Return of indentured Indians to their homeland a complex narrative

Dear Editor,

I have noticed a series of write-ups in the dailies on Indian arrival day, which although admirable, have missed the narrative of the return of Indians to their homeland. This aspect of the Indian experience in Guyana can be dubbed as the return arrival of time-expired Indians to their Darti Mata, their motherland. Within this context, I share the reasons why Indians returned to India. A variety of reasons, some based on optimism, nostalgia, depression, disappointment, oppression, drove Indians to return to their homeland. One, those whose contracts expired, resisted settlement and went back home. Two, those who were inveigled, duped and kidnapped into indenture could not wait to return to India. Three, those who left willingly from India were anxious to re-unite with waiting families. Four, those who acquired savings in British Guiana wanted to go back to India to use their savings to buy a piece of land and cow and settle down fairly comfortable. Five, those who experienced unbearable hardships in British Guiana viewed the colony with a jaundiced eye and never wanted to be back in British Guiana. Six, some returnees were trans-migratory indentured servants who left to indenture themselves to another colony. Seven, the paupers and lepers had no choice but return to India because they were sent back by colonial government. Eight, some returnees wanted to spend their last years meditating and eventually die in India. Nine, some returnees mistakenly believed that they were returning to an independent India.

Obviously, the reasons for Indians coming to British Guiana was based primarily on acquiring economic benefits while the reasons for returning home, as stated above, were markedly different. There was one fundamental and foundational similarity: all of them had to cross the Kala Pani and yet this experience produced some differences. When Indian boarded the ships in India they were known to be timid to authorities. They would nod and bow to them, accordingly. On their return from British Guiana, they would normally question or challenge authority. They would say, how do you do Sir?, demonstrating how  they had picked up the westernized aspect of the plantation system. The reason for this changed behaviour was that their British Guianese plantation experience made them more robust and bold. Some were involved in riots and resistance and even served time in jail. Their culinary customs also changed from mainly vegetables to include meats, fish and alcohol. Some returnees had changed so much that upon return to India they were like strangers in their own land.

On the return voyage, there was much expected excitement, especially as the ships approached India. Some returnees had not seen their homeland for fifteen or twenty years. There was much shoving, singing, dancing and even the waving of the Bible. Some returnees had done well financially and had remitted savings back to India. Other returnees had money and jewellery hidden around their waist and in other parts of their body to beat immigration inspections. Not all was well, however, on the return ships since there were paupers, lepers, insane, marginally insane, and those who were victims rather victors of the indenture system. The penniless status of some was an embarrassment to them to the point that when they disembarked in India they refused to go back to their villages and instead decided to live out their lives in the urban sprawl of India or waited around the depots to be re-indentured to British Guiana or to another colony. Most often they were rejected by the immigration authorities to be unfit for another round of indenture.

The main obstacle the returnees faced upon return to India, regardless of their status, was caste integration back into their respective villages. Some returnees who had formed unions or marriages across caste simply severed those relationships for the fear of expulsion and ostracism from their villages. On one return ship, one high caste woman said to her partner that she was not interested in him anymore while one heartless man upon return told his wife and son to wait for him in a resting area so that he could use the restroom and then deserted.

A majority of the returnees went back to their villages where, in order to be reinstated into their respective caste, they had to undergo a caste purification ritual ceremony which used most of their savings. We know nothing about these returnees after they were reinstated into their communities. Some might have come back to British Guiana, through indentured contracts or paid their own passage. The most troubling aspect of the returnees were children born in British Guiana. For example, 5,580 British Guianese Indian children were taken with their parents to India between 1871 and 1890. These children, who were raised in a semi-class-conscious plantation structure, would have certainly encountered problems of social adjustment in an environment where caste rules were firmly entrenched. For this rue, some returnees with their children came back to British Guiana.  One more dynamic: one returnee, after spending about ten years in British Guiana, took back with him to India over $1000 and upon return went to a bar and got drunk and when he woke up he found his pocket empty. This is indenture to bone.

Yours faithfully,

Lomarsh Roopnarine

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