My great-grandfather, Rambishun, came from India in 1888. He was nineteen years old and had lived in the village of Ismailpur in the district of Faizabad (ancient Ayodhya) in the province of Oudh (Avadh), which is now part of Uttar Pradesh.
As a member of the Kurmi (agricultural) caste, his fate was literally tied to the land.
And that land – formerly the granary of India – had been completely devastated under British rule during the preceding century especially after the 1857 War of Independence.
It was not only the brutal reprisals that followed what the British defined as the “Mutiny” that created the widespread dislocations, but the entire system of colonial governance.
The massive indigenous artisan class of weavers and leather workers etc were ruined by mercantilist policies that facilitated cheap imports and export of primary product – including cotton, rice and wheat. Most were forced to return to the villages and into subsistence agriculture.
The British-imposed Zamindari system of land revenue created an exploitive middleman stratum that sucked the blood from the peasant who had to pay taxes whether he produced or not.
In 1878-79 such policies, combined with the double failure of the monsoons, precipitated a famine in the north (including Oudh) that left an astounding 10 million dead. Yet, in the midst of the famine, 1 million tons of grain were exported to England.
As Nobel Prize winning economist Amaryta Sen has since demonstrated, the famines were not a question of production of food but one of distribution.
So complicit were the British that their usual response of an inquiry into the tragedy was not published until the protests of the Indian National Congress, formed in 1885.
Rambishun was the youngest of seven brothers – their father had died in the famine of 1878 – struggling to eke out a living in on their ever-decreasing and debt-ridden acreage.
By 1888, one response of the farmers of the Bhojpuri belt (including Faizabad) was to leave their villages in search of work.
They became familiar figures throughout India. They were also the majority of those who chose to cross “Kala Pani” to labour on the sugar plantations of the British overseas colonies.
Their “birahaa” or songs of separation had become an entrenched feature of Bhojpuri culture. Rambishun and his wife agreed that he would work for five years in “Damru Tapu” (Demerara), save the easy money promised by the Arkati who recruited him in the town of Faizabad, return and purchase land to take of her and their one-year old son.
After a harrowing trip of nearly two months, during which he formed very strong bonds with his shipmates or “Jahajis”, he arrived at Port Georgetown on the Allanshaw and was “bound” to Plantation De Willem on the West Coast of Demerara.
He served the terms of his indentureship rather uneventfully cutting cane six days a week but no matter how conscientiously he saved his wages – foregoing even the alcohol that was plied to the workers – the numbers just did not add up to fulfil the dream of buying land in India. What to do?
He had been rather surprised at the community that had developed in the logees of De Willem. In the nearby plantation of Stewartville that he had visited (after obtaining a “pass” from the managers) to visit a Jahajee, he had met some indentureds from South India (“Madrasees”, they were dubbed) but at De Willem they were all Hindi speakers mostly from the Bhojpuri belt.
More than three-quarters of the indentureds chose to remain in Guyana and there were over 100,000 in the colony. He was comfortable.
Even though women were in very short supply – at the very best only four of every ten out of India were female – by 1888, there were quite a number of “native born” females that were beginning to even out the sex disparity.
Rambishun formed a liaison with one such native born female – Rookmin – after two years at De Willem but made it clear to her that he could not marry her, since he had to return to India.
She bore him a son he named Rambharose after his oldest brother. She later married someone else but maintained good relations afterwards with Rambishun.
Towards the end of his five-year indentureship he was told that if he signed on for another five years he would be given a plot of land in exchange for his return trip to India.
He thought long and hard about it and decided to sign on. He still hoped to save enough to fulfil his dream.
It was not to be. He became ill during his second indentiture, was nursed by a native-born female – Sumintra, with whom he decided to settle down in 1895.
She had a son from a previous relationship who Rambishun raised as his own. Sumintra bore him five sons – each of whom was given the name of a brother – the oldest who was Ramlagan (1896), the grandfather who raised me.
Rambishun worked long and hard on the plantation as a free labourer, on the farm he created from his “passage plot” and on a plot of land he leased from the state alongside the railway line, where he planted rice.
His quest for “land” was unquenchable. He bought a farm in the Canal Polder #1 and moved there but Sumintra complained that it was too remote and he returned to De Willem.
He operated a timber grant and a “saw pit” for a while using his beloved bulls to haul the logs and lumber.
In the afternoons and on Sundays for him, however, it was time for the Ramcharitmanas of Tulsidas – the exploits of Sri Ram. Rambishun was very proud that he was from Ayodhya – the birthplace of Sri Ram.
He and most of his cohorts could recite large swathes of the text from memory and their everyday speech was punctuated by aphorisms drawn from their beloved text.
His favourite line was: “It does not matter what is your caste, family, lineage, actions, wealth, strength, qualities etc: it is your relationship with God that counts in the end.” He passed away in 1939.
According to my mother, he always wondered what happened to his son in India. We have tried (without success up to now) to locate his descendants. My oldest brother is returning to the quest this July.
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