March is Women’s History month, a time to celebrate women’s lives, the progress we have made throughout the years, and the bright future ahead of us. This year marks the 30th anniversary of recognizing the tireless work women have put into creating change. Often, it seems that the history of women is written in invisible ink. Therefore, to commemorate the month, we are writing women back into history by remembering the Indo-Caribbean women who were revolutionaries before us and honoring the historical work we are doing today. Below are tributes to two extraordinary Indo-Caribbean heroines who continue to give us strength and inspiration today.
We invite you to post comments, sharing stories about your Indo-Caribbean heroines of the past and present in celebration of Women's History Month!
Kowsilla, Guyanese Labor Activist Who Made the Ultimate Sacrifice
Kowsilla, also known as Alice, of Leonora, was killed on March 6, 1964 during the great Sugar Strike of 1964. Her body was severed in two when a sugar estate scab, Felix Ross, drove a tractor through her. He was later acquitted. A mother of four at the time, and the sole breadwinner of her family, Kowsilla was an executive of the Leonora branch of the WPO and, as a leader, she paid the ultimate price by displaying the highest order of resistance for her belief in adequate wage for adequate work. Despite her struggle for her people, Kowsilla’s story has rarely been documented. At Jahajee Sisters, we remember Kowsilla’s courage and refuse to let her sacrifice disappear into the historical void so many women’s stories fall into.
Rajkumari Singh, Guyanese Cultural Heroine
Rajkumari Singh, A.A. (1923-1979), stands out as a major pioneering Caribbean woman writer, political activist, educator and distinguished cultural leader in her native land, Guyana, where she received national honors. She was respected and praised by her contemporaries for the quality of controversy, criticism and debate present in her works, for which she received many literary prizes and awards; she is revered by numerous younger poets, writers, scholars, artists and performers, to whom she was a patron and mentor. Rajkumari was concerned with Indo-Caribbean identity finding their place in a region undergoing harsh and disappointing political, cultural and social change. These critical issues found their way into her literary work. Rajkumari's legacy continues to inspire new generations in the Caribbean and in countries of the Indian Diaspora.
[RE-POSTED FROM WRITING THE LINES OF OUR HANDS BLOG--This blog was created to chronicle the publication progress of Writing the Lines of Our Hands: An Anthology of South Asian American Poetry, to provide a forum for conversation and support among the authors of this anthology, and to facilitate conversations about writing by South Asian Americans.]
Sasha Kamini Parmasad was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago, began writing poetry as a child, and was actively involved in the performing arts on a national scale from the age of six. She lived with her family in New Delhi, India, between 1988-1992. She received her B.A. in English Literature and Studio Art at Williams College, Massachusetts, in 2002, and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Columbia University, New York, in 2008. Her first novel, Ink and Sugar, which is a work in progress, won third place in the long fiction category in the First Words Literary Contest for South Asian Writers in Washington D. C. in 2003. In April 2008 her paintings were exhibited at the second annual Indo-Caribbean Women’s Empowerment Summit in Queens, New York, co-sponsored by Sakhi for South Asian Women and Jahajee Sisters: Empowering Indo-Caribbean Women. One of her poems was the winner of the 2008 Poetry International competition, and will be published in the next issue of Poetry International. At present she lives in New York City where she teaches a Creative Writing Workshop to undergraduates at Columbia University.
Q: Name one collection of poetry that you wish you had written and why.
Somewhere in Caroni, Central Trinidad: an overgrown hunk of land on which, at one time, stood a wooden shed that concealed a crude underground room. Secreted in this room, the story goes, a manual printing press used to publish clandestine papers distributed among workers and farmers engaged in struggle throughout Trinidad. The world as text, and action as writing, this is the book I would have liked to have written.
But the boundaries of this plot of land are no longer clear; the underground room has, perhaps, long filled with water and caved in.
Q: Describe the place/physical location where you write most regularly.
A room in our apartment. My husband, Mandip, moved in when I was in Trinidad, set up my desk here because I like to write in spaces that crow with direct morning light. Paradoxically, I keep the curtains and shades mostly drawn so that grey days don’t dampen, or bright days blot out the world at my fingertips. I face my desk away from the windows for the same reason. But I like to know, especially in winter, that there is light at my back; to watch it brush my computer screen, smear the wall in front me.
On that wall, a picture of my parents, sister, myself taken in 1988, as we prepared to leave Trinidad for India—my father was on his way to study cultural history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and we would live on that campus for four years. It was a staggering journey—back to the land from which our ancestors had been taken one hundred and forty-three years before, which generations before us had never seen. Beside this picture, a copy of The 23rd Psalm gifted me by my maternal grandmother, Soobratan, who in part raised me; observing her I learnt, to my especial delight as a child, Spanish, patois and Bhojpuri swear words, how to kill and clean a chicken, eat rice and dal with my fingers. Descending from a long Muslim line, she declares herself a Khan, is a member of the choir of the Presbyterian Church she has belonged to for more than three decades, and prays to Shiva alongside her Hindu grandchildren. Beside this, the fragment of an Indian-Trinidadian Bhojpuri song written and performed by my paternal grandfather, Ramsaran, in the 1930s, in honor of Uriah Butler, a labour leader of that time: Uriah Butler garibo ke khaatir, apne praan ko khelgayaa.
Beneath these images, binders that contain, like the file cabinets lining the adjacent wall, material relevant to my teaching and ongoing writing projects: my notes on literary texts; writing exercises; historical material accessed through archives, libraries, museums, cultural organizations; clippings from Trinidadian and American newspapers; academic essays; information relating to the Indian diaspora, particularly the old plantation diaspora; interviews with elders in the village of sugarcane workers and farmers in which I grew up; drafts of pieces of writing; video footage from a rapidly changing Trinidad that I hope, at some point, to edit, compose – in the vein of my earlier video-work – into sequences of visual poems.
I have not yet been able to unlearn the idiosyncratic method of typing I developed at college (I didn’t know how to type when I left Trinidad), so we’ve had a wooden stand constructed for my laptop which has saved me from many a neck crick. Tucked beneath this, books I’ve been jumping between: Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, Hugh Tinker’s A New System of Slavery: The Export of Indian Labour Overseas 1830-1920, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners, Michael Ondaatje, Grace Paley, Nikolai Leskov, Charles Simic, an anthology of Caribbean short stories. More books and material of current interest on either side of the stand, piled atop the file cabinets, beside a corner shelf reserved for Caribbean literature, texts about Trinidad and Tobago.
On the desk, apart from books: cups of pens, a lamp—unspecial, but familiar. Up into the cubby-holes: journals I jot ideas in, literary magazines, junky things I resist discarding. The post-it notes stuck to the edge of the desk guide my writing like that broken line down the centre of the road. Higher up, a printer, speakers for music, folders, books: a collection of postwar Polish poetry edited by Milosz, poetry by Muriel Rukeyser, Jeremy Cronin, Dennis Brutus, Lorna Goodison, Martin Carter, Mahadai Das, Wislawa Szymborska, my father—Kenneth Parmasad, fiction by Tagore, Harold Sonny Ladoo; a dictionary, thesaurus, a brass murti of Saraswati I acquired on what I remember to be my first visit to an Indian-Caribbean temple in Queens, old bangles, photographs. It’s been over a year since I assessed the items on these upper shelves; they are footprints in dried mud.
I didn’t develop the practice of writing at a desk, in a closed room, facing a wall, until I left Trinidad to attend college. When I visit Trinidad I still like to write outside, by hand, or drag my small desk, if it’s not raining, into the upstairs porch with its view of the Northern mountain range, this Tanty watering her plants, that one sweeping the gap in front ofher house, the boys playing cricket in the road. I am not sensitive to shifts in light there.
Q: What South Asian themes are you interested in exploring in your work?
Cities of the Dead, according to its author, Joseph Roach, “shows how the memories of some particular times and places have become embodied in the through performances.” Roach further states: “…the voices of the dead may speak freely now only through the bodies of the living.”
In the Caribbean, Indian indentureship ended decades ago.
Sugarcane plantations are no more.
The government of Trinidad and Tobago announced last January that 2007 would mark the end of the sugarcane industry in the island—a watershed period in Trinidad’s history and, particularly, the history of the Indian community in Trinidad for, since 1845, when Indian indentured labourers were brought to the island to toil in conditions of bondage on plantations, the lives of masses of Indians, sugarcane workers and farmers, have been intimately tied to and dependent on the fortunes of sugar.
So much has changed, and yet, so much remains the same.
Though Indian-Trinidadians constitute half the population of Trinidad and have shaped and given their lives to that place for almost two hundred years, they are still called “East Indian” in that context—the same term used to describe them in colonial documents; it appears beside that other acceptable colonial designation, “coolie” (a derogatory term comparable to “nigger”). Many Indian-Trinidadians have also come to refer to themselves as “East Indian”. In Trinidad, I might be called an East Indian, West Indian. Here, in the United States, filling out official forms in different contexts, I have often had to choose between the categories: South Asian, Black/Caribbean. When, in one instance, I chose Black/Caribbean, the officer behind the desk took one look at me and said that I had to identify myself as South Asian. When I told her that I was both Indian and Caribbean – that my ancestors had lived in Trinidad for almost two hundred years – she shrugged. “You’re not black,” she said. Interestingly, the Black/Caribbean or Black/West Indian equation is also present in much American social scientific writing.
When I write, I think of these things—of the indelible marks left on us by history—how the voices of the dead continue to speak through the bodies of the living. I think of the contestation that exists between humankind and history: how we strive to be makers of history as history simultaneously makes us. I think of a Trinidadian sugarcane farmer – I will call her, Radha – who, in the political struggle waged by small sugarcane farmers in the 1970s to repeal an oppressive piece of Trinidadian legislation, pushed a policeman’s gun out of her face and asked: “Why you pointing a gun at me for? This is a peaceful struggle we having here.” I think of the Guyanese sugarcane worker and political organizer, Kowsilla (aka Alice), who became a martyr in 1964 when an estate scab drove a tractor through her, severing her body in two. I think of an Indian-Jamaican friend of mine, the descendant of indentured laborers, who walks into a room at a Massachusetts college where her friends (whose parents hark from South Asia) are sharing “Indian-Indian” food, hears the word, “aloo”, and bursts into an excited torrent of questions. What does the word mean, she asks urgently, what does it mean; for her grandmother in Jamaica used to use it, but the old woman is now dead and that word, dead with her, so what does it mean? Her friends, laughing incredulously, tell her: potato. She, clutching the word, fills with tears. Around the word, aloo, lit on a stage, I picture a space so dark with eroded sound, image, that the absence seems to shriek.