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  • Kaliani Lyle

Leaving Ghazipur

Uncovering Rajwantia's life has been a slow process- not helped by lockdown. We found very few documents with her name on and what there is raises more questions than provides answers.

Not to be undone, using the information in Rajwantia’s colonial document and the ship’s passenger list, and drawing from a range of secondary sources including family folk memory we have come up with, what we can only call a working hypothesis. This has been written up in the form of a story: one which is not strictly tied to the past, but which unpicks history to re-imagine her life as it might have been. In doing so we have come up against a number of anomalies and inconsistencies which are explored in the addendum below.

Stay with us. This is an iterative process. The story of Rajwantia will change as we discover more about her and the times she lived in.

The enigma that is Rajwantia Somaru -Colonial Number 76468 :

In the closing months of 1898 our grandmother Janaki Chetty crossed the dark waters of the Indian Ocean (the Kala Pani) as Rajwantia Somaru, a Muslim, from a village in Ghazipur UP clutching her three year old son Hanib Aligan. She was 22 years old, 4ft 10 inches tall, strikingly good looking, and recently widowed. Without a husband, she was now an outcast, stripped of her married name Aligan and ostracised. Living with in laws who had little to spare, her life had become so intolerable that she was forced to do what no respectable Indian woman would have done; take her future in her hands, and with courage and determination embark on a journey that she knew little about and could scarcely imagine, in search of a new identity.

This would not to be the first time that she would change her identity. Born Rajwantia Ramdularie to a sweet (mitai) making family by caste, she became Rajwantia Aligan when she married. As a young widow having been released from the oppressive control imposed by the men in her family, she was now in a position to decide for herself the direction her life would take. But with that freedom came extreme vulnerability. She understood only too well that she couldn’t leave her village to journey to foreign parts on her own, that a widow with a young child would need the protection of a fellow traveller. She asked around and when she learnt that a Muslim neighbour had registered an interest to become indentured she took the decision to assume a different identity in line with that of her neighbour. The name she adopted was Somaru.

Rajwantia was not alone in contemplating moving away from home in search of a better life for herself and Hanib. Her story was part of a much larger story. Across India driven by desperation, exploited and impoverished under British rule many were drawn into a well organised state supervised system of indenture, that recruited and transported indentured Indians to parts of the Empire that needed labour to work on its sugar plantations and railways.

In Ghazipur the handloom industry had been decimated. Peasants unable to pay the exorbitant taxes demanded of them were forced off their land and were now rootless labourers without food and basic amenities. Some desperate to earn money became unlicensed recruiters (Arkatis ) who were paid a commission for each recruit they lured to indenture with false stories of untold fortunes to be made in far flung lands. Trapped between living in poverty and destitution in colonial India OR, in the vain hope of a better future, to be transported on ships as human cargo separated from family and loved ones; many chose the dream of new possibilities in foreign lands.

Rajwantia too dreamed of a new start. Life had become a ceaseless struggle. The Arkati recruiter knew that she had fallen out with her in laws and was therefore an ideal candidate for indenture. And like all ‘snake oil’ salesmen he used the tricks of his trade to sway, convince and pressure her to leave home.

By all accounts Rajwantia was nobody’s fool. She would have had many questions about the destination, her safety, the nature of the work, how much she would earn, and the care of her child while she worked: concerns which would have been swept aside by the Arkati recruiter.

Nor would she have been able to understand the implications of indenture from the document “Notice to Coolies Intended to emigrate to Natal” which was widely circulated. It was designed to reassure would be migrants like Rajwantia that their well-being would be safeguarded. What was never made clear to her was that in reality she would be denied choice as to the kind of work she would be made to do, where and with whom she would be forced to live and her remuneration: in short that this was bonded labour and that many aspects of her life would now be in the ownership of her employer. What’s more, regardless of the circumstances in which she found herself, or the treatment that was meted out to her there was no going back- not for a period of five years and then only if she could afford the ticket back to India. She would have had no alternative but to stay bonded to her employer for a period of 10 years to qualify for a free passage back home.

Having lived all her life in the village of Sakekipur she had no conception of what it would mean to cross the ocean on a ship, to become a ‘coolie’ in another part of the world. The crippling doubts, and fears that assailed her diminished when she learnt that there were ten others from Ghazipur including a near neighbour who would travel with her from Ghazipur to Calcutta and from there to Port Natal if she agreed to indenture. The prospect of travelling to Calcutta and beyond at no cost to herself and having somewhere for her and Hanib to stay free of any charge began to take shape in her mind as a way out of her now increasingly precarious existence. The rations of dahl, rice salt fish ghee and salt every day for the next 5 years would be enough to keep her and Hanib alive and well.

Around September of 1898 Rajwantia assumed the name Somaru. With her hair pulled tightly back in a bun, she gathered up her few belongings, drew her shawl over Hanib and herself and started her long journey out of India to Natal South Africa.


In the absence of personal testimony and with the ship records as the only primary source of data we have fictionalised Rajwantia’s life in Ghazipur prior to boarding the Congella Umlazi X1 ( Calcutta) . The story we tell draws on the ‘mores’ and the events at the time to provide the context for her momentous decision as a single woman with a child to leave her village and travel across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.

Setting out to construct her story as a working hypothesis of what might have been has inevitably led to a number of anomalies relating to her status, name and religion.

As to her status as a widow: the ship records do not hold information on the marital status or married name of those being transported for indentured servitude. Instead, it logs the father’s name of all indentured travellers. The names listed for all 29 children on the Congella Umlazi XI are therefore different from that of their respective mothers. Thus, Rajwantia’s name is recorded as Somaru while her son Hanib is Aligan.

There is also the question of her name and religion: The Ship Records log Rajwantia’s father’s name as Somaru and her religion as Muslim. A note of conversation with Mr VR Naidoo a former Principal who was in the process of writing a biography of RB Chetty posits that Rajwantia fathers name was Ramdularie and that she appropriated the name Somaru to travel under the protection of a Muslim Neighbour.

If the term ‘neighbour’ is understood to mean someone from Ghazipur then this explanation is at odds with the information in the Ship records. It shows that of the 12 people (including 2 children ) from Ghazipur travelling on the Congella Umlazi XI (Calcutta) on February 1898 , only Rajwantia Somaru and her son Hanib Aligan are recorded as being Muslims. However, it should be noted that 18 of the 482 records are incomplete or marked illegible.

There are other interesting details which indicate that this may be a more complex story. A fair assumption to make might be that those who knew each other would register together. The log shows that the entry after Rajwantia Somaru (76468) and her son Hanib Aligan ( 76469) was a 20 year old Muslim woman Nasiba Jagesar ( 76470) from the village Rassra in Ballia. And like Rajwantia she was indentured to the Natal Government Railways. If Rajwantia did indeed change her name then her new found identity could have been in relation to Nasiba Jagesar with whom she journeyed and would laterwork alongside.

Rajwantia’s final transformation into Janaki Chetty took place on completion of her 5 years of indenture : therein lies a whole new story.


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