Brij V Lal

The following article has been excerpted from The Hague Immigration Lecture delivered by Brij V Lal in 2008

I am immensely honoured to be invited to speak on this occasion marking the 135th anniversary of the arrival of Indian people in Suriname. I am pleased for many reasons. This is my first visit to this part of the world. In books we read at school many years ago, we saw beautiful pictures of your country, its canals and windmills, the magical tulip gardens and the neatly manicured flat green fields stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see, its great seaports and magnificent churches, its ancient centres of learning. To now physically see them with my own eyes is a childhood dream fulfilled. So, thank you for the invitation.

Like you – or many of you – I, too, am a descendant of an indentured labourer. My grandfather, from Bahraich district in eastern Uttar Pradesh, went to Fiji as a girmitiya in 1908. Girmit comes from the Agreement , and those who went under the Agreement became known as girmitiyas, just as your forebears who went to Surinam under the Contract system became known as Kontrakis. My grandfather was one of 60,000 who crossed the kala pani to that remote Pacific archipelago, almost twice the number who went to your country in the Caribbean. Our forebears were a part of the massive migration of Indian indentured labour which began with Mauritius in 1834 and continued until the early years of the 20th century. By then, over a million had crossed the oceans to the ‘King Sugar’ colonies scattered around the globe. So I share with you a common historical experience of migration and displacement.

Indian contract labour on arrival in Suriname
This statue is situated at the spot where the first labourers entered Suriname on June 5th, 1873, in the then so called “Coolie depot”

Like most of you, I, too, am a part of the diaspora of the ‘Twice Banished,’ in your case from India to Suriname and then to the Netherlands, and in my case from India to Fiji to Australia. For a variety of reasons – personal choice, racial discrimination, political marginalisation, economic hardship, a deep desire for personal betterment – over 120,000 of my people have left Fiji for other lands since the military coups of 1987, and more will leave as the opportunity arises. We, too, have crossed out own kala pani. So your story of migration and remigration, of starting from scratch in foreign lands is familiar to me, with all its pains and joys of adapting to new situations.

I have been to Suriname, so places like Nikeri and Paramaribo are not just idle, exotic names on a map, but places with faces and memories. I have eaten dhallbhari roti and duck curry at Roopram’s Roti shop in the capital city. And who can forget the masquita and macchari of Nikeri! I was overwhelmed by the warm hospitality of the Surnami Indian community. I knew something about the Surinami Indians before I went to Surinam. In 1995, Ram Soekhoe, working for one of the television stations here, went to Fiji to make a documentary on the situation of the Indian community there. He interviewed many people, including me, but was especially keen on meeting some local community leaders. We took him to a small town called Nausori to meet with Mr Bal Dev. Ram laughed out loud when he heard the name. Why we wondered, puzzled. He said in Suriname, the name referred to someone of few means, without a fixed abode, harmless, who lives on free feed by telling people: ‘Hamaar naam Baldeb, hum khaaye pi ke chal deb.’!

Like so many of you in post-war Suriname I, too, grew up in the countryside in rural Fiji. I too was brought up on the Ramchatramanas, the story of Sarvan Kumar, Allha Khand, the Birhas and the Bidesias and the Baithak Gana, the Lehnga ke naach (what you call Ahirwa ke naach). A few days ago, I listened to the songs of Ramdew Chaitoe and Andre Mohan. The evocative words about love and loss and impermanence, the melancholic mood of the music, the rustic musical instruments, took me back to my childhood, bringing back memories long forgotten. I remembered how, amidst all the poverty and destitution and hopelessness in the aftermath of indenture, songs and music, elementary stuff, nothing fancy or sophisticated (just dandtaal, dholak, majira and harmonium) kept our culture alive, our collective soul intact. Apparently, it was the same in your part of the world. And I am so delighted that fragments from that fractured past still survive in the Netherlands.

And the names too: Ramdev, Mohan, Nanhoe, Chaitoe, Soekhlal. These, too, were familiar to me. They were common enough in rural Fiji in the post-war years. They could easily have been the names of uncles and older cousins. Names are strange things, aren’t they? Why do we give certain names and not others? As I thought about this, I realised the important role naming plays in the way in which we negotiate issues of culture and identity and find our place in the world. Let me share with you the Fiji experience. Indentured labourers from rural India were named after events, calamities, days, after flowers and birds. So: Mangal, Bhola, Dukhia, Genda, Budhai, Sanicharee, Bipti, Sukkhu, Garib, and so on. If you knew the Indian cultural code, you could roughly tell a person’s station in life by his or her name. When the time came for the girmitiyas to name their children, they began naming them after gods and goddesses and with words having religious connotations, to erase distinctions based on caste and class: Ram Charan, Shiu Wati, Mahadeo, Latchman, Dharam Raji, Ram Jattan, Suruj Bali, Janki Devi. Who could tell whether Ram Charan was a chamar or a kurmi or something else? Our parents went further, naming their children Mahendra, Satendra, Vijay, Rajesh, Satish, Maya, Padma, and so on, with absolutely no cultural or religious connotation whatsoever, at least not any that I can recognise. Inventive names erased hierarchies based on caste and ritual purity. Such were the silent, subtle processes of cultural change and transformation in Fiji.

The isolated, self-contained world of my childhood has now almost vanished beyond recall. My children think that I am hallucinating when I tell them that I was born on my father’s farm, delivered by an illiterate Indo-Fijian mid-wife, and grew up without piped water, paved roads, electricity and regular newspapers. Radio came late to the village, in the late 1950s. There was no television then, of course, no internet, no mobile phones. I sometimes wonder how we managed to survive through those difficult times. Not only survive but actually triumph (although I have to admit to being a Luddite when it comes to even the most basic of modern technologies!). From that kind of background to this has been a remarkable journey of exploration and unexpected discoveries. In this regard, too, I share much in common with you. For more than a century, people of Indian indentured diaspora lived in complete isolation and ignorance of each other. Given the vast distance that separated us – you were in the Atlantic Ocean while we were in the Pacific – this is not surprising. There was simply no way of knowing. We lacked education, and the colonial education that we did receive focused our intellectual attention squarely on the cultural and technological accomplishments of our colonial masters. For the most part, we were preoccupied with eking out an existence, often without a helping hand and frequently in circumstances on the outer edges of desperation. Those who wrote about us were outsiders, who had little inkling of the deeper impulses of our lives, what made us tick. Some, though well meaning, were actually apologists for the colonial government and the plantocracy, which saw our forebears simply as units of labour to be exploited for profit. For them to accord us a measure of humanity would have undermined their project of economic exploitation; it would have been morally indefensible for one group of human beings in good conscience to oppress another. Our colonial masters saw us as potentially troublesome subjects to be controlled and managed. But we must also accept a part of the blame, for we saw our own history with a certain degree of embarrassment and shame. We saw our past as covered in silent darkness and loathed being reminded of our humble origins, especially by those who wanted us to know our place in the larger scheme of things so that we didn’t grow too big for our boots. The past, for us, was truly past; that was then; we had moved on.

But things have been changing in the last two decades or so as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of indentured labourers have themselves undertaken the task of understanding and interpreting their past, to comprehend the truth of their historical experience in all its maddening complexity andvariety. I have devoted a very large part of my professional life as a historian, now spanning some thirty years, trying to rescue our history from the enormous condescension of posterity. In my first book, Girmitiyas: The Origins of the Fiji Indians (first published in 1983), I tried to understand the background of the indentured who went to Fiji (and to other places across the globe), who they were, where they came from, their social and caste status, their economic circumstances, the reason they might have left their homes for strange, unknown places. Much, cruelly, was assumed about the girmitiyas, but very little actually known.

To find out, I did two things. I went through each and every one of the 45,000 Emigration Passes of all those who embarked for Fiji from the port of Calcutta. It had to be done, the whole thing; there was no way around it, no short cuts. I suppose in some inexplicable sense, it was my way of paying homage to those who had undertaken the journey. I coded and transcribed the data (on the district of origin and registration, caste, sex, next-of-kin, age, date of recruitment and embarkation, and so on: a horrendously tedious task that I would not wish even upon my worst enemy) and analysed it using the computer (in those prehistoric days of the late 1970s!). And I spent more than six months travelling through and living in the impoverished villages of eastern UP districts of Basti, Faizabad, Gorakhpur, Gonda, Bahraich, and many others from where the girmitiyas had come. I wanted to understand the place of migration in popular culture of the region. I travelled in rickety, overcrowded buses carrying sheep and goat besides people, slept in foul smelling, bug-infested beds, ate greasy food from sooty dhabas, drank tea from mud cups, and did other strange, blush-inducing things (out of necessity, of course!) which are now best left unrecalled. All I will say is that it is not an experience I would recommend to the finicky or the faint-hearted.

I proved conclusively, statistically, that the indentured labourers were not all low caste riff raff, but represented a fair cross-section of rural Indian society, including higher, middling and lower castes, and coming from sections of society which, in the late 19th century, were under great stress because of recurring natural calamities (droughts and famines) and the crippling effects of British revenue policy which caused crippling indebtedness, fragmented land holdings and scattered families. I showed, too, that while many were deceived into emigrating – fraudulence is present in most forms of labour recruitment, even in our own age – many came from an already uprooted mass of humanity on the move – to the Calcutta jute mills, Assam tea gardens, the Bihar coal mines, Bombay textile mills – in search of employment. I argued that migration to the colonies was an extension of the process of displacement already underway on the subcontinent. I suggested that indentured migration was a complex, multilayered narrative, susceptible to multiple readings, but the whips-and-chains version full of violence and brutality is usually given prominence in popular renditions of indenture. That, alas, is the way things will remain. Some matters of popular belief will always remain impervious to reason or reasoned research.

In my later work, I looked at the experience of the indentured labourers on the plantations in Fiji. There can be no argument that indenture was a harsh, brutalising experience, which broke many and left others by the wayside. Pain and suffering and violence were an integral part of the indenture experience.

May 2011

click here to enlarge

 >> Cover Story
 >> From the Editor