Cover Story | Society

Indo-Trinidadians yearn for their Indian roots

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And that is why a master genealogist in the Caribbean island is helping them trace their roots

When Kamla Persad Bissessar visited India as the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago in January 2012, there was something life-altering in store for her.

In Bhelpur, a dusty remote village in Bihar’s Buxar district, about 1,00,000 people had gathered to see her and greet her. One of them was Jagdish Mishra, an uncle she had never even heard of. There were many more relatives, including women and children, in the decrepit Mishra household, who were probably her uncles, aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces.

When Bissessar reached Bhelpur, the village witnessed remarkably emotional scenes. She, for the first time, was discovering her bloodline in this part of the world, thousands of miles away from her country, across the Atlantic and Indian oceans. A lineage she knew certainly existed, but didn’t know where, or how to trace. Overcome with a sense of disbelief and joy, the stately Bissessar and members of the modest Mishra household hugged each other and cried even as the villagers showered her with flowers and raised slogans such as “Kamla Persad zindabad”.

It was a rare homecoming and the reunion of an Indian family that had stayed apart for more than a century, that too in two distant continents, without knowing the other existed. It was the return of the descendant of an Indian indentured labourer who had left India in 1889 and disappeared into oblivion.

For Bissessar, it was closure after a lifelong yearning to find her roots — a sentiment that a large number of people of Indian origin in the Caribbean islands and the Girmitiya countries (former European colonies where the British had taken Indian indentured labourers to replace slave labour following its abolition in 1834) perpetually harbour. For many, living with an identity and culture that are physically disconnected from where they belong is an inherited existential agony.

Ancestral trail

It was not about simple ancestry, but also about one’s very existence. Bissessar got lucky because she had Shamsudeen, the master genealogist from Trinidad, to trace her roots.

The way Shamsudeen traced Bissessar’s roots is a typical example of how he helps people of the Girmitiya diaspora in the Caribbean reclaim their Indian identity through an interesting socio-forensic investigation in which he is a historian, ethnographer, enumerator and storyteller, all rolled into one.

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Once Shamsudeen gets a request, he speaks to the elders in the family to get an idea of the possible ancestral trail and derive an “arrival scenario”. “The older people would know more details about their ancestors because generationally they were closer to them,” he says. He picks up names, surnames and many valuable details from them and zeroes in on a few in their family who could have come from India, and their possible origins. If he is able to trace at least one of them (“I had 16 arrivals to choose from in my family,” he says about his own roots), the first link with India is established.

The record for this first vital connection is the “emigration pass” that the British officers had issued the labourers at Calcutta port before their embarkation. These passes are stored in Trinidad’s government archives, but one has to pore through thousands of records because more than 1,40,000 labourers had arrived in the country between 1845 and 1917. The passes of about 80% of them are available in the archives. The descendants of the 20% with missing records are plain unlucky.

Besides the details of the voyage such as the name of the ship and, name, date, and health condition of the labourer, the pass also recorded surnames and village names. In the case of Bissessar, the person who came from India was her great-grandfather Ram Lakhan, who arrived in 1889 aboard a ship called Volga. Shamsudeen traced Ram Lakhan’s whereabouts in the archives and secured his emigration pass.

Once this primary link is established, the hunt shifts to India. Retracing the 102- to 175-year-old steps in India begins with the surnames and village names from the emigration pass. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack — a laborious process of social-triangulation, informed guesses and continuous and systematic exclusion of names and places. The villages could have been overrun by towns, cities, roads and dams, and families could have disappeared or undergone an unrecognisable transformation, but some details remain unaltered like one’s DNA. They are the socio-cultural markers of one’s origin.

Emotional reunions

These markers help Shamsudeen take the trail closer to the village. Once he is sure of the geographic proximity, he starts looking at land records for identifying same or similar surnames. In the case of Bissessar, he could locate Ram Jatin, brother of her great grandfather Ram Lakhan, because he owned land from 1912. He was not alive, but the land records showed that he had bequeathed his properties to his children in the 1960s.

Once Shamsudeen located these records and Ram Jatin’s children, the search ended successfully. He told Bissessar precisely where her roots were and what followed were her State visit and the emotional reunion.

Had the arrival of her great grandfather been quite earlier, say 1845, when the first ship Fatel Razack from Calcutta port reached the island, tracing the records would have been tougher because it would entail going back a few additional generations. For instance, the first ever labourer to disembark on Nelson Island, the tiny patch of land off the cost of Port of Spain that served as a quarantine and transit depot before the labourers were assigned to sugar plantations, was named ‘Bhuruth’; but there’s no record of such a surname anywhere among the Trinidadians, shutting down the possibilities of tracing his descendants. In fact, such voids exist in other Girmitiya societies as well. However, those who came later have higher chances of leaving traceable trails behind through oral history, better-kept records such as birth certificates in India, and more pronounced familial imprints.

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What Shamsudeen fulfilled in Bissessar and at least 300 descendants of Indian indentured labourers in Trinidad over the years is a perpetual longing to locate and claim one’s native identity. It’s a unique and living aspect of the Girmitiya diaspora story. In fact it’s the same desire that brought Indo-Trinidadian author V.S. Naipaul to India although what he saw “broke his life into two”. Despite all the initial revulsion he felt, the allure of India and its heritage were so strong that Naipaul preferred to be identified with the same “dead country still running with the momentum of its heyday,” than his homeland. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he made it clear that it was India, and not Trinidad, that he valued as his ancestry.

Inherited heritage

Although the longing for India is more pronounced in the older generation and in enthusiasts of social sciences such as history and anthropology, it’s left a mark even among the new generation of Indo-Trinidadians. One tends to expect a more integrated and mainstreamed population losing interest in holding on to its inherited, than lived, heritage, but in reality the pining never disappears. In fact, at least half the young people one comes across on the island consider their Indian heritage as relevant as their Indo-Trinidadian lineage and they strongly long to reconnect with India.

Probably, that’s the mooring that makes them socio-culturally confident in a land of mixed ethnicities. Many of them live in the India of their imagination or of handed down memories. The facets of their India — the way they dress up in Indian attire, practise traditional customs, and cook — are trapped in a time warp. In fact, a journey through the Indian communities across the island is also a journey through an older India trying to catch up with contemporary India. Frankly, an India that is more joyful, vibrant and tolerant than the real India.

Avidesh Shankar, a university student barely in his 20s, from Couva in central Trinidad is an example. Neither him nor his parents know their precise roots in India, but he lives an intensely Indian life. He is active in the socio-cultural activities of the diaspora; practises his sanatana dharma with fervour and truthfulness; dresses up in Indian clothes whenever possible; and is learning the tabla. Even when he is fully committed to the culture and politics of Trinidad as a youth leader, he is also enthusiastic about connecting with India. He is a regular at the cultural programmes of the Indian High Commission in Port of Spain and is looking forward to securing a Know India Programme (KIP) scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). He is a quintessential new generation Indo-Trinidadian who takes pride in his Indian heritage and lives in an India of his imagination.

Powerful India

Probably the strong association with India that the Indo-Trinidadians seek also betrays a certain pride they derive from the image of an emerging, or rather, more powerful India. Unlike a naive Naipaul, whose idea of a mystic country was thoroughly failed by the sight of a poor, grimy and dark land, they are more realistic of the socio-economic realities here because of television and the Internet. But they are still bullish. Visions of India as the fastest-growing and the third-largest economy, as a $5 trillion economy of the near future, as a country that has produced world-class leaders in every segment of society, as a space-science giant, and as an emerging “superpower”, thrill them no end. As the single largest ethnic group in Trinidad that accounts for about 40% of the population, being an extended part of what they consider a socio-economically and geo-politically powerful nation makes them feel stronger and more self-assured.

Darpan Varuna Parsan and her three friends in central Trinidad — Dr. Neera Varsha Parsan, Amrita Dass, Prativa Dass — are other examples of the strong Indian mooring in the new generation. They are passionate about India, quite clued in on the latest developments, and are musicians of repute in Trinidad. All of them are trained in Hindustani music, and a couple are learning Hindi too. What’s more interesting about them is that when they decided to make their first movie (they have formed a creative group, Parsan Productions, an NGO), they couldn’t think of any other theme, but the “arrival” of their forefathers. Their movie, the first fully indigenous Trinidadian movie, that too by an all-woman team, is titled Aagaman, a drama anchored in the Indian diaspora life.

Indic variations

Such sentiments are expressed with a lot of pride in political and academic circles as well. Kirk Meighoo, a high profile socio-political commentator and historian in Trinidad puts it in perspective: “The Indian identity has been persistent in Trinidad from the arrival of the first indentured labourers in 1845. We came to a colony that was underdeveloped, and out of the wild, we created whole villages all along the central and south of the island that were re-creations of villages from U.P. and Bihar. We had pride in who we were, what our religions were, and where we came from. We did not necessarily need India to give us our identity. We had it within us, and we expressed it and developed that identity here for generations. Not in a simply static way, but in a living breathing way, so that we innovated, in food, music, religious observances, dress and material culture. Just like each village and town in the subcontinent is a variation on an underlying Indic theme, we created new variations of Indic culture in the West Indies.”

Meighoo is right. The national dish of ‘doubles’ (a simple, cheap version of the Indian chhole bhature with a Trinidadian twist); chutney music (catchy English songs set to Indian pop tunes) invented by Sundarlal Popo Bahora, popularly known as Sundar Popo, that’s constantly played on the FM stations; and the Indian-Soca (fusion of Indian and Soca music, the faster and contemporary version of calypso) are the visible imprints of their India.

Back in 2012, when Bissessar ended her tearful speech in Bhelpur, this is what she said: “Jai Bihar, Jai Hind, Jai Trinidad.” And that summarises the story of Indians in Trinidad and in the nearby Caribbean islands of British Guiana and Suriname too.

And Shamsudeen continues to get at least five enquiries from the region every month.

@pramodsarang is a journalist-turned-UN official-turned-columnist/writer who lives a semi-hermit life in Travancore.

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