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  • Kaliani Lyle

The Journey: Calcutta

Updated: Aug 5, 2022

© Darren Chetty and Ken Wilson-Max

The journey from Sakekipur to Calcutta was hard going. After weeks of travelling, moving from night shelter to night shelter, keeping body and soul together as best she could, and caring for three-year-old Hanib, they eventually arrived at the Sub Depot in Calcutta. Unsure of where she was, or what would happen next, Rajwantia’s uneasiness grew when they were handed over to the Licensed Agent. She noticed a difference in the atmosphere- that something had changed- the sweet talking Arkati who had recruited all twelve of them was being replaced by a man with an air of authority. What she sensed was the start of a state organised system that processed migrants into indentured labourers. And it began with an interview with the Licensed Agent. Having satisfied him that she was fit to work, Rajwantia and Hanib were dispatched to the next staging post.

They travelled to the Depot under the cover of darkness: a precaution taken by the Agent to avoid the possibility of detection and the spiriting away of recruits by family members. When they stopped in front of a large walled building, Rajwantia was disorientated, felt space and time compress around her. Stepping into the compound, she could- in the dim light- only just, make out the outline of a crush of people sleeping on mats their few treasured belongings carefully stacked around them.

The next morning, she was stunned to see at least 1000 people crammed in an unsanitary barracks: a warehouse utterly different from the surrounds of her village. No longer segregated by cast, she observed migrants from pariah to brahmin bump against each other. All the certainties, the rules that she had grown up with began to fray at the edges. She had entered another world, a world where everything was strange, where caste and religion came up against a system that saw migrants as an indistinguishable mass, to be transported to work as indentured labourers in British colonies across the globe. And the Depot was where the production of the indentured labourer began in earnest.

Her first real taste of what she was up against came when she was called at 5.30am to be ready for a series of inspections. Drawing her sari over her head she entered the Reception Shed for a medical examination to determine that she was free of disease and fit to labour. She tried to make sense of what was happening, to reconcile the different worlds she inhabited: the place where she grew up and the one, she now found herself in. Western medicine – ‘Doctory’- was alien to her. She felt vulnerable, and the thought that this was just the first of several medical examinations that she would have to undergo before boarding the ship filled her with dread.

Her appearance before the local Magistrate was less stressful. She walked into the office, sat as directed across the desk from the officials, and confidently answered questions about her and her son’s personal details. She could hear the scratch of the pen as the Scribe recorded her particulars in her Emigration Certificate. She listened intently to the Official describe what she could expect if she emigrated to Port Natal. On the face of it, his promise of free clothing, food, medical care, accommodation, and wages of 2 and half rupees a month for a 6 day working week, attracted her. It made her hopeful of the possibility of change, that for once in her life she would be in control of her future instead of living on the fringes of society eking out a living for herself and her son.

But the reality on the ground as Rajwantia would later find out was very different. When she put her thumbprint on the document signifying her willingness to emigrate to work for the Natal Government Railways Services she had no way of knowing what lay behind the headlines: that 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 that many aspects of her life would now be in the ownership of her employer. In short, the “bonds of indenture made her as a woman ultra -exploitable: forced to undertake the most arduous and least skilled tasks within a system of forced labour.”*

Even if she did have second thoughts, it was too late to change her mind. She could ill afford to pay the Recruiter the costs incurred to date for the journey to Calcutta which would be the minimum required to secure her release. With the Chowkidar policing their movements, and no contact with the outside world, recruits like Rajwantia were to all intents and purposes prisoners of the system.

For the next couple of months Rajwantia and Hanib settled down in the barracks, becoming an integral part of the newly formed community of soon to be emigrants. She watched Hanib playing with the other children while she shared in the domestic chores. Their lives were strictly regulated: forced to get up at 6.00am every morning, go to sleep at 8.00pm, eat at 5,00pm , with no one allowed in or out of the compound. Rajwantia was not cowed or intimidated by the oppressive and unsanitary conditions. She was her own person, dignified even when uncertain; holding on to her dream of a better future for herself and Hanib while she waited to make the sea journey to Port Natal.

The call came when the Arkati had secured enough recruits to fill the ship. Rajwantia gathered together her few belongings, pressed her hands together, bowed her head and whispered namaste to those remaining at the Depot. With Hanib fastened securely on her hip she joined the throng of people streaming out of the building, from where they were transported to the Accommodation Depot at the Port. This was to be the final staging post.

The next seven days saw the completion of the process that turned two migrants from India into indentured labourers: Rajwantia Somaru, Colonial number 76468 and Hanib Aligan, Colonial Number 76469 now bonded to the Natal Government Railway Services. As certified emigrants they were ready to make the precarious journey to Port Natal.

They didn’t have to wait long. At first light, all 482 documented recruits were gathered together for departure on the Umlazi X1(Calcutta). Rajwantia took her place in the assembled crowd. She had smoothed her hair into a bun, carefully draped her sari over her head, pulled the tin ticket disc with her colonial number around her neck and grasped Hanib firmly with one hand. With her free hand she held all her worldly goods: two saris, a flannel jacket and a Lota/ water bottle provided by the emigration officials together with the few possessions she had carried all the way from Sakekipur.

At just 4 ft 10 inches she felt buffeted by the others surging forward and struggled to hold her ground as the bodies moved as one. The din was overwhelming. Rajwantia could hear the clattering of footsteps, the thud of bags, the roar of the crew preparing for departure and the shouts of officials policing their embarkation. The atmosphere was tense. She glanced around her and saw stricken faces, rigid with fear, loss, and confusion. She paused as she entered the ship, turned around to see for the last time her native land. She took a deep breath: not for her the malign story that crossing the Kala Pani would contaminate her soul. For Rajwantia Somaru and Hanib Aligan this was to be the start of a new beginning.

Kaliani Lyle

* Inside Indenture: Desai & Vahed

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