Beyond the Kala Pani

The Voices of Indo-Caribbean Women
By Ramabai Espinet

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The Beginning

They came in ships

From across the seas, they came,
Britain, colonizing India,
transporting her chains
from Chota Nagpur and the Ganges
plain.

Westwards came the Whitby,
The Hesperus,
the Island-bound Fatel Rozack.

Wooden missions of imperialist design.
Human victims of Her Majesty's victory.

They came in fleets.
They came in droves
like cattle
brown like cattle,
eyes limpid, like cattle.

Some came with dreams of milk-and-honey riches,
fleeing famine and death:
dancing girls,
Rajput soldiers, determined, tall,

escaping penalty of pride,
stolen wives, afraid and despondent,

crossing black waters,
Brahmin, Charmar, alike,
hearts brimful of hope.

1988 marked the 150th year of Indian arrival in the Caribbean. The occasion was observed with scholarly and other kinds of deliberations in New York, Toronto and in several Caribbean locations. Since then, OSSICC (Ontario Society for Studies in Indo-Caribbean Culture) has observed the event annually. At Desh Pradesh, OSSICC facilitated the production of Beyond the Kala Pani (Black Water). This article is a record of the creative journey which resulted in the play.

The words of this poem by Mahadai Das, a Guyanese poet and the author of Bones, begin the play as the actors appear on stage in a dance sequence simulating movements on board a ship. The first scene takes place on the deck of this ship of indenture, with its cargo of 'coolies.'

The Historical Setting

In 1838, the ship Fatel Rozack left Calcutta on a voyage to Demerara in the colony of British Guiana (now Guyana) on the north eastern tip of South America. Indentured labourers were on board bound for the sugar-cane fields of Guyana, their labour bailing out the fortunes of planters who, after the emancipation of slaves in 1838, found themselves without the means to keep their estates going at a desired profit. To the labourers, the voyage meant work and money to be saved and brought back to India. They were, for the most part, simple village people who were led to believe that the islands to which they were journeying were a short distance away. When months later, they disembarked on the other side of the world, exhausted and bewildered, several of their number had died at sea, while others were ravaged by fevers and disease. This was the inauspicious start of India in the Caribbean.

Indentureship continued by fair and foul means until the year 1917. During this period, thousands of Indians arrived in the Caribbean, theirgreatest concentrations being in the colonies of Trinidad, Guyana, Surinam and the French island of Guadeloupe, although there are minority populations in virtually every island today. Today, Indians form 20% of the population of the region and occupy positions in almost every sector of society. In spite of this, a sense of being marginalized in the social and political spheres has led to discontent and demoralization. One result of this has been significant migration, especially from Trinidad and Guyana.

For Indians, the ground for acculturation and assimilation into the social fabric of the Caribbean was not assured. The equation was complicated by the British colonial agenda of 'divide and rule' which led to deep political and other fissures between the two major races in countries like Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, even as the 'creolization' process continued unabated. The consequence for artistic and intellectual activity was that Indians were late in making an appearance in general, although such major figures as V.S. Naipaul and Samuel Selvon did emerge during the first surge in West Indian writing. Women's writing was even later in developing: in fact, literature produced by women of Indian extraction was virtually non-existent until a few years ago.

The impact was that of something large and hidden, even taboo, being exposed for the first time.

Breaking the Silence

The result of this series of events was that the experiences of Indian women during this passage of almost 150 years have been lost to their descendants except through fragments collected randomly over the years. And so it was, one Sunday afternoon in Toronto, Canada, that about fifteen or so of the grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters of these unwitting immigrants sat down together in a drawing room setting to collectively map their history. The occasion was a meeting for planning a session on ' Women's Issues' during the 4th annual Indo-Caribbean Heritage Day celebrations in Toronto.

As we talked together that evening, many of us realized that it was the first time that we were speaking about issues of importance to us, as women, in a gathering of other Indo-Caribbean women. That realization was exhilarating in itself. For those of us who had been active in the women's movement previous to this, it was particularly novel not to have to undertake a translation exercise before speaking honestly of setbacks or affirming well-known and loved practices in our own community.

Out of this amazing dialogue came the idea of dramatizing our collective experience as Indian women in a format which would tell the story of our journey historically up to the present. That was the scenario for the germination of the play, Beyond the Kala Pani. From the beginning it was a collective enterprise, and it remains one of the most wholehearted and generous cooperative efforts I have ever participated in. The pervading sense of unearthing something integral to our beings as Indian women drove the project forward.

Research on this project took several months; apart from printed resources, oral sources were consulted, interviews done, and there were forays made into material culture, dance and music. There was no budget for any of this because there was no time at hand in which to put the grant-writing machinery into effect. There were four writers, one for each character's period piece.

The play is innovative theatre in the extreme —it maintains no loyalty to any particular theatrical style or dramatic tradition, and the choppiness of its transitions empowers the text to demand that the audience perform closure in order to achieve comprehension. The minimalist set, multi-functional props and authentic language registers work toward an alienating effect.

The Play

Beyond the Kala Pani is a play which is one hour long. It is unique in that it is afirst attempt to dramatize the journey of the Indo-Caribbean woman from India, through the Caribbean to life in Toronto, 1992. Indentureship, toil, escape from the labour of the fields, consolidation in deepest secrecy, such is the history of Indian survival in the Caribbean, particularly the survival of thewomenfolk of that community. The 'consolidation agenda' (i.e. the acquisition of education as a means by which to attain material security) meant that intellectual pursuits were postponed in favour of practical, and immediately prestigious professions such as medicine and law. Nowadays, business and science subjects are the preferred occupational goals. The Arts and the Humanities remain a low priority among people who have not yet achieved 'place' and have little interest in reflection. Such is the dilemma of the fourth character in the play, a conflicted young woman who is torn between past and present. It is also the dilemma of the play itself. Very early in the process, it became clear that saturation was a very large problem. What should be left out?

Nothing.. .because nothing had been said about any of this until this moment. Everyone's grandmother and great-grandmother clamoured for her story to be told. The first performance utilized four characters from different historical periods: a woman on board the Whitby bound for Demerara; a woman on Plantation Port Mourant in British Guiana, circa 1930; a woman in Trinidad, circa 1960, migrating to Canada and experiencing life there; and finally, an alienated young woman in Toronto in 1990. In this first production, the characters remained isolated in their descendant's predicament. By the time the production was staged at Desh Pradesh, however, major alterations had occurred. One was the creation of the unifying figure of a storyteller, portrayed as an ancient crone, whose presence fused the narrative line together more tightly as she hovered over the opening movement and reappeared at the end with a lighted deya. While there is no overt statement of connection by a line of descent, all of the characters utilize the single name 'Rohini.' This is muted in all but the third character from Trinidad who works through letters and journals and whose signature "Love, Rohini" becomes the name tag of all the women.

The shadowy helper-figure of the Koken, a device from Japanese Noh theatre, functioned as an agent serving to execute the minimalist features of the play—its scant props, for instance. The Koken, dressed in black, silent and improvisational, lent a post-modern touch to the stage.

One major development occurred in the use of characters themselves as focal pieces in the set construction. Each scene does this in a different way—for instance, in the ship scene, while Rohini, on board the ship from India, delivers her monologue, other actors create the squalid environment through sound effects while the Koken holds the sail aloft.

Honor Ford-Smith, founding artistic director of the Sistren Theatre Collective in Jamaica, took on the job of lead director. Under her direction, major choral improvisations were worked out. Devika Chetram of the Tarana Dance Company gave advice on dance improvisations.

At Desh Pradesh, the play touched a raw nerve in the diasporic South Asian community. Many, many people, from areas outside the Caribbean found that it was also their story. Forthe Indo-Caribbean community, however, the effect was electrifying. The impact was that of something large and hidden, even taboo, being exposed forthe first time. If it had been possible, the community's demand for the play would have turned the actors into a traveling company overnight.

The collective is now trying to decide how best to develop and disseminate the material gathered. In more ways than one, the form arrived at here is a product of its content, but as the content develops, the form keeps shifting. The final product is yet to come...

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Ramabai Espinet
Ramabai Espinet is a writer and a cultural activist in Toronto.
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