Was it history, luck or fate that led me to 93 year old Abdul Hamid Razack?
I arrived at his gate after a meandering trail ended on the Naparima-Mayaro road, where indentured Indians once held panchayats underneath a seventeen foot wide sandbox tree, amidst ganja smoke and a heady mix of old world origins and languages.
Mr. Razack’s grandfather, Cariman, had left Persia and travelled through Afghanistan, the Silk Road and Hyderbad as a trader, finally arriving on our shores on the first ship from India in 1845, the Fatel Rozack, thus establishing his family name in Trinidad.
I hoped Mr. Razack could tell me about my great, great grandfather Syed Abdul Aziz, who was 21 years old when he arrived at a Macoya estate in 1883, having himself travelled from the Afghan region of Hazara where he was born to Peshwar to study, then later to Lahore and Calcutta before boarding the ship Lee as an indentured labourer.
For me, as I travelled south with Felicia Chang, whose company Plantain is producing a book from our findings, it had been a long day of encountering loss, and not just mine. In the small, lovingly assembled room of decades-old household implements and Qurans, the curator of the Charlieville ASJA museum sorrowfully told us of how many families had discarded or misplaced their ancestors’ papers, photographs and books, not seeing history in our own homes, and how many had passed on before sharing precious, irreplaceable descriptions and stories.
Such immeasurable loss had swept over me as I stood on the demolished site of Abdul Aziz’s home on Princes Town’s main road, remembering the house where my mother would carry me to visit his daughter, my great grandmother Ayesha. Its clean wooden floors, blue-bird coloured walls, light-filled kitchen and back door opening to a sloping hill.
All around me as a child may have been his handwritten kutbahs to Trinidad’s Muslim community, his letters to colonial officials advocating for the registration of Hindu and Muslim marriages, and his own records regarding the East Indian National Association, the Tackveeyatul Islamic Association, the Anjuman Sunnat al Jammat and friendly societies such as the Islamic Guardian Association.
Now, only grass swayed at my feet as wind explored the emptiness.
Like the Lee’s missing ship records only for the year my great, great grandfather sailed or the British Army records that failed to list the names of Afghans who had served, as Abdul Aziz did at fifteen, a search for photos of the house, at the library across the street, left me empty-handed.
Finally, I sat across from Mr. Razack, feeling like searching through the past is not walking a path backwards, but collecting bits of broken fossil, and rejoicing when just two pieces connect, whether because you despair or dream of putting together the whole.
Such was my unexpected joy on Saturday afternoon. It was Mr. Razack’s grandfather who had heard of Abdul Aziz’s Islamic education, and who had helped to arrange for his indentureship to be ended two years early so that my great, great grandfather would be free to become imam at one of the first mosques built in Trinidad, by Cariman, in Iere Village.
There, Mr. Razack and I were sitting together just as our ancestors once had, as they created the trail of artifacts and memories that I fatefully followed right back, 130 years later.
I can only hope more documents remain with my and others’ families than I know. Like Abdul Aziz’s original indentureship record in Port of Spain’s national archive, which one day Zi can touch for herself, such dusty papers are a richer inheritance than gold.