Tracing Bhojpuri roots in `Chini-Dad’ (Book Review)

July 29th, 2008 - 11:39 am ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Singh
Book: ‘Jahajin’; Author: Peggy Mohan; Publisher: Harper Collins; Price: Rs.295. About 130,000 Indians travelled to Trinidad as indentured migrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. The early migrants went from villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and spoke variations of Bhojpuri, Khari Boli, Braj Bhasha, Bundelkhandi, Urdu and Hindi.

Many could not understand each other. But over the years, Bhojpuri emerged as the dominant language of the Indian community on the sugarcane estates and other dialects and languages faded away.

Peggy Mohan’s engrossing tale is well-researched history leavened with the beguiling memories of 110-year old Deeda, who travelled alone to ‘Chini-dad’ (as the migrants called Trinidad) with her young son, Kallo.

Jahajin is the story of a Trinidad born linguist researching the roots of Bhojpuri in the Caribbean through interviewing old people who came on the indenture ships.

Heavily drawn on the author’s own experiences as a linguist, the book relates the history of the community and the experiences of the narrator’s own family in Deeda’s stories narrated in earthy Bhojpuri, rich in idiom and imagery.

The indenture migration has largely been written about as the migration of Indian men to the new colonies. But Mohan states that the migration became a self-perpetuating community in the Caribbean islands only after the arrival of Indian women.

Under the indenture migration rules, about 30 percent of the recruits on every ship had to be female. Some women travelled with their husbands and children, but the narrator asserts that according to the records, most of the women were adults travelling alone.

This statement, which is contrary to popular opinion, was accepted at a University of the West Indies’ seminar only because it is corroborated by interviews of old people conducted in Bhojpuri, a language forgotten by most of the audience.

It is the women who build a home, teach the language, and hand down values and traditions to create a new community in a new land.

Caribbean Bhojpuri is similar to Bhojpuri that was spoken in the Basti region about a century ago, which was the time of peak migration from that area.

According to Mohan, that was also the time of a surge in the number of women migrating - with a resultant increase in the number of children on the estates.

The small children were left in the care of an older woman called a “khelauni” while the mothers went to work on the estates. This was the period when the children were learning their first language and slowly Bhojpuri emerged as the common language among the Indians.

But a century later, Bhojpuri in Trinidad faced language death, a situation where only the older people speak it. The language was not passing on to the younger generation since their parents did not speak the language.

As the Indians left the fields on the estates to move into other jobs and later into white-collar occupations, they turned to Creole and then to English as their main language while some people stuck to a more formal Hindi.

The narrator’s own family emphasis was on moving up in society - from estate worker to artisan (goldsmith) to office worker to highly educated linguist.

As Deeda said: “Things are plenty better now.”

Jahajin paints an evocative picture of an Indian community moving out from the estates to a comfortable urban life.

Deeda’s story is a string of memories - of the drought that makes her leave home, and the meeting with the arkatiya (recruiter) woman.

She recalls her first journey on a train, sitting on the upper berth, the amazing new sights at the harbour, and boarding the ship with trepidation.

Sailing the vast ocean meant long weeks of enforced idleness and violent storms - the time was spent making friends with other migrants, building bonds to replace the old family ties and forge new relations as ‘jahajibhai’ (ship brothers) to last a life time in the new land.

The narrator discovers that Deeda had travelled with Sunnariya, her great grandmother on the ship, Godavari; Deeda and Sunnariya were ‘jahajin’ and their stories are closely entwined.

Deeda inspires the young linguist to retrace the steps of her own ancestor across the seas and to go back to ancestral land.

Running through the story is a magical folk tale related by Deeda, of Saranga and her lover, Sada Birij, a tale of loss and yearning, that weaves through the main story’s narrative of relocation and identity and hope.

The narrator travels to India, but it is a modern India of the 1970s that is so different to the imagined homeland. There is, however a sense of reconnection in Patna when she meets a man who recognises her Bhojpuri as the language spoken by a very old woman in his village.

The book is an enthralling work in which all the strands of the narrative come together when an elderly man sings Saranga’s song at the young linguist’s ancestral village in Faizabad.

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