Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2022 > Book Excerpt from Kala Pani Crossings | Bhardwaj & Misrahi-Barak

Mainstream, VOL LX No 26-27, New Delhi, June 18 & June 25, 2022 [Double issue]

Book Excerpt from Kala Pani Crossings | Bhardwaj & Misrahi-Barak

Friday 17 June 2022


Kala Pani Crossings: Revisiting 19th century Migrations from India’s Perspective

Co-edited by Ashutosh Bhardwaj and Judith Misrahi-Barak



242 p.
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1032332328
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1032332321

available via

Edited excerpts from the introductory essay by co-editors

When used in India, the Kala pani reference is often associated with the cellular jail in Port Blair where freedom fighters and other dissidents were sent by the British colonial authorities in the early 20th century. When used in the diaspora, it refers to the large-scale migration out of India in the 1830s when hundreds of thousands of Indians, both willingly and unwillingly, left the subcontinent and crossed the Kala pani (the ‘Black Waters,’ the ‘forbidden’ sea between India and the Americas) to work in the sugar colonies as indentured labourers, or bound coolies (...). These emigrants were responding to the need for labour on the plantations after African enslavement was legally abolished in 1834 and fully terminated in 1838. Some 1.25 million emigrants were taken to Fiji and Mauritius, as well as the British, French and Dutch Caribbean. (...)

There is thus a curious imbalance in the fact that while the diaspora literature written by those whose forefathers had left India to work in various colonies as indentured labourers during the British rule has been a topic of major academic and political discourse, very scant attention has been given in India to those members of the early diaspora and to their descendants. Their stories and memories have found expressions in various forms, they continue to exist in popular imagination, yet they do not figure in curriculums or political manifestos. People in India, be they academics or not, are often unaware of this history that is not that distant from us who live in the 21st century. (...)

At the end of the first decade of the 21st century, however, one internationally acclaimed writer of Indian origin, an American journalist of Indo-Guyanese descent, and an Indian academic provided a game changer. Between 2008 and 2015, Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy was published. Gaiutra Bahadur’s Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture was published in 2013. And Ashutosh Kumar’s Coolies of the Empire (...) was published in 2017. Within less than ten years, novel writing, non-fiction and archival work, and academic research operated a striking conjunction to give Kala pani crossings another fresh momentum. (...)

The scholars whose work has been included in the present volume have risen to the challenge: being diaspora scholars, it is not easy, suddenly, to shift one’s perspective to the other side of the ocean, to a country that has shunned one’s ancestors. It is not easy to enter in transnational dialogue, nor is it to accept to reconsider one’s own work and put it at a distance so that it can gain new meaning, particularly when uneasy questions slip in. Why is it important today, in India, to open those pages again, not only from the point of view of the diaspora but also from the perspective of India in the 21st century?

The chapters in this volume stem from the international seminar, Kala Pani Crossings: India in Conversation, that was co-convened by the co-editors at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in September 2019 to explore those issues collectively and contribute to the emerging of new research paths. As fresh ground was being tread upon, much of the conversations that took place during the seminar has nourished the contributors’ work as the papers were revised into full-fledged chapters. The selection to be found in this volume reflects this individual and collective effort and the general organization bespeaks the purpose of the volume. The first section entitled ‘Shifting the gaze’ sets up the stage for this new perspective to be taken from India rather than the diaspora. The opening chapter by Vijay Mishra sets the record straight about the history of the phrase Kala pani in all its transgressive definitions and to examine the girmit imaginary. If it still theorizes the Black waters and uses Khal Torabully’s path-breaking notion of ‘coolitude’ from the point of view of the diaspora, the chapter opens the door to possible echoes in India. Nandini Dhar then clearly shifts the theoretical focus away from forgetting and remembrance to situate the historical moment of the Kala pani crossings in the network of global plantation complex and the larger history of capital. Crucially, Dhar comparatively pulls the attention towards the internal migrations from Central India, that have made it possible for cash-crops such as tea to thrive in Bengal or Assam. Through the final evocation of the characters of Gangu in Mulk Raj Anand’s Two Leaves and a Bud and Deeti in Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies, Dhar juxtaposes the plantations across the sea and across the land in terms of ‘forced migration, landlessness and labour regimes that are not quite slavery, but also not quite freedom’. Ritu Tyagi brings together Sea of Poppies and Mati Mati Arkati in Hindi by Ashwini Pankaj to further the need to resort to a ‘connected history’. The stress that Pankaj puts on the internal migrations of the then-called Tribals during the indenture period signals the need for connections with present-day India.

The papers show that not only was the original topic deepened and widened, more significantly, several other perspectives that had not necessarily been expected were also articulated. As Kanchan Dhar reminds us of the debate that continues around the indenture of women, we understand how complex it is to get a clear image of the proportion of exploitation and of agency that got into the process. Suparna Sengupta investigates the perceived taboo on crossing the Kala pani. Her research tends to show it was a cultural and political construct, carefully nourished across the British Raj, the British administration using the Hindu ‘terror’ of sea voyage to refute the critique of penal transportation articulated by a jurist like Jeremy Bentham.

In a chapter that hinges between the first and the second section entitled ‘Across Oceans’, Joshil K. Abraham cross-examines the equation between migration and the loss of caste, most often associated with the crossing of oceans, taking the practising Hindu away from the sacred waters of the Ganges. As one can see in the writings of V. S. Naipaul, Abraham suggests, there are many obvert and subvert ways caste travels across the oceans. Even though diaspora presents in most cases opportunities of emancipation from the strictures of caste, diaspora can sometimes be that very journey where the repressed caste is retrieved and reclaimed. At first one may wonder why, then, India has elected Naipaul as its favourite writer from the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, but it was perhaps obvious. An upper-caste man who asserts his privileges and doesn’t want to forgo his dominance even on foreign shores was destined to be India’s poster-boy.

In the two following chapters of this section Vijaya Rao and Ridhima Tewari analyze how cultural productions and religious rituals, such as the cult of Draupadi on the Reunion Island or Bidesia folk songs in the Bhojpuri region, respectively, respond to the migrations. Work, or naukari, migrations, as Ashutosh Kumar astutely reminds us in Coolies of the Empire, predate 19th century indenture by several centuries: ‘rural India [...] is unimaginable without a constant outward stream of short-, medium- and long-term migrant labourers who are destined for service in the military, commerce and agriculture.’ (23). The Bidesia songs are complex responses that negotiate the migrations at many levels, abroad and at home, at work and in the emotional world, for the ones who left and the ones who stayed. In another transitional chapter, Kumari Issur also appraises cultural productions in India, more specifically through the medium of cinema and Bollywood films, in order to gain a better understanding of how Mauritius is perceived and used.

The third and last section of the volume, ‘Re-imagining the Kala pani Narrative’, places increased focus on the narrativization of Kala pani crossings, and how crucial it is that 21st century India doesn’t sink this history into oblivion a second time. Both Kusum Aggarwal and Himadri Lahiri scrutinize Totaram Sanadya’s Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands and how his memoir inserted itself into the construction of the Indian nation, while Lahiri also analyzes Bahadur’s Coolie Woman and Ramabai Espinet’s The Swinging Bridge as ‘retrieval narratives’. The last three chapters bring women at the centre, both as characters of literary texts and as the diaspora voices on either side of the seas, and interrogate how texts written from the diaspora about the legacy of indenture may be interpreted in India. To the previous analyses made by Praveen Mirdha and Arnab Kumar of Bahadur’s and Espinet’s texts, Udita Banerjee adds the analysis of Olive Senior’s short story ‘Arrival of the Snake-Woman’. This perspective of and on women is particularly crucial. In the Indian context nowadays, it may be of some importance that both male and female scholars focused on those issues related to the status, positioning and role of women in society. In the commitment to examine Kala pani migrations and put the emphasis on how normative patterns of caste, gender, sexuality and tradition were shed, it is also Indian society in the 21st century that is approached and scanned through the displaced lens of Kala pani. As Amba Pande has shown, gender has always impacted migration. Whether they migrate as primary or secondary migrants, women often benefit from better opportunities through migration, even if they remain more vulnerable than men and more susceptible to sexual exploitation. This can apply to 19th century diasporas and to 21st century India.

It is such discursive dialogues that enable us to rethink indentureship through the prism of India today and not only that of yesterday, and to rethink India through the prism of indentureship. More generally speaking, scrutinizing those migrations of the past and their descendants may thus be a detour to gain a better view of India when it seems to be fumbling for a redefinition of itself... Dilip M. Menon was already asking ‘How can we bring together the history of indenture, for example, and the history of the making of the Indian nation?’ and suggesting the histories of indenture be given a central place in the ‘writing of Indian history rather than seeing it as merely external to the formation of the Indian nation.’

Last but not the least, if the voice of internationally well-established diaspora scholars is always important to listen to, it is also heartening to see the high number of budding and early career scholars who have embraced the challenge. The perspectives that have been opened by the first Kala pani Crossings seminar and this selection of essays seem so potent and fruitful that further conversations may be needed to take stock and sharpen the arguments. This could be only the beginning of new research that would not leave the history of the Indian diaspora and its descendants to diaspora-based scholars only. The heightened focus on the discriminations the (e)migrants wanted to flee, or on the women who crossed, who stayed on the other side of the Kala pani, who came back to India, or did not come back, says how urgent this research is—it says something of India today.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.