Searching for the Jobber: Mapping the Living History of Mauritian Indenture

Report by Marek Ahnee

After years of fieldwork in my native Mauritius, in 2018 I began examining  the circulation of Tamil and Telugu literatures between islands connected by the indenture system. A trip to London sparked an investigation spanning two centuries and three continents; teaching me much about the unpredictable mobility of both living and written archives.

January 2019 - London

The British Library’s room attendant hands me the envelopes.

-- Here you go, love.

The covers are made of the same blue cardboard, like biscuit. The edges are already powdery; the Tamil print, almost ghostly. Date of publication: 1910. On the first cover, we see a woman and a crowned man. The second shows two men wearing princely kaftans, rowing on a boat. The booklets' author, NK, seems to have been a recruiter of laborers indentured between South India and Mauritius Island; a composer of propaganda "work songs" performed in bazaars and on village roads. In the first puttakam, the woman encourages her husband to emigrate to Mauritius to find fortune. To return is for sure to wear a crown. In the other booklet, the grandeur and cunning of plantation foremen are exalted.

You will be there like a king
Surrounded by your guards
Their artillery sharp
like a splintered reed.

The cover only indicates that the two books were printed in “M.” K is a caste name that does not say much about the author. In another envelope, there is the Tamil translation of John Bunyam's Pilgrim Progress. It's a cold day on Charing Cross Road.


Tamil print, 1910
British Library

February - Souillac, Southern Mauritius.

Kavinien picks me up at the village bus station. It’s Sunday and the bells of Saint Jacques church ring; the golden hand-bells of the arya samaji temple too. We are discussing our research and translations; I haven't had time to talk about London yet when we reach his house. I meet Shivagaami, Kavinien's wife, whom I have not seen since their marriage. They introduce me to Mrs. G., "Amayi," Shivagaami's grandmother. We sit down at the table, where she places pickled olives near the plate of briani. Outside, Bangladeshi seasonal workers are clearing Mrs. G.'s yard.

-- Avan, vilaz Souillac, pa ti éna enn kovil gran koumsa. The temple here was enlarged by the father of my late husband. Linn al pran stati depi Lind mém. So you're the young man translating Tamil works with Kavi?

-- Limém-sa, Amayi !

-- Ah very good. Momém mo konn inpé tamil. Mo bopér ti konn bien. I know only a little Tamil. My father-in-law, he knew it very well. You see his father was a scholar; a poet. Before the plantation became a village, he was the gardener up there. Pa zis gratgrat latér, séf-zardinié mo dir ou. Kouman enn sirdar. Recruiter too he was, worked so hard at it that he wrote songs to encourage coolies to get on dem boats.

-- Madam.

Two of the Bangladeshi workers had just knocked on the open door. Mrs. G gets up.

-- Boliye bhai. Ek minath. I am coming down. Be right back.

Shivagaami's grandmother returns from the vegetable patch. She plucks an olive from the jar as she sits.

-- Wi, sori, mo ti dir Where was I? Ah, yes…a gardener and a poet. Born in a place called M…. I don’t quite remember, M something. With such a man around, that's why in the family we have green thumbs and heads in a book.

-- Kouman li ti apélé? What was his name?

-- NG.

I pause.

-- NK?

-- Yes! Yes! That’s right! K became G in Mauritius. Dem Britishers always changed the names of the recruits when they came off the dock. Ou konn lii?

I start to tell about London, the blue booklets, their illustrations and what they contain. Mrs. G.'s father-in-law had his own, but two generations of cyclones, insects and humidity erased them.

-- The tea can wait; I need to show you something.

She introduces us to her living room. On the wall hangs a framed sepia photo of a middle-aged man. Beneath the fading print, cursive letters mark the names N and G. I make Mrs. G. a promise. I will only return with copies of her grandfather's booklets in hand.

-- Poytu vango paa.

Absolutive; imperative.

11th of March - Réduit, Mauritius.

Independence Day’s eve in Mauritius; the date was chosen to honor the Gandhi Salt March. The University campus is celebrating. In the computer room, iron fans beat the hot air.

-- There, you have everything on the flash drive. Everything we've managed to digitize, at least. We still have the other half left.

-- So you're building a database of all the arrivals?

-- Yes, that's our goal; ideally with an entrance for each immigrant and information. But it takes time.

No trace of NK on the screen, but other trails are discovered. In 1879, all the men of a hamlet near Thanjuvar signed up to be indentured for Mauritius.

I'm leaving the department's premises. Teachers have tea with a cake in the colors of the flag. Accompanied by a guitar, the national anthem is being sung on the lawn. It is also the time of the student union elections. Winners who are not from the Vaish caste risk death threats. Mid-March is so often burning hot.

End of March - CEIAS, Paris.

Some scans are printed. I show a few pages to Monsieur Gobalakichenane when we meet in the corridors of the seventh floor. He tells me that M village is in the Pondicherry region. NK might have been a French citizen if he hailed from there.

-- Vous trouverez peut-être sa trace! You might find some record of him there; you should go!

I'm going back down to the sixth floor office, where more copies are waiting for me.

Take the ship that will take you to the island
There fortune blesses the lucky
You’ll find temples and chettiyars

July 2019 - London

The British Library, beneath the paintings of Mughal lords. NK's third text has arrived. Pilgrimage songs this time. No island is mentioned, only the exhausting trek between temples of the Madras Presidency. I find a composition by another author; a eulogy dedicated to one NK. Same name, same years and printing paper and far too many uncertainties. Outside, the Brexit heat is unbearable. I find escape in the cool semi-darkness of Saint Pancras Church. A Roman centurion statue clashes with the Georgian sobriety of the place. He looks like Expédit, the creole magician-saint of Mauritius and Reunion Island, amalgamated like an orixa to Madurai Viran. King, god and paladin of Madurai, and subject of my master's thesis, his name protected Coolie boats from tempests, and sugarcane fields from evil. I recall a moment of my fieldwork when a Port Louisian man bid me goodbye like this:

-- Remember the guardian gods. They protect and follow you wherever you go.

The choir is rehearsing a Tallis hymn. I imagine NK on his journeys, him too traversing islands and centuries.

August 2019 - Quatre-Bornes, central plateau of Mauritius.

The stacks of A4 sheets are still in my suitcase. I call Kavinien, telling him that I didn't forget to rann promés to Mrs G; I keep my promises. He laughs.

-- To pa pou krwar. You won't believe it. Li pé vwayazé la. Amayi is in Paris at the moment! She even took a little detour to London. Guess what? She asked me for your address and number, but I told her you'd be isi anba. Bé pa grav. Next time.

Kavi meets me at home to work on the translations. I show him some pages of the Vaikunta Ammanai. In this ballad to Narayana, the weary Pandavas renounce the world and follow the mountainous paths leading them to heavens. Kavi tells me:

-- When the villages were still plantations, that's what we’d sing to the dying folk. We would stand watch and when Death came to call, bizin trap liv. Trap liv, trap liv. Grab the book, grab the book. To sing the Vaikoundon was also to heal the suffering, to survive the day. Work, life, it's out of the same breath.

Much more than a thesis chapter is needed on the blue booklets, and their history.

Trap liv, trap liv.
Marek Ahnee with Kavinien

Marek Ahnee is a second-year Phd student at the CEIAS, his thesis co-directed by Ines G. Županov (CEIAS-CNRS) and Daniel Negers (Inalco). A native of Mauritius Island, he is interested by the role played by literature, performance and religio, in the connected history between South India and post-indenture societies. Working from Tamil and Telugu sources, his thesis focuses on the evolution of the nāṭakam (danced drama) and kīrttaṉai (lyrical hymn) in Mauritius from the end of indenture to the advent of Nehruvianism and through the conversant artistic politics of community stalwarts, missionaries and performers. Marek is one of the 2019 Recipients of the Martine Aublet Scholarship of the Quai Branly Museum, for his study of the historical uses of print literature in South Asian vernaculars within the Indian Ocean.