Art Culture

Remembered Last

Confronting colonization, indentured servitude, and what it means to be an Indo-Guyanese woman living in America.

This piece is written by Jess Balgobin, one of Spicy‘s Guest Contributors. Jess is an Indo-Guyanese woman writer and future social worker born and bred in Queens, New York. She just graduated with a degree in Psychology and Creative Writing, and writes mostly fiction and poetry.

In the summer, we shop at outdoor markets. I rally over cardboard tubes of Smarties as we wait on line to pay. My mom opens a pouch of grapes prematurely and puckers her lips when they are too sour to purchase. I can’t get used to the sound of the train roaring above my head, screaming into the heat. Nor can I ever adjust to the crowds as I relocate to the street corner while older men and women reach past me, bagging karela and mangoes and oranges alike. Mom tries to explain what fruits taste like over there, sugar apples and sapodilla, cherries she scaled a neighbor’s tree to climb, returning with a 30-year-old scar along her shin bone. Familiar faces sometimes present themselves to grandma, who always stops and takes the time to trace her roots alongside the stranger’s to villages of the past. Numbered, 60, 70, 71, these are places I have been left to construct entirely in my head.

I don’t know what Guyana looks like. My lungs never filled with its air. I get bitten by mosquitoes in my backyard but neighbors who return from two-week trips show off their freshly scarred legs. Once in a while, I pack away clothes that have fallen into disuse, and they are shipped off to this place that exists at the mouths of my mother and father. Now I’m 21 and when people who know me ask if I’ve ever boarded a plane to my parents’ homeland, they are shocked when I say no.

I don’t know what Guyana looks like. My lungs never filled with its air.

In anthropology lab, we are told to locate our countries of origin on a map, the place that our families originally came from. The lab TA is a dorky white guy who wears glasses, and behind their laptops, other students steal glances and smile when he looks at them. My best friend and I can be found beside each other at the last lab table whispering and laughing at his expense. Scholars of anthropology once believed that physical traits were influenced by proximity to the equator, by the climate of a homeland. In the lull of our Monday morning, we know the assignment is pointless; my best friend is dark, I am light, she is short, I am tall. We come from the same place. And it feels like a betrayal for us to point anywhere other than the tip of South America. We have grown accustomed to laughing at those who cannot understand migration and diaspora. But our dilemma keeps gnawing at us, and the word original doesn’t seem to make much sense anymore. With history on our tongues, we decide to trust the TA, putting faith in his expertise.  “It doesn’t really matter,” he says, “everyone originates from Africa anyway.” She and I only look at each other. We learn that muddied borders remain muddied in the minds of those who forged them in the first place.

My grandma and I sit together, watching her soap operas, those pretty white people who can’t act and I don’t know why I am confessing to her that I wish that I could’ve known another language, spoken another tongue fluently. When she agrees, she tells me that her parents and grandparents never really spoke a lot of Hindi to her. She went to Hindi school, made fun of me when I tried to say are bap re bap years before. But what good was that, she wondered aloud. She and my nana always complained that my brother and I spoke English too fast. I grew up understanding that my English was standard and unbroken. But now I can’t move away from the idea that when my grandmother speaks, she speaks words of a quiet intimacy, never documented, never taught in schools. As it fades away through second migrations, through the settling into American life, I mourn its richness with what my parents know, my ancestors know. Nobody else. Can you understand the words on a stranger’s tongue if it didn’t surround you and wrap you in its intonations, its omission of sounds, its evolution of words, from the minute you were born?

I can’t move away from the idea that when my grandmother speaks, she speaks words of a quiet intimacy, never documented, never taught in schools. As it fades away through second migrations, through the settling into American life, I mourn its richness with what my parents know, my ancestors know.

When my Pakistani Zoroastrian friend and I take lunch breaks at work together, we make our way to Hunter’s skybridge from the deli a few blocks down, where sometimes we pay for each other’s meals. The metal heaters that line the bridge dig into our jeans clad legs, but it’s easy for us to slip into our shared language. We both are involved passionately with duality. Our conversations take on minds of their own, starting at chicken biryani, skirting to fire and religion, stopping at 90s Bollywood because I confess that I can’t stop listening to Barso Re at the moment. In my head, it’s easy to connect back to the place that she spent most of her time growing up, the places around India, India itself. It’s easy because of the uncertainty. With our mouths full of chicken wraps, we like to talk about those buzz words: diaspora, forgotten identities. She tells me she cannot speak Farsi, that she feels more at ease with being known as a Pakistani girl than reaching back, as I have done so many times, to call herself Iranian. I tell her that I like to honor both parts, the part before and the part after. I tell her that sometimes it’s jarring to think about how the people that I descend from lived in the subcontinent for longer than they ever did in Guyana. And I wonder what it means for me to reach back in the first place.

My South Asian studies professor plays chutney music on the last day of class. I am smiling in the back of the room, trying my best not to laugh because Chris Garcia is the familiar sound of rotating my waist in a room full of family wild from one drink too many. I feel seen, and I swear I can see him looking at me, as if for signs of my approval. But after I swallow my smile, I remember that I’d been sitting at that desk for three months. I imagined Mughal emperors, studied maps of before the Punjab was split, listened as a general named George lay claim to Pondicherry. British men valued money over human life, and I grew accustomed to nodding my head as he spoke, because had I not so deeply understood this too? My professor always ran five minutes over the end mark of class, always rushed out as I mulled over questions I had for him, this scholar of the subcontinent. He provided truncated history, several hundred years from February to May. Long years of subjugation rolled off his tongue after he committed lectures to memory. But I am being remembered last.

Visual (newly arrived indentured laborers from India in the West Indies) published in 1897 – no copyright.