By Rajiv Mohabir
Rajiv Mohabir, author of The Taxidermist’s Cut, is an award winning poet and translator who currently teaches poetry and composition at the University of Hawai’i where he is pursuing his PhD in English. Read more of his work at www.rajivmohabir.com. An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Margins, a publication of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The longer and original version can be found online at http://aaww.org/indian-arrival-day/
Each year on May 5 Guyana celebrates “Indian Arrival Day,” commemorating the arrival of Indian indentured laborers to the Caribbean. On May 5, 1838, the S.S. Hesperus and the S.S. Whitby arrived along the shores of Berbice and Demerara. Together they carried 396 Indians, referred to as “coolies,” from Chota Nagpur, then Bihar, 300 miles from Kolkata. Since slavery had recently ended and African-descended people had been emancipated in the British colonies in 1833, the British were in need of cheap labor. They looked to India, the jewel in the Empire’s crown — a jewel that became a sugar crystal.
Each coolie was bound by a renewable contract to serve on the British sugar plantations for a period of five years. Lured away from their homes by the promise of riches, their passage across the sea at the hands of the British was brutal, followed by the degrading dehumanization that occurred on the plantations. Even though they were “paid” a wage, it was seldom enough to buy any kind of freedom from the plantation economy, except for rum that dulled the pain of its hellish conditions.
My family story might sound like it began with agency, but this narrative devolves into one of dispossession and terror, with the lingering effects of colonization haunting us today. This familial haunting, this legacy leads me to ask myself and my community, why should we commemorate the beginnings of our oppression in Guyana and even in diaspora while we still feel the effects of violent colonization?
I recorded my Aji telling the story of how her father’s father was tricked into crossing the kalapani to Guyana and how this pain birthed us. I quote her in Newtown Literary:
“Beta, India mein dis side ke people say, ‘Leh abi go Guyana. A-you go get job an’ a-you go de good.’… So dey fool dem people an’ bring ‘em come. How dey catch ‘em? Dey been tell dem that abi go nuddah country an’ a-you go get plenty job, a-you go get ‘nuff money from cut cane, a-you go live happy. An’ India mein dem been a-punish. Wuk tiday you get food tiday, an’ you know tomorrow dem starve. So dem been a-haunted ti come away. An’ when dem bring ‘em dem na get house, dem na get nutin’, dem a-cut cane. Dem a-punish bad.”
We have touched the flame of Empire and have been scarred. Looking at us, what can anyone tell of the ills of having our bodies exploited for Empire’s gain? How does the body hold psychic devastation? Global economics at the time created an illusion of choice: some people were forced into migration because of starvation; some were kidnapped and shipped to the colonies; some Indians agreed to take the journey without actually understanding what it meant; some went willingly looking to make money.
Indian arrival into the Caribbean marked the beginnings of my family’s origin story, but it was also the beginning of serious disease, dependencies, prejudices, and ills that plague us still today. I present a list of ills — a postcolonial fallout — that I see as a legacy of indenture, erased by the celebration of Indian Arrival Day. Together, these ills informed my decision this year to not celebrate this holiday.
Written about at length by Gaiutra Bahadur in her groundbreaking book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, Bahadur says this violence is a legacy from colonial times. When the British began the coolie trade, gender proportion was imbalanced. With fewer women there was greater competition among men for their affections. This included plantation owners and magistrates who preyed on the vulnerability of Indian women in their colonies. Indian men retaliated against women’s
“infidelity” with machetes — that tool of indenture.
But this violence is enduring. In 2009, Jahajee Sisters worked with Sakhi for South Asian Women (two Queens, New York-based organizations) to create a safe space for survivors of domestic violence. They conducted poetry workshops and published Bolo Behen! Speak Sister!, a collection of poems by Indo-Caribbean women protesting the violence of a male-dominated society, now in a second diaspora.
To me, chronically ill with diabetes — me get sugah — the greatest irony is that my ancestors were contracted to cultivate sugar on another people’s indigenous land for the British and their Empire, and what we are left with is diabetes — a disease that disproportionately affects South Asians and other people of color, making it so we cannot eat sugar, or that sugar imbalance will eventually kill us. Diabetes has claimed limbs on both sides of my family. It is so commonplace that when I told my friend that I was diagnosed at 32 he wasn’t shocked by the fact, but rather replied, “Already?”
Anti-black racism in East Indian spaces is rampant. I understand this as a colonial haunting. When the British brought Indians to work the plantations, slavery was recently abolished and the British gave Indians work that would have gone to Afro-Guyanese, shaping the relationship between the newly freed people and the newly imported labor. Members of my own family like to say things like “we were never slaves” when the truth is we absolutely were; we have more cultural commonalities and values with Afro-Guyanese than we do with anyone from the Indian subcontinent. India is not “home”—it is a mythological homeland.
In her essay, “The Indo-Caribbean Experience: Now and Then,” Elizabeth Jaikaran writes about this racism as a way for the British to keep two major ethnic groups divided, so that they would not unite against their common oppressor:
“Do not speak to the Indians,” said the British to the Africans. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
“Do not speak to the Africans,” said the British to the Indians. “They are vile and carry diseases.”
It’s not a family event without rum. Friends and family will chuckle in agreement. They laugh knowing we dance on a demon’s mouth. Rum claims lives through addiction and has its roots in the plantation economy: it allowed workers some psychic relief from the trauma of labor, all the while re-investing the money earned by the laborer in the same system that kept them poor. Toil, drink. Punish bad bad, suck rum steady.
In his hit “Rum is Meh Lovah,” singer songwriter Ravi B sings about deadly dispossession:
Rum kill me muddah, rum kill me faddah
rum kill me whole family; rum kill me bruddah,
rum kill me sistah now it want to come an’ kill me
It would be joyous if it weren’t so personally harrowing. I have an uncle who died from complications from alcohol, and other family members of all generations who suffer/have suffered from alcoholism in silence.
Documented in ship records made public by Gaiutra Bahadur from the 1898 voyage of the S.S. Mersey, a ship surgeon caught two men, Mohungu and Nabi Baksh, having sex. As punishment Mohungu had to holystone the deck from 6 am to 6 pm and then have his penis scalded as a preventative cure for this variety of homosexual intercourse.
The Criminal Law (Offenses) Act of Guyana and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code inherit their oppressive homophobic language — almost word for word — from Britain, illustrating how this homophobia, touted as one of the worst in the world, originated in white, colonizing minds and religion.
Last night I dreamt of my mother. She too lives by the sea, in Florida — far from Chennai, Bihar, Georgetown, or Lusignan. Since her divorce she has become a painter and is drawn to the poetry of the waves. Without her work, she feels as though she would fall into a dark space — a holding space. This anxiety, of constantly needing to work, is part of the mythology that makes my family human. She is drawn to the sea: that original place of trauma — hoping, longing, for the return of wholeness. A return “home” wherever that may be.
We are haunted by the specter of this unfulfilled promise. Would my ancestors have left if they knew what would become of their progeny?
Like my mother, I am drawn to the sea. It can hold complexity and paradox in its blue throat. As a poet, I like to believe it is because I have a deep, abiding connection with history and motion. That my own rooted place in this world is to journey. I like to believe that I inherited not only the damage of being enslaved but also the seafarer’s heart, sturdy and craving motion. I want this motion to be what unmoors me from the damage, to use it as one would fertilizer, something breaking down and inspiring new life.
May 5th 1838
briks ke dole par hamar potiya jhulai
abse ham toke bulawe jahaaj-bhai
Ash applied evenly fertilizes the field.
On those first ships did they know they would seed the earth?
We are wreckage, broken planks, history’s skipping
record — repeating the migrant strain again
and against kalapani ke twist-up face while
the rakshas of erasure licks its lips. What’s born of death —
here we grow wild. In Queens, see clumps of bora
long beans twist feral by fire hydrants.
We sow bits of ourselves in all corners:
flags on bamboo posts, milk poured into the sea.
My daughter will swing on the tree branch,
we will all call you Brother of the Ship.
Why the hell should I celebrate colonization? To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to commemorate the beginning of our slavery sentences. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the damage wreaked upon brown bodies by white systems of colonial violence. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the cause of each ill: diabetes, racism, alcoholism, homophobia, and domestic violence.
In a conversation I had with Toronto-based artist and sociologist Andil Gosine who works to inscribe this history into his art, he lamented that when we celebrate Indian Arrival Day, “we are implicitly erasing the history and actual experiences of indentures.” He continued, “Indians didn’t arrive: they were merely the cargo of the system of Indentureship, and it is ridiculous that we would celebrate the beginning of bondage.”
This May I remembered my ancestor’s struggles, my parent’s struggles, and my own struggles that result from indentureship. I celebrated the end of indenture and human trafficking on this global scale. I celebrated survival. I celebrated that I am here today writing this essay, writing my poems, that white hands did not erase me. I will not allow my ancestors’ stories — my own stories — to be disfigured by the hands of the state. We have survived colonization, slavery, and dehumanization. But surviving does not equal healing. There is yet a long open swath of sea left to cross.