Lost Between Two Lands: AN IDENTITY CRISIS
A Story of Indian Indentureship to Trinidad
Lyrics and preformance by: Nirosha Balakumar
“To forget one’s ancestors is to be a book without a source, a tree without a root.”
But what if you don’t know where your ancestors came from, what if you had no proof?
No records, no living memory?
What if your history laid in an abundance of lies and treachery?
What if your ancestors were displaced?
A memory of a place once called home, now erased.
What if you couldn’t trace back where you came from or who you had left behind.
You couldn’t pop in a tape and hit rewind.
My ancestors originated from India.
After slavery was abolished in Trinidad, the British Empire needed people to work in their colonies, so they began to play a little game of monopoly.
Moving people across the board, from land to land,
Turning to India as a place of labour, a place to disband.
They were facing an economic crisis and living in poor conditions,
So, the British sold indentured labour as the ultimate expedition.
An adventure awaits in the new land, let it be known that your wealth shall expand.
Chinidad- the land of sugar- where you will prosper and live a life much fuller.
The land of opportunities, come now, we’re taking people from each and every community.
Contracts in 3 language that they did not know, what could they do but sign below?
Some not even realizing that they would be leaving Indian soil,
Oh, how their lives would begin to coil.
Some illiterate and unable to understand the terms of the agreement,
My ancestors were signing up for years of mistreatment.
They crammed on these boats and set sail for 4 months,
Slowly realizing that the British were putting up a front.
Enduring all kinds of sicknesses and disease,
To some their last breath was the ocean breeze.
But I guess my ancestors made it off the ship,
They just never got that return trip.
When they got to the island they were split amongst the estates,
From now on, the production of sugar cane would be their fates.
Now they say they were free labourers- that this was not slavery,
But let me tell you something, nothing about this was neighbourly.
It is true that the system was different, yet it was built on the same foundation,
It was experimental, yet they were bounded to the plantations.
You say free, but you need a pass and permission to leave the estate.
You say free, but you are tied down to the contract, no debate.
You say free, but you cannot demand higher wages, or refuse work.
You say free, but the minute you ask for rights the courts desert.
Excessive exploitation takes place,
Reminding us that the taint of slavery would always linger in this space.
And our women did not come as just sisters and wives,
Most of them came independently, fleeing abuse and famine, running for their lives.
The invisible labour of these women went unrecognized
And the scarcity of them, made them hyper-sexualized.
They were commodities being shipped and every right and value was stripped.
It’s been a century since the abolishment of indentureship,
Yet still many Trinidadians have never made that round trip.
Back to India, back to the mother land.
When we hear the national anthem, some of us don’t even know whether to stand.
Our mother tongues were languages of the elders, and attachments to the plantations.
Overtime they stopped sharing and passing down the knowledge to contribute to our foundation.
Is this what happens with displacement?
Over time do we lose more and more of what makes us, us.
Does the physical and cultural change in environment, affect our identities?
Are we left here seeking remedies?
I think about it sometimes.
If I have family somewhere in India.
If there is a village of my people.
If stories are told about those that left for the land of sugar and never came home.
Our culture is tied to our land, to our history to our people, but I have two- so how does that work?
How do I remember my ancestors and connect with my roots if I don’t really know where they were planted to begin with?
Through displacement, through immigration, do we plant new roots and forget the old ones?
Or are they connected, because we are breathing the same oxygen into our lungs?
So maybe it’s okay to have roots in two places.
Maybe, acknowledging our history will help us understand these spaces.
Maybe the tree can be replanted, maybe the soil is the same.
Maybe identity is the wounded history behind the name.
Despite being lost between two lands, we continue to stand,
Because although one seems so foreign, we must remember to our ancestors, they were once mourning.
Our people have worked the lands, and the lands have been the key to our history,
But for now, I guess the details of my family tree will forever be a mystery.
Nirosha Balakumar is a 23- year old activist, advocate and artist. She completed her undergraduate degree at Queen's in Global Development and Gender Studies where she focused on anti-racism work and cultural awareness on campus. Nirosha has preformed in four countries for large and high-profile audiences. She uses her poetry as both an outlet and a platform and has been recruited to write for Plan International Canada, UN Women, and was published at Dokufest. Nirosha sees poetry as a tool to educate, empower and engage others by fostering space for intergenerational dialogue.
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