May 5, (Indian) Arrival Day is special to me.
As an Indian Guyanese, I reflect on those Indians taking that bold step to leave Hindustan (India) behind and cross the kala pani (black water) into the unknown future. Folks were promised a just reward for indentured servitude, and they were willing to take a chance. They never knew of the slave-like conditions that were awaiting them, but they were a resilient lot.
The Indians endured much hardship. Most of them were sick and many died on the way to British Guiana during the months it took them to reach the promised land. Casteism, a societal bane then, as it is now, virtually disappeared because of the dynamics within the ship. Folks from all religions and castes became a virtual family. This jehaji (shipmates) familial feeling was so strong that they could have a marriage that involved jehajis!
The indentured servants worked diligently in harsh physical, social, and cultural conditions but they survived well. They were mostly able to retain their religion, food, language, names, music, and culture – even though the white colonizers loathed these expressions and manifestations. They were referred to as ‘uncouth’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘infidels’, and ‘pagans’ by these “Christian” masters who failed to exercise Christian virtues in the way they perceived and treated those workers and the slaves whom they replaced.
The Indians persevered through it all; they have had a good work ethic. When they were able to move from the sugar estate, they ventured into business and pursued education. Parents worked indefatigably for their children’s future and laboured to save a dollar for a rainy day.
Today, Indians have come a long way from the logie days; they have become prominent in business, politics, and in various professions. Their business acumen is especially noteworthy.
I have had the privilege of living more than 15 years in India – close to the heart of the Bhojpuri belt (Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Western Bihar) – the area where most of the Indians came from to migrate across the kala pani to the West Indies, Suriname, countries in Africa, Fiji, Mauritius, and other places. Most of the indentured servants returned to India but others chose to remain. (I have been exposed to the language, culture, food, and music of the Bhojpuri people, and have felt a close connection with the people. I do not know of anyone from the West Indies who has spent so much time in India – who spoke the language (Hindi), and lived like a typical local Indian in that country).
Indian Guyanese have much to celebrate on May 5. Even though they were poor, their ancestors have come from a rich heritage. Hindi/Bhojpuri are beautiful languages; Indian music is terrific, and the West Indianized Indian food is loved by many, including those from India. And there are many aspects of the Indian culture in Guyana that should be significantly treasured. Jai ho! (Celebrate the victory!)
Dr. Devanand Bhagwan