Indentured labour, or bonded labour, refers to all those who left India’s shores in droves shortly after slavery was banned. Initiated to target fresh labour as a substitute for slaves by another name, helpless colonised populations were forced and wooed to sign up agreements and turned into ‘Girmitiyas’ (agreement in Bhojpuri, a bond they signed which decided their fate). Of course, some were just trying to escape to a better future, others were confused but most not fully cognisant about how far they were going and what the journey would entail. The missing ‘Girmits’ (whose numbers are estimated to be upwards of 12.5 million) have sneaked into stories, songs and stray references in their motherland, India, but it is safe to say that such an exodus finds little reference in formal histories either taught, recounted or remembered. The Aapravasi Ghat World Heritage Site, located in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius, was inscribed as such only on July 16, 2006, on the World Heritage List. An Indentured Labour Route Project, an initiative of the government of Mauritius, was finally offered formal support by UNESCO in 2014 at its 195th session.
Kala Pani Crossings: Revisiting 19th Century Migrations from India’s Perspective, put together by Ashutosh Bhardwaj and Judith Misrahi-Barak, is a very imaginative dive into these ‘black waters’, Kala Paani, which in India means the Andamans and its penal colony, but elsewhere, it refers to the journeys of indentured labour beyond the Indian seas. The thrust of the book and the essays in it are focused on its imprint and residue back home.
In India, recognition of this migration as a part of Indian heritage has been hard to come by and piecemeal, at best. Perhaps because independence involved a bloody Partition and migration that was closer home and sudden, this relatively slower earlier migration remained forgotten. Cricketers from the West Indies bearing some very Indian names have been instrumental in tickling my generation’s awareness of indentured migration. Sunil Gavaskar named his son after one such great — Rohan Kanhai. Gandhi was also a girmit, truth be told, and as the Fijian historian, Vijay Mishra, writes, “Giriraj Kishor in his Hindi hagiographical novel Pahla Girmitiya refers to the Mahatma as the first girmitiya.”
But it has taken popular writers like V.S. Naipaul and Amitav Ghosh, in very different ways, to shine a light on a yawning gap in the subcontinent’s history and generate interest in this very important phase, between 1834 and 1920, when it was finally outlawed. But mostly, descendants of the indentured, some of whom driven by their own quest for roots and others to quench their academic thirst have written and spoken of their parents and grandparents’ difficult journeys and struggles as they settled on distant shores. Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery in 1974 and Brij Lal’s Girmitiyas: The Origins of the Fiji Indians in 1983 are believed to have laid the foundation for alerting the world to the phenomenon. Tinker connected it directly, as an obverse side of the Atlantic slave trade, filling the need for slave labour once slavery was illegal; Brij Lal spoke of himself proudly as a descendant of Fiji girmits, who worked on sugar plantations.
Ebb and flow
The editors of Kala Pani Crossings have pulled out all stops to do justice to it. The chapters are a result of an international seminar organised by the Institute of Advanced Studies in Shimla in September 2019, called ‘Kala Paani Crossings: India in Conversation’. The first section in the book tries to shift the gaze to this angle of the Indian diaspora. It must be said that in all the ‘Pravasi Bharatiya’ jamboree, perhaps this largest contributor to the Indian diaspora finds little mention. There is also just one museum in India in their memory set up by the Kolkata Port Trust in 2009. This book offers much to feed the senses; the essay by Kumari Issur invokes bidesia songs, and the “the ebb and flow of Kala Pani in Hindustani cinema.” Literature in India, especially that from the Hindi heartland, continue to carry the memory of those who left, and wonder how they must be doing, as Ritu Tyagi’s essay outlines: “The ship, the holds, the chains, the depressions in the floor all become palimpsest where histories are written and rewritten.” Premchand, by the way, was among the notables who wrote girmitiyas into conversations of his characters. In Godaan, for example, there is a reference to a household contemplating an escape to ‘Mirich’ (Mirichdesh or Mauritius).
This collection makes a valuable addition to how Girmits figure in the land they left behind. It is fortuitous that we now have two fine works on the indentured. The late Prof Brij Lal tragically died, shortly before the release of his now very well regarded Girmitiyas: The Making of their Memory-Keepers from the Indian Indentured Diaspora. If you can, make time for both books, and read them together. They take you on a sad-sweet journey which will make you seriously reconsider any fixed ideas of belonging.
Kala Pani Crossings: Revisiting 19th Century Migrations from India’s Perspective; Edited by Ashutosh Bhardwaj, Judith Misrahi-Barak, Routledge India, ₹995.
The writer is a journalist based in Delhi.