Written by: Saira Batasar-Johnie
As a Brown, Caribbean-Canadian growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, I never really saw many people who looked like me, ate the food I ate, or spoke like my parents did at home.
At one point I thought I was Latinx because I met other people in my school who had the same skin tone. But that couldn’t be because I didn’t know how to speak the language they did. And then it happened.“You are a Paki,” “Indian, where is the red dot on your forehead?” I didn’t understand. I knew we watched the Indian shows every Saturday morning, but I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. I remember going home and asking my mom why these kids were saying these things to me and she told me to just ignore it. “Dem chillren head nah good”(her classic line). I told my very white teacher and she told me, “Just ignore it they will stop.” Reflecting back, I guess this was my first real experience of racism— being teased by older students for having a long braid and for just being Brown.
Growing up Caribbean, it was different. As soon as you enter the house you are no longer in Canada, you are now in Guyana or Trinidad, depending on which parent is dominating the household at the time. Forever smelling like curry, its like dahl was the only dish meh muddah enjoy meking or salfish and tomato with sada roti. I can’t forget the cruel words of white students that would call me “curry girl” and write it on my locker in permanent marker. The irony is because later on, working in the school board, all my white co workers wanted my curry aloo, chicken, and roti/rice when I brought it for lunch. But there was always a looming thought of who am I? We would go “back home” to Trinidad or Guyana every couple years, but is that where we were from?
Where did we come from? Why am I so different? Why doesn’t anyone else look like me?
In the Canadian education system, you get a heavily colonized, white lensed, education of history. My teacher would describe the first people as “Indians” (This is not the correct way to describe the first people). Learning how the Indigenous peoples, the first peoples welcomed visitors with open arms, and you know the rest. It brainwashes you to think a certain way about a population that was taken advantage of, tortured with residential schools, the 60s scope, families being torn apart and broken treaties. Was I Indigenous? Were we Indians? ‘Yes Indian, but you are not Indigenous Saira,”my mother told me. So, we are back to square one, who am I? I was always asked to speak about Eid at school given my Muslim first name and asked to speak about Diwali because I celebrated these things but never really understood why. Until finally I got some answers.
According to my very Guyanese mother we were farmers in Guyana and my Trinidadian father said we worked on the sugar cane estates. Interesting. I continued my journey to understanding who I am in University, taking the Introduction to the Caribbean course at Ryerson University, learning about the transatlantic slave trade, bawled my eye balls out, and then learned about Indentured workers. Indentured workers? My family never spoke about being Indentured workers. I thought we were farmers? We are from India? I am from India? I went home after this lecture and asked for the truth— in fact demanded it from the both of them. Where did we come from?
Both of my parents looked puzzled and said, “Well yes we is from India but we home is Trinidad and Guyana.”
I did not recognize then, what I do now as the shame of being an indentured labourer. My mother did not know much about her grandparents other than her maternal grandmother was Chinese Guyanese. There are very few members in the family that still carry those features, and her grandfather was Indian Muslim with the maiden name Kahtoon/Bachcuss.
My father on the other hand had a very interesting history. He shared with me that him and his siblings were the first to be born in Trinidad. His father was born in India and left in 1913, arriving in Trinidad, July 27th 1913. Jawahir was his name. He had no last name and his fathers name was “unnamed” on his immigration pass. He met my Ajee and was known to many people as the driver. Apparently he did not work in the fields, he worked as a driver and this was seen as a better job for an Indian at the time. Indentureship was abolished in 1917 and Indians had a choice to stay or go back to India.
As time went on, I got married, had a child, life happened. And then I lost my dad. My dad was born in 1933 and I was born in 1990. We have a very large age gap, so our relationship wasn’t always the greatest as I constantly challenged him and his 1950s backwards mindset of what a woman should be and how women “should” behave. Reflecting back, poor ole man had to put up with my mouth and I really should have been quiet sometimes. But I guess it taught him a lesson or two.
The week before he died, I began writing his life story (the man finally stopped looking at me as a child and we could finally have a conversation) and I got some important information about him and his parents. He passed away, and I was heartbroken that I couldn’t ask him more questions. I found myself wanting more information about my history which led me to reading Coolie Women by Gaiutra Bahadur. This book made me yearn to learn about my history and take that next step in learning more about my dad’s family in Trinidad. In July of 2018 we took my dad’s ashes to Trinidad, back to Couva where he was from to Cali Bay where he liked to bathe.
I was then on a mission to the archives. I knew the time frame of when my grandfather (Aja) came to Trinidad and that is all I had to work with. My friend Jaclyn came to Trinidad with me to support me in my mission and also be my support person through the process of letting my dad go. We went to the archives and spent six hours in a heavily air-conditioned building looking through books that were over 100 years old. The cursive writing, reading single mother, family of three, single woman, young child alone, single man. Looking at all the descriptions wondering if I could be related to any of these people, wondering what their lives were like in 1904 coming to Trinidad under false pretences.
Some of the books had water damage but after five and a half hours, I saw his name— Jawahir.
The hairs on my back literally stood up and I got shivers. His name was two lines above water damage, almost fate. The staff brought out more heavy, old looking books and we found his Arrival Pass, where he was from in India, and that he left behind one brother in India. I finally knew where we were from in India on my Trinidadian side. I later spoke with my cousin and he confirmed that Aja had a brother back in India as he would teach them Hindi and correspond with him by letter mail.
I felt a sense of happiness, my father would have been proud to know this. To know I did this, but also a sense of fulfilment, to understand where a part of me truly came from. We all have a history; it comes from the stories we are raised with. The relationships that we build and the yearning to know more. If you are curious, ask questions, talk to family members, just keep wondering. Wondering is what continued to drive my search for answers, and it led me to my final destination. Now for my Guyanese side, that will have to wait until the pandemic is over.
This is important to me, because I love being who I am, my culture, the delicious food, my heritage and this is something I pass down to my children and grandchildren.
I ask you to wonder.
Wonder what your mothers story is,
Wonder what your fathers story is,
Where are your grandparents from?
Create a family tree, a genogram (msg me and I can totally teach you how to make one).
Keep wondering and you will find your answers.
What is the history that you carry?