Across Three Continents
An Indo-Guyanese Family Experience

by Joseph S. Persaud. Palm Tree Enterprises, 304pp. Bartlett, IL, USA. 2002. ISBN 0-9723647-0-6
(Author: 630-372-0996. jspersd@juno.com)


Reviewed by Seopaul Singh

In documenting his memoirs in Across Three Continents the author, Joseph S. Persaud, was enamored with his boyhood recollections of the transplantation of his grandfather, Sadhoo, into British Guiana in 1878; and more so with his grandfather's accounts of the Indenture system. He wrote, "Most of my stories about my roots, however, came from my grandfather with whom I used to have many conversations." In his retrospection, this presented the basis for a parallel comparison of his own migration to the USA, and thus the span of three continents by his family – from India to South America by his grandfather, and from South America to North America with his immigration. The book also presents the story of the development of the family tree spanning four generations – his grandfather's, his father's, his own and his children's. The seed that germinated into that family tree was his grandfather Sadhoo.

Persaud gives a quick review of the family status since his migration in 1944 to the USA to further his education. After admittedly disappointing his father, he made a reconciliatory visit back home in 1960. This was the last time he saw his father alive. Then after years of persuasion by a life-long lawyer-friend, Milton, he finally planned a follow-up visit after the 1992 elections in Guyana. He noted, "My reluctance to visit Guyana for the past thirty years was also based on the political situation in the country." He briefly describes the political struggle for independence, which actually started in the fifties, and resulted in the split of the PPP.

The author, having spent much of his boyhood at the feet of his grandfather Sadhoo, attempted to chronicle his memoirs building upon the recollections. Sadhoo was born in Joreworepore, Luknow, India, in 1854. Persaud quickly sketches Sadhoo's experience of the prevailing poverty and famine of the nineteenth century India, which leveled everyone regardless of caste to a common goal – 'work'. His grandfather recalled a major deception, "The recruiter told him exaggerated stories of a life of abundance in a place called Demra (Demerara)." The lure of a paying job in Demra for a contract of five years was incentive enough. In the people's desperation to find a better life for themselves and their families, they willingly made the foolhardy decision to cross the "kala pani" (black water).

In an almost straightforward narrative, Persaud walks the reader through the paces of selection and recruitment at one of the depots in Benares, India. He recounted Sadhoo's words, "Upon making this commitment, the recruiter took him to Benares, where he languished for about a week until the head recruiter dispatched him and some others by train to the main depot at Garden Reach in Calcutta." The recruits' objective to enlist with the ‘arkhatis’ was nudged on by the yoke of famine and abject poverty which were fast engulfing their homeland. The reader is introduced to the 'depot' life of the recruits – their suffering, desperation, apprehensions and misgivings. Sadhoo remembered, "The Depot had a hospital and a dispensary to take care of those recruits who were sick when they arrived…most of the recruits were weary and dehydrated to the point of collapse after experiencing severe hardships to get there. Some suffered cholera, dysentery, or diarrhea (and sometimes all of the above), and they had to be hospitalized."

Across Three Continents may yet be a single unparalleled account of the Indenture System by a third generation Guyanese. The author takes the reader on board the Malabar in 1878, journeying with the huddled masses in cell-like compartment, once the berths of slaves. The reader finds that Indians indentureds were transported under similar conditions as the slaves endured. The only change was in the human cargo of replacement labor, direly needed for the survival of the sugar plantations. The information imparted is invaluable to understand what Indian indentureds went through as the Colonials sought to use them as substitutes for the manumitted slaves.

Boarding the Malabar at 5:00am on November 1878, "… was sight to behold…everyone moved with reluctance gazing into space…." The author quotes Sadhoo, "Dissatisfaction could be seen in all their faces as the 250 souls aboard the Malabar – about four women to every ten men – silently tried to claim their share of the cramped living space…. The staff helped everyone 'get settled' into their scant living quarters…each immigrant …was entitled to seventy-two square feet of living space.

The reader is taken on a risky and longer voyage (chapters 4 to 9). Except for the forced recruitment, Indians faced almost identical perils of the deep, diseases and death, as the slaves before them. One gets an immediate horror-filled insight into what transpired aboard the Malabar during the life and death voyage of the first thirty days into the Bay of Bengal. "High waves continued pounding the sides of the ship, flooding the top deck again and again…. Everyone was thoroughly wet and uncomfortable. The surgeon's staff, with the help from the Sirdars scrambled from cabin to cabin to render comfort to those who were sick, but their task was fruitless. The smell of vomit saturated the air in cabins, and the emigrants found it hard to breathe."

The horror continued for the jahajis (ship-brothers) as the Malabar entered the Indian Ocean, sailed down under the Cape of Good Hope, and proceeded to negotiate the trans-Atlantic route of the infamous slave trade. "The dry foods which they forced down their mouths for five days began to take their toll on their systems." The recruits witnessed several funerals, the toll of sickness and malnutrition, during those full three months at sea. On a few short-lived occasions the jahajis drowned their sorrows in sessions of music, dance and games on deck. The author delves into the fraternity which quickly developed among the shipmates. On their arrival, their respect for each other continued as they were housed in the same slaves logies. On his grandfather’s voyage, of the 250 recruits, 228 made it to the British Guiana on February 22, 1879. They were deployed to the sugar plantations as follows: Blairmont 70, Port Mourant 80 and Albion 78. They were separated, being assigned to gangs of laborers, this inflicting another blow to the already strained emotions of the jahajis.

From chapters 11 to 14, Persaud details the life of the indentureds at Albion. Here his grandfather was re-indentured after he served his contract. With a six-acre plot he entered into marriage ready to raise a family. This saw the genesis of Sadhoo's second generation (Guyanese) family. Their progress and success were laudable, as the author’s father (James Sukhdeo Sadhoo) began to build on a sure foundation. The author winds up his memoirs tracing his father's family development into a budding Middle/Upper Class status in the Colony.

His second visit to Guyana in 1992 brought back other memories, and accounted for the seeming break of the narrative on indenture and family life on the Plantation. Later in 1997 he paid a third visit to Guyana. This was his ‘Sentimental Journey’ (Chapters 15 to 25). He remembers the help he received from J.W. Chinapen and David Dharry in his stint as a Teacher, and the good times he shared in that profession, both at Bush Lot and later Bohemia Canadian Mission Schools.

From chapter 26, the author recounted his story in earnest, focusing on his move to the USA. This was the second leg of the family migration – from the Colony, then British Guiana. In 1944, he set out to pursue a coveted education in medicine to satisfy the aspirations of a dedicated father. However, entering Witting College, he showed that the vicissitudes of his life in the USA (used to compare that of the hardships of his grandfather in Guyana) did not lend much favor to the pursuit of medicine. He was expelled from Witting College without a reasonable explanation, and had to enroll in DePaul College to retain his student visa status. There he met his sweetheart Joanna who would be his life-mate. Then another hurdle presented itself in the form of a "higher bar" for entry into DePaul's medical program. He had to quit college to find work to maintain himself in the country, which he found, gave preference to returning of war-vets. Discrimination generally against immigrants was obvious.

Despite the author's efforts to keep his life a secret, a visiting friend apprised his father about the turn of events in his life, and his compounded dilemma, getting married against his father's will to his white girl friend Joanna (which union bore six children). After working a few jobs to take care of family, he eventually went into the Plastic business and became a very successful entrepreneur in his adopted homeland, in Wisconsin, USA. At age seventy-five, he retired from business, but helped one of his sons who also became successful in business. In short, he had eventually achieved the ‘American dream’ (comparing well to Sadhoo's success in British Guiana), retiring quite satisfied with the way everything turned out for him and his assimilated family. Herein the success story of the family to the fourth generation was consummated.

Across Three Continents is a very insightful account of the life of an Indentured servant who became successful, and the spin-offs of that success into three generations. I sincerely recommend this reading to all, especially Indians, who would dare to understand the Indian diaspora, their status today, and their destiny.