Post 331.

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THIS EVENING, Bocas Lit Festival and Commonwealth Writers will be launching the collection, We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture, at the Writers’ Centre on Alcazar Street, Port of Spain, from 6.30 o’clock.

The collection commemorates the centenary of the end of indentureship and includes writing from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius and Samoa. It’s powerful to be included in a space with those from other places where indentured workers turned exploitation into opportunities, making new lives and birthing new lineages and stories.
Indian indentureship has transformed our landscape in the Caribbean, and these voices evoke its afterlife 100 years on. Writers in the collection from TT include Patti-Ann Ali, Kevin Jared Hosein, Suzanne Bhagan, Stella Chong Sing, Fawzia Muradali Kane, and Jennifer Rahim, diverse voices marking different kinds of memories.

My own piece, titled “Chutney Love,” was written in 1996 and I used to perform it in my younger days in the rapso movement. The year 1995 was a richly complex moment in our recent political history. The rise of the UNC evoked the dashed hopes of 1986. For some, “it was Indian time now” as chorused by graffiti on the bus route, seen every time a maxi passed by.

It was also the year of chutney music continuing to “douglarise” Carnival, following the boundary-breaking entry of Drupatee Ragoonai in the 1980s and then others, from Chris Garcia to Sonny Mann, to Brother Marvin who continued the mixing of Indian and African rhythms and music started by those like Ras Shorty I.

Finally, Indo-Caribbean women’s writing and scholarship blossomed in these years. Theirs was a turn to words that at the same time turned away from ideals of purity as, in both bodies and in lyrics, women began to play up feminist politics of power and pleasure.

The poem’s lines, written when I was inspired by these developments at just 22 years old, bring together rapso’s commitment to performing poetry in the language we speak everyday with my own negotiations with Indianness, femininity, sexuality, political consciousness, and cross-race and anti-imperialist solidarities for “we both cross water for empire/ And ever since we lan up here together/ Is with only one history that we grow.”

“I ent nobody bowjie/ No promised dulahin” are the opening lines in the second verse, “But when de tassa start to roll up/ Beta, dem lyrics yuh have, I done write myself in.”
This tradition of Indian women writing themselves into Indo-Caribbean culture and history can be traced at least as far back as Indian women’s arrival, but was brought with them from India, through the depots and onto the ships.

These women’s voices can be heard in everything from letters to court documents to ship records, all leaving an echo in our own contemporary pressing against imposed roles and rules, and in our continued aspirations for self-determined lives.

As one example, just this Saturday, rolling through Plum Road with Prof Brinsley Samaroo, pre-eminent historian of Indo-Caribbean experience, Ziya and I ended up at St Isadore Estate, and stood in the very places where Bheeknee once stood. Born 1869, Bheeknee came to Trinidad on July 31, 1874, on the ship the Golden Fleece, with her mother and her baby brother. Her father had died aboard. She was just five years old.
When she was 13, George Kernahan, a sailor on the Golden Fleece, who had later begun working as an estate manager, found and took her to live with him, fathering several children. He was a spendthrift and alcoholic who eventually became blind. Meanwhile Bheeknee went on to frugally manage their money and to eventually purchase 500 acres of land – what became the estate we were now standing on.

She was so astute that she had ponds dug from natural springs, installing huge pipes and ensuring a fresh water supply while running a successful cocoa estate. Later, when Kernahan lost the estate to debtors, Bheeknee moved the family a few miles away where she had bought more than 30 acres without him knowing. Her house still stands there today. A jahaji bahen with no education who accomplished brilliant achievements through will to survive before her death in 1934. I’ll be remembering her today, and how history lives in words as much as in our landscape.

As we mark memories, whether from 1917, 1934 or 1995, come hear pieces read by their authors, all descendants of indenture, writing ourselves in. Like most Bocas’ events, the launch is free and all are welcome.

 

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