Is there a place for me here?
Two new books about the travels and travails of indentured labour two centuries ago can teach us a lot about how we have forgotten to be bonded as brothers in contemporary India, writes Kushalrani Gulab.india Updated: Jun 30, 2008 21:15 IST
Call me paranoid, but I’m beginning to have a strong feeling that no one wants me around. True, I’m what you might call an anti-social element — by which I don’t mean that my life’s ambition is to fling stones at random passersby; just that I prefer to be left alone. But even so, the extent to which people seem to want to leave me alone is deeply suspicious. In fact, they actually seem to want me to go away. Why do I feel this way? Well, to start with, Raj Thackeray and party insisted that just because I’m not born of parents who, similarly, were not born of parents who, likewise, were not born of parents who happened to be born in this part of the country, I shouldn’t live and work here. (While I’m the first to admit that my memories of my class VI Civics textbook are rather hazy, what I do remember of the chapter on Fundamental Rights seems to suggest that this is unconstitutional if not downright anti-national. Wonder if our esteemed CM and PM have noticed that.)
Then, just as I was planning a holiday to Darjeeling, a lovely part of the country where it’s possible to get a good cup of tea and where it’s been years since party workers — sorry, anti-social elements — flung stones at random passersby, wham! The Gorkha Janmukti Morch suddenly came over all Lady Macbeth, shrieking ‘Out damn spot, out I say’ to everyone who isn’t a Gorkha, including me.
See what I mean? If people keep wanting me to go away even though I’m as Indian as they are — hey, I have a vast collection of plastic bags, can spit a fair distance, walk in the middle of the road and call passing strangers uncle and aunty — what else can I feel but persecuted? That’s why I’m so grateful that the two books on migrants I’ve just read are fairly encouraging about the moving experience. Neither Jahajin, in which Trinidadian Peggy Mohan traces the history of her originally Bihari family’s move to Trinidad as girmitiyas or indentured labour, nor Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, about a bunch of people who become a tightly bound community aboard a ship carrying girmitiyas, gloss over the bewilderment and unpleasantness that the indentured labour the British shipped to other colonies in the mid- and late 1800s had to deal with. But they also reveal the brotherhood that emerged — way back when there was no such thing as constitutionally guaranteed freedom and equality — between strangers of different castes and communities who crossed the kaala paani together to make a future.
These people became one community — jahajin. I wonder when we’ll become one community. Indian. Maybe we need to get on a ship together and participate in community-building exercises like antakshari. The people who don’t fling themselves overboard can safely be said to be Indian.
Between the Covers, dealing with the mysterious and not so mysterious connections between books and the world, will appear every Tuesday.