Documenting the Lives of Girmitiyas and Their Memory-Keepers

The scholars of the girmitiya experience are from India, not necessarily of India.

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This article was written as a foreword to Girmitiya, edited by Brij Lal.

Early in his excursions among the peoples converted to Islam, Naipaul visits a sacred spot in West Sumatra: ‘a big dip in the volcanic land with a hot spring … where the Minangkabau people were said to have come out of the earth’. This visit induces the thought that the island where he grew up in the Caribbean had no place which Naipaul could identify with in a similar fashion: ‘the aboriginal people who knew about the scared places which had been destroyed on our island, and instead of them there were–in the plantation colony–people like us, whose sacred places were in other continents’.

The essays in this volume are as deeply personal as they are scholarly. Rooted in familial and societal pasts, these are no laments to a lost land and sacred places their fore-bearers forsook by ‘contracting’ to labour in an unknown country.  As in the case of apartheid South Africa, poignant recollections of lack, privation and racial discrimination inflect these engagé writings with a charge that is novel as it is revelatory.

‘We carry our history and heritage with us and it deeply shapes our professional lives and identities as adults’, writes  Goolam Vahed, co-author of Many Lives: 150 years of Being Indian in South AfricaMuslim Portraits: The Anti Apartheid Struggle  and  The South African Gandhi: Stretcher Bearer of Empire. Contra the advice of history dons in ancient and red-brick Universities, he avers: ‘I feel privileged to have worked on areas that have personal meaning to me’.  This is equally the case with Uma Dhupelia-Meshtrie’s sardonic commentary on the ‘Whites Only’ Archival repositories (and toilets) of Pitermaritzburg, which she mines and undermines to present portraits of Indians of all sorts–Gujarati traders  as  well as  ‘bare chested bone thin’ indentured labourers, with their identification numbers dangling from their necks–girmitiyas all, the eponymous characters of this book.

If history is a discipline of context, as E.P. Thompson, my lodestar and lodestar for several of the contributors to this volume once famously declared, a narrow view of that dictum will not do for Dhupelia-Meshtrie. For her, ‘visual images can be plucked from one context and given new meaning in a different context’. And she proceeds to do precisely that in her variegated Portrait of Indian South Africans. The inheritors of both these pasts–Indian as well as South African–reflect their personal and intellectual journeys: Kalpana Hira Lal, a ‘shy and traditional ‘Guji’ [Gujarati] girl that entered University for the first time in 1984’, ‘a barefooted child, born beyond the cane fields’, could aspire to and become ‘a historical linguist of the indentured experience’ (Rajend Meshtrie).

Podcast: Girmitiya: A Saga of Indian Indentured Labourers in Fiji

With Clém Seecharan, (British Guiana), it is a sense of place that sublimates the girmitiyas’ rudderless political present, post the fall of Prime Minister Chedi Jagan, in Rohan Kanhai’s endearing batting square of the wicket. It says something of the swashbuckling elegance of Kanhai, from Seecharan’s home turf, that in early 1959 a nine-year old eagerly awaited the arrival of this one-down batsman to the crease at the Delhi cricket ground. I was thrilled to know that Kanhai was an Indian name, a riff on the Kanhaias of our native place. And I seem to recollect Kanhai repeatedly pulling our bowlers to the square-leg fence, except that on checking I found that he did no such thing: there was not a single boundary in the 40 runs he scored in the fifth test at Delhi. Perhaps, it was an equal number of hits to the fence in the 245 he plundered at Calcutta’s Eden Gardens–the stuff of cricketing lore–that had clouded the febrile remembrance of one not yet in his teens.

Then there is V.S, Naipaul, who burst on to the scene with his ‘Darkness’ book in the early 1960s. By then I was twelve, still unable to read an entire book in English. I seem to remember an uncle telling me that Naipaul’s ancestors came from Gorakhpur. On an unsettling visit through ‘moth eaten villages’ to his grandparent’s ancestral home, a doddering old woman had given Naipaul a small  amount of beaten rice (chiura), which when soaked in yogurt provided excellent portable nourishment for peasants venturing out from their villages. Whether there is such a  description in The Area of Darkness I haven’t bothered to check. Still,  in a very material sense, hero and anti-hero–Kanhai and Naipaul–were our people, whose history beyond individual accomplishments, we of the mainland, made no attempt to know. If Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, as he famously wrote, were born ‘handcuffed to history’, the girmitiyas and their descendants had been On the Other Side of Midnight (as Brij Lal’s 2005 book proclaims), since the 1830s.

In my own work on eastern U.P., on sugar in the world commodity circuit during 1800-1940, I had next to nothing to say about the large number of migrating peasants from my own little patch. I made room for peripatetic planters who, after the abolition of slavery, were quite literally scouring the world to restart their business in newer climes. One such person was Leonard Wray from Jamaica. He turned up in India in the early 1840s, operated a peasant-based plantation of 4000 acres in northern Gorakhpur for four or five years, and when the sugar boom started running out of steam in the late 1840s, moved to Penang. In 1852 he was to be found in Natal. Even though I had quoted from a masterful analysis on British Guiana, titled Sugar without Slaves, which stated that the transition from slavery ‘had revolutionized the labour force … altering its character’, my tunnel vision occluded from view the girmitiyas thumb-printing their assent to labour in sugar plantations in strange islands.

In the autumn of 1982, I found myself at ANU, Canberra, with a fresh paper on peasants’ political perceptions of Gandhi in the early 1920s. It was a big occasion for of us, Partha Chatterjee, Dipesh Chakrabarty et al. Ranajit Guha was our captain and we were flying the subaltern studies flag. It was at this conference that someone suggested I look up Brij Lal’s thesis on migrants out of northern India to the sugar colonies.

The thesis on Fiji’s Indentured Indians was titled, with more than a dash of nostalgia, ‘Leaves of the Banyan Tree’ and its leaves had indeed been scattered across the globe. Undaunted by the supplemental volume full of statistical tables, I looked through this new work with more than marginal interest. Lal’s computation and inferences made one thing clear: eastern U.P. had been a major catchment area for the arkatias, as they hustled working men and women for the sugar plantations of Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, British Guiana, Surinam and a host of smaller islands. Arkatiya seems to have been a Bhojpuri inflection of ‘recruiter’; Girmit, a more graded rendition of the   labour ‘Agreement’ that governed their lives in the sugar islands: Agreement> greement> girment> Girmit, with the addition of the common suffix ‘ia/iya’, common to several words ending with a ‘d’/t/r’ sounds. The Girmitiya book, published in 1983, caused a major shift in the way colonial India had been imagined–as a bounded geographical entity. Over the past twenty years more than a dozen theses, at my home university in Delhi, have been written–many  of these by the descendants of those whose great grandfathers could well have boarded the ships along with their jahaji bhais and behans to the Demara (British Guiana, the land of Demerara sugar!) and Miritch dvip (Mauritius). The statistical base of the Emigration pass, whether in the case of  iji, Mauritius or South Africa, has produced huge quantities of  data with a human face.

The great merit of these essays is that they take us away from latching on to the site of origin as the point of departure for all times and all places to come. Similarly, the lives of girmitiyas and their memory keepers in several locations in the world are best documented, analyzed, and lived when untethered from a constrictive Indian past, attempts to cordon these off within a statist Indian embrace of ‘Pravasi divas’ notwithstanding. ‘I don’t want to make a fetish out of indenture’, writes Rajend Meshtrie, with his research focus as a trained linguist, on the shifts and transformations in Bhojpuri over time and space. Nostalgia and affect don’t take us very far in our studies of the past. The scholars of the girmitiya experience are from India, not necessarily of India. Tongue firmly in check, editor Brij Lal quips: We are NRIs of sort, not Non Resident Indians but Not Really Indians. Ventriloquizing one could say: whose indenture ended a long while ago; they live, write, cogitate   and struggle in the present and bond with the denizens of their countries. ‘It is certainly important to remember it and draw sustenance from the labours and travails of … generations. But indenture had to become intertwined with other experiences internationally: emancipation from slavery, colonial oppression, racial hierarchies, and newer struggles regarding class and gender’, says Rajend Meshtrie.

It is this common backdrop to their longue durée histories, lived and written in different climes, rather than an acquired intellectual orientation that gives this volume a cohesion rather different from the Communist Party Historians Group like Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, of the late 1940s- mid-1950s. Several of the contributors regard these, specially Thompson, as a formative influence on their own intellectual development but are equally interested in drifts in continental Marxism. As with many of us struggling with ever newer academic trends, our authors, Ruben Gowrichran Suriname/The Netherlands, for instance, can be seen arriving at their own engagements with sociological theories about diasporas.

To return to E.H. Carr’s sturdy classic on the study of the past, ‘it is not merely events that are in flux. The historian himself is in flux.’ The essays in this volume are nothing if not adept negotiations with moving times and displaced places.

Shahid Amin is a historian. His latest book, Conquest and Community: The After-Life of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan was published by Orient BlackSwan in 2015.