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  • Kaliani Lyle

RAJWANTIA SOMARU: Colonial Number 76468

As a South African with Indian ancestry, living in Scotland, the answer to the question ‘who do you think you are?’ is an intriguing one. This is made more complicated by the fact that the lives of women are - more often than not - written out of history books. When I peer into the history of my family, what I mostly see is the activity of my male forebears: as pioneers in a new land or activists in the anti- apartheid struggle. The life of my grandmother Rajwantia is nowhere to be found. She is one of the missing stories in my history book.

In February 1899 Rajwantia, aged 22, came to South Africa from Uttar Pradesh in Northern India and became Janaki Chetty after she married my grandfather, a prosperous South Indian businessman. From then on, her identity as Rajwantia Somaru was all but extinguished.

I did not meet my grandmother. She died many years before I was born. This blog is an attempt to reclaim her story, to capture the memory of Rajwantia by imagining what her world was like and locating oneself in it. In so doing I hope to make some sense, not just of the past, but also of the present because in Britain today there is a collective amnesia of the history of migration.

There was one particular event, that brought all of this together for me and reignited my interest in finding out more about Rajwantia. I was invited to speak at the International Women’s Day celebration in Stirling. I arrived there about lunch time. The hall was crowded with women and children of different ethnicities and backgrounds. There were stalls selling food and clothing and wonderful music blaring out of some speakers: a riot of colour, noise and fun. Fitting in with this atmosphere of celebration, the two women who spoke before me focused on the excitement and vivacity that immigrants bring to Scotland. What struck me was that while all of this was true, it certainly wasn’t the whole story. This was International Women’s Day and yet no mention had been made of the struggles that women like us - women who move between worlds - face and have to deal with.

And for no particular reason, my grandmother Rajwantia came into my mind. So instead of my prepared speech, I told them of what little I knew about her: a widow in her early twenties, with a small child, forced to leave her home in India, board a ship, cross the Indian ocean, moving from one British colony to another finally to work as an indentured labourer in South Africa. I could see that for many of the women in the hall, Rajwantia’s courage, her ingenuity, her ability to navigate difficult problems, to make sense of her new world, and suffer the pain of leaving the old, were experiences they recognised and which, in some way, reflected their own. Driving back to Edinburgh the spirt of Rajwantia stayed with me and I thought then that I must find out more about her.

Fast forward a few years: In 2008 Amitav Ghosh’s novel Sea of Poppies was shortlisted for the Booker. All the time I was reading the book I thought of my grandmother. Both the fictional character Deeti and my grandmother Rajwantia came from Ghazipur, both were widows, each with a small child and both fled India to become indentured labourers: Deeti on the Ibis to Mauritius and Rajwantia on the Umlazi XI to South Africa. I wondered if the descriptions in the novel of the precarious life of a young widow in 19th century India and of her perilous sea journey, in any way resembled the experiences of my grandmother. And what fascinated me most was the strength and ability of Deeti in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, and of my grandmother Rajwantia, to re-invent themselves and establish new destinies in different lands, despite all the odds.

There are so many unanswered questions about Rajwantia, which brings me to the purpose of this blog. Together, with my cousin Kusthurie and Sanusha - the great granddaughter of the son that Rajwantia brought with her to South Africa – we will try to recreate the story of Rajwantia’s life: where she came from, how she found herself on a boat bound for South Africa, and her efforts to transform her life in this new land. This blog will track our search for any existing information on Rajwantia and simultaneously try to describe, through her eyes, the times she lived in.

We hope you will join us on this journey.

Kaliani Lyle

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1 commentaire

Gopala Davies
Gopala Davies
26 août 2022

Beautifully written Kaliani. Thank you for this.

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