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  • Kaliani Lyle

The Journey: From Sakekipur to Calcutta

It was at the close of 1898, that Rajwantia Somaru left her village of Sakekipur. We can only imagine what went through her mind when she gathered together her few belongings, hitched her son Hanib on to her hip and began her epic journey out of India to South Africa.

Just before she closed her front door, did she stop to look around her cramped quarters, for one last time, to take in the rolled mat she used to sleep on, and the thava to cook her meals. Did she say a short prayer and catch her breath, transfixed by the fear of not knowing what lay in front of her?

Or as she slammed her door shut with Hanib’s little arms around her neck, did she breathe a sigh of relief? She had come to a decision, after months of uncertainty and doubt, to take her future and that of her child in her own hands, to free herself of poverty and the shame that widowhood had cast over her.

She knew instinctively that things in Sakekipur were not going to get any better, not anytime soon. All around her she saw people struggling to make a living and heard talk of families who out of desperation had left Sakekipur: villagers wrenched from familiar surroundings to seek work elsewhere. For Rajwantia too there was nothing for her in Sakekipur but hardship. Five years in a foreign land over the dark waters: she would be back after 5 years, a woman of independent means having saved the money that she had been told by the Arkati (the unlicensed recruiter), that she would earn in Port Natal.

With dreams of making a fresh start, to become her own person, she too began the long march out of Sakekipur. And as she strode away, she could hear the sounds of her village receding, the voices she recognised fading until she could no longer sense the familiar noises that had defined her life until then.

When she arrived at the designated meeting place, she saw for the first time the group of people who would become her constant companions over the next few months: her jahajis. In total there were twelve of them: three men; seven women who like her were venturing out to Port Natal on their own and, two children. Rajwantia was pleased to see another boy who was a couple of years older than Hanib – someone she hoped would be a companion and big brother to Hanib, helping him through this unfathomable journey into indenture.

Together they went from Ghazipur to Calcutta, a distance of 743Km. We do not know the route they took, how they travelled or how long it took them to get there. Whether along the river, by bullock cart, rail or by foot it would have been a long and arduous voyage. Pushed and chivvied on with Hanib trailing along beside her, exhausted by the relentless pressure to keep going, Rajwantia knew that as she moved further and further away from Sakekipur there was no going back.

The Arkati made sure of that. He was under strict orders from the recruiter who employed him to deliver all twelve recruits to the Licensed Agent in Calcutta. This was their trade. The migrants were their goods. The money they made came from the commission paid for each migrant indentured in the colonies. If a recruit went missing, they would lose the commission. If a recruit changed his/ her mind they were the ones who would have to bear the cost of return. And to cap it all, if the government’s quota of 29% of women per shipload was not met the ship would not sail and their entire commercial enterprise was at risk.

The Arkati was not about to let that happen. Determined to safeguard their assets the Arkati planted a decoy to ingratiate himself with the recruits, keep them on track and make sure they didn’t abscond. The decoy listened in to their conversations, joining in every now and then. They talked on the road and at night when they stopped at local warehouses, hesitantly at first, scratching the surface of what had led them to take this path.

All three men spoke of long hours toiling on the land of upper caste landlords. Each had his own story to tell, yet each of their stories was their common story. They shook their heads as they listened to their jahaji bhais tell of being squeezed into subjugation and misery by Zamindars demanding more and more money, of mounting debt, and their hand to mouth existence. They recounted too the difficult discussions with their wives and parents about leaving the village to find work elsewhere. The pain of saying goodbye, of separating from their children and being torn from all that was dear to them felt raw, like the pain of losing a limb. And mixed with the sadness was the fear and apprehension of the unknown: what were they doing? where were they going? would Port Natal deliver all that had been promised? The decoy tut tutted, brushed aside any doubts that they might have had and dismissed their fears with stories of fantastic riches to be made. And so, they continued on their journey- suspended between feelings of hope and fear.

Unlike the men, the seven women were a disparate group: one woman was a Rajput, the others were from farming, fishing, and sweeper castes. *Rajwantia was the only Muslim among them. Bit by bit, age old rituals and caste restrictions began to unravel. The awkwardness and novelty of sharing space, and the recognition that they were fellow travellers seeking a way out of their own personal hell, created bonds that would last all their lives. Rajwantia listened as each of her jihaji baheens described the circumstances that brought them to take this voyage into indenture: among them were destitute widows -like her- with no one to take pity on them, as well as married women having absconded because of ill treatment or been violently turned out of their doors with no one left to provide for them. Targeted by recruiters they left the known for the unknown; their vulnerability forcing them to tread a path ridden with danger.

For Rajwantia, her village in Ghazipur was all she had ever known. Until now it represented the totality of her world. This sudden and dramatic change in her circumstances was mirrored by the changing landscape as they went from the floodplains of Ghazipur to the metropolis of Calcutta, the capital of the British India. Small, isolated dwellings gave way to crowded buildings teeming with people servicing business and industries: the likes of which she had not seen before, or even imagined. She had arrived at Calcutta the city that processed would be emigrants into indentured labourers.

Kaliani Lyle

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