The Security Guard
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, October 2007
It was unusually busy and unseasonably warm in Georgetown at 10:30 on the morning of May 9, 1889. The sharp rays of the sun had already vaporized overnight dew and heated up the brick roadways. Jadish Singh could feel the heat rising in his boots as he stood outside the Post Office on North Road.
From where he stood guard he could see the busy insurance building and heavily trafficked assembly rooms and he could hear the sounds of hammer and saw above the din of the morning crowd. New developments were going on all around the city. Just around the corner the new City Hall building was nearing completion and the councilors and other civil servants were busy making last minute arrangements for the official opening scheduled for July. The building, designed by Rev. Ignatius Scoles and built by Sprostons Ltd., cost the city over seventy thousand dollars.
A few blocks northwest of where he stood another large construction project was under way. The Anglican Church was building a large wooden cathedral. They had tried twice before but failed. Now they were building what they were claiming would be one of the tallest wooden structures in the world. It was going to be called the St. George's Church.
West of his post was the recently completed Stabroek Market building. Edgemoor Iron Company of Delaware, USA built the iron structure at a cost of almost a quarter of a million dollars. The company reclaimed almost fifty thousand square feet of land from the Demerara River upon which to set its foundation.
Amid all the excitement around new developments in the city there was national angst over the Essequibo region. Gold was discovered in parts of the Region about ten years ago and many people left the coast to claim their fortune. But the Venezuelans, aware of the richness of the land, stirred up the old border dispute. And when the new Governor, Viscount Gormanston stated that the British Government does not recognize any Venezuelan claim east of the Schomburgk Line, the agitated Venezuelans seemed ready to go to war. While the territorial dispute was causing anxiety among the politicians it was but good news to Jagdishs ears. After all, rumors were beginning to circulate that British Guiana might finally have to put together an army to protect its western border and, the way Jagdish saw it, his destiny to become a soldier was at hand.
Between the insurance building and the assembly rooms was a street teeming with life, both humans and animals, all of them seemingly focused on the business at hand. There were lots of black people, much darker than he, and much more muscular. These were the freed slaves, the people he and other indentured laborers had come to replace on the sugar plantations. As he observed them pounding the street and sidewalks his mind flashed back to when he first landed on the shores of this strange land and came face to face with an African. Prior to that meeting he had always thought he was the darkest of known peoples. He had seen white people, and Chinese people, but never anyone from the Dark Continent. They were the first set of people he had seen with such large lips and tightly curled wiry hair. Their appearance, somewhat belligerent, intimidated him at first. In fact, many of the Indians were afraid of them. For one thing, they were stronger than the Indians and their prowess with the cutlass in the cane fields was well known throughout the plantations. For another, after emancipation those who stayed back on the estates were given supervisory jobs and often used their power to exact their pound of flesh from the Indians for having undermined their bargaining position with the planters. The talk among the East Indians was that the blacks were lazy and irresponsible. Jagdish later learnt that the talk among the blacks was that the coolies were selfish and greedy and would deny themselves basic necessities in order to acquire wealth. He had found some degree of truth in both stereotypes but as expected he tried to justify his groups position. They were here only for a brief time, he reasoned, say five to ten years, and if they were all here to make some money and return home better off than they arrived, what sense then was there is spending out their hard-earned cash? As to the blacks being lazy, well from what he had seen, that was a questionable stereotype. He has seen the canals and waterways, the bridges and kokers, the sideline dams and middle walks, and when he heard that it was the blacks who had dug them with mere hoes and shovels he was mightily impressed.
As his knowledge base of plantation life and history grew he even began to feel sorry for the blacks. He could in part understand their resentment for the coolies. The blacks had been oppressed for a long time and after they had won their freedom they expected to be in a stronger bargaining position with their ex-masters. But the white man had outsmarted them and had used the unwitting coolie as his gambit in that game of wage bargaining. As such the coolies were hated before they even landed ashore. But now, as he observed the blacks going about their business, and passing by the occasional coolie in his loincloth and turban, he noticed no outward sign of resentment in either party.
Some of the black folks took time to stop and talk and exchange pleasantries with each other and in general appeared to be much happier than the indentured newcomers he had seen so far. The women were stout and they dressed just like the white women he had seen on the estate compounds, with flouncing ankle length dresses. Some were barefooted but they all wore some form of headgear. Those who were dressed with shoes wore fancy hats. Those who were barefooted wore makeshift head coverings lengths of cotton wrapped around the head somewhat like a turban but flat rather than triangular in shape. Some of them carried baskets on their heads and did so without any assistance from the hands. He noticed that the black men were not as stout as the women. Maybe, he reasoned, their labor was more strenuous than that of the women. Some of them were driving mule and donkey carts, moving merchandise from wharves to shops and from lumberyards to homes. Others were operating horse drawn carriages, ferrying white women and their children to look after their business and domestic affairs. One man, save for a cotton loincloth, was almost naked and the women who passed him by made a concerted effort not to look at him. From the looks of it he was a porter freelancing for light delivery and packing jobs. A few mangy dogs jostled among the humans, scrounging and sniffing along the wooden sidewalk for scraps of anything edible.
Jagdish mopped the sweat from his brow with his sweaty palm. The mercury was rising rapidly and he was thankful for the breeze that came off the Demerara River, a gust strong enough to temper the heat and to keep the flags on the mast outside the Post Office building flying almost horizontal, as though they were made of cardboard or heavy gauged plastic. He had been standing in the same position since 6 A.M. and, save for a half an hour for lunch, he will be there until 3 P.M. It was painful on the legs at first because he had to maintain an erect posture, but after three months he had gotten used to it and with the distractions around him the time passed quickly. But being a security guard with a baton was not what he wanted when he first arrived in the colony five years ago.
Jagdishs boyhood dream was to become a soldier, just like his father. His father had dreamt of serving in the British Indian Army during the time of the British Raj but was not recruited because he was not a high caste Indian. But a strange turn of events made his dream to become a soldier come through nevertheless. The British officers had begun to mistreat the Indian soldiers and this caused them to rebel. Jagdish had heard different accounts of what caused the mutiny. He had heard that the Marquee of Dalhousie, Governor-General between 1848-56, wanted to consolidate the last of the independent Indian states, including the wealthy Muslim state of Oudh, and to do so meant he had to introduce some measures of westernization for which the Indians were not yet prepared, as well as the abolition of certain Indian practices, such as child marriage, the practice of suttee, and for the requirement of sepoys to serve overseas, which meant surrendering their caste. But the straw that broke the Indians backs was added when the British officers provided the Indian section of the army with cartridges smeared with the fat of cows and pigs, items that were unclean to both the Hindu and Muslim elements in the forces. Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army, drawn mostly from Muslim units from Bengal, mutinied at the Meerut cantonment near Delhi, starting a yearlong insurrection against the British. The mutineers then marched to Delhi and offered their services to the Mughal emperor whose predecessors had suffered an ignoble defeat a century earlier at Plassey.
The mutiny lasted for thirteen months, from the rising of Meerut on 10 May 1857 to the fall of Gwalior on 20 June 1858. Large numbers of civilians had joined the sepoys to support the reinstatement of both a Moghul and a Maratha emperor. By the end of the mutiny many Indians had lost their lives in massacres at Meerut, Cawnpore and Lucknow. The British East India Company was dispossessed of its functions and in 1877 Queen Victoria, the newly crowned Empress, immediately exiled Emperor Bahadur Shah to Burma, appointed a British Raj, and brought India under direct supervision of the Crown.
If anything good came out of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 it was the formation of an Indian army whose based was expanded to include Sikhs, Gurkhas, Pashtuns, Garhwalis, Mohyals, Punjabi Muslims and Dogras. And while Indian Army postings were less prestigious than British Army positions, the pay was nevertheless significantly greater so that officers could live on their pay instead of having to have a supplementary income. Jagdishs father was enlisted as a lance corporal in the new Indian Army. The main role of the Indian regiments at that time was to defend the North West Frontier against Russian invasion via Afghanistan, along with being in charge of internal security and expeditionary warfare in the Indian Ocean.
Jagdish was born ten years after the Mutiny ended. And even though his father had passed away when he was not yet ten years old he was still old enough to remember the tales of gallantry his father told him at bedtime and how he was always impressed to see his father dressed for work in his soldiers uniform. Now, here he was, his dream on hold, because of ignorance and deception ignorance because he could not read, and deception because the white man took advantage of his ignorance. He remembered the day it happened as clearly as if it was yesterday.
He and his friends were squatting in the bushes behind the pavilion to watch the white men play their strange game called cricket. The white men didnt mind the boys presence because the boys competed with one other to retrieve balls that were hit into the bushes and gladly offered to run sundry errands for the cricketers, such as fetching their gear and bringing them water to quench their thirst. After the game was over and the men had retreated to the pavilion the boys had stormed the pitch and started their own little scrubby match. They were very good at the game even though they played with bats made from Peepal or Banyan tree branches and with an uneven ball made from balata.
To their surprise, just before the game was over, a white man with white handlebar moustache, accompanied by an East Indian in a khaki drill suit who they later found out to be an arkati, an unlicensed recruiter, came over to the end of the ground where they played and made an interesting proposition.
"Hey there, my friends. How are you doing?" the white man politely asked. They all looked at each other but no one answered. "So, how would you gentlemen like to play a game with us?"
Finally Jagdish, the best cricketer among them, answered, "Play against you, sahib?"
"Yes, a match between us and you."
"Sure, sahib, when? Now?"
"Yes, yes, this very moment!"
"What do you say, boys?"
The gang nodded and jumped to their feet, scrambling for their bats from the bushes. But the white man curbed their enthusiasm with his next question.
"Just one thing."
"I like to play for money."
"If we lose we give you each one thousand rupees. If you lose you each give me one thousand rupees. How's that?"
Immediately, as if retreating from a swarm of bees, Jagdish and the boys backed up into the bushes for a huddle to discuss the proposition. They did not have that kind of money but were nevertheless assured of their abilities and after much discussion they came to the conclusion that they could tar the white mans skin in cricket. The white man then led them into the small pavilion where other cricketers drank and caroused with each other's wives and made them sign a makeshift agreement. They were so eager to play cricket that no one took the time to read the conditions to which they so willingly affixed their signatures.
Two hours later the game was over, they had lost, and the motley crew of coolies, feet white with dust, sat demoralized on the pavilion and awaited their fate. They had no money and were unable to discharge their obligations; so the white man came up with another means of settlement.
"Well, men, since you are unable to pay your debt, you have one of two options. You go to jail or you go to the West Indies and work off the debt."
"Kala pani?" Jagdish exclaimed, across the big ocean of death? No sahib, we lose family and caste if we cross ocean."
"Then I suppose jail it is?"
The West Indies alternative was bad, so they had heard, but everyone knew jail was worse.
"For how long?" Jagdish quickly recanted, "how long do we have to stay in West Indies?"
"Until you pay off the debt that you lost on the game and the costs of taking you to the West Indies? Shouldn't be too long."
They all agreed that serving time in jail was out of the question. The local economy was in bad shape, unemployment was high with little prospect of improving their lot over the next couple of years, and many of the poor and marginalized peoples were tired of the repressive conditions. Jagdish and his friends had also heard from the neighborhood grapevine about what was happening across the Atlantic Ocean but were not sure what to make of it. They heard that slavery had been abolished in the British Caribbean and that most of the freed slaves had left the plantations, causing production to fall, and many plantations to shut down. They heard how the desperate plantation owners, with help from their governments, were trying to recruit replacement labor from England, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, China and other British West Indian territories but that these workers could not handle the tropical heat and strenuous working conditions and for that reason the Englishmen were now turning their attention to India. Jagdish and friends seemed to have little option but to sign the agreement.
And so, in less than two weeks after that fateful deal with the cricketing devils, Jagdish and six of his team mates packed their grips and headed by train from North India to the port of Calcutta, a distance of almost six hundred and eighty miles, to where the steamships were docked. On arrival at the docks they were medically examined and people with contagious diseases were either rejected or sent to a nearby hospital for treatment. Jagdish and his buddies were in good health and after receiving a supply of warm clothing they reluctantly boarded the ship and handed their certificate of registration to the captain. They were amazed at the vast number of people that were heading off to the West Indies and wondered if the white cricketers also tricked all those people. To appease his curiosity he approached an amiable looking turbaned coolie.
"So, tell me," he asked, "Why did you decide to make this trip across the ocean?"
"There is no work since the white man brought in machines and rationed land," he replied.
"And what about those men in uniforms?" Jagdish asked pointing to a large group in Indians in khaki drill suits, "Who are they?"
"Those are sepoys, soldiers from the British East India Company who rebelled against the British. The judge gave them a choice. Go to the West Indies or go to the jail at Port Blair in the Andamans. Of course, everyone knows that the Andamans in the Bay of Bengal is a place of no return."
And so began a three-month long journey, half way around the world, from the Indian Ocean, around Africa and then up into the Atlantic Ocean and then to the waters of British Guiana. The journey to the colony of Demerara in British Guiana began on a bright clear morning. Coolies by the thousands flocked the pier to see their loved ones off, fully aware that even if they survived the three-month journey to the West Indies they might never return. Jagdish estimated that there must have been close to five hundred people on board, mainly teenage boys in his age group, and a handful of women. He and the boys watched from the deck as laborers loaded rice, dhal, chili and spices into the cargo hold while officers, compounders, topazees and interpreters shuffled in and out of the ship with an air of importance. A few hours later a horn sounded and the ship set sail.
During that hellish trip Jagdish had seen many of his fellows succumb to seasickness, hunger and disease and he grimaced when he saw killer sharks tear into the bodies of several dead comrades who were thrown overboard. Most of them were between ten and thirty years old and had come from Uttar Pradesh in the northern regions of India but he had also met some from Bihar, Karachi, Lahore, Punjab, Hyderabad, the Deccan, Srinagar in Kashmir, Peshawar, Mardan and even from Afghanistan.
At the outset of the trip the groups had kept to themselves but as the journey progressed they felt a bit more at ease with their comrades in confinement and began to intermingle a bit. During the second week at sea Jagdish made some other acquaintances. He was not the least bit surprised to discover that they too were West Indies bound as a result of a bet lost bet to the white man on a game of cricket. During lunch he met a man named Bholaram Singh, a chamar from the adjoining village. Bholaram explained how he was tricked into making the trip. He was wrongfully accused of stealing his neighbors rice and the judge had sentenced him to jail or one year of labor in the West Indies.
"I decided to go because they have no work in this place. Besides, I figure one year will fly out like so," he said as he snapped his fingers in the air. "In any case I have nothing to lose."
Just then two girls who could not have been more than fifteen years of age passed by with their food bowls. Fully aware that the entire cargo of hot-blooded young men had their eyes on them they pulled their ornis over the sides of their faces like a horse bridle and tiptoed cautiously as if they were treading through a pit of cobras as they made their way through the tiny passageway in the ship's hull.
"Who is the one with the green sari?" a puzzled Jagdish asked, "and what is a nice girl like her doing here? What made her decide to go to the West Indies?"
"Oh, she?" Bholaram replied, "I heard her husband died and she was left to make a living the hard way, you know, prostituting. The police caught her in the act and offered to spare her from jail if she went down to the West Indies.
Of course they never punished the man.
Of course not!
"And what about the other girl in red?"
"Her name is Gangadai. They say she refused to marry a big monkey man who was much older than her and who had many children, and her parents put her out of the house. Rather than face starvation she decided to join up for indenture."
The weeks on the waters of the Atlantic went by agonizingly slow and except for the few Madrasi men who were mostly fishermen accustomed to the sea, most of the passengers suffered from seasickness. One night Jagdish was awakened to the sound of a woman pleading for mercy. He could not quite make out what she was saying or what the male voice kept yelling before the sound of a slap brought her to silence. Next morning he found out that the woman, a former prostitute, was raped by one of the ship's crew, a middle aged white man with a week-old stubble and severe halitosis. Jagdish wasn't sure if the woman screamed because she was being raped or because of the mans awful presence. Nevertheless, the Indians protested to the captain who decided to post guards at the compartments for married and single immigrants. To each group of twenty-five immigrants the captain assigned a sirdar or supervisor to oversee food distribution and sanitary arrangements.
In the first week of the second month, twenty-two men and three women died of cholera and fever. Poorly cooked food and dirty water were cited as the reasons for the deaths. The rest of the journey was uneventful and after three months at sea the boat finally pulled in at Port Georgetown. By then the men had grown beards, lost weight, and looked emaciated. During the three months on board the cramped ship they had hardly moved and did little or no exercise and, had it not been for the dholak music, many more might have died from acute depression.
As they disembarked they were led to an area where they were lined up like men to be shot, and inspected by a surgeon for pronounced diseases. Then the healthy ones were loaded unto mule-drawn carts and taken to the estate.
On arrival at the estate Jagdish was the first to notice in the distance the long ranges of large wooden unpainted bungalows not far removed from the mill. The ranges were built on mud, without flooring, and were surrounded by refuse and pools of dirty water. With a clever mixture of English, Bhojpuri and Hindi, Jagdish questioned the black man who guided the mule.
"Sahib, what?" he asked, pointing to the long range of bungalows.
"That was our house, the man replied. But now it is your house. You will live there. All of you will live there."
Jagdish was aghast at the thought that twenty-five men would have to live in an old logie that could not have been more than one hundred twenty feet long and twenty feet wide. These were old slave barracks, cramped and poorly ventilated, in excess of fifty years old, and hemmed in with filth so thick that the entrance looked like a cesspit. The stench of putrefaction was awful, and though they were yet some distance away they were all forced to squeeze their nostrils with their fingers. He and his buddies were first out of the cart as they raced for one of the better-looking logies.
Without having time to acclimate to the new environment and conditions Jagdish and company were enlisted in gangs, given cutlasses and ushered into the cane fields. With the blazing tropical sun beating down on their exposed bodies as they trudged through burnt cane barefooted and wielded cutlasses and loaded cut cane the men quickly realized that cutting cane was difficult work. The majority of indentured workers were poor and illiterate and lacked the physical strength to compete with the blacks. Eventually, the Bengalis, accustomed to agricultural work, acclimatized much better than the Madrasis, and the latter often broke their contracts to imbibe themselves in alcohol, catch fish and raise livestock.
In less than two months since arriving in Guiana Jagdish tied the knot with Gangadai. There was no formal wedding ceremony. The overseer recognized the union and approved of his new living arrangement, and that weekend Jagdish and his buddies drank rum and danced into unconsciousness. Marriage was for him his first great gain in coming to the Caribbean. The men here had greatly outnumbered the women and this imbalance created jealousies, dismemberments, and even murders. Because marriages were not registered the women often changed hands like goods in the local market and because people married out of necessity and rarely for love the unions tended to be evanescent. The acute shortage of women even prompted some husbands to loan out their wives for extra income. This in turn caused much quarreling and conflict. On arrival Jagdish had heard that almost twenty-five women were murdered and many more were cut and wounded with implements such as hoes and cutlasses. Fortunately things began to change. The composition of the next boatload of Indians was more balanced between the genders. The planters realized that importation of more Indian women was a way of encouraging Indian men to sign up for progressively longer periods of bonded labor and that it eliminated the cost for return passages to India. They also realized that women constituted a self-reproducing source of labor in the colonies.
Jagdish was proud of himself in that he had mustered up the courage to approach Gangadai and asked her to marry him. Two days after landing on the shores of British Guiana he and his buddies had attended a wake for an indentured worker who had died from dysentery and it was there that he collided with her for the second time. She was seated with the women who were singing the wake house songs, her head bowed most of the time, and her face partially covered with her orni. But Jagdish had seen enough of her through the veil and he had prayed that she was not yet espoused to anyone. With indentured men vastly outnumbering the women, a girl did not remain single for long. He was mystified when he obtained the intelligence that she was not yet in any relationship. How was this possible? He concluded that it must have been his destiny to finally have something good come his way. After all, not too many things had gone his way.
They first communed early one morning as she was heading out to the cane fields to drop lime and phosphate of ammonia. She was making forty-eight cents a week. He was elated when she showed no sign of apprehension at his request. After all, there was no courtship, not so much as a sentence of introduction. But she too was lonely and vulnerable and Jagdishs proposal was for her welcome security. Looks, smiles and glances did the rest. Now with Gangadai at his side he did not have to get embroiled in the nightly rows, brawls, and jealous rages over women that had so plagued the plantations. He treated his wife like a rare orchid and guarded her jealously. He considered himself a man of mixed fortunes.
He did not get the job he was expecting and that made him very depressed for a long time. But he realized how lucky he was to have a beautiful, patient and congenial wife in a colony where women were scarce, and good ones were even scarcer. The small numbers of women who had come to the colony were mostly prostitutes and widows who felt any hopes for a better life lay across the oceans to the west. Gangadai was neither a prostitute nor a widow. She had, however, refused to marry the man her parents had chosen for her and as a result was kicked out of her home. It wasnt that she wanted to disobey her parents or defy culture or anything like that. It was just that the man was a widower thrice her age, with twelve children from two marriages, and who lived in another province, which meant he would take her far away from the safety of her parents home and she was not mentally or psychologically prepared to assume such heavy obligations. Besides, the man was just pure and unadulterated ugly. His eyes were bloodshot red as if he drank all day, his nose was like a turkeys beak, his ears and nostrils sprouted unsightly hairs, half his teeth was missing and the remainder was stained brown from chewing tobacco, and he smelled really bad when he sweated. The idea of being with such a man was more abhorrent to her than crossing the oceans to a land and life unknown.
As the weeks went by Jagdish learnt that he was going to be a father and that made him more assiduous in his approach to work and family. Gangadai also worked to the last because she did not want to put her husband under undue pressure. The overseers quickly took notice that Jagdish was also becoming influential, not just with his friends, but also with other workers and they moved to capitalize upon the situation. Fearful that indentured contracts that were coming to an end might not be renewed and that they would be faced with a labor shortage the planters resorted to sundry forms of devious tactics to prolong the contracts. A favorite ploy was to make rules on the fly without informing the contract workers of the new laws and applying stiff penalties for breaking those rules.
Because of Jagdishs influence with the workers the white overseer offered him position of sardar. He thanked the overseer for the offer but said he wanted to be a soldier. The man replied that they had no need for soldiers in the colony but that the best he could do was make him a security guard. Jagdish asked him what the job entailed and he explained that it was to watch over the coolies and make sure none of them left the plantation without permission. He was not to stop them but if he saw any of them leave he was to report it to the overseer. Without much thought Jagdish took the job. As the days went by, however, and men were caught and reported and fined Jagdish realized he was a conspirator in the white mans ploy to enforce longer terms of indenture. But with just two years remaining on his contract at the time he endured the job and then asked to be released from it at the end. He then found work in Georgetown as a security guard at the Assembly rooms. That is how he got here.
The heat in Georgetown was unrelenting. Thankfully it was approaching 3 P.M. the end of his workday. From where he was standing he could see the clock on the wall behind him. It said 2:45 P.M. He took in a deep breath of humid air and shifted ever so slightly to ease his weight from his heated boots. Across the street a black woman was counting awaras and handing them to a little boy. When she had collected payment from the boy and watched him run off to catch up to his mother she resumed the counting. Jagdish then started to count his blessings. He wanted to be a soldier but that dream had disappeared like vapor on the heated streets of Georgetown. However, he was still better off than his comrades who at this very moment were toiling in the cane fields, in temperatures rising to almost a hundred degrees, barefooted, amidst snakes and under the watchful glare of angry and volatile black supervisors. He adjusted his baton and stood proudly at his post. He was a security guard and who knows, maybe the day would come when Venezuela would make good on their threat and declare war to claim the region of Essequibo. Such aggression would surely force the colonists to form an army. And he would be the first to enlist.