By Ruma Chakravarti
The first time I found out that the Singhs whose name I had seen on the array of letterboxes downstairs were not Indians was when Mrs. Singh came visiting. It was the weekend after we had finally moved into university housing. It had been one and a half months since we arrived in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea. Until a week ago, we were living in a hotel while the flat earmarked for us was being repainted.
We were both trying to make the transition from living in a single room with one small closet back to living in an apartment. Our accommodation was situated on the third floor of a rather sterile-looking block of expatriate housing within the university. It wasn’t easy, but having all our meals catered for and being able to swim twice a day in the hotel pool seemed to make up for any inconvenience caused by a month of having to put things back in suitcases every day, simply to keep the space free for the business of living. As a result, we were now luxuriating in the freedom of scattered papers, unfolded clothing and eating our meals without being watched by strangers.
On this Saturday, just as we finally arranged all fifty books brought over from India on an ambitious arrangement of planks and block and hung our prints of Kalighat paintings and Bhupen Kakkar on the white-washed concrete walls, the doorbell chimed once, and we looked at each other, relieved to have company.
Leaving Atul sitting in a nest of electrical wires as he attempted to set up the new music system, I opened the door. To my surprise and immediate delight, there was an Indian woman waiting outside.
“Hello, Namaste, my name Savita Singh. Main aapki padoswali hoon.”
I was overcome by a rush of homesickness although I had never known a single Singh back home. I invited her in and as she walked ahead of me, I noticed her long hair plaited to the very end with a beaded tassel. When we were both seated, I said, “I am Saoni. That is my husband Atul.”
“Namaste, Mr. Sen, my husband is Mr. Singh in the physics department. You have met him, no?”
I answered for Atul, saying, “I don’t think so. Atul is in the English department.”
“Ji, I have been anxious to meet you! Ever since I heard a new family is moving in, I have been waiting.”
I said, “It is nice to have neighbours from the same country!”
“You’re from Fiji too? Where, Suva or Nadi?”
“No, I meant India, so are you from Fiji?”
“Yes, my family from Lautoka, but Mr. Singh’s family has big business in Suva, three shopping malls and Damodar Cinema.”
As I took in the information, I felt amused by the name of the movie theatre, as it was not one I associated with something so obviously 20th-century as a movie theatre. As a name in India, it is now restricted to old men of a certain socioeconomic background.
In the meantime, Mrs. Singh, who had been looking keenly at the tribal print cushions on our new black lounge, looked at my shorts and asked, “You have come from Australia, no?”
“No, we are from India.”
Atul, who had managed to extricate himself from his wires now stood behind me, his hand resting on my shoulder. He now spoke.
“How long have you been here?”
“Seven years, for me, but for Mr. Singh it will be ten years of service next year.”
“Ten years?” The overwhelming tone of surprise in both our voices must have been obvious to her but she did not seem to mind.
She looked at the boxes piled in what was to be the study or spare room through the door and asked, “No baby yet?” before looking back and fixing me with such an openly curious look that I gulped hard. Atul’s hand tightened for a moment, and I smiled, inwardly seething at the kind of reaction these ignorant questions could still get out of me.
I said, “Not everyone can have children.”
Her curious look was now replaced by something that I did not recognize at all. She stuck her tongue out and said, “Mr. Singh told me not to ask, but I forgot. We have ourselves two sons, Krisna and Rohan. They are studying in Standard One and Standard Three. A handful they are, typical boys!”
I remained silent, and she talked for a while about the fact that the boys were not learning to speak Hindi at the International School. Apparently, all the Indian children either went to that or to schools with boarding facilities in Australia.
After a while, she said, “You have a nice flat. Maybe big for two people, but nice.”
Atul was in the kitchen, and as I looked across the island separating us from him, he mouthed something at me.
I asked Mrs. Singh, “Would you like some Indian tea? We brought some Darjeeling with us from India.”
“Yes, I am a big tea drinker. Real Darjeeling is very nice, best in the world, no?”
“Yes, it is very good,” Atul answered as I filled the electric kettle with water.
To make up for my earlier annoyance I said, “Would you like to see the flat?”
Our guest followed me. As soon as we were inside the spare bedroom, she smiled coyly and asked, “Did you have a love marriage?” The way she said it, it sounded like ‘louwe’ and I had to suppress a smile.
“Yes, our friends thought we would be perfect together, and they were right.”
Mrs. Singh was silent for a second before remarking that she had had an arranged marriage.
As we looked at the view from the balcony, I pointed towards the mountains at Sogeri, which loomed out of some low cloud in the distance and asked her if she had been there.
She answered, “Yes, many times. You have seen?”
She then looked at me and asked, “Do you know Hindi?”
I was about to make a joke about Bengalis and the Hindi we speak, when I saw the eagerness in her eyes.
“Yes, I can read it.”
“I’ve got a letter in Hindi, can you read it to me?” she asked, announcing she would go and get it. I walked out and saw Atul pouring the tea into three cups.
“I saw her leave. Did she forget something?”
“No but she wants me to read a letter; in Hindi.”
“I thought she knew Hindi!”
“I don’t think so.”
As we waited for her to reappear, I sat at the table with my tea. There was a shuffle at the door and Mrs. Singh came in, her face shining with excitement. As she sat down, she pushed a sheet of paper in front of me. It was covered in water stains and the top of the sheet had disintegrated around a rusty staple mark. I held it gently and read from the faint script.
I have not had a chance to get paper to write on since we left. I am able to get some money for the ring you gave me before I was put on the train. The ship is very crowded and many people have been sick. We are allowed on deck every day for four hours if the sun is shining. The sea stretches in all directions and I have not seen another ship or any land for the past twenty days. The ship sways much more than the boats on the Ganga. I was very affected at the beginning, but now I grow used to the motion.
We have enough to eat, although some of the bread is already full of insects. Some of us have asked to be given flour to make our own rotis but there is some problem with that. We all sit and eat and sleep and shit together. There is little to tell Brahmin from Chamaar on board the floating hell we are on.
I hope our mother did not fall ill when she heard Raghu and I had run away to sign the girmit. When we come back from the South Seas, we will have more money than anyone in Kotiya has ever seen.
Do give offerings in our name to the temple in M’nagar during the full moon coming up. We will still be at sea and will do our own prayers to the moon.
Accept our respects. Give all the elders assurance of our good intentions.
We remain faithfully
Your loving brothers
Rambilas and Raghu’
As I read the letter, my eyes filled with tears. Atul and Savita sat in silence. Then Savita began to cry. Great dry sobs. And I held her hand and thought about those men. I thought about Atul and me, and about Savita’s sons who would never learn how to read Hindi.
About the story:
The British reinvention of slavery led to the trafficking of 60,965 people from India to Fiji. Of these 45,439 boarded ships in Calcutta. These people signed a girmit (agreement), which employed them as workers in the sugarcane fields of Fiji for periods of up to five years. After that time, they could return to India at their own expense. If they lived, after ten years the government was supposed to pay for their return to India. Few managed to save up fares. Forty-three ships made 87 journeys with their human cargo until indentured or bonded labour was made illegal in 1920.
The girmityas are the ancestors of most of the Indians of Fiji.
Ruma Chakravarti was born in Africa, had her schooling in India and has lived in seven countries. A high school mathematics teacher in her other life, Ruma is an avid blogger, writer and people watcher. Her interests include Rabindranath Tagore, reading, folklore and music, crafts, gardening and films. She currently lives in Adelaide, Australia with her family which includes three children, one dog and one rabbit. Her blogs include: http://animikha.wordpress.com/: Translations of Tagore http://banglarmukh-ruma.blogspot.in/: Translations of other Bengali writers.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.