While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free in the struggle, the increasing struggle between the toilers and producers and their exploiters. I have tried as best I can to serve those among whom I was born, and with whom I expect to share my lot to the end of my days.
U.S. Labour Leader.
I suppose rebellion is in my blood. I know little about my ancestors in India. But I presume they were no different from the millions of other peasants whose lot remained virtually the same whether their country was ruled by a Hindu Raja, or a Moghul Nawab, or the British government. I have no doubt that like most other peasants, they were exploited by zamindars (landlords) and were ground down by poverty. Whatever might have been their struggles against the zamindars or the British Raj, it would appear that there was no rebel like me on my family tree. As I look back in my past, one thing stands out most vividly, a perpetual struggle for survival and freedom.
All that I shall ever know about my parents before they arrived here is what is stated in the records of the now defunct Immigration Department. They came from Basti in Uttar Pradesh, about sixty miles from Allahabad, Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthplace. They were born in small villages in the remote areas of the district. Births were not recorded in India at that time, and the dates of their births are unknown. My father’s age on arrival was given as two years and my mother’s as one-and-a-half.
The original group which was later to become my family circle in British Guiana was rather small; just five persons in all came, two grandmothers, father, mother and an uncle on my father’s side. Somehow, the recruiters, the latter-day equivalent of the slave raiders, had managed to separate my grandmothers from my grandfathers. My grandfathers were left in India.
The ship Elbe which brought my folks here in 1901 was one of the older type sailing vessels. She took eighty-two days to complete the journey. Many other sailing ships in those days took 120 days. The immigrants slept on the tween deck, single men at one end, single women at the other, and married couples in the centre. There were no bunks, and every one slept on blankets spread on the floor.
The passengers were given only two meals a day: breakfast at 9.00 a.m. and dinner at 4.00 p.m. There was often no change in the menus and the passengers ate the same type of food for breakfast and dinner. Mutton was served on Sundays, and channas, choora and biscuits were supplied at intervals. But generally, the meals consisted of rice, flour, dhal, potatoes and pumpkins.
A clothing outfit was given to each person, the women receiving a skirt, a jacket, a few cotton chemises and a few cotton saris. The skirt had a running string at the waist and could adjust to a stout, medium or thin person. A pair of trousers (with a similar string at the waist), a jacket, a couple of dhoties and a couple of puggaries were given to each male passenger. Each person received in addition a tin pan, a tin cup and a canvas bag for keeping his or her belongings. A crude round tin label, serially numbered and attached to a string completed the outfit. The tin label was worn around the neck by each immigrant when the muster roll was called and facilitated identification.
Both of my grandmothers came as indentured immigrants. They were “bound” by five-year contracts to different sugar plantations, or “estates” as they were called, in the county of Berbice. the most eastern of the three countries which make up my country. My paternal grandmother went to Albion and my maternal grandmother to Port Mourant, three miles away. Women were required to work during the first three years, but for the balance of the period, while they were required to reside on the plantations, they were under no legal obligation to work. My grandmothers, however, as indeed all of the other women who came, had no choice but to work throughout the five years. Every penny was needed.
Plantation life in British Guiana was hard. At very tender ages, my parents had to join their mothers in the cane fields at Port Mourant. They both worked in the Creole gangs. My mother relates that she had to work from 7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m., manuring sugarcane in the fields for 8 cents (4d.) per day, and also three times per week from midnight to 6.00 a.m. fetching fine bagasse in the factory for 4 cents (2d.) for the 6-hour period. Her total take-home pay was about 60 cents (2s. 6d.) per week. My mother recalls how difficult those days were. She often tells me: “Bhaiya. ahwee proper punish” (“Brother, we really suffered”). My mother has a way of calling me by the all-inclusive term “brother”, a practice common among all Indians.
At about the age of fourteen my father moved to the cane cutting gang and my mother to the moulding gang. The cleaning of trenches was allotted as an additional duty, particularly to women. My mother’s earnings increased to 20 cents (l0d.) per day. My father got 36 cents (Is. 6d.). But the hours continued to be just as long. The normal practice for workers in this category was to wake up about 4 o’clock in the morning and trek from three to five miles aback on foot for task assignment.
My parents were married in 1909 when my father was about ten years old, and my mother slightly younger. It was still the custom in those days for Indians to marry at a very early age. However, they continued to live separately until about the age of sixteen, when my mother moved in, as was the custom, with her in-laws. (My father’s mother had remarried).
For my mother, this was a step towards a slightly higher status—midway between a room in the plantation range and a separate home. Home in this situation meant a small house of two rooms, with two windows and a door, a mud floor and walls and a troolie “grass” roof. Khatiyas (plaited ropes on wooden cross bars and legs) and boards were the improvised beds.
My mother continued to work until I was about nine years old. By that time, there were already four children in the family. I was the second child and was born on March 22, 1918; my elder brother had died at the age of eight months.
Because my father earned the reputation of being the best cane-cuttcr, he was promoted at the age of thirty to a “driver”—a foreman of a gang. (The term “driver” which is associated with the days of slavery and the whiplash, has now been modified to that of headman). But his pay was still small; at the beginning, it was no more than $2.40 (10 shillings) per week. After many years, he became Head Driver, but even then he did not earn very much. On retirement at about age 50, he was given the princely sum of only $4.00 (16s. 8d.) per week as an ex-gratia pension!
My mother never went to school. My father had a little more luck. He started out to school but was forced to leave when he was in the third standard. My grandmother could not afford to keep him in school. The sugar planters, concerned with the production of more sugar at less cost, kept wages so low that parents were unable to educate their children. The development ot the children of the workers was thus stultified, and, like my parents, large numbers of them were kept illiterate or nearly so.
The planters frowned upon education because they held the view that an educated worker would soon become dissatisfied with his status as an agricultural labourer. What they needed, above all, was a cheap and abundant supply of agricultural labour. Bookkeepers, storekeepers, dispensers, engineers, foremen and cathechists could easily be found from among the freed Negroes and the Portuguese.