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Hergash, Harry T.: A Collection of Indian-Guyanese Words & Phrases and their Meanings. Toronto, Self-published: 2013

By Nalini Mohabir, PhD

Guyana Journal, January 2014

Harry Hergash, originally from Guyana but living in Canada for the last four decades, has self-published an inventory of “Indian-Guyanese words and phrases” heard during his younger days in Guyana (1950s-1970s), spoken mostly by older relatives. In addition to providing definitions, there are two short introductory essays, one by Hergash and the other by Rampersaud Tiwari, which reveal how India figured in the life and language of British Guiana/Guyana during this period.

Hergash's opening makes an important distinction between academic inquiries, and the living construction of language. He tells us that scholars call the lingua franca spoken by Indian indentured labourers “Bhojpuri.” However, to people in Guyana their language was “Hindustani.” Hergash tells us that Hindustani was the mother tongue of formerly indentured labourers still alive during his youth, and a second language among the next generation (who primarily spoke Creolese). Although he does not say so directly, the implication is that use of the language was fading by the mid-twentieth century.

One might assume that this is the result of creolization. In The Still Cry, which records first-hand accounts of Indo-Trinidadian indentured labourers' life stories, the language is a mix of Creole and Bhojpuri. The linguist Peggy Mohan's novel Jahajin, based on doctoral fieldwork in Trinidad, offers another explanation. She describes Bhojpuri as a language closely tied to the sugar estate, and the eking out of a subsistence life. The future was English, the Standard English taught through colonial education systems, to which many of the older generation did not have access. They deliberately wanted to see the next generation gain opportunities that they would not have, if they were fluent only in the ancestral language. In this regard, Hindustani might be seen alongside other Guyanese tongues such as Berbice Dutch Creole (an extinct language, in which 40% of the vocabulary was from Nigeria) and potentially, the Amerindian language Lokono, which is currently an endangered. We should bear in mind that this issue of language and progress in the Caribbean has always been contentious. Even in Shakespeare's play The Tempest (set on a Caribbean island), Caliban famously remarks: “You taught me language, and my profit on't/Is I know how to curse./ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!” (That is, language is also associated with power).

There are few accountings of Indo-Guyanese words as Hergash notes. In addition to the resources listed, the other one that might be of interest is the glossary to Rooplall Monar's collection of short stories (High House and Radio, and Backdam People), although the spelling differs for some words. As an aside, the lack of standard spelling is an issue that Hergash addresses with humour in a republished letter to Stabroek News. As someone who grew up in Canada to Indo-Caribbean parents, I found words listed that I was familiar with (family relations such 'aajaa' and 'aajee'; food names such as “chokha” and “channa”; religious terms such as “havan' and “mandir”), a reassuring sign that not all was forgotten. However, there were also words that I had never heard: curse words that shed light on relations on the plantation (“gulaam ka choda” or slave f*cker), on gender dynamics (“chamki”, a female with a flirtatious walk, and “chhachhuundar”, a promiscuous woman), and possibly on life post-indentureship (“chhuchwaiye”, wandering aimlessly, eerily reminiscent of those homeless Indian men who inhabit Woodford Square in Naipaul's novels).

Tiwari's important contribution provides an interesting insight into syncretic life in Guyana (the mixed village life that existed prior to the 1960s, Hindu-inflected Christian ceremonies, and an aborted attempt to establish studies in Hindi and Swahili at the University of Guyana). In fact his essay has many threads (and suggestions for records) of interest to diligent researchers who might be keen to follow up. Although I described Hindustani in terms of loss, Tiwari reminds us of the knowledge that survived the crossing of the Kala Pani (dark waters). For example, in addition to language he names mathematics, folk medicine, and religious scripture as knowledge that persisted. Additionally, as Tiwari reminds us, even if Hindustani does not survive as a living language in the Caribbean, the presence of its vocabulary is still felt in songs, films, and cultural events. Gaiutra Bahadur, in her recent book, Coolie Woman, notes that particular words “have remained indestructible … words for family, for religion, for food, for love.” As she describes, Bollywood films reinvigorated her with a language: “Intuitively I knew, without knowing, these words: Pyar, zindagi, shahdi, mushkil, akela. Love, life, wedding, troubles, alone.” And as she poignantly remarks, “Take away my language, and you also take away access to the stories that my forebearers created, in the cadences that they created them.” This is why this modest but important intervention is important. It serves as a resource to a younger generation, particularly those who no longer reside in Guyana, and who might wish to consider the words and worlds left behind as we migrate.

January 7, 2014

Nalini Mohabir, PhD Geography (University of Leeds, UK) is a Sessional Lecturer at University of Toronto and a former Instructor at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Her areas of specialization include Historical Geographies, Caribbean Studies, South Asian Studies, Postcolonial Studies, indentureship, return migration, decolonization, diaspora, citizenship and belonging. Her research focuses on the last return of ex-indentured labourers from Guyana back to India. She teaches on the themes of philosophy and gender, and feminist theoretical frameworks.

Copies of the book is available from Harry Hergash.
Tel. 416-626-2897