Losing the land and Saga of the First Crossing
Indian Famine. Photo from Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis (see note below)
Extracts from Chapter 9 Losing the Land
When the drought of Chap-panyo prolonged, the earth turned hot everywhere, as far as you can see, so hot that it hardened into a rock and then it cracked in sharp edged pieces like a broken clay water pot.
My father’s last two cows died of thirst. Peanut plants turned brittle, nuts shrivelled and withered before the locusts came. Pests – I see black locust clouds over my head. Ma! Ma! She does not hear me. And then more pests - white grub infestation spreading like an epidemic scarab at the roots. Working all together, my father and me, all my brothers and sisters, working hard, we try to salvage the frugal crop and put it into sacks. But the colonial agents carry away the gunny sacks of our dwindled harvest in payment of taxes my father cannot pay in rupees. We are forced to sell our wooden plough and tools to buy food, and even water.
Those young men who had left during the previous drought arrived with the desiccated Monsoons. Some came to collect their families, some to get married, and some to pay back loans that helped them to reach Africa. Now before they return they would recover their family jewellery from the village pawn broker and carry it with them. They said sweet water, milk and honey flowed in Africa like rivers from the Himalayas, and that one could eat one good meal a day. At the women’s satsang meetings, they discussed the famine and the great emigration of families out of Kutch and Gujarat. Elders sat in separate panchayat councils according to their castes. They sat around their own chosen village peepal tree the whole day long discussing what they heard and what wisdom they knew from the teachings in the scriptures and what the astrologers told them. My grandfather, once the mukhi of Haripur, reminded the Khoja panchayat council once again, how much Saheb desired for us to leave Kutch and Gujarat for Africa. No sooner had he spoken than a multitude of questions assail him like bullets from a barrel, “How can we abandon the land of our ancestors? How can we break the bond with the earth that is sacred? Here the pirs sought ginan in the song of the gurus of Hindustan under the peepal tree and hill temples. Who will tend the fields when the rains come? Who will clean the wells? How can we cross Kala Pani that protects our motherland?” Some put their fears into questions. Others show their reluctance to abandon their fields also through their questions. And there were those who hoped the famine will pass. After all famines have always come and gone but their forefathers never deserted the land.
Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts 2001, page 163.
How could the elders’ of the Khoja panchayat have imagined an exodus of this scale when there was no mention of losing the land in oral histories so carefully handed down by the learned keepers of stories, genealogies and songs of Saurashtra? Even the Ramayana and Mahabharata did not predict a migration such as the one we were witnessing. Even the sages who cautioned about Kal Yoog, the Age of Blackness, that many believed was close at hand, were lost for words. It is true that the astrologers, reading the changing web of stars, warned about the coming calamities, something that was destined to happen in the age of Kal Yoog. But did they know about losing the land?
That evening my mother removes her siri – a small cent-size diamond studded nose button, and her two silver anklets, the last three pieces of adornment on her that was our farm’s security should the tax collectors seize the land because of unpaid head and land taxes as they did to Nagji Bhai’s and then Kanji Bhai’s farms. Both our neighbours.
"Take these, son,” she says to me, "they will pay your passage to Africa."
“And with this son, buy your paper,” says my father handing me some loose silver King Emperor coins and Kutch koris in a cloth pouch. He cries more than my mother does. He is letting his first born son go. The one destined to care for the family field, to care for him in old age, to keep the forefather’s name honouring the lineage. That’s how it had always been. That’s how our family history was told as father to son inheritance of one hundred peanut plants. He cries because he has no money to see me married so I could have at least left my seed behind as Mukhi Nanji Bhai’s and Jeraj Samji Bhai’s sons had done to continue their lineages before they went to Africa. That was custom. Then it would not have been so hurting to my father. He would have played horse with my son riding on his back. Carried him to the field on his shoulders like how he carried me when I was little. That would have assuaged the pain of his loneliness that stuns aged parents when their children as migrants leave and do not return when adults. Such was the loss of a son for my father.
When the time comes to leave, I hold my parents’ feet as I make a promise that I am going to Africa to look for work, and will return with riches. I weep as I take the earth at the base of the family neem tree where my ancestors had toiled with their bare hands, and earned a living that sustained both the lineage and honour. We worked the land, generation after generation, and seeded it; we harvested, and offered prayers of santosh invoking names of ten avatars over the harvest. Our offering was wheat and milk, a portion of the fruit of the labour of the farmer’s toil, a prayer on a clay plate for the peace of our forefathers, as they had offered the fruit of labour of their toil at the same village jamat khana. As peasant farmers do at shrines in India. We, who work the land with our hands, revere customs that keep us close to the land. This was bequeathed to us to uphold. The Earth is the keeper of our faith and customs. “We have never begged a morsel from the jamat,” my father tells me. “You too will uphold the family honour. That is our custom and trust in Saheb the Sarkar.” I hold the earth in my fisted hand, and press it to my left and right eye, and then between the eyes on the forehead asking the land permission to leave, asking its forgiveness for leaving, and then its blessings on the unknown journey over the Black Waters. In that gesture, I pay my homage to the land and say shukhar to creation the sacred with my head below my heart like the village Sufi. I make a silent oath to our ancestral field that I will return to restore its health, beauty and prosperity as it was before the drought wrenched it all out of her like how the butcher drains out the blood of the slaughtered animal. My parents, sister and brothers weep when they see me, the eldest male child, the provider of bread, keeper of family stories and honour, their elder brother and their mentor, climbing onto Karsan Bhai’s bullock cart. My thirteen-year-old sister who was given away in marriage to a widower, a textile merchant three times her age, because of our poverty, arrives to bid me farewell just when the wooden wheels creak to turn. We called her Dholki for she talked too much like a drum. We weep because we know in our hearts that I am losing the land, I am breaking the bond of lineage nurtured by the ancestral field. In all these, I am losing the family – my parents and all my brothers and sisters. My heart cries for it knows I am overlooking the promise of my birth not because I want to but because I have to.
Karsan Bhai cracks the whip and yells to the bulls to move. My family hold on to the cart while they walk with it to the stone that marks the end of our field. I feel something in me break as I leave the ground where my relations are buried and where I would have been buried at the roots of the neem tree. My mother’s wails sear the honeyed quietness of the coming dawn. I feel weak at this hour of peace when the jamat in my village wakes to meditate and greet the new day. I press my ears in my palms to keep away the metrical turns of the wooden wheels, creaking melancholically out of Haripur. I sob and bury my face into the bundle of clothes my mother had packed so neatly in a clean bed sheet that releases a fresh smell to the warmth of my tears. "Do not weep, son," says Karsan Bhai.
I knew Karsan Bhai almost as well as I knew my own father and he always called me ‘beta, son’. My friends used to joke about how Karsan Bhai ate with his whiskers that stretched over his cheeks from ear to ear. "Where are his lips?" we used to ask each other because no one had ever seen his lips. He looks at my saddened face and his eyes well. He speaks to comfort me, “With heavy heart, I have taken boys like you to the railway station at dawn. All boys who leave for Africa know they will not see their mother again; she too knows she will not see her son again. I tell them to open their eyes when they feel the pain and fill them with this land of their ancestors not with tears, and keep her there. The land is mother too.” The cart trundles around the curves; the oxen lumber along the stony roads, snorting to the cold in the breeze pushing the darkness away like smoke. Karsan Bhai clicks his tongue, bellows out ‘Chalo rey chalo!’ and cracks his whip to the oxen’s ears over their gaily painted horns. "All emigrants leave their mothers behind, shanti, shanti, shanti." He mumbles to the breeze to take his pain away with the night so he must do what he has come to do. “O my Mowla, why have you given me this charge of severing umbilical codes?” he says and immediately begins the prayer for peace, “Pirshah, pirshah, pirshah.”
“Kemcho Sunderji Bhai?” Karsan Bhai yells out a greeting over his shoulder at a figure on the other side of the river. The man is wearing white Gujarati peasant clothes and turban standing alone in the cold haze that sits on the river before the break of dawn. The man yells back through the mist stretching out his arms but we cannot hear him over Una’s rocks and dry hollows. I hesitate to bid him farewell. He yells again with a gesture indicating he wants to embrace me goodbye. Turning around, Karsan Bhai questions me with a puzzled look on his face. I stand up throwing my arms forward indicating I want to embrace him goodbye too. Then I see him squat on his haunches thumping his palms on his forehead the way Gujarati men cry the pain in their heart. I begin to sob again.
This was my land of the Satpanth Khoja, villagers of a common founding father, the Satguru Noor, the true guru and pir, the Light and Vishnu avatar above all. We made a faith knot of villages across Saurashtra, sang the song of creation, how life evolved from the fish to the amphibian turtle, animals and then came the human avatars who fought evil for sovereignty of the good for ever. We danced Krishna’s courtship dance, the garba, like it were a karmic circle - dha dhi na, dha tu na, and offered devotion in food, incense and flowers with shukhar on our lips. Once a year, neighbouring villages partook in a communal meal prepared by women with veneration in their hearts and love in their hands, to serve the community and Saheb. Feeding the community called the jamat, is sewa and sharing a meal brings baraka of blessings to all givers and receivers of roji the morsel for sustenance of life. Here is where I played gulidanda, jumped the river stones and bruised my knees.
Now I must leave my ancestral land for Africa.
Illustration by Sadiq
Click: For images of late 19th - early 20th Century Colonial Era Famines in India
Mike Davis gives estimated mortality figures for the 1896 – 1902 Famine in India quoting from three sources:
The Lancet, 16th May 1901 19.0 million
Arap Maharatna, The Demography of Famine, Delhi 1996/
Roland Seavoy, Famine in Peasant Societies, New York 1986 8.4 million
Cambridge Economic History of India, Cambridge 1983 6.1 million
(Late Victorian Holocausts, 2001 page 7)
Note: Since this famine was in 1956 of the the Vikram Samvat calender, it is known as Chhappania Akal or Chhappania Kal or the famine of 56. http://www.gktoday.in/chhappania-akal-1899-1900/ It's called Chap-panyo Dukar in Gujarati.
Incidentally the dates coincide with building of the Great African Railway called The Uganda Railway. Thousands of coolies were imported from famine ravaged India. The death rate among the railroad workers was 4 per mile while 16 became permanently disabled and had to be shipped back to India, and replaced with new recruits. Many became demented and were imprisoned in the dungeons of Fort Jesus together with the runaways. The suicide rate among the imprisoned coolies may have been up to 80% (Kapila, N, Race Rail and Society: Roots of Modern Kenya, Nairobi 2009).