Janam Janam: The Double Diaspora of the Indo-Caribbean Community
"To be an Indian or an East Indian from the West Indies is to be a perpetual surprise to people outside the region."
—V.S. Naipaul, 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature
It’s September 5, 1997 and Joy steps off of a TransMeridian Airlines flight. A young mother, just seventeen days shy of her twenty-second birthday, she cradles a sleeping infant against her left hip and holds the hand of a curious toddler. She slowly makes her way down the passenger boarding bridge, thankful for the opportunity to stretch her legs after the eight hour flight from Timehri Airport to John F. Kennedy. Her husband, Ram, is close behind her, a small duffle bag containing baby products, photographs, and a Bible is slung over his shoulders. They will spend the next 23 years learning to navigate life in this new city, 2,646 miles from the only other place they’ve called home. But for now, the only thing that matters is rest..and chai, of course.
Joy and her family belong to the estimated 85,000 East Indians who migrated from Guyana to the United States between 1981 and 1998. Ultimately settling down in South Richmond Hill, Queens—affectionately known as Little Guyana—they find themselves amongst the 227,582 Indo-Caribbeans in New York City, the third highest foreign-born population in the region. However, despite their considerable number, awareness of the community, its resilient history, and creolized culture beyond its own people is extremely limited.
From India to Indentured
Existence of East Indians in the Caribbean can be dated back as early as the 1830s. As Gaiutra Bahadur discusses in Coolie Woman, Imported as indentured laborers meant to replace the shortage of cheap labor that followed Europe’s abolition of the slave trade, more than a million Indians were brought to the Caribbean colonies—Guyana, Trinidad, Jamaica, Suriname, Mauritius and Fiji to name a few—over the course of several decades. Here, the laborers would primarily work on sugar plantations, the most valuable export for the region. It’s documented that more than two thirds of indentured East Indians remained in the Caribbean once their contract was over, however, it’s worth noting that the reason for their permanent settlement was not a result of choice, but rather, a lack thereof.
When scouting for indentured laborers, recruiters primarily focused on two groups: ostracized women—widows, prostitutes, etc.—and men in need of financial opportunities who were infatuated by the idea of consistent work with the promise of eventual passage back home to their families. Of course, the European governments coordinating the importation of these laborers had no intention of supporting their return to India, and instead, attempted to tantalize them with the promise of land and sustainable economic freedom. What laborers quickly understood, however, is that a combination of forced extended contracts, violence, and degradation would be employed to keep them locked in a place of servitude. Referred to as “coolies”—an ethnic slur for the indentured laborers derived from the Tamil word kuli, meaning wages or hire—East Indians found themselves at the bottom of the racial hierarchy in the colonies. While many Indo-Caribbeans continue to use the term coolie to identify themselves, it continues to be seen as extremely offensive if used by someone external from the community.
In addition to the obstacles they found themselves up against within the colonies, the majority of the East Indians who traveled to the Caribbean were of Hindu belief. As such, if they returned to India and their former indentured status was exposed, they were often shunned due to their experience having crossed the ocean. Kala pani, translated to black water, is the belief that crossing the ocean to foreign lands marks one as being tainted and undesirable. At the time, Indians who returned from the Caribbean to India were met with either disgust or fear given that their community had no way of verifying what they consumed or practiced when abroad. Of course, with globalization and the normalization of migration, this belief no longer holds much water in India today, but at the time, it was a deciding factor for many returning Indians to venture back to the Caribbean.
Yearning to Belong
The 2020 Netflix original series, Indian Matchmaking, brought in a large viewership from both within and beyond the Desi community. Having been released for streaming on Netflix when much of the country was on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, a binge-able series that promised drama and potential romance was the pick-me up many folks needed. Unsurprisingly, the show prompted a swarm of online articles, tweets, and Instagram posts either condemning or defending the show and its portrayal of Indian culture.
However, despite the fallacies of the show and, more specifically, Sima Tamparia’s approach to what guarantees a healthy romantic match, I couldn’t help but fall head over heels for Nadia Jagessar. A wedding planner from New Jersey who was eager to find her happily ever after, signed up for the show with immense hopefulness that Auntie Sima would be able to help find her the man of her dreams. And while Nadia proves to be a fan favorite for a number of reasons, I can’t help but to deeply appreciate the fact that she brought Indo-Caribbean representation to a show designed with the Desi community in mind. As a Guyanese-American myself, Nadia’s mere presence in the show brought a level of visibility to the Indo-Caribbean community that many of us have never witnessed within the western countries we now call home. Never before did I imagine I could watch someone on a Netflix produced show make toast using a tawa and feel an immense sense of pride for my people.
Of course, perhaps the most relatable element of Nadia’s storyline—besides Auntie Sima’s shock when she learns that East Indians exist in the Caribbean—is her desire to just meet “a nice Indian guy” who she could potentially build a sustainable relationship with.
According to Nadia, she finds she has an easier time connecting with Indian men, and while this may very well be her personal truth, it cannot be overlooked that marriage is often used—intentionally or not—as a way for Indo-Caribbeans to legitimize their Indian heritage. This concept is highlighted by the fact that Nadia acknowledges that Indian men have told her that she is not “exactly Indian” and as such, not suitable for a long term commitment. Yet, she stands determined to find her Indian prince.
The fact is, Nadia’s apparent struggle with a love for her culture and the yearning to belong to the Indian community is pervasive amongst Indo-Caribbeans. While there is an acknowledgement of significant differences between the culture their forefathers possessed and the one that they maintain now, it’s often downplayed and quickly followed by the sentiment, “But we’re still Indian.” And yes, Indo-Caribbeans have worked diligently to protect as much of their South Asian heritage as possible. Every year, the Indo-Caribbean community comes together to celebrate Phagwah/Holi. Red saris continue to be the preferred wedding attire for brides, and words from Tamil, Bengali, Urdu and other Indian languages can be found in everyday vocabulary.
But, like many displaced people, Indo-Caribbeans had to adopt customs and practices from their new environment for the sake of survival. For example, the largest religious group in Guyana is Christianity, a lasting effect of colonialism. While majority of the indentured laborers who ventured to Guyana were either Hindu or Muslim, many families experienced conversion either through marriage (i.e. an indentured Indian woman marrying a European landowner, either through choice or by force) or schooling. Additionally, while remnants of Hindi remain in everyday speech, most Indo-Caribbeans speak Creolese, an English-based creole language that is often compared to Jamaican patois. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for South Asians to view Indo-Caribbeans in close proximity to their African counterparts, tying in a long standing history of anti-blackness within the Desi community. In the end, perhaps Ryan Persadie states it best when explaining that the divisiveness between Indo-Caribbeans and South Asians is the notion that they are “Indian-looking yet never Indian enough.”
Rebuilding the Village
In the early 2000s, Ramraj Jaglalmaikoo migrated to the United States from Penal, Trinidad and Tobago. Prior to his own migration, he worked to fund the passage of his wife and eight children who made the trip to America in the 1980s. His granddaughter, Abigail, a first generation American, believes her grandfather’s philosophy in life can be generalized to the Indo-Caribbean diaspora, as well as the larger South Asian diaspora:
I left a vehicle for the balance of my element, and when you have this good mind, you ride your father's chariot. To ride this chariot, do not blame anyone for your mistakes—The chariot is not given to those who don't deserve it. Who deserves it, will get the opportunity and that will be a transmigration ride.
Today, you can find Indo-Caribbean communities across the world, with many migrating to the United States, Canada, and England and, as a result, encountering their South Asian counterparts. Of course, there is always hope that as current and future generations from both communities continue to meet one another, understanding, empathy, and acceptance will flourish as well. However, there is one question that can’t help but to be asked: If one hundred years in the Caribbean was enough to alter South Asian culture, what will it look like as generations continue to migrate and assimilate into Western societies?