‘…we are all united here to commemorate the end of a dehumanising system of exploitation. But we are also here to rehumanise the scarred colonial geography which we have inherited.’ – Gitanjali Pyndiah
An intense two-day international conference, Indenture Abolition Centenary, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of the indentureship system under English colonialism, was held at the Senate House in London on the 6-7 October 2017 (https://www.sas.ac.uk/events/event/13903). It has been one of my greatest experiences, as a PhD researcher, to present a joint keynote with Kavyta Raghunandan and Reshaad Durgahee. The event was programmed around three axes: a conference convened by the School of Advanced Study of the University of London, the inaugural Gafoor lecture on Indentureship Studies on behalf of the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies, University of Warwick, and a literary evening ‘Writing the Literature of Indenture and its Legacies’ hosted by Commonwealth Writers.
Meticulously planned to host a wide repertoire of international scholars and creative writers from the field of indenture, covering the histories of indenture in particular Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Jamaica and South Africa, the conference was committed to include presentations from both new and established scholars and feature the latest research on indentureship and its legacies. I was as excited as anxious to prepare for the opening of such a conference. I can now reflect on an experience which has been stimulating, inspiring and above all nurturing to the various cognitive processes through which knowledges filter. From food to music, from poetry to art, from literature to research papers, from colonial archives to affective archives, from conversations to readings, from laughter to tears, the conference has been more than a cerebral academic encounter. It acted as a platform where one experienced the trauma of Indenture but also the process of, what I call, rehumanisation of the diaspora through its creative practices, resilience, strength and hope.
The centenary of the abolition of indentureship was also commemorated in several parts of the ‘indentured’ world, putting into focus the histories of displacement, exile and reconstruction of Indian labourers in the sugar colonies of Mauritius (1834), Guyana (1838), Trinidad (1845), apartheid South Africa (1860), Fiji (1879) and in many other French and English colonies of the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, as well as the movements of resistance against Indenture in India. Indentureship was abolished in the British Empire in 1917 (1923 in Mauritius), displacing 3.5 million Indians, the overwhelming majority never returning to India. The event at Senate House had a strong focus on the Caribbean in particular with over forty speakers presenting papers on the historical, affective, artistic and memorial aspects of Indenture. The panels that I attended were informative and the audience was very participative, contributing with their own personal experience and research, sometimes going well over question time and through tea breaks.
I chose panels around my research interests and was invigorated by the presentations on issues of gender and the histories of women who very often went to the colonies without indenture contracts to ‘settle men’.
The conversations on language (Bhojpuri in particular), literature, drama and music and their transformations into diasporic genres were fascinating. For instance, Rajrani Gobin who focused on narratives of Indenture in poetry and drama in Hindi in Mauritius was very helpful, considering that I also write about Mauritius. Gabrielle Hosein and her discussion on matrilineal genealogies resonated powerfully with my keynote which also looked at this aspect.
The perspective of Indenture through music, via Anna Schultz’s talk on Indian Guyanese music and Christopher Ballengee’s visually and audibly enticing presentation on Tassa Drumming of Trinidad and Tobago were also highlighted moments which allowed me to draw similarities with the music and sonic landscapes of the Indian Ocean. There were many other overlapping panels that I wished I could have attended although I was quite overwhelmed by the stimulating presentations that I saw already. The format of the panel, ‘A Visual Language of Indentureship: A Scholar & Curator in Conversation’, an informal conversation between Grace Anezia Ali and Nalini Mohabir was another brilliant decolonial practice of transmitting knowledge which captured the audience. It prepared the ground for the last aspect of the conference focused on literature and creating a platform for writers to discuss their works.
I chaired the last panel on ‘The Literature of Indenture in Translation’ around David Dabydeen’s novel The Counting House and Ananda Devi’s translation in French, Terres Maudites (re-translation Cursed Lands). The idea of introducing two acclaimed writers, whose works have been my bedside companions for a few months in regard to David Dabydeen and a few years in relation to Ananda Devi, was exciting, yet nerve racking. The two writers had never met before and the interaction between them was full of humour (as could have been expected from David Dabydeen’s wit and contagious laughter). Although one hour was not enough to cover all the issues of translation, the main ideas around how Guyanese Creole and specially swear words in the language was translated in French was discussed. Ananda Devi also elaborated on David Dabydeen’s ‘language of the body’ in the book and how she was challenged and attracted by the idea of translating its visceral aspect through the French language.
The end note of the two day conference was a literary panel, co-curated with Commonwealth Writers, featuring readings by Ananda Devi (Mauritius), Gaiutra Bahadur (Guyana), Lakshmi Persaud (Trinidad) and a performative reading of Agnes Sam’s novel Jesus is Indian by actress Shelley King. The panel was chaired by Janet Steel, Programme Manager of Commonwealth Writers. The writers each read from their respective novel, revealing the different styles of prose which can capture stories from specific geographies of indenture and post-indenture. I was really looking forward to that part of the event as I am also engaged in creative writing. While my doctoral research looks at creative practices of resistance to coloniality in Mauritius, my creative writing delves into my own personal ancestry of Indenture. Hence the exposure to the works of Gaiutra Bahadur, Nalini Mohabir and David Dabydeen and meeting the authors themselves have been a high point of my overall experience. The event finished on a sumptuous dinner where everyone continued to mingle, nurturing a space for conversations and building solidarity between the diaspora.
Despite the event being over, the traffic and visibility on social media, specially Twitter, have left an indelible mark which can be retraced through the hashtags #IndentureAbolitionCentenary, #IndentureAbolition100 and #IAC2017. We are also very fortunate that the Commonwealth Writers and the School of Advanced Study are jointly publishing an anthology of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction which explores indentured labour by writers coming from twenty of the 52 countries of the Commonwealth. I am delighted to have a non fiction piece, entitled ‘Mother Wounds’ (under the pen name Gitan Djeli) in the Anthology. The literary and poetic piece will capture my matrilinear ancestry and the stories of sorrow and courage of four generations of mothers, from the journey of the first woman who left colonial India in 1863 to my post Indenture grandmother who died at the age of 26, leaving 8 motherless children behind.
I heartily thank the organisers of the conference for a great opportunity to meet such incredible writers and scholars and the Commonwealth Writers organisation for the anthology (2018) which, I am convinced, will gather a collection of works from inspiring writers.
Click here for information on the forthcoming indentured labour anthology.
London based Mauritian writer and researcher in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. Gitanjali Pyndiah also teaches at the School of Media and Performing Arts, Middlesex University. Her present research and publications look at decoloniality and creative practices in the Creole mother-tongue. She is also engaged in creative writing and has published pieces in collective London based magazines.