The sky was an unbelievable blue with only a lonely, white, drifting cloud to disrupt its absolute rule in the heavens. The sea was a reflection of the blue sky, except near the shore, where the water became a translucent emerald-green. From the rough planking of the dock Sham watched the ship, which had brought him and more than a few hundred others over the depths of the dark ocean, gently rocking as the small waves washed her hull on their way to the shore. His senses told him that he had never seen anything so lovely and yet so alien as the waters of the Caribbean. Simultaneously, he was conscious only of misery and loss.
Early that morning, they had disembarked, being ordered to bathe in the ocean and put on their cleanest garments. Three months of being pent up in the stinking hold of the vessel had left him and the others reeking of sweat, feces and urine. A few of his fellow indentured laborers had not survived the voyage from India and had been tossed overboard unceremoniously as fodder for the predators of the ocean deeps. Today, after cleansing themselves, they would be told where they were going, and to whom they would belong as contracted indentured laborers.
He had been informed by the clerks and British scribes, along with his fellow bondsmen, that this was an island in the British West Indies called Grenada. The bay where the ship had come to port was wide but sheltered by steep hills covered to the summits with trees of startlingly green foliage. He looked around in wonder at the hustle and bustle of the port. There were large and small ships, some being loaded with goods for England, some being unloaded with the cargo of the Orient from whence they had traveled for the last three months. Small boats were hustling to and from the larger ships out into the gulf ferrying passengers and goods from faraway lands.
He and the other indentured laborers were ordered to stand in an orderly line leading to a table occupied by two clerks and an interpreter. When it was his turn, the interpreter asked him, barking out the question harshly, “What’s your name, boy?” He answered, “Pultu, sir.” “I suppose he doesn’t know how to spell it,” the clerk shrugged condescendingly and turned to the other who replied, “Just write Paltoo, It’s in the ledger.” That’s how my great grandfather got his name; from the casual remark of an Englishman.
A white man, portly of habit and red-faced, already sweating in the early morning heat, pointed him out to the clerks. The white man was accompanied by a young Memsahib, who carried a light parasol to protect her delicate complexion. She had her white-gloved hand resting on his arm and stared at the brown coolies who mostly kept their eyes on the ground as she passed alongside. Sham had never seen a white Memsahib before having been born and lived in a small rural village far from the British, so he stared at her, noticing the blonde hairs on her arms and especially on her upper lips where beads of sweat were already gathering. The girls in his village had no hair on their upper lips.
He got a nudge from his neighbor who said in Hindi, “Don’t look at her. The Englishman would not like it and you will be punished!” He looked down immediately but not before he noticed that she had a good look at him. He noted that she had the light-colored eyes of a tiger.
“By Jove!” the white man was heard to say, “do you really think that these skinny little beggars can actually do the work? They look half the size of our blacks.” The girl with him tittered at his remarks, nodding rather vigorously in agreement with his casual assessment.
Sham was placed with a group of men standing apart from the others. He looked at the huge black men squatting dockside playing cards on the warped wooden planking, blackened by age and endless salt spume. They were large and muscular men with the bulging muscles associated with the labor of heavy lifting. Their ragged shirts were open to the waist displaying their huge, shiny-black torsos glistening with sweat from the morning sun. Every now and then they slammed their cards on the ground with great gusto amid noisy laughter like children on a playground. They seemed to be enjoying themselves, pointing and laughing in derision at the small, skinny and scantily clad brown men trooping behind the white overseers. Picking up his pitifully few belongings, Sham followed the rest of his group into the hills of the cocoa plantation.
One week later, he watched from the top of a hill overlooking the bay, as the ship got underway to sail back to England laden with the products of the Indies. Soon, her sails filled, and she slid slowly, as if grudgingly, over the horizon.
He remembered his father saying to him in their humble peasant hut in the village, “Son, there is no future for you here. Your older brothers will inherit what we have. The British have promised to let you live and work in their countries for five years. At the end of that time you may return home with the pay they have promised or take a piece of land over there for your labor. This is an old country and there is very little hope for people of our lowly status here. You are young still and your life lies ahead. Make the best use of this opportunity. Learn from the English. They come from a small country, but they have conquered the whole world. One day, if you work hard, you may be able to compete with, and even outdo them.”
He knew that his father admired the British even though they had invaded and occupied his country. He saw the silent tears of his mother as she stirred the cooking pot on the earthen stove knowing that she would probably never see him again in this life. His brothers and sisters gave him the hugs of childhood’s end as he left with his small bundle of clothing wrapped in a piece of cotton cloth. He hopped onto the slowly moving oxcart and watched his village disappear as the sun climbed into the sky.
Standing on the hilltop his memories faded like the ship disappearing over the horizon and he felt deep in his soul that he would never see India again. He turned and walked slowly back to his small, cramped room at the barracks, never looking back. He thought it would be of no use to pray to Allah or Shiva in this place because most likely a Christian white man’s God ruled here. In this land there would be neither Hindus nor Muslims. They were all from the same country, ancestry and culture; doing the same jobs. He would study the growing of the cocoa and coffee, the drying and preparation procedures so that when he got his own piece of land, he would be ready. He would even be prepared to adopt the white man’s God if He proved more powerful here in the west. He hunched his thin, bare shoulders and walked back, slowly at first and then increasing his pace, as a firm resolve set in; hope balancing loss for the moment.
One hundred and fifty years later, his great grandson stood on a podium in Rajasthan to address the local chapter of the Indian Medical Association. He gazed at the sea of faces below, the educated Brahmins and high-caste Indian professionals who had come to hear him speak. He thought of his great grandfather, the little peasant with his dhoti (loincloth) and puggree (turban) and with a deep breath, addressed the waiting throng. “I must apologize for not giving tonight’s lecture in Hindi for my great grandfather was one of you. However, I bring you his greetings from a long time ago, and from a very faraway place. It has been quite a journey, but I am very certain that he is here with me in spirit tonight.”
And, as he launched into his address to the waiting throng, he imagined the ghost of his ancestor looking on, smiling in approval and beaming with pride. He had returned to his country looking through the eyes of his descendant. His great grandson had completed the circle! He had fulfilled an ancestor’s promise. Not only had he learned from the Englishman but had outdone him!
[The “Old Indian Laborer” photo is from a video by Barry Joel Desaine called Journey of the Jahajis.]
Ray Paltoo, retired M.D, joined OLLI in 2011. He has taken OLLI courses in literature, writing, comparative religion, history and word processing.
Ray teaches life story writing for OLLI. He is also working on finishing a novel. He will teach “Life Story Writing I” during our Spring Semester.