Books

The Bengal Book (an excerpt)

From the chapter, Casting Shadows in the Soul of “The Bengal Book”, published on October 10, 2021 by Rupa Publications. The photographs do not appear in the book but are presented (courtesy of their owners) by Cuckoo News as accompanying images for this excerpt.

Indian indentured workers after arriving in British Guiana. Photo courtesy of Rupa Seenaraine.
Indian indentured immigrants working in the fields after arriving in British Guiana. Photo courtesy of Rupa Seenaraine.
Cover of “The Bengal Book” by Dola Mitra. Published October 10, 2021 by Rupa Publications. Photo by Dola Mitra.

……….And now Guyana is their home.

‘But we still pine for India,’ says Jainarine Deonauth, a journalist, editor and academic, who is also the owner of the swanky garments store in a mall in the centre of town. It’s a holiday and there are more friends dropping in to catch up than customers. Guyana is a small country with a population count, by the end of 2020, of around 800,000. What ensues is like the Bengali ‘adda’, the age-old custom of friends ferreting out time from their busy schedules to get together and converse over cups of tea or coffee.

‘It’s in our blood,’ smiles Deonauth. ‘Our roots go back to Bengal, after all.’

Like the ancestors of Parasram Persaud, Deonauth’s family too arrived in British Guyana as plantation workers and settled. ‘It was sometime in 1838 that they boarded a ship,’ he says. ‘Though there are not many records of those times, what we do know is from what has passed down to us through the generations by word of mouth.’ Deonauth’s ancestors were from a remote village in Bengal, who signed up or were compelled to sign up for the indentured system, possibly due to economic hardships. The indenture system targeted the needy masses, the memories of whose displacement could and did get lost in the oblivion of time. Their numbers remained virtually unaccounted for except as cold impersonal statistics. Close to two million (by some accounts three million or even more) people had been dislocated by the Indian indenture system. The mere rattling off of these numbers don’t take into account the fact that each and every one of the figures which make up that total, was that of an individual who had dreams and aspirations to return home one day. To their parents, spouses, children and siblings.

Two hundred years after his ancestors were uprooted from Bengal, Deonauth has returned twice to India with an emotional visit to Bengal, where he had hoped to trace his long-lost ancestral home. ‘But even if time permitted, which it did not, there was little to go by. There were no leads, no clues.’ Deonauth has a dream. He wants, just once, to stand at the port, the dock in Calcutta, from where his ancient ancestors had left for the unknown two centuries ago and never returned. On their behalf.

‘Did you know that these are referred to as Guyana port or Trinidad port? You don’t? Don’t they call it that in Bengal?’ How does one explain to someone, who proudly points out that most of the names of the Indian diaspora in Guyana are Bengali, that Bengal has all but forgotten the indentured Indians who were snatched away from them two centuries ago and made bonded labourers in a distant land. The younger generation to which Deonauth belongs, has grown up hearing the various tales from those days at the turn of nineteenth century when the arduous sea journeys of their ancestors began.

These stories have a beginning, like the start of the journey of Deonauth’s ancestors in Bengal but no ending because the plot got lost in the middle. ‘Today, Guyana is our home and we love our lives here but it would be good to have closure.’ He feels that Bengal and India could try to trace the roots of people of the diaspora. Part of the reason for the disinterest, feel people of the diaspora, is the fact that they were poor people. ‘They came from the lower castes and lower classes,’ he says.

One of the interesting facts about the Indian indenture system was that women too were recruited in large numbers. This provided incentives for the men to migrate because it was seen as a possibility that they could marry and settle down in their new place of employment. The logic was that if the labourers had their wives and families with them, they would be more likely to want to stay on beyond the five-year terms, which would benefit the employers as it would save on resettlement costs. Often, these women were single and got married to men who had migrated, and did not return. However, at other times, even married women, with children, were forced to leave families behind, driven by hunger and hardships. According to the descendants of these indentured Indians, they almost always hoped that they would one day return.

This is the heart-rending story of one such woman, as narrated by her great-granddaughter Gangadai Persaud who lives in Guyana:

Gangadai Persaud. Photo courtesy of Jainarine Deonauth.

My great-grandmother came from India with her 11-year-old son (Rangbahadur Singh) around 1838 and settled on a sugar plantation at Uitvlugt, West Demerara in Guyana. Unfortunately none of us can remember her name. It was so long ago. However we have heard her story many times. She had left her husband and other relatives in India to come to work in the then British Guiana (now Guyana). She was made to understand that British Guiana was a very rich country and the conditions of work would be very good and from her earnings she would be able to help her family back in India.

However, after arriving here it was a completely different story. I was told that my great-grandmother had to work on the sugar plantation for a very small salary and the conditions of work were very harsh. She had to endure the struggle as she had a small son to take care of. Later on, her son (who is my grandfather) got married. They all lived in ‘logies’, or what some may call mud houses, on the sugar plantations and worked very hard in the cane fields under colonial rulers to make ends meet.

My great-grandmother never went back to India. As difficult as it was, she endured and made Guyana her new home. My eldest aunt had told me when I was very small that my great-grandmother regretted that she came here and left her family back in India. She became very depressed as she had missed them very much. She subsequently died and left her son (my grandfather) to fend for himself.

At one time, he used to keep in contact with his relatives back in India, but the hard work in the cane fields and his own family commitments kept him very busy as the years went by and he lost contact with them.

The people who came on the ships had respect for each other, they all lived like family. They kept their traditions, such as going to temples, and so on.

As a child I remember all the kids from the logies would play together and tell stories about their relatives coming to Guyana on the ships from India.

I was born in a logie at Uitvlugt. Growing up in a logie was fun in those days. My eldest aunt told us stories about how my grandfather and his mother came to this country and worked hard to survive in their adopted country.

The living conditions were very poor, but they were determined to cope and make the best of what was available to them.

Some of the indentured labourers later bought their own plot of land and built houses and engaged in farming work, including cultivating rice, planting different types of vegetables, growing coconut, rearing cattle and producing greens in their kitchen gardens to survive.

The sixth generation: Rupa Seenaraine, a young descendant of Indian immigrants who arrived in Guyana by ship from Bengal. Photo courtesy of Rupa Seenaraine.

Gangadai’s great-grandmother was one of the hundreds of thousands of women who left an Indian village in the vain hope of coming back but never did. She herself is married to a man whose ancestors hailed from Bengal. They too had hoped to, but never got around to making the elusive return journey.

Editor’s note: The above text appears in “The Bengal Book”, published October 10, 2021 by Rupa Publications. The photographs do not appear in the book but are acquired by Cuckoo News as accompanying images.

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