Going westwards

Peggy Mohan's Jahajin is an unusual book by an unusual woman. On the face of it, the book is a novel about the girmitiyas, the indentured labour that crossed "two oceans to reach their new homes on the other side of the world. Jahajin illuminates for us the extraordinary experience of that journey: the train ride from Faizabad to Calcutta, the passage down the Hooghly, the three-month voyage around the stormy Cape and up the Atlantic to Trinidad, where the weary migrants settled into life as indentured labourers on the sugar estates.

The novel opens with the narrator, a young linguist, talking to 110-year-old Deeda, who came to the Caribbean on the same ship as her great-great grandmother. Deeda speaks of leaving her village in Basti with her son and sailing across the seas to 'Chini-dad', the land of sugar, and about the life and friendships she built on the estate. Nested within this larger story is the dreamlike myth of Saranga, torn between her monkey-lover and her prince. Deeda's stories of a lost world captivate the younger woman, encouraging her to make the journey back across the kala pani.

Alive with compelling characters and the lilt of Trinidad Bhojpuri, Jahajin gathers up the various narratives of relocation and transformation across a century in a tale that is part history and part fairy tale"

But of course, it is more than that. Peggy, who was born in the West Indies (but has lived in India for over twenty five years) and now teaches music at the Vasant Valley School in New Delhi, is a product of this past. A linguist who did not remain in academics, she has done many things including working in television, researching media, music, and more. And as an immigrant to India, she has made the girmitiya journey in reverse!

Given this background, and the wealth of experience, the book is naturally partly autobiographical. And very much a product of the times: Peggy says that her "most constant traveling companion as I wrote was Google. The things I found there were amazing! For example, I knew the month and year my great-great grandmother’s boat had reached Trinidad, but not the date: there was a hole in the paper on her freedom certificate at that spot. Google knew the date. I was able to google into the old accounts of the estate my family was indentured to, and I found a bill for my great-great grandfather’s hospital treatment. I wanted to see the place where the sloop taking the migrants to the estate had landed. Google showed me a number of photographs of the bay with its jetty!

My last thought as I look back on the experience of writing Jahajin is that I could not have written this sort of book if I had not lived all these years in India. The person I was before I came here would not have had the same feel for the landscape the migrants left, the same facility with Bhojpuri and Hindi, the same contacts who could point me so easily towards whatever I wished to know. And before I crossed the kala pani myself, I don’t think I could ever have understood how Deeda would have felt, waiting all those years just to send a message back…"

Talking about the book at its release at the University of the West Indies in St Augustine, (the Trinidad and Tobago diplomat) Reginald Dumas called Jahajin "an extraordinarily, even fiendishly, complex work of art. It is a story within a story within a story, the stories’ landscapes fretted by many sudden streams and tributaries, all converging and flowing towards a vast ocean of themes and ideas and self-discovery. Fact and fiction are intertwined; fiction could be fact."

In its second printing at Harper Collins, Rs 295, ISBN: 9788172237141