Sacrifice-Poems on the arrival of the Indians in GuyanaPeter Jailall, In Our Words Ink, Canada, 2010, 80 pages, price $15.95
Peter Jailall is a Guyanese poet, now based in Canada. He was a teacher, poet, storyteller and human rights defender. He is a Guyanese of Indian origin and this collection is a tribute to the Indians who arrived in Guyana as indentured laborers from 1838, after the abolition of slavery.
Indian indentured labor replaced African slaves to work on the sugar cane plantations of British Guiana and other countries in the region. They were called “coolies” and were treated like another type of slave in the first decades of their arrival in Guyana and other countries.
Maurice has created a lot of creative literature on the horrible and oppressive conditions of Indian labor during the early phases in Hindi/Bhojpuri, as has Fiji and Suriname in less quantity and quality in the Indian languages themselves. But, people of Indian origin in Guyana and Trinidad have lost touch with their mother tongue and have been overwhelmed by English as a mother tongue in about the third generation of these people. Thus, the creative literature on the working conditions of indentured Indians in these two countries has been written in English and Peter Jailall is one such writer.
Abrahm H (Ivan) Khan, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, in his introduction to the book, described these poems as “sacrifice captures more than hardiness, determination and boldness in many Indo-Guyanese in the country and abroad” ( Forward). Forty poems in this collection are divided into three sections-‘My Forebearers’-16 poems, Sacrificial Sisters-15 poems and The Second Migration-9 poems.
The collection has been enriched with authentic photographs of early period Indians, some monuments and a map of Guyana, making it a collection not only of poetry, but also of history. Peter Jailall is not a sectarian poet, he is the poet of humanity and focuses on the human suffering of Indian labor and also their indomitable spirit to resist and adapt to harsh conditions. He wrote poems about his grandparents-My Ajah, My Agie’s hands, ‘My Nana’s songs’ etc. . We can see the use of Creole in the poetry-all a we (All of us).
‘Bitta Suga (Bitter Sugar) is a powerful song-poem from the collection, where workers drink rum in the evening after a very hard day’s work in harsh conditions on the sugar cane plantations and for them the sugar doesn’t is not sweet, it is bitter!-
The popular song he sings is: ‘Rum kills me papa/Rum kills me ajah/Rum kills me nana/Rum kills the breadwinna(breadwinner)/In de(the)collie family. And his comment in the poem is – On the domain of suga (sugar) / Life is not sweet my love.
In the poem “Beauty of the Coolie”, the poet focuses on the dignity of labor and the respect gained through struggles. In a poem-‘Catching the Last Boat’, Jailall tells the story of those who tried to return to India in the early 20th century, but faced a double tragedy– Gabergeela took the boat to India with his son, leaving behind his pregnant wife to settle in his village in India. The other passenger accepted Guyana as the new India and said, “Na Ma Bhaya”. There was no one in India to accept Gabergeela and he had to return to Guyana ‘The land he belonged to’.
It can be seen that the poet did not try to romanticize Indian myth in his poems and instead focused on the present abode as his own country/nation.
The section on sacrificial sisters is the most touching part of this collection. Poems like “Subadra”, “Mis-educating Taramattie”, “For better or for worse”, “Sacrificial Sisters” are a touching description of the suffering of women in Guyana at the hands of their own Indian husbands or other men. It is a reproduction of Indian social reality in Guyana, which did not change in the first phase of Indian migration. Now that has changed a lot.
The third and final section of the collection focuses on the current condition of people of Indian descent in Guyana, many of whom have now prospered and are migrating to advanced countries, such as Canada, in what is known as the “second migration”. One of the touching poems in this section is “For Shash”, written on June 8, 2008.
Shash Sawh was an idealistic young agriculture minister from Guyana, who was shot by criminals in April 2006 in his home. He received the highest national honor and his death was mourned around the world. The last poem in the collection is powerful again – “One Guyana” – where the poet sheds his Indian nostalgia and affirms that Guyana is his country, the message that should be learned by those people of Indian descent in the lands of the Caribs who constantly harp on “Indianness” and create sectarian tensions in their countries of residence, where they have prospered and enjoyed all the comforts. The poet says:
Guyana is my El Dorado, my desh
Not India or Africa
Not China or Portugal
England or North America
Land of canes, rice fields and farms
Fertilized by the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors…
jailall is a strongly humanist poet; it is against race, color or class division. He believes in the dignity of labor and is free from any false notion of myths about India or others. He seeks unity with other Guyanese — blacks and others. His poetry is very patriotic and wholesome and should be welcomed and celebrated!
Guyana has a tradition of progressive movements among people of Indian descent. Chhedi Jagan, several times president and prime minister of Guyana, is the author of a classic study, “The West on Trial”. The People’s Party of Guyana has many progressive leaders of Indian origin. The Marxist trend in thought had been strongest in the Caribbean country of Guyana. It is hoped that it will be reborn within the framework of Latin American and Caribbean unity, which American neo-imperialism considers its backyard, resoundingly bluffed by countries like Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and many more.
Chaman Lal is a retired JNU Professor and Honorary Advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, New Delhi. He wrote on some important books for Newsclick. [email protected]