Commentary on Girmitiyas: The making of their memory-keepers from the Indian Indentured Diaspora

A FEW months before Professor Brij Lal passed away late last year, his edited book, Girmitiyas: The making of their memory-keepers from the Indian Indentured Diaspora, was released to the public.
The idea of the book emerged from the thought that historians generally write about what they have researched and that it was time for scholars of Girmiyitas to write about themselves.
In the words of Lal: “The book is not about the making of history and historiography, but rather about the making of the historian, of the influences that have shaped their approach to scholarship, the broader intellectual impulses – social history, gender studies, oral narratives, creative non-fiction which underpin it – of the faces of people behind the professional mask [p.6].”
The contributing authors, as listed in the table of contents, are as follows: Brinsley Samaroo (Trinidad), Lomarsh Roopnarine (Guyana/U.S.), Ruben Gowricharn (Suriname/Holland), Brij Lal (Fiji/Australia), Celine Ramsamy-Giancone (Reunion), Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie (South Africa), Goolam Vahed (South Africa), Kalapana Hiralal (South Africa), Rajend Mesthrie (South Africa), Clem Seecharan (Guyana/UK) and Ashwin Desai (South Africa). Lal tried to have authors from Suriname, the French Caribbean and Mauritius to contribute to the book but with little luck.
The above authors provided a fascinating narrative of their personal and academic lives “with refreshing candour… of their journeys and transformations, their doubts and disappointments and contestations and controversies their works have generated [p.6],” Samaroo wrote on becoming a historian while Roopnarine shared his improbable journey from Berbice and beyond.
Gowricharn documented how he overcame the odds to become an established scholar. Lal assessed his academic journey from Fiji to India and eventually to Australia. Ramsamy-Giancone showed how her family’s history remained foreign in her native land. Dhupelia-Mesthrie provided an interesting story of how she became an accidental historian. Vahed wrote about writing history at a time of change in South Africa.
Hiralal delved into an introspective unveiling, revealing a bitter-sweet journey of self-discovery. Mesthrie demonstrated how he emerged from the sinews of indenture to become an academic. Seecharan wrote about his passion for cricket on the plantation zones of Port Mourant. Desai titled his chapter as tales of a devil child.
Despite the fact that the authors are from different regions of the world and shared some differences in their writings, many common themes emerged from the book. First, they are all off-spring of indentured servants who were brought to replace slavery in the British Empire in the 19th century. Second, they show how their upbringing was shaped by the impact of indenture. Third, after spending most of their early years of life in their specific indentured zones, they migrated to overseas destinations, namely, to core countries, studying at major universities.
Four, they have never forgotten where they came from. Five, they are the first-and second- generation of Girmitiyas’ writers starting from the 1970s and beyond. Six, they have spent substantial time overseas, and some never returned to live in their former homeland.
With regard to contributions, many can be gleaned. Like their indentured ancestors who crossed the kala pani to work in distant sugar colonies and eventually left a rich legacy waiting to be told more fully, the authors have produced some marvellous essays not found in the writings of indentured servitude.
The essays are original. It is fitting that these authors through their personal lives told us about the overarching conditions and suffering of subalternity, as well as their determination to march out of it, complementing the notion that Indians are known for sacrifice and thrifty habits.
Lal posits: “The stories they [authors] tell go close to the hearts of how we understand ourselves and our place in the larger scheme of things. We live within our histories as concerned citizens, not outside or above it as disinterested observers. We are what we are (p.4).”
So magnificently put, and what is also moving is that these authors, the descendants of the indentured, have had a hand in writing their people’s history rather than have it told by others, “a pawn [of] other peoples’ games” and a curse of history.  One message of this book is that the study of Girmitiya is no longer an appendage to world history and literature. It is gradually moving from the margin to the mainstream and the contributors must be commended for helping us in this leaping journey (

Scroll to Top
All our printed editions are available online
Subscribe to the Guyana Chronicle.
Sign up to receive news and updates.
We respect your privacy.