On 17 May 2018, an anthology called We Mark Your Memory: Writings from the Descendants of Indenture (http://www.commonwealthwriters.org/we-mark-your-memory/) will be launched in London. I am very proud that one of my stories was accepted for this anthology.
As I read the other works in this anthology, I am fascinated by the stories they tell. Things become even more interesting when the editors say that many artists worldwide have ‘artfully created literary responses to the scars of the system of indenture and its legacies.’ I didn’t see the legacies as ‘scars’. In fact, when I was writing this story, my father was aware that the setting for this story would be where he born and brought up – Foothills Estate. He insisted that I should not write ‘bad things’ about it and said, “It was a very nice place to grow up.”
Recalling my father’s words and reading the stories in the anthology made me think a little more about this whole system of indenture. I recognise some of the events the others write about. Yet, I can see that my father’s experiences (and that of my grandfather’s) are also different. So, I decided to study this whole thing a little more.
For a start, to paraphrase what our editors have written, the abolition of slavery was the catalyst to the arrival of the first Indian indentured labourers in the sugar colonies of Mauritius, Guyana and Trinidad. Indentureship then began in South Africa and Fiji.
In Malaya, the indentured labourer was brought into the country to serve a new industry, the rubber industry. Indeed, there was such a demand worldwide for rubber, that the emphasis of the British shifted entirely to large-scale production of rubber in Malaya. By 1910, there were many plantations all over the country and a whole new community existed.
In A Gentleman’s World: The Legacy of Subhas Chandra Bose in Southeast Asia, Nilanjana Sengupta writes about the Indian labourers brought in by the British:
‘…Plantation work, be it rubber, spices, oil palm or tea, required simple, repetitive, unskilled work for which the British deemed the Indians, particularly the South Indian Tamils to be adequately subservient and suitable. … To quote a planter’s observation around 1911: “The Tamil struck me as being a poor specimen, both in physique and morale and of being abject, cowardly and generally lacking in vitality … The blind admiration of the white man by these Tamils is really rather pathetic.” The entire, close-knit world of the rubber estates came to be built on two founding tenets – imperial power on one hand and the systemic exploitation of plantation hands on the others. Be it in the form of a bonded labour or under the supposedly ‘free labour’ system run by the kanganies, their endemic condition remained the same.
As years passed, certain characteristic features emerged. Firstly, life on the plantation was highly regimented with the European planter at the top of the pyramid, followed by the clerk or the krani, from Asian stock but from Ceylon or Malayalam speakers from Kerala. Separated from the labourers from the communal barrier, they ensured the ‘General Instructions of the Company’ were followed, conducted and early morning parade and roll-call, made sure the labourer dismounted from his bicycle every time he passed the planters bungalow or parted his hair in the traditional way with a tuft. After this came the kangani or the overseer, the actual leader of the tappers, while the South Indian labourers were at the bottom of the pile. Most numerous, they led the lifestyle planned and standardised by the management in miserable ‘line house’ – amidst squalor and hopelessness.
… [The] trend of subsistence wages meant the labourers were left with very little margin after meeting their basic expenses. This margin they could either use for remitting to India, or to buy a return passage home, or as it happened in most cases, spend it on toddy – the only means of easy entertainment available on the plantations.
… This large mass of humanity lived on in comparative isolation in the insular worlds of their estates. With the unbending plantation discipline, which made it difficult even for relatives to visit their families, which made it difficult even for relatives to visit their families living on the estates, meant that they were virtually cut-off from the external world.’
With my grandfather once being the head ‘krani’ in Foothills Estate, Kulim, it is this ‘isolation in the insular worlds of their estates’ that I tried to describe in the story for the anthology, The Legend of Nagakanna.
To read about Nagakanna’s world in your own copy of We Mark Your Memory, click on any of the links below:
(15 May 2018)
Aneeta Sundararaj fears social media and aims to ‘go local’ with ‘the novel’. Read mores stories like this on her website, ‘How to Tell a Great Story’. (http://www.howtotellagreatstory.com).