Rescued from the Footnotes of History: Lal Bihari Sharma’s “Holi Songs of Demerara”

MY NAME RINGS no bell […]
but footnotes know me well
footnotes where history
shows its true colors
and passing reference is flesh

These lines, from John Agard’s poem “The Ascent of John Edmonstone,” give voice to an enslaved man, born in British Guiana, whose influence has been all but erased from history. Edmonstone taught Charles Darwin the taxidermy skills he deployed during his famous voyage on the H. M. S. Beagle, and his descriptions of the South American rainforests may have inspired Darwin to explore the tropics. Yet Edmonstone, muse and teacher, has gone unacknowledged.

In Agard’s poem, footnotes are where history shows its true colors: they reveal how power, held or withheld, has muted the contributions of people like Edmonstone. To be called a footnote to history is usually a put-down. I would, however, like to rehabilitate a footnoted existence, somewhat, in this essay. To be footnoted is to be cited, and to be cited is to be published. Lal Bihari Sharma, author of the 1915 songbook Damra Phag Bahar, or Holi Songs of Demerara, also could have declared: footnotes know me. First-person testimony, written by indentured immigrants, is rare: only three literary texts about the system that replaced slavery in the British Empire, by laborers who experienced it personally, are known to exist. Holi Songs of Demerara is the only one to emerge from the English-speaking Caribbean. The other two were memoirs by men from Fiji and Suriname.

It was in fact as a footnote that I first encountered Lal Bihari Sharma. I learned about him in June 2011, while reading a scholarly monograph during the final lap of research for my 2013 book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture. That book is partly a narrative history about indentured women in the Caribbean and partly a memoir about my attempts to uncover the mystery behind my great-grandmother’s exit from India, in 1903, as a “coolie” (or indentured laborer). She was born in the very same district of the very same region of the very same state in India as Sharma, and they came from the same caste background. The monograph’s author, a Delhi-based labor historian, described the songbook as rich with sensory details about life on a sugar plantation in British Guiana, told from the perspective of an indentured man.

Here, finally, was the promise of indentured subjectivity that three years of intensive digging in archives had denied me. Here was the prospect of an indentured immigrant’s inner life, in his own words. Truly, passing reference was made flesh. It was enough to make my own flesh tingle. I could not have been any more thrilled, unless the anticipated words had been an indentured woman’s­ — or unless they had been in English. Holi Songs is written in the Devanagari script, in a combination of Awadhi and Bhojpuri, the idioms of the northern regions that sent the most indentured immigrants abroad, and in Braj Bhasha, the literary language in which medieval saint-poets from India’s Hindu heartland wrote.

Tracking down these words, in any language, proved no easy task. The Delhi historian did not have an English translation of the text to share with me. The British Library, where I had researched much of my book, appeared to hold one rare, original copy of the pamphlet in its repository of manuscripts belonging to the India Office, an administrative unit of the British Empire. My first attempts to order the songbook using the shelf-mark in the archive’s catalog were thwarted — the item appeared to be lost. Crestfallen, and in denial, I persisted nonetheless. Ultimately, an archivist, thinking creatively, located the songbook in a sheaf with other Hindi pamphlets at the library’s off-site warehouse in far-off Yorkshire. She had bad news to temper the good, however: the paper was too acidic and too brittle to be photocopied; the pamphlet was so delicate it would not have survived the process. A month passed. I went home to the United States. And I kept coaxing from afar. In the end, the archivist managed to scan the pamphlet’s 37 pages using special means and slipped them to me against protocol. I won’t name her here, not even in footnotes — I don’t want to land her in trouble for skirting the rules — but we are all in her debt. Without her, the forthcoming translation by Rajiv Mohabir would not exist.

When I entrusted my copy of the songbook to my friend Rajiv, with the request that he recreate it as a literary text in English, I also gave him a guide to work from: a translation cobbled together in a collaborative effort. It began informally, in the yard of an elderly man in a village in the Caroni Plain of Trinidad. By the time the archivist sent me a digital copy of the songbook, I was on the island listening to decades-old audio tapes of interviews with the last living indentured women there. A guide took me to Rohit Dass, a grandson of indentured immigrants from India who is an itinerant reader of The Ramcharitmanas, a retelling of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana, composed by the 16th-century saint-poet Tulsidas — the version most alive to the indentured and the version that inspired much of Sharma’s imagery and word choice in Holi Songs. Dass was the first to unlock Sharma’s text for me. As I rocked in his hammock in the West Indies, where the songbook was composed, he translated out loud, and I scribbled notes.

Using these notes, I worked with a woman born in Bihar (like the songbook’s author) to produce a translation I could use as a source for Coolie Woman. I hired Shashwata Sinha, an immigrant to the United States (she teaches composition at a community college in Ohio) who grew up in India listening to her maternal grandmother’s folktales and her mother’s childhood stories in Awadhi. Sinha arrived at her understanding of Bhojpuri, the songbook’s other primary language, as a bride. Her husband’s family comes from Sharma’s district in Bihar. Sinha, rigorous and hardworking, brought an ear tuned to spoken vernacular and the ways that even the archaic language of the songbook still lives in the intimate interiors of memory and family.

Ashutosh Kumar, an emerging Indian scholar of indenture, helped with a passage or two that Shashwata was unsure about, and I used my own knowledge of Guyanese plantation terrain and vocabulary to make sense of details they were unable to untangle. They could not, for instance, be expected to know that “Manja” was Guyanese Creole for plantation manager and that “Manja Darbar” likely meant not a courtly assembly of dignitaries and entertainers, but the weekly gathering of laborers at the manager’s pay table. Sometimes, in writing this translation together with Shashwata, I tried to elaborate in English what I felt must have been the emotion or worldview undergirding a word in Bhojpuri or Awadhi. For instance, I rendered the hat that a whip-bearing overseer wears as he rides into a field of workers as “white man’s tall hat / like a helmet / high on his head,” because the specific word used conjured a pith helmet, headgear closely associated with colonialism, part of the costume usually worn by white men doing empire’s bidding in the field. Such liberties are part of the alchemy of translation, especially when multiple people work together to decode a text.

Rajiv’s translation has its own separate alchemy, his prodigious gifts the catalytic agents. Because I felt strongly that these words should be out in the world in English, for the descendants of indenture and anyone else interested in their history, I asked Rajiv to translate the songbook. I felt that his skills and magic as a poet who gyaffs with — maybe even quarrels with — the muse of history made him the ideal custodian of this project. I also felt sure that he would do it justice, given his scholarly and artistic work with his own grandmother’s folk songs and his reverence for the oral tradition. The Ramcharitmanas, the version among the many existing Ramayanas that guides Sharma’s book the most, was kept alive on the plantations (and in the villages of India for centuries before indenture) by devotees reciting it. A community, speaking or singing, transmitted it and no doubt also transformed it. A community, in a sense, was its author.

And so, when Sharma takes a recurring line from the epic to describe the mental state of an indentured laborer delivered from indenture, when he compares that mindset to the rapture of the mythical chakora bird feeding off moonbeams, he is presenting a metaphor composed in a sense collectively by generations and captured in the 16th century by Tulsidas. In the Ramcharitmanas, Tulsidas compulsively compared the love of the exiled prince Ram (an incarnation of Vishnu) for his wife Sita to the chakora’s need for the moon. The chakora is the figurative lover, and the moon, the beloved. The lover’s longing for the absent beloved serves as an allegory for man’s pining for the unattainable divine in Hindu mystical poetry, the Vaishnavite bhakti tradition of ballads about unfulfilled desire and the separation of lovers. Sharma relocates this trope of the chakora and the moon to British Guiana’s plantations and adds a new layer of meaning to it. In indenture’s landscape, the absent beloved might be India, as Rajiv suggests. Or it might be freedom. In either case, we now hand over the chakora and the moon to another generation, one that speaks and reads English, just as generations before had handed the metaphor to Sharma for his own purposes. The collective nature of the endeavor is intact.

In Coolie Woman, I read the songbook as a source for the interior lives of indentured men, showing the crises of faith that assailed them in their new setting. Sharma describes British Guiana as a “country of wrongdoing.” The exterior landscape was overshadowed by the figure of the overseer, with a whip in one hand and another, more subtle instrument of punishment in the other: the book in which he marked the names of laborers who failed to complete their allotted tasks and therefore risked both their day’s pay and prison. The hovering prospect of being beaten or jailed, or having wages docked, drove the indentured to doubt. They felt deceived and misled by their gods. They felt like strays from their own religion. Sharma speaks of — seems, in fact, to confess — immoral acts, shame, abandoned dharma, and degraded karma. The interior landscape was a demoralized one.

Holi Songs was a tool for me to humanize men who had committed monstrous acts, to place them in the context of battered masculinities and the anomie of plantation society. I interpreted the songbook — along with folk songs, oral histories, and the Ramayan — to grapple with the chilling crimes against indentured women committed by partners or would-be partners, who used their cutlasses from the cane fields to mutilate and murder in retaliation for the sexual agency exercised by women. The nose, a symbol of honor, was often the target in these attacks. My chapter about this spectacular violence, “Beautiful Woman Without a Nose,” takes its title from a line in Sharma’s songbook. As the indentured coped with the hardships and suffering of plantation life, Sharma urged them to take refuge in religion. “Without chanting the name of Ram,” he preached, “the world is like a beautiful woman with her nose chopped off.” The songbook allowed me to speculate that indenture may have imperiled the faith of migrants while making it more imperative than ever: the system threw them into the arms of their gods at the same time as it made madmen of them. The songbook captures their cognitive dissonance.

In the final analysis, Holi Songs of Demerara is a conservative text. It does not advocate overthrowing any hierarchies: of the plantation, of caste, of gender. Instead, Sharma advises the laborers to seek solace in Ram and in the old order of village India, where the sardar was in charge. He warns that the rapture of freedom could go very wrong: so many roam without direction when released from indenture, like wandering beggars without a plan. Sharma instructs them instead to be patient “as before in the village” and to obey the sardar, so that their hearts might be content. The songbook’s fundamental defense of the status quo (even as it evokes Sahibs with whips, and prisons that unjustly jailed so many of the indentured) was a puzzle to me.

The only other first-person account of indenture that circulated while the system was still in place was used as part of Gandhi’s campaign to dismantle it. In fact, My Twenty-One Years in the Fiji Islands wasn’t written by Totaram Sanadhya, the Gandhi disciple and ex-indentured laborer named as its author, but was told by him to another Gandhi disciple, a Bengali journalist who then crafted the autobiography. In this, it was akin to slave narratives, many of which were ghostwritten testimonies deployed by abolitionists to attack slavery. My Twenty-One Years, like Sharma’s songbook, offers the story of Ram’s exile from his father’s kingdom as an allegory for indenture. The two accounts were published in India within a year of each other. Holi Songs was first printed in Bombay in 1915 by the Sri Venkateshwar Steam Press, one of the primary publishers of religious materials in India in the early 20th century. I wondered whether Sharma’s book might have circulated in the same way as the Fiji account, and for the same reason — to arouse moral outrage against indenture as an affront to the honor of Indians. I also wondered how the songbook had made its way to India in the first place.

An invocation by Sharma led me into a labyrinth of research and speculation. As he prostrates himself before the gods at the songbook’s start, he also pays obeisance to a Pandit Parmanand. Rajiv’s translation describes the pandit, who also lived at Golden Fleece, as “renowned both here and abroad.” There was indeed a Bhai Parmanand who lived in Guiana shortly before the songbook was published, who would soon become well known in revolutionary circles stretching from the US West Coast to the Indian subcontinent. He was a Punjabi missionary for the Arya Samaj, a reformist Hindu movement that challenged caste and child marriage and advocated for women’s equality and the right of widows to remarry. In 1911, Parmanand lectured throughout Guiana. He had done the same in South Africa, where he got to know Gandhi, even living with him for a month. In Guiana, and in nearby Trinidad, Parmanand made the first inroads for the Arya Samaj movement. To counter the influence of Christian missionaries, he established the King George Hindu School in a house in the Guianese capital donated by a Brahmin who had become rich after indenture.

After a year laying this groundwork for the Arya Samaj, Parmanand left Guiana and made his way to San Francisco to study pharmacy. California, Oregon, and Washington were at the time hotbeds of activity by South Asian migrants, from lumber mill workers to elite students, agitating for India’s independence through the underground, revolutionary Ghadar Party. US intelligence agents kept a close eye on suspected members. Parmanand was drawn into this surveilled network through a friend who co-founded it. The revolutionaries plotted to provoke Indian soldiers in the British Army to mutiny during World War I. Hundreds of immigrants from the United States returned to India to ignite this pan-Indian revolt. By 1914, Parmanand had returned home to the Punjab, where many of the conspirators turned to him to exchange currency and to communicate with each other. When the plot imploded in spectacular failure, Parmanand was one of the nearly 300 men arrested and tried. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on the Andaman Islands, off the southern coast of India, in 1915. His circuits as a revolutionary and reformist took him through Europe, the Caribbean, Africa, America, and then back to India. Had he perhaps taken the handwritten manuscript for Damra Phag Bahar on that final journey with him?

I can only follow a trail of coincidences and echoes to lay out the possibility. In his 1934 memoir, The Story of My Life, Parmanand briefly sketched his year in Guiana. He landed by steamer and was directed to a Hindu temple in an outpost populated by Indians free from indenture, about a mile outside the capital. He told the priest there that he was a Brahmin who had come from the motherland. The priest asked whether a new shipment of coolies had docked. He was surprised to hear that Parmanand had not arrived indentured. This was an uncommon occurrence. Parmanand exchanged his hat and trousers for a turban and a dhoti, dress that more closely mirrored the Indians around him, and slept on the floor of the temple. An Indian he describes as “poor-looking” brought him rice and dal to eat. Parmanand took note of the man’s intelligence; he was a reader of the Venkateshwar newspaper from Bombay. (This paper was a weekly published by the same press that later printed Holi Songs of Demerara. Could this unnamed Indian have been Lal Bihari Sharma? I could not help but dream points of contact into the gaps.) At nightfall, after their day’s work was done, Indian laborers would go to the temple to talk with Parmanand. He asked them whether there were any educated, well-known Hindus in the area, and they took him to a merchant born in Guiana. Through this man’s connections, Parmanand arranged to speak at Town Hall in the capital. The newspapers ran notices announcing that a Pandit from India would deliver a lecture. Thousands of Indians from distant villages flocked to hear him.

Parmanand identified the crucial merchant as Bihari Shaw and said the man visited him while he was imprisoned on the Andaman Islands. It seems likely, however, that he got the name wrong. There is no archival trace of a Bihari Shaw. But there was a prominent Hindu merchant in Georgetown who by 1904 owned a large retail business selling “East Indian and fancy goods” along the capital’s main commercial thoroughfare. His name was Parbu Sawh. And he did visit India in 1919 — the year before Parmanand was released early, in a show of clemency — as part of an official delegation exploring options for Indians to immigrate freely to the sugar colony after indenture ended.

The possible import of all this became clear to me only recently, when I interviewed Sharma’s grandson, a retired medical doctor who died in Canada in late February. He reached out to me looking for a copy of the songbook this past fall. “We lost it a long time ago in Guiana,” Sankar Sahai told me, ruefully. The last time he had seen the pamphlet was around 1939, when he was a boy in Guiana. He had used the book for the purpose it was intended: as a kind of missal, a script from which to sing songs of longing and pleasure to celebrate the spring religious festival of Phagwah, or Holi. In the riot of water and colored powder that mark the festival, the family’s copy of the songbook got wet and was torn and ruined. Sahai revealed that his grandfather had been a “driver” on his sugar plantation, Golden Fleece. He was the figure referred to in the songbook as the sardar, a sort of Indian sub-overseer, an intermediary between the coolies and their white masters, the figure to whom the songbook urges obedience. I had known he was Brahmin and therefore likely had the privilege of caste. I had not known that he was part of the power structure of the plantation. He had left India as an indentured laborer, but he was a far more complicated and privileged a figure than I had once imagined.

I learned from his grandson that Sharma bought three abandoned sugar estates along Guiana’s Essequibo coast around 1910 and turned them into rice farms. He leased out three-acre parcels to laborers he had known at Golden Fleece to farm as sharecroppers. He also tore down the derelict barracks where the indentured had lived on the plantation and erected respectable family houses on stilts. He loaned his tenant farmers the money for mortgages on the houses he had built. He was their landlord and their moneylender and, as a pandit and a reader of the Tulsidas retelling of Ramayan, also their religious leader. In this system, many were financially indebted to Sharma and handed over all their earnings to him at the end of every harvest. His grandson who contacted me, born out of wedlock to Sharma’s eldest son, grew up with his maternal grandparents in one of the tenant houses that Sharma had built. “They too were locked in this prison of poverty and indebtedness,” Sahai told me.

The family history he shared also unlocked a tantalizing web of relationships that suggests that Sharma would likely have crossed paths with Parmanand. The merchant who helped the missionary begin his lecturing tour in Guiana, who later visited him in India, was connected to Sharma by deep ties of marriage and plantation history. Sawh’s daughter married Sharma’s eldest son. And Sawh’s father, the founder of the family business, had been indentured at Golden Fleece, the very same plantation where Sharma had been a driver. The Sawhs were rice millers as well as merchants, and the elder Sawh owned rice fields connected to Sharma’s lands. Of course, I have no way of knowing that the Pandit Parmanand described by Sharma in the songbook as the foundation of his being is the same man who circumnavigated the world of anti-colonial resistance. Certainly, I can’t say whether Damra Phag Bahar made its way to a religious printer in India in Parmanand’s care. What I can confidently say is that its author was a prominent man with firm ties to both the governing and the religious establishments.

At some point before the 1920s, as he became wealthier, Sharma changed his name from Lal Bihari to Rash Bihari. I don’t know why he did this. It could have been that indenture authorities had mislabeled him. That often happened. I will parenthetically note, however, without drawing any conclusions, that Rash Behari Bose was a well-known Bengali freedom fighter involved in the failed Ghadar plot to incite Indian soldiers to mutiny and was also wanted by the British for an attempt to assassinate the Indian viceroy in 1912. His fame might certainly have made it to Guiana to inspire a sympathizer for Indian self-determination.

By the mid-1920s, official registers in Guiana listed the rechristened Rash Bihari as one of the colony’s principal rice and coconut growers and one of the biggest property owners of Indian origin. In 1925, the local governing board made him chairman of the district where his rice farm Johanna Cecilia was based. In 1926, he founded the East Indian Burial Society (a co-op where people pooled money to pay for each other’s funerals). The colony’s major newspaper described him as “interested in the progress of his people.” Bihari owned enough property to appear on the list of paid jurors in 1928. During Phagwah celebrations that same year, The New Daily Chronicle noted that he gave a dinner for hundreds of Indians at his residence. And the following year, when Gandhi’s acolyte C. F. Andrews visited the colony, a visit that resulted in his 1930 book Impressions of British Guiana, “Behari” threw a banquet in the anti-colonial crusader’s honor. Five hundred Indians, wearing traditional attire, attended. Throughout the evening, they spoke to each other in Hindi. Some told Andrews that they were determined to visit India and learn about their mother country. Andrews wrote of the evening:

There was such universal happiness as I have never seen before among East Indians of this colony. Everyone was deeply moved by the occasion. […]

Pundit Rash Behari is the leader of this district and he has become the chief religious authority along the Coast. It is very important, indeed, to get such leaders as he is wherever that is possible and to utilize them to the full. It has been a very great blow that since the time when I had written these notes, Pundit Rash Beharry has passed away.

Sharma/Bihari is not the subaltern I had expected. His grandson tells me that he was an orthodox Hindu, not a member of the Arya Samaj. In fact, the publisher who printed the songbook also published tracts attacking the reformist movement. The songbook may not have taken the route to India that I dreamily mapped in my head. He may simply have paid for the pamphlets to be printed and shipped back to Guiana. The songbook may not have circulated as part of the campaign against indenture; it may simply have been a missal for Phagwah celebrations. Still, these words made the journey from orality to text, and they survive as testament to the complexity of a system and a man. Footnotes did know him, well. That’s how I found out about his property holdings and his status as a juror and district chairman: through footnotes in a decades-old dissertation. Whatever his privilege, as descendants of indenture, all of us are footnoted when Sharma is footnoted. All of us are written into history. And, when he is translated, all of us are translated.


This essay is adapted from the foreword to an edition of Holi Songs of Demerara forthcoming from Kaya Press.


Gaiutra Bahadur is an essayist, critic, and Orwell Prize–shortlisted author. She is currently at work on a book exploring the idea of America through its 20th-century entanglements with her home country of Guyana, a preview of which appears in the current issue of The Griffith Review.