Transgressive Storytelling

“Seeing Greater Distances”: An Interview with Peggy Mohan on the Voyages of Indo-Caribbean Women

Alison Klein

As an author, linguist, teacher, and artist, Peggy Mohan has much to say about women’s roles in diasporic societies. While many contemporary novels, including David Dabydeen’s The Counting House (1996), have depicted the Caribbean indenture system, Mohan’s Jahajin (2007) is the first to focus entirely on women migrants. Jahajin weaves together the stories of three women: the narrator, who is recording older Indo-Trinidadians as part of her research on a dying Indian language; Deeda, one of the women the narrator interviews, who indentured on a Trinidadian plantation as a young woman; and Saranga, the heroine of an Indian folktale. In its focus on women indenturing alone, the novel challenges conventional depictions of Indian migrants as a family guided by a husband or father. It draws attention to an underexamined reality of Indian indenture: As stated in the McNeil-Lal Report of 1915, two-thirds of the women who indentured were single (McNeil and Lal 1915, 313).

A. Klein (H)

University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, Dartmouth, MA, USA © The Author(s) 2016

G.J. Hosein, L. Outar (eds.), Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought, New Caribbean Studies, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55937-1_5

Each of the three storylines of Jahajin features a young woman striking out on her own to improve her life, combating the view of Indian women as submissive and meek. There are many similarities between these three stories: In each a woman makes a great voyage by herself, and in each she must choose between retaining her independence and conforming to gender norms by acceding to the wishes of her mate. These parallels demonstrate the ongoing impact of indenture in Trinidad. The gendered, racialized oppression that Deeda and other female migrants face is echoed in the restrictive gender expectations and demeaning treatment that the narrator experiences.

Jahajin is based in large part on Peggy Mohan’s own life. Born in Trinidad to an Indian father and a Canadian mother, she describes herself as a “hybrid creature.” She earned her B.A. at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine, and received her Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. The interviews she conducted with Indo-Trinidadians in the 1970s for her Ph.D. were the inspiration for Jahajin.

Mohan’s professional career testifies to the range of her interests and skills. In 1979, she moved to India with her husband, where she initially taught linguistics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She has published two novels in addition to Jahajin, as well as several articles in The Times of India and India International Centre Quarterly on topics such as language death and the similarities between societal development in India and Trinidad. She currently teaches Western music at the Vasant Valley School in New Delhi.

In August of 2014, I interviewed Mohan via Skype to learn more about how her research, both for her Ph.D. and for her novel, changed her views on gender roles and indenture. I had been struck by her powerful depiction of Indian women’s migration but also by the increasing number of women writing about indenture and its aftermath, including poet Mahadai Das, novelists Ramabai Espinet and Ryhaan Shah, and nonfiction author Gaiutra Bahadur. I hoped that she could shed some light on the reason for this expanding body of literature on Indo-Caribbean women’s indentureship.

Jahajin, the interviews that it is based on, and my interview with Mohan are part of a tradition of scholarship that explores oral narratives to understand better the experiences of Indo-Caribbean women. Indentured migrants, and women in particular, had little access to education or public forms of expression, so much of the information that we have about these women’s lives comes from songs, folktales, and interviews. As Mariam Pirbhai writes, “Given the paucity of official documentation on indentured women’s labor, [novels about Indo-Caribbean women] are often structurally dependent on family history, folklore, oral testimony and other community-based sources that are under threat of erasure with each generation’s passing” (Pirbhai 2013, 25). In the interview below, Mohan emphasizes the importance of this form of communication, hypothesizing that women’s tendency to tell each other stories from their lives both creates communal bonds and helps the women remember these events well into old age. The women-centered spaces that she describes are reminiscent of the matikor celebration, the exclusively female ritual that takes place on the eve of a Hindu wedding in which women pass sexual and relationship advice to the bride-to-be through dance and performance. Historians sometimes dismiss interviews and other oral narratives due to their subjective nature. Yet the personal nature of these accounts may, in some respects, make them a more reliable source than documents intended for posterity, such as colonial records.

The interviews that Mohan conducted include rare examples of Indian women describing their experience of indenture. Her work thus adds to the body of scholarship on Indo-Caribbean women’s narratives developed by historians Patricia Mohammed, Verene Shepherd, and Shaheeda Hosein, among others. In Gender Negotiations among Indians in Trinidad, 1917-1947, Mohammed draws on archival documents and newspapers but also her own interviews with Indo-Trinidadians, to create a rich understanding of the ways that descendants of Indian migrants both deconstructed and reformulated aspects of Indian patriarchal traditions. Shepherd’s Maharani’s Misery explores the distressing case of a female Indian migrant who was allegedly raped on the voyage from Calcutta to Guyana and died thereafter. Shepherd relies on documentation of the events and the ensuing investigation, including depositions from women emigrants who had traveled with Maharani, to demonstrate that colonial authorities used “socio-sexual manipulation” to exert power over female laborers (Shepherd 2002, xiii). In her Ph.D. thesis, Rural Indian Women in Trinidad: 1870-1945 (2004), Hosein uses extensive interviews to examine the ways that Indo-Caribbean women who had left the plantations used land acquisition and small-scale business ventures to gain a degree of power and freedom.

While Mohan’s research focuses on linguistics, her findings emphasize the role of Indian women in Caribbean history. For example, in Jahajin

and in her article “Indians Under a Caribbean Sky,” she suggests that the formation of an Indian community in Trinidad began after women started arriving in large numbers, though it was a more tightly knit one than existed in India (2001). She attributes this to women birthing children and raising them in a communal environment, using a common dialect, in contrast with the many dialects spoken in India.

In the interview below, as well as in Jahajin, Mohan demonstrates an attention to the journeys of Indo-Caribbean women and of women migrants in general. Pirbhai argues that novels by Indo-Caribbean women authors extend the notion of jahaji-hood—a term that is generally used to describe the brotherhood that develops between Indian men who voyaged to the Caribbean together—to include the kinship bonds of male and female migrants and migrants from different ethnic groups. The interview similarly expands jahaji-hood to all women migrants, indicating as it does the similar experiences of those who make a one-way journey.

Mohan also touches on a crucial topic in Indo-Caribbean feminism: the ongoing prevalence of violence against women in the Indo-Caribbean population and the silence around this issue. In 1999, Nesha Haniff wrote that “The biggest failure of the feminist movement on [sic] the Caribbean has been its inability to advocate for, and support Indian women” (1999, 28). She blamed this on the lack of leadership of Indo-Caribbean feminists, although she pointed to the then-emerging work of Patricia Mohammed and Rawwida Baksh-Soodeen as a sign of progress. In 2002, Patricia Mohammed indicated one of the societal motivations for silence around sexual assault: “[T]he relationship of men to other men in this struggle to retain ethnic identity is viewed, not in terms of physical or political power, but the power to control their women, and guard or protect them from other men” (2002, 9). More recently, through an examination of Lakshmi Persaud’s novel, Raise the Lantern High, Supriya M. Nair argued that Hindu women in the Caribbean are still expected to sacrifice themselves for the males in their lives and that the willful blindness toward rape contributes to the larger victimization of women (2013). Mohan addresses this issue when discussing a key scene in Jahajin, in which a young woman named Sunnariya is sexually assaulted by an overseer. Describing the real events that this scene was based on, Mohan notes that the members of Sunnariya’s community pretended it never happened, telling themselves, “we aren’t the kind of people to whom such things could happen.” This highlights the assumption that only low-class women are the victims of assault and that rape is a source of shame and dishonor not only for the victim but for the entire community. Mohan thus indicates that Indo- Caribbean societies perpetuated cycles of violence against women in an effort to maintain a sense of control and power against British colonizers.

Finally, Mohan’s novel and her comments about it indicate emergent areas of research for Indo-Caribbean feminism. As noted above, Mohan suggests that the arrival of large numbers of Indian women in Trinidad led to the reconstruction of an Indian community, albeit an altered one, which opens a fruitful area for further study. Additionally, in the interview below, Mohan hints at the importance of investigating the overlaps in the societal development of India and Trinidad. She notes, “If you put the same ingredients into two different societies, and the same kind of impetus forward, you’re going to find that, completely unconnected to each other, they’re going to look a bit alike.” While she speaks generally about these two countries, her response suggests a rich area for exploration by scholars of Indo-Caribbean feminism: comparing how gender roles have changed over the last century in India and the Caribbean and considering the reasons for such similarities and differences. Looking further afield, Marina Carter’s Lakshmi’s Legacy (1994) demonstrates that the repressive gender dynamics of Caribbean indenture similarly plagued indentureship in Mauritius, suggesting that these concerns connect feminists of the Indian diaspora around the globe.

Mohan’s reflections below highlight the role of Indian women’s voices in Caribbean history and the intrepidness of Indo-Caribbean women during and after the indenture period. The importance of storytelling in shaping the lives of the women she interviewed and wrote about is a poignant indicator of the impact of narratives in maintaining and exploring memories in diasporic populations.

AK: Could you tell me a little bit about your scholarly or creative work? PM: I started out as a linguist. I was studying language death, so I had to look at people who actually spoke the language. I ended up interviewing women, partly because they would talk a little more. Men hardly said much. They were talking about their illnesses. They didn’t have a picture of those days, the journey, the early days in Trinidad, and folktales. I was not interested initially in what they said, I just wanted to get them to talk. It was all data to be quantified and reduced to some kind of a model to see the pattern of demise in the language. It was only much later that Rhoda Reddock came to India and said, “But what about what they’re saying? You have a lot of stuff about women that’s not available elsewhere.” So I started taking another look at it.

AK: Do you have any speculation as to why women have these kinds of narratives?

PM: I think of women as being the people who continue the community. It isn’t until women started coming to Trinidad that you have any sense of an Indian community. Men either died out because of bad conditions or blended into the larger society without carrying on any sense of their culture. That’s really not what men do. The women would sit together and talk. My biggest problem in understanding the tapes was [that] a lot of little grammatical signals were not even there. They knew what they meant, because these were things that they had said to each other over and over again. They would tell each other stories about those days, and that reinforced it. Men probably didn’t have this kind of social interaction.

AK: That seems to relate to the goal of the novel, which is the capturing of past experiences and remembering ancestors. The act of telling the indenture narrative in this novel is doing what you talk about these women doing in their conversations.

PM: Yes. One woman is largely the model for Deeda. She took me to meet four other women, and there was one man who was there, and he of course had much more political things to say. He didn’t want to talk about stories, he wanted to argue. The women had all the stories, and they were just waiting for him to go away.

AK: This seems to be a challenging thing for some men to accept, the role that women played in the building of the community, and the women who indentured alone. There’s a scene where it causes an uproar, when the historian, Rosa, is presenting this. Why do you think that is? Why is it challenging?

PM: Partly because among the most traditional Indian men, in spite of the fact that women have changed so much in Trinidad, they’d like to present [them] as very submissive, very faceless creatures, which are what you still see to some extent in India, in villages. But as to the role of women, I have a feeling men don’t have a clue that this is happening. They don’t know that women know all of this or were the most important in setting down the community.

AK: You have three different storylines: the narrator’s story, Deeda’s story, and the folktale. They echo each other and interact with each other and add layers of meaning. I was curious how you came to structure it in that way.

PM: It wasn’t a choice. In a sense, that’s why I wrote the novel, because I saw the three at the same time. I’d always seen Saranga, that story. I was completely gripped by it, so much so that my Ph.D. advisor said, “Is this the only thing you recorded?” Then the idea of the journey, of course, that came out of talking to so many women. I thought that that had to be a big part of the book. But my own journey back, the fact that they echoed each other, was what excited me to see this as a book at all. If you’re writing a book, unless you’re writing some quick and dirty thing that the publisher wants you to write, you have to find something creative that’s pulling you on.

AK: What about the cycles of oppression and abuse that appear in the novel? As a laborer, Sunnariya is attacked by the overseer. Then her granddaughter Aijie is pushed into a marriage at a young age, and this man is unfaithful. There are repetitions in the narrator’s life— she is harassed by a Scottish overseer, for example. Do you see those kinds of patterns continuing?

PM: I felt that the way it had been put to me, what happened to Sunnariya, it had been completely sanitized, and when I wrote this in the book, my family said to me, is this what it really must have been like? They simply couldn’t understand that she could have been abused. She managed to blip it out of her mind, she moved on, covered her head even more. I think what’s interesting to me is the way people keep editing the memories, as I said, that we aren’t the kind of people to whom such things could happen. Sunnariya is just too classy a lady to have been abused or assaulted. And her honor somehow never vanished. That was part of the change that her father must have wanted when he left India, to no longer be a subject person. And here he brings his daughter into a world where slowly she’s able to move into the middle class.

AK: I did have that sense that although Sunnariya denies something happened, something did.

PM: I talked to other women who’ve had these experiences, and what struck me is, on the one hand, they’ll tell you something terrible happened, then they’ll tell you, “Actually, no, I think he changed his mind at the last minute.” You hear all these kinds of things while they work it out in their head and somehow become whole again. I wanted to leave it at that, because if I didn’t know, then why should the reader know?

AK: There’s a moment in the book that was really striking, where the narrator is speaking nostalgically about home-cooked food and didn’t it taste better then. Deeda has a response, that “any amount of curry power was better than always being poor and tired.” It shakes the narrator out of this middle-class nostalgia and this way of blindly viewing the past and whitewashing everything. It seems to me to relate to the problems with nostalgia on a personal and a national level. Was that in your mind at all?

PM: That was a very strong moment for me. I was thinking about this today, actually, as I was cooking. You think that the past is something wonderful. This dying language is your stock in trade as a linguist, and then something happens to shake you up as to why it’s dying, why the laborious work is vanishing, and you feel a little more sanguine about things changing. I stopped saying that we should preserve all these languages. We want to have them around to say we are good people, but in fact they’re vanishing because they’re associated with a time of being disempowered, a time of very hard labor.

AK: You have said you felt this panic that you would not get to tell the story. What do you think would’ve been lost?

PM: The first thing was the idea of these three strands that are essentially the same thing. A folktale, which is a strangely feminist tale. It’s not like any Indian story you are likely to find. Here’s this woman moving on, with a mate behind, moving through different lifetimes, different marriages. And nobody else seemed to be talking about the journey in the sense of a larger canvas of people than just the one person they knew. I had all of that. I would’ve missed the thing I was able to construct creatively out of it, those three strands.

AK: The ending is very open; the Saranga story wraps up, but the story of the narrator does not; it is unclear whether she will settle in India with Nishant, which would constrict her life, or return to Trinidad. Did you have a sense of what would happen to the narrator after the novel ended?

PM: Yes. I pulled a lot of things from reality. This was a time that my husband was sitting in India waiting for me. I was panicked because I was quite sure that if I came to India I would never settle in as a linguist. I was going to have professional problems and it was going to drive me nuts, which in fact is what happened. If you see it that way, it makes sense that the narrator is so distraught at the thought of going to India. It’s based on me. I think if I had written the book now, I might’ve gone ahead and given her a name and changed a few more things.

AK: Why?

PM: I think the reader likes the feeling of a complete picture. I was thinking of Caribbeans or people here who knew me, and I’m always surprised by people who don’t know me at all who have read it. I’m assuming that they know a lot about how we live in the Caribbean or a family like mine. I’m obviously a hybrid creature, even there in the book. I’m always stunned to find a few more like me.

AK: So you had a specific audience in mind. Are you pleased that it has reached a different audience?

PM: I was hoping it would reach a larger audience of people who have migrated. Like when my daughter got a copy in the States, she had a classmate who was Israeli, who just started to cry and said, “Oh, I wonder when I’ll ever see home again.” This girl, who was not Indian at all, was imagining that she too had made a one-way journey. Even my mother moving down from Newfoundland made a one-way jahaji journey.

AK: Migration is such an important part of this work, and you talk about there being a sort of inevitability to it. Do you see that migration to some extent is inevitable?

PM: Some people need to migrate to get out of whatever small worlds they lived in. I always envied the people who had a solid identity. I assumed that in my case and in some other people’s cases it was going to keep changing. That life was going to pull you in different places. I look at a picture right now in front of me, of my mother, and I imagine this 18-year-old girl from Canada, and the look in her eyes is seeing greater distances than her friends saw. All her friends are living peacefully in the same hometown, and essentially in the same houses, and she’s made this huge journey, and never ever went back. So some people do it. Those are the Jahajins.

Works Cited

Carter, Marina. 1994. Lakshmi’s Legacy: Testimonies of Indian Women in 19th Century Mauritius. Rose Hill, Mauritius: Editions de l’Ocean Indien. Dabydeen, David. 1996. The Counting House. London: Jonathan Cape.

Haniff, Nesha. 1999. My Grandmother Worked in the Field: Stereotypes Regarding East Indian Women in the Caribbean: Honorable Mention. In Matikor: The Politics of Identity for Indo-Caribbean Women, ed. Rosanne

Kanhai, 18-31. St. Augustine: The University of the West Indies School of Continuing Studies.

Hosein, Shaheeda. 2004. Rural Indian Women in Trinidad: 1870-1945. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of the West Indies, St. Augustine.

McNeill, James and Chimman Lal. 1915. Report to the Government ofIndia on the Conditions of Indian Immigrants in Four British Colonies and Surinam. Great Britain: Parliament. H. M. Stationery Office.

Mohammed, Patricia. 2002. Gender Negotiations Among Indians in Trinidad, 1917-1947. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave in Association with Institute of Social Studies.

Mohan, Peggy. 2001. Indians Under a Caribbean Sky. India International Centre Quarterly 28(3): 3-13. JSTOR (23005556).

-. 2007. Jahajin. New Delhi, India: HarperCollins and The India Today


Nair, Supriya M. 2013. Domestic Altars, Female Avatars: Hindu Wives and Widows in Lakshmi Persaud’s Raise the Lanterns High. In Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature, eds. Joy Mahabir and Mariam Pirbhai, 48-69. New York: Routledge.

Pirbhai, Mariam. 2013. Recasting Jahaji-Bhain: Plantation History and the Indo- Caribbean Women’s Novel in Trinidad, Guyana and Martinique. In Critical Perspectives on Indo-Caribbean Women’s Literature, eds. Joy Mahabir and Mariam Pirbhai, 25-47. New York: Routledge.

Shepherd, Verene. 2002. Maharani’sMisery: Narratives ofa Passage from India to the Caribbean. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies.

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