maternal grandmother, Ramdularie, had just died when I discovered Kaila’s outcaste background in mid-1985. A black woman herself, I have no idea what her reaction would have been (she had internalised the standard Hindu pejoratives about blackness). My mother was not enamoured of this belated revelation. She dismissed it with the admonition that I should not ‘open my big mouth’: don’t make it public. Although I was brought up with intimations of our Ahir antecedence, my caste instincts never did cohere; yet I do recall a tinge of disappointment on learning of Kaila’s outcaste background. This had surprised me. I must have felt vindicated, having discovered the strength of our Ahir antecedents, for I had become absorbed in cattle-rearing on my return to Guyana, in the early 1980s. However, I like to think now that the belated discovery of the diversity of my Indian roots―Ahir, Brahmin, Muslim, Pasi (untouchable/Dalit)―however submerged, has made me a broader person, quite proud now to claim a wider legacy.

30Moreover, Kaila’s ‘untouchable’ (Dalit) roots made me contemplate the hurdles she must have encountered in acquiring the self-confidence to construct a new persona—to forge a new life of dignity in a distant land. I could empathise readily thereafter with this black Pasi woman who laid the foundation for my family to scale other hurdles towards success in other foreign lands. To construct her new persona, it was imperative for Kaila to erase her Indian past of degradation—to learn to forget—to cultivate amnesia. This was replicated by most of the indentured immigrants, hence the rigid collective amnesia that encompassed their antecedence. Yet the resilience, the imagination and consistency of effort of most of these girmitiyas, is beyond doubt. I do not know if, or for how long, Kaila laboured in the sugar-cane fields at Rose Hall; but for most of her life on the plantation she worked in the crèche on the estate, taking care of the children of the senior personnel. The white overseers on the estate must have recognised a solidity in her that imbued them with the confidence that she was worthy of such responsibility. This strengthened Kaila’s resolve immeasurably. She had a bit of status. She was paid better than the women in the fields. She was endowed with amazing thrift; so, too, her husband, Jagarnath. Their savings enabled them to acquire the land and the cows that provided the security for Ramdularie and her children in the village of Palmyra. I learnt that Jagarnath also did not work in the sugar-cane fields. He was the head gardener of one of the managers at Rose Hall. Like Kaila, he must have been a trustworthy and skilful person. I was thus able to comprehend why they never wanted to leave Plantation Rose Hall until the virtual end of their lives. (I can still remember the number of Jagarnath’s brand for his cattle: LJ/5.)

31I was finding myself as I pursued the antecedence of my ancestors in British Guiana. But it left me with far more questions than when I started. The imponderables grew thicker—becoming unbearable—with my assembling of the fragments of my great-grandparents’ Indian background. Yet the darkness over the real India whence they came, including their complex reasons for leaving, was not amenable to easy apprehension. But I was equipped to pursue that elusive India. I possessed the means to pose the relevant questions and to see much more than my ancestors ever could. Trinidadian-born Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018), a descendant of indentured labourers, has explained better than anyone the character of the intellectual leap I had made which has enabled me to go beyond the received dogmas of whence we had come and why; what we have achieved; and the seminal role of ideas of India in the process:

Starting with that Hindu background of the instinctive, ritualised life, I had [. . .] gone through many stages of knowledge and self-knowledge. I had a better idea of Indian history and Indian art than my grandparents had. They had possessed rituals; epics; myth; their identity lay within that light; beyond that light there was darkness, which they couldn’t have been able to penetrate. I didn’t possess the rituals and the myths; I saw them at a distance. But I had, in exchange, been granted the ideas of inquiry and the tools of scholarship (emphasis added).

  • 9 Naipaul, V. S. ‘Postscript: Our Universal Civilisation’, in The Writer and the World: Essays. Pank (...)

Identity for me was a more complicated matter. Many things had gone to make me. But there was no problem for me there. Whole accumulations of scholarship were mine, in the sense that I had access to them. I could carry four or five or six different cultural ideas in my head. I knew about my ancestry and my ancestral culture; I knew about the history of India and its political status; I knew where I was born and I knew the history of the place; I had a sense of the New World. I knew about the literary forms I was interested in; and I knew about the journey I would have to make to the centre [London] in order to exercise the vocation I had given myself.9

  • 10 Lal, Brij V. Girmitiyas: the Origins of the Fiji Indians. Canberra: the Journal of Pacific History (...)

32In the latter half of the 1980s I endeavoured to retrieve the real India of the north Indian ‘bound coolies’ in British Guiana. A fount of rare illumination was offered me by Brij Lal’s pioneering study of 1983 on the origins of the Fiji Indians: Girmitiyas.10 Here, in a refreshingly lucid and dispassionate way, the received dogma of deception and kidnapping is scrutinised and largely debunked. Professor Lal had unearthed compelling socio-economic reasons for their leaving India; how that background and the context of their flight were instrumental in shaping the temperament of the indentured labourers and their descendants in the sugar colonies. The book also had a profound influence on my way of seeing. The resilience of the Indians in Guyana, their thrift, imagination and ambition for their family―their achievements―are rendered more intelligible because of an apprehensible overview of eastern UP and western Bihar in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

33Girmitiyas slowly opened for me sealed doors to the opaque universe of the indentured labourers. It provided, at last, a window unto Kaila’s world whose darkness had intruded often on my childhood imagination. This book was the foundation of my belief that an Indo-Caribbean historiography grounded in achievement was possible; and that it would challenge Naipaul’s infamous dictum that the history of the ‘West Indian futility’ could not be written because history is ‘built on achievement and creativity; and nothing was created in the West Indies’. It could also, most importantly, confer agency on the ‘bound coolies’, thus undermining the established dogma of the evil arkati (recruiter), at the heart of the thesis of deception and kidnapping.

I published my doctoral thesis in 1997. It is about the achievements of Indians in colonial Guyana by the 1920s, the decade after the arrival of the last girmitiyas exactly 100 years ago, in 1917 (indentureship ended in April 1920.) I called it Tiger in the Stars, taken from the magical imagination of the Trinidadian-born poet, writer and broadcaster, Ian McDonald (1933-). I see it now as a tale that speaks to the fortitude, imagination, resilience and devotion to family manifested by Kaila, her husband and my other girmitiya ancestors. Ian McDonald recalls:

When he was a boy, the old man, it may have been his grandfather, used to tell him about the time he came across the kala pani from India. It seemed like months, if not years, the voyage lasted. And the one clear memory the old man had was that each night on the deck he looked at the stars blazing in the sky and gradually, as night succeeded night, his eyes coached by the imagination, gradually picked out the shape of a tiger leaping in the sky amidst the constellations. That is what he recalled in the hardship and the monotony and the homesickness of the journey—a tiger leaping in the sky amid the stars. And he told it to his grandson and his grandson told it to me, and he traced himself for me that tiger-shape still blazing in the sky (emphasis added).

  • 11 McDonald, Ian. ‘Tiger in the Star’, in They Came in Ships: an anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and (...)

And now at nights, at certain times of the year, I still look up and I think of the old man on his long voyage, and the generations who have done well after him; and it seems to me the tiger leaping in the stars must become, for him, a sort of symbol of pride and strength and beauty, which he could not then hope to possess but which perhaps he could yearn for in his new land one day. And it seems to me, also, that the generations have not misplaced the symbol or the old man’s yearning.11

  • 12 Narayan, Badri. Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics. N (...)

34Kaila was a Dalit, so it pleased me to read what an Indian scholar, Badri Narayan, had to say about the creation of heroes among Pasis in north India: ‘the invention of tradition’. He observes: ‘Sources of vision and contemplation are absent without literature. This feeling, along with the growing urge to construct an assertive identity and the sense of being deprived of history, led the Pasi community towards the invention of heroes, histories and myths and their documentation in the print medium’.12This has come too late for Kaila, but I am proud to claim her not merely as my indefatigable Pasi ancestor from Gonda, eastern Uttar Pradesh, but also as a hero, on merit, in my limited pantheon of heroes.

35‘A tiger leaping in the sky’! This seems to me an apt image that encapsulates the life of Kaila of Plantation Rose Hall.


1 This excerpt from Finding Myself: Essays on Race, Politics and Culture has been revised for the purposes of this volume.

2 Samaroo, Brinsley. ‘Chinese and Indian “Coolie” Voyages to the Caribbean’, Journal of Caribbean Studies, Vol. 14, Nos. 1&2 (Fall 1999–Spring 2000): 19.

3 See Seecharan, Clem. ‘Introduction with notes and appendices’. Joseph Ruhomon’s India: the Progress of her People at Home and Abroad and how those in British Guiana may Improve themselves. 1894. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2001.

See Nath, Dwarka. 1950. History of Indians in Guyana. London: the Author, 1970.

See Ruhomon, Peter. Centenary History of the East Indians in British Guiana, 18381938. 1947. Georgetown: the East Indians 150th Anniversary Committee, 1988.

4 See Seecharan, Clem. Bechu: ‘Bound Coolie’ Radical in British Guiana, 18941901. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1999.

5 Seecharan, Clem. ‘Tiger in the Stars’: the Anatomy of Indian Achievement in British Guiana, 191929. London: Macmillan, 1997; 22.

6 These Registers are in the National Archives, Georgetown, Guyana. There are 188,917 individual embarkation slips (emigration passes), bound in 358 volumes, with the name of the ship and the year of the voyage embossed on the spine. The slips have the names of the immigrant, their depot number, their father’s name, their ship’s number, any peculiar identification mark, their height, their caste, their village of origin, their tahsil (sub-district) or district. They also have their place of registration, as well as the nearest of kin, if any, accompanying them. The plantation to which they were sent is pencilled in.

7 I have relied heavily on the following two people for information on Sohan, Jagarnath and Kaila: Ramdularie (1916–85), interviewed at Palmyra (East Canje, Berbice, Guyana), May 1982; Latchman Sohan, interviewed at Palmyra, December 1985.

8 I have relied heavily on Sarran Jagmohan (1920–2005) for information on Sewnath, Etwarie, Harpal, Ramsaran Maharaj and Jagmohan, interviewed at Palmyra, April 1986; personal communication (hand-written letters) from Toronto, Canada, dated 21 July 1994, 14, 16 March 1995.

9 Naipaul, V. S. ‘Postscript: Our Universal Civilisation’, in The Writer and the World: Essays. Pankaj Mishra, ed. London: Picador, 2002; 512.

10 Lal, Brij V. Girmitiyas: the Origins of the Fiji Indians. Canberra: the Journal of Pacific History, 1983.

11 McDonald, Ian. ‘Tiger in the Star’, in They Came in Ships: an anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry. Joel Benjamin, Lakshmi Kallicharan, Ian McDonald and Lloyd Searwar, eds. Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998; 274.

12 Narayan, Badri. Women Heroes and Dalit Assertion in North India: Culture, Identity and Politics. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2006; 140.


Clem Seecharan is Emeritus Professor of History at London Metropolitan University. He was the Head of Caribbean Studies there from 1993 to 2012. He is the author of several books on Indo-Caribbean history and the history of West Indies cricket. His Sweetening Bitter Sugar: Jock Campbell, the Booker Reformer in British Guiana, 1934–66 was awarded the Elsa Goveia Prize in 2005 by the Association of Caribbean Historians. Clem is now working on a three-volume study, Hand-in-Hand History of Cricket in Guyana, 1865–1966, two of which have been completed. He is also writing a book on Cheddi Jagan, the Guyanese politician. He received the Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies in 2017.

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