South Asians in the Caribbean

(An edited version of this piece was published in the October 2019 issue of Praxis Englisch, which is a magazine for Germans learning English.)

The story of human migration is closely linked to the institution of slavery. This lesson got imprinted in my mind when I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC a couple of years ago. Though I knew that the United States of America, one of the most powerful countries in the world today, was built from the exploitation of slave labour from Africa, the museum experience gave me a visceral experience of what that history must mean to generations of black migrants and their descendants.

The most enduring symbol of this trans-Atlantic displacement is the ship, an image that I encountered multiple times as I made my way through several floors of exhibits and artefacts. It made me think of parallel journeys undertaken by indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent whose colonial masters in the British Raj sent them to work on sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean. They were called the ‘jahajis’ or ‘people of the ship’ as ‘jahaj’ is the word for ‘ship’ in many Indian languages. Several of these people who left Indian shores never came back. One can speculate on whether that was a matter of choice or compulsion but human lives are far too complex to be put through such simplistic scrutiny.

The term ‘Indo-Caribbean’, which is widely used today, can hardly capture the diversity of their experiences. They came from various parts of the region that is contemporary South Asia — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Though they had to sever their physical connection with the soil of the land they were born in, they took along with them what they needed to recreate a sense of home in a new place — languages, recipes, customs, traditions, stories and music. As a result of the confluence between their past and their present, they were able to create a unique identity for themselves.

I am always humbled by the creativity and resilience of people who thrive in challenging circumstances. I hope I am able to travel to the Caribbean someday, and learn more about these people of Indian heritage that India seems to have forgotten. There are academic studies and artistic projects that explore these histories but there is no substitute for a first-hand encounter.

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