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  • Kaliani Lyle

Conversations with Julia Stephenson about Roots Research

Julia Stephens (JS)- Associate Professor, Dept of History, Rutgers University, New Jersey) and Kaliani Lyle (KL)


JS: I’ve read the posts from your blogs, so I know a bit about the work you’ve done tracing your grandmother’s story, but perhaps we might just start with you telling me a bit about yourself and how you got interested in researching your roots.


KL: Drawing on the idea from Elif Shafak, it is third generation migrants who are interested because they leave behind the anxiety of being a migrant and are ready to look into their genealogy…how you ended up where you are: that description fits both Kasturi ( my cousin and fellow researcher) and me perfectly.


And I used to be the CEO of Scottish Refugee Council. The issue of migration, and the forces that compel people to leave the familiar into the unknown is one that has stayed with me. For me, this is not just a personal odyssey. Sure, I am interested in my background, but I think it’s also about starting a conversation in Scotland about migration- to get people to recognize the historical continuities, in the words of the late Sivanandan ,” that we are here because you were over there”.

My cousin and niece who are my co-researchers will have different reasons for engaging in this project.


JS: Why in the past have women’s stories of indenture sometimes been left untold, and why is there may be more openness to these stories today?


KL: Some of the research I came across found that most women who travelled on their own did so because they were forced to leave India. However, what I am sceptical about is the suggestion that the anxiety of discovering what these circumstances were, could have played a part in the lack of women stories of indenture. My sense is that we are just at the start of exploring our history and that women’s stories were until recently untold because they did not feature in our imaginings of indenture. But the context has changed. We are now celebrating the bravery and courage of people, both men and women, who travelled across the Indian Ocean to work as indentured labourers in SA. In fact, everyone who has responded to our blog is full of admiration of the willingness of indentured women to dream different dreams and the courage and the agency to realise it regardless of the consequences.


It's also my impression that until fairly recently people didn’t really discuss indenture, regardless of whether the subject was indentured men or women and that now there is a broader reclaiming of that history.


One more thing, it’s generally accepted that women’s stores don’t feature much in history; for instance, more recent memories of the different roles that women played in the anti apartheid struggle have not been acknowledged to the extent that I believe, they should be.



JS: I’ve benefited a lot from using ships lists numbers to trace people’s histories and genealogy, but I wonder what it is like to work with these numbers as a descendant? Is there any discomfort in using the numbers as an identifying marker?


KL: In a strange way I found it really empowering. What I found uncomfortable is the very idea that people were treated as goods, that my grandmother was a commodity, and I wondered what life would have been like for her. At the same time, I was struck by the enormity of the transformation – of people who were commodified reinventing themselves despite the appalling hardship they faced. And my interest in my grandmother Rajwantia Somaru is about that: here’s a woman…who left in her early twenties with a child, who had probably never been out of her village, who then crosses India, goes to Calcutta, crosses the kala pani, and gets to South Africa where she is indentured to the Natal Railway Services marries my grandfather and becomes Janaki Chetty. Now there’s a story.


The point I want to stress is that my interest is about the everyday story. A lot of the histories and novels I’ve read use information from court records and newspapers, and the inclination therefore is to write about some murder, or about something terrible that happened. What you don’t get is a sense of the everyday things that women did, and how they survived…For me women’s struggle is as much about the everydayness of what we do…how ones very survival is testimony to taking on the system. I’m more interested in that, and that’s where I find there is so little stuff. I can’t find it anywhere…For instance what did Rajwantia do with her child Hanib when she worked.


Are there any objects that your family has kept that are associated with the memory of your grandmother


KL: The problem for us is that during Apartheid, whole areas were cleared having been designated white areas…, we have nothing – nothing that belonged to my grandparents…The ground was just flattened.


But we do have memories of my grandparent’s house:


My grandmother Rajwantia/Janaki lived with my grandfather in 145 First Avenue. It was a beautiful house with steps leading to a mosaic tiled veranda. On the iron gate at the front of the house was a bronze plaque inscribed with the words ‘Golden Threshold’. My Grandfather had named the house after the collection of poems by Sarojini Naidu who spent some time with them on her visit to South Africa in 1924. In the late 60’s or 70’s when the centre of Durban was designated a white area the house was bull dozed with all its contents: not even the plaque was spared. It lives only in our memory.


There are other things I remember. My grandfather used to have a big photo of Paul Kruger in the Dining Room, which he garlanded every Kruger’s Day. I must have been about eleven or twelve when I asked him: “why do you have a photo of Paul Kruger? So many people we know - family and friends are fighting against apartheid, and you are garlanding a man who is seen , if not the architect of Apartheid, as the forefather of the Afrikaners.” My grandfather replied that he admired him because he was a leader of his people. “He was fighting for their liberation from the British,” and that’s why he saw him as someone to be revered.” I told him an ‘aprocryphal ‘ story that my father had related to me- about Kruger drinking from a finger bowl at dinner on the ship when he was on his way to see Queen Victoria. My grandfather laughed and said that Kruger might not have known differently. And I said, a clever person would have looked around, seen what others were doing and done the same. My grandfather thought that this was so smart…so he said to my aunt, that there were silver fingerbowls in storage in the shed, to give one to Kaliani. She forgot to give it to me. The house and the shed were completely demolished with all its contents- finger bowls, grandfather clock, plaque and all.

I would have treasured that silver finger bowl because it encapsulated so much about my grandfather.


What has been the most rewarding and frustrating part of your research?


---Its what it tells you about the British Empire, and what it did to people. These are personal stories, but they are personal stories within a bigger social, geographical, and political context, and you can’t separate the one from the other…It is about how a person, Rajwantia , was part of this big machine, that was state supervised, that moved people around so they could extract as much capital as possible.

There certainly is a very interesting backstory to each of the indentured women: a story that is complex, and full of pathos and courage —that speaks about their lives in the village in Imperial India, the patriarchy- the domination they experienced , and the oppression and exploitation they suffered as indentured workers in Port Natal.

My frustration is the difficulty were having in excavating information about my grandmother. If truth be told, we have reached an impasse with the research. There is so little granular detail on what she did at the National Railway services, the conditions under which she lived at the Railway Barracks, and her journey in 1898 and then in 1904 across the Indian Ocean. I feel like we have only just scratched the surface of a complex and complicated story, but we are determined to go on looking in the Archives and elsewhere in the hope that we will discover more about our grandmother Rajwantia Somaru / Janaki Chetty.

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