Fawzia Kane: “Kala Pani”

Night view from our front porch in Mon Repos, San Fernando, once part of a large sugar estate, now a State of Emergency "hotspot" under curfew. See http://www.trinidadexpress.com/news/Mon_Repos__1930s_art_deco_style-127143063.html

Kala Pani

by Fawzia Muradali Kane

Just over a hundred and twenty years ago, a woman walked along a railway track from Peshawar, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to a port, hundreds of miles south. She was pregnant. With her husband, they waited in line to be asked their name, had it misspelt when written down, and with their small bundle of belongings, they were ushered onto a ship.

Kala pani, black water, these are still sinister words when spoken today, here in Trinidad, thousands of miles away from my great-grandmother’s first home. These indentured labourers were told eldorado stories: they would be given a job sifting sugar, easy work, new homes, a good salary, and return passage. This was a promise from the people who represented the Empress of India herself, the Queen of England, that pure and truthful lady. She offered a dream and it was believed.

But we know the reality was different. Slavery had just been outlawed in 1838, but the workers were not allowed to leave the plantations for another 7 years. Once this “apprenticeship” period was up, the freed people left, preferring to live as subsistence farmers in forest clearings or fisher folk on the coasts.

So my great-grandmother’s ship landed on a strange island, and four days later she gave birth to her first son. The family were put on carts and taken to a sugar plantation, and these new faces were slotted in where the earlier slaves had lived.

Perhaps there can be no comparison between East Indian indentureship, here in the Caribbean, with the African slave trade. There were no violent abductions of entire communities, lines of shackled people forced to move and sleep in their own shit, sometimes for months on end. There were no auctions where humans were displayed and bought, like choice cuts of meat. The names of the East Indians were not removed, their families were not split up, they were allowed to keep and practice their religions. They were not separated and sold, treated like livestock, to be bred and discarded once their usefulness was spent.

But this was small comfort to the new people. They were herded into long rows of wooden “barracks”, each family‘s space was a small room with a sink attached to the rear window. Cooking and washing was communal in the yard behind the barracks.

And the easy work of “sifting sugar” never happened. The plantation owners demanded from their government, and got cheap labour who now in their turn had the back-breaking tasks of planting and cutting cane from dawn to dusk. Indentureship turned into a new form of slavery. The wages were low, and deductions were made for room and board. Workers were not allowed to leave the boundaries of the estate that employed them, or face legal punishment. There were the beatings and horsewhipping for the slightest of misdemeanours. In 1871 a woman Labjadee was horsewhipped and kicked over 3 days by Mr. Ache, the manager of the Bronte Estate. She had complained about her food rations being cut. Labjadee died in hospital, and Mr. Ache was fined 5 pounds for assault.

The stories of my great-grandparents were told to me by the elders in my family. This is what we were told in our turn, by those who remember first-hand, those with nothing left to give, to pass on, except their memories. But this legacy of memories is a fallible thing. We were told our great-grandfather had another wife, nothing unusual, after all he was Muslim. There were other children, four, almost grown. The other wife chose to stay I was told, and kept the children with her. So my great-grandparents made the choice of a new life, in a new country.

My great-grandmother was first married at six, to a nineteen year old solder, a mercenary for the British, who was sent to South Africa. These were well-to-do Pathan families, and the marriage contract was drawn up as a business arrangement. She was sent to live with the husband’s family- despite the marriage ceremony, consummation was not allowed until after puberty. But her husband contracted cholera, and died a short while after. So my great-grandmother was returned to her family, a widow before she was ten. Despite her beauty, it seems she was considered damaged goods by other suitors. She was thirty when she married my great-grandfather. My mother married old, said my grandmother.

But some things do not quite fit in these stories. We wondered about the first wife. How could an Indian Muslim woman in the mid-nineteenth century choose to be independent from her husband? How would she have supported herself?

And my great-grandfather himself- he spoke several dialects including Urdu, but was also literate- in English. Because of this he was given the job of leader of work gangs (driver) at the sugar plantation he was assigned to. Why would an educated and cultured man choose to leave what must have been a comfortable life, to risk becoming an indentured labourer, thousands of miles away? Things don’t fit indeed.

It grew more obvious to us that the couple had run away together. My generation would find romance in all this, but did the older folk see nothing but shame? I asked my Uncle Farouk, my father’s youngest brother, who said “Nani was fair skinned, her family didn’t want Ashraf [my great-grandfather] who was brown skinned. Ashraf’s wife didn’t want to go to the West Indies, and he was in love with Nani anyway, so he made arrangements and eloped.”

And I discovered more. Uncle Farouk explained, “Nani came over on one boat with her husband. Her younger brother was distraught when he heard that she had left, and he took the next boat to Trinidad to take her back to India.” Nani’s brother Hasmat, came as a paying passenger, not indentured.

“But he couldn’t locate her,” Uncle continued, “so he decided to stay on and took work in the fields. When Ashraf released himself from indentureship, he was asked to work in the Bronte area. Ashraf was now in a senior position. He met Hasmat and they became close friends, unknowing of their connection. Then Ashraf invited Hasmat home to meet his family. When he came, Hasmat and Nani recognised each other. I was told they cried and hugged and hugged. So even Hasmat, who had rejected Ashraf originally due to his skin complexion, became his friend. Skin complexion didn’t matter so much here, working in the cane fields, as back in India.”

Fawzia Kane was born in San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago and came to the UK to study architecture on a scholarship. Her debut collection Tantie Diablesse is due out in October 2011, published by Waterloo Press. Read her full biography here.  

Fawzia will be reading and talking about her work at the Writing Our Legacy showcase next Friday 7 October at Unitarian Church, Brighton. You can get tickets for this event here: http://writingourlegacy2011.eventbrite.com/