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Writing Indenture History through Testimonios and Oral Narratives

Mishra, V. (2018) Writing Indenture History through Testimonios and Oral Narratives. In: Sahoo, A.K. and Hedge, R.S., (eds.) Routledge Handbook of the Indian Diaspora. Routledge, New York, NY, pp. 39-50.

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Abstract

Taking a leaf out of Beverley’s (2004) valuable study, a testimonio may be defined as a pétit recit, a small subaltern voice marginalized by history and sincere to its emotional rather than historical content. A testimonio is thus both an ‘authentic subaltern voice’ as well as a ‘staged performance’ where the speaker (often with the aid of a transcriber) speaks for the other and lays the foundation for any future subaltern struggle for equality (Beverley, 2004, xvi). The Indian plantation diaspora has few surviving written testimonios that give contemporary accounts of the subaltern life-worlds of indentured labourers. In the case of Fiji, our case reference for the Indian plantation diaspora, there are two testimonios by Totaram Sanadhya, an indentured labourer who just happened to be literate and who returned to India after some twenty-one years in Fiji. These testimonios are a remarkable source of Fiji Indian plantation history and culture as they show the effects of crossing the black waters, the role of recruiters and the creation of a collective memory of the homeland. The testimonios by Sanadhya tell us one side of plantation history because they are written, retrospective and edited accounts of felt experience and in a sense this is a limitation. To provide us with narratives of lived experience of quotidian indenture life, the kind of experience that required immediate cultural expression, one has to go to oral narratives and songs that present more immediate memories of the lives of people of indenture in terms of a real here-and-now even as they created a collective memory of the homeland. A key mode of recall in the songs took the form of longing and departure. Through these songs – often cast as songs of the rainy season – the people of the Fiji Indian plantation diaspora, like the men and women on the Ibis in Amitav Ghosh’s memorable Sea of Poppies, lamented their lost homeland. This chapter examines the emotional power of these songs by re-working them back into the real, material conditions of indenture so graphically outlined in Sanadhya’s testimonios. In doing so the writer also uses memory as an affective source with which to qualify the uneven nature of plantation indenture history.

Publication Type: Book Chapter
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Arts
Publisher: Routledge
Copyright: ©2018
URI: http://researchrepository.murdoch.edu.au/id/eprint/42425
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