THE PROMISE or After All We've Done For You
THE PROMISE exposes the vicious propaganda spread against an entire nation. Here is a people who invented language and theatre, and whose religious philosophy, created millennia before the Christ, became so absolute that man became man’s own miracle!
This is the people who were duped and forced into a new system of slavery called indentureship.
THE PROMISE is a novel of passionate and tragic love, of outrageous abuse, and of absurdities and unsurpassed bigotry. While the gory ordeals of Rati and her fellowmen remain a testament against a century of oppression, the supreme morals of her people are preserved.
novel achieves the similar perspective of returning the pride and dignity of
the East Indian, defamed through A New
System of Slavery absurdly called, indentureship.
“The Promise offers
a rounded picture of the motivations and contradictions of a system whose
inherent inhumanity becomes more clearly visible, partly because its main
participants believed that what they were doing was right.” Frank Birbalsingh is author (The
Rise of Westindian Cricket), distinguished critic, and Professor of English at York
Contact: Marie Blair @ 402-310-2837
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The Promise: Sharlow Mohammed, Trinidad, 1995
A review by Professor Frank Birbalsingh.
The ancestors of most people in the English-speaking Caribbean derive either from Africa through slavery, or from India through indenture. That is why more than 50 percent of the current population of Guyana is Indian, and why Indo-Trinidadians and Afro-Trinidadians together account for more than 80 percent of the population of Trinidad. That is also why, if we consider the historical importance of slavery and indenture, we must think it strange that these two themes do not loom more largely in imaginative Caribbean literature.
To be sure, these themes are not
entirely neglected by the older writers: they have been previously
acknowledged, for example, by Edgar Mittelholzer (the
Kaywana trilogy), George Lamming (In the
Castle of my Skin), and Orlando Patterson (Die the Long Day); but
this acknowledgement is nothing compared to the depth of interest currently
displayed by younger writers like Caryl Phillips and
Fred D’Aguiar. In Higher Ground (1989), Cambridge
(1991), and Crossing the River (1993), for instance, Phillips provides
an in-depth exploration of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences both
for Africa and the New World of the Americas and the Caribbean.
Sharlow Mohammed’s third novel When Gods Were Slaves
(1993) also explores the consequences of the Atlantic slave trade in Trinidad
and Tobago; but there is a difference in that while the writers previously
mentioned are all Afro-Caribbean, Sharlow – from Trinidad
– is Indo-Caribbean.
Whether this difference is
significant or not should emerge from the forthcoming discussion of Sharlow’s fourth novel The Promise, which is
subtitled “After all We’ve Done for you” and which deals with Indian indentureship in Trinidad.
the first batch of indentured Indians arrived in Trinidad, in 1845, on the ship
“Fath al Razak” – Victory
to Allah. This ship appears as the “Fatel Rozach” in The Promise, and what the novel does is
to re-create, as exactly as possible, the actual circumstances under which this
first boatload of Indians were recruited in their homeland, shipped abroad, and
how they fared in their new place of settlement.
So far as historical accuracy is
concerned we get a hint of the novel’s success right from the beginning when it
portrays the recruitment of Indians for indenture. All that we may have read
about abstractions such as “push” factors – poverty, unemployment, famine, and
“pull” factors – deception, enticement and the false promise of riches – simply
spring to life as we witness the changing fortunes of Rati,
an 18-year-old Indian girl who is entrapped into indenture along with her
husband Guha. Rati and Guha live in the district of Gaya where wretched social and
economic conditions certainly “push” them to emigrate, but they are also
enticed and entrapped, “pulled” by unscrupulous “arkatia”
– recruiting agents; and before they know it, they are on the “Fatel Rozach” bound for Trinidad
or “Chinitat” as indentured Indians called the island.
In Trinidad, Rati
and Guha encounter hardships that are typical of
plantation life in the Caribbean. Working conditions are savage and inhuman.
Indentured Indians exploited, beaten and brutalized; women are sexually abused.
One estate manager-overseer “had broken the ribs of several Indians, and had
caused many to die.” And because medical care is rudimentary, the coolies, as
indentured Indians are known, contract a variety of diseases – venereal
diseases, dysentery, tuberculosis, hookworm, ground-itch, and chigoes. As for
the physical conditions of their agricultural work, nothing could be more
“Not only did they see venomous
reptiles, crawling and swimming in the drains and shallow pools, but ‘rakshasa’ demons had come to Chinitat.
During the dark nights, they saw balls of flame pitching over the forest of
It is a tribute to their
resilience that the indentured Indians not only survived these conditions but
preserved some measure of their culture in spite of them and the general
contempt of their employers for their religion, language and customs.
rape by Emmanuel Chase, the estate manager, provokes a crisis that forces her
and her husband to try to escape; but they are cut off by Chase, although Guha gets away and is never heard from again. Rati endures by herself and eventually reaches the age of
84. As the chief female protagonist Rati’s fate is
central to the narrative. Her physical toughness, loyalty to her husband, and
moral integrity see her through. These qualities gain clarity and depth out of
the contrast between Rati and another female
indentured Indian woman, Indrani, who may be equally
tough and resilient, but morally more pliant and flexible. Unlike Rati, Indrani is a wordly-wise courtesan who does not hesitate to trade her
sexual favours for concessions from her employers.
The contrast between these two women illustrates both the injustice and
iniquity of indenture in so far as it encourages moral equivocation and inward
corruption for the sake of survival.
This unsparing portrait is
evidently the result of careful study and meticulous research. Not only is the
portrait accurate in its details of hardships experienced by the victims of
indenture, but we are given this Indian indenture experience as it appears
within the larger context of the British empire and the political and economic
forces influencing the sugar industry in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. Thus we
are shown British plantation owners themselves and the problems they face. John
Paul, for instance, bastard son of Lord Thomas Fox, inherits a plantation in
Trinidad, but only after special pleading from his mother who is the daughter
of Lord Thomas’ gardener. This enables us to see the human dimensions of the indenture
experience in greater fullness, not just as a conflict between victims and victimisers, but as an experience in which either side felt
justified in what they did.
The Promise offers a rounded picture of the motivations and
contradictions of a system whose inherent inhumanity becomes more clearly
visible partly because its main participants believed that what they were doing
The very title of the novel
illustrates the inhuman nature of the indenture system. The title refers to methods
that were used to recruit Indians into indenture.
“Whatever their stories, all
/indentured Indian immigrants/ spoke of the promise made to them. Of lands where the streets were paved with gold, and where they
would earn many rupees. It became their hope, until the day when they
would return to their cherished homeland.”
But the promise itself was
false, and directly contradicted the actual hardships encountered by indentured
Indians when they arrived in the Caribbean. To have exploited the Indians is
one thing, but to have lured them into exploitation by filling them with false
expectations confirms the calculated iniquity of the entire system.
A major achievement of The
Promise is its success in portraying indentured Indians as victims both of
betrayal and of the greed of the planters and their agents, for the ironic
force of this Indian sense of betrayal heightens their suffering and infuses
the novel with a tragic intensity it would otherwise not have had.
By infusing When Gods Were
Slaves with similar intensity when portraying the suffering of African
slaves, Sharlow confirms that both Indians and
Africans endured similar victimisation at the hands
of British colonizers in the Caribbean, the Indians from 1845 to 1917 when indenture
ended, and the Africans from the 16th century to 1834 when slavery
was abolished in British territories. This victimisation
surely forms the bedrock for any basis of a common Trinidadian nationality
uniting the two major ethnic groups in Trinidad. This is the significance of Sharlow’s authorship of When Gods Were Slaves: that
an Indo-Trinidadian who may be expected to be sensitive to the injustice
suffered only by Indians in Trinidad, is able to empathise
with the similarly historic injustice suffered by Afro-Trinidadians. We may
consider this a unique achievement since it is not matched by any of the three
major Indo-Trinidadian novelists – V.S. Naipaul, Samuel Selvon
or Ismith Khan, and it holds out hope that for all
the cultural differences that separate the two ethnic groups, Indo-Trinidadians
and Afro-Trinidadians are fundamentally untied by a common nationality.
The language of The Promise
blends the more formal structure of Hindi, or its Bhojpuri dialect, with the
now outmoded stateliness of Victorian English. Even if it appears stilted, the
combination serves as a suitable medium for representing the experience of
indentured Indians and for use as a means of communication between these
Indians and their British employers. At any rate, the language is consistent
and plausible, and contributes authenticity to the novel’s re-creation of the
actual circumstances and day-to-day routine on Trinidad’s sugar plantations
during the second half of the 19th century.
The Promise can be said to do for Indian indentureship what novels by Phillips and D’Aguiar do for African slavery: present basic facts of Caribbean history in all their human complexity. Undoubtedly, we can learn about Caribbean history from such novels. But these novels show us what works of history can never do: the complex and varied reaction of individual human beings both to historical circumstances and to one another. In this way, these novels also identify the links that unite different ethnic groups, forced by the shift and flux of history, to share a common landscape.
Interview by Anthony Milne.
Knowing our heritage is important.
Writer Sharlow Mohammed says becoming West Indian is a “painful process” and is defined through art and literature. In an interview last week, in which he offered a view for this year’s Indian Arrival Day, Sharlow quoted Sir Arthur Lewis.
“Lewis said, ‘The duty of the author in the Caribbean is to return the peoples to themselves’. Sharlow added: “C.L.R. James expressed a similar view in Party Politics in the West Indies.” The author explained that while researching and writing his novel, The Promise, which is about Indian indenture, his own perspective was clarified as “the need to return the pride and dignity of the East Indian, defamed through the system of indentureship.”
The Promise, published in 1995, begins with life as it was in India before the British. It continues with the coming of the British, the journey of indentured workers to Trinidad, and life on the plantations in the colony.
The first version of the novel was written in 1988 and 1989. Sharlow then wrote When Gods Were Slaves, “with the same perspective for the African”. When he returned to The Promise he felt something was missing, and after further research he rewrote the book.
Sharlow, who lives in Longdenville, hopes The Promise will help Trinidadians and Tobagonians become aware of each other’s heritage, since in a plural society it is insufficient to know only your own heritage.
“It isn’t possible to empathise or sympathise with others you know nothing about,” he explained. “I feel there can be no real progress, no genuine unity without first having an intellectual understanding of each other’s heritage. You must know where you came from if you are to know where you’re going.”
Sharlow said he has discussed these issues with Canada-based Professor Frank Birbalsingh. He told Birbalsingh that he felt James was mistaken when he said West Indian civilisation began with 400 years of sugar-cane industry.
“Do you mean to tell me that because the British duped my ancestors and transported them across the oceans to labour on the plantations for a century, I must renounce millennia of philosophy, religion, culture, architecture, and all else?” Sharlow asked. He stressed at the same time that this didn’t mean holding fast to the culture of the mother country. Ultimately, all will become West Indian.
“Our heritage is our most important business,” he said. “It has to do with systems of politics and governance, with philosophy, religion and values. It has to do with our system of education which, finally, must allow us some measure of control over the global institutions that control our daily lives.”