OUR JOURNEY TOOK US past endless fields of flowering yellow along the northern bank of the Ganges. When we pulled into towns, we asked for directions, from children balancing loads three times their size on their heads, from crouching women tending baskets of cauliflower and brinjal by the roadside, from men in the stores that stared open-faced onto the street, framing a tailor at his sewing machine or a man pumping air into bicycle tyres. We sought the guidance of random people on the route, turning to them as to a collective human compass. And they obliged. They pointed us along bumpy roads bracketed by tiny pastel altars made to worship the sun, until one man finally indicated a rocky path. “That way,” he said.
We had travelled five hours over shell-pocked roads and narrow dirt lanes to arrive here, at the threshold of a place I wasn’t even sure still existed. It did a century ago. That’s what a document that I had discovered two years earlier, in Guyana’s National Archives, indicated. It was the emigration pass issued to my great-grandmother on 29 July 1903, the day she sailed from Calcutta to the Caribbean.
Catalogued on this brittle artifact, yellow and crumbling with age, was everything about Immigrant #96153 that the imperial bureaucracy had considered worth recording: “Name: Sheojari.” “Age: 27.” “Height: five-feet, four-and-a-half inches.” “Caste: Brahman.” Here was colonial officialdom’s cold summary of an indentured labourer’s life. Yet, it included strokes of unsettling intimacy. The emigration pass told me that my great-grandmother had a scar on her left foot, a burn mark. Someone had scribbled “Pregnant 4 mos” in pencil at the document’s edge. On the line for husband’s name, there was only a dash.
Though my great-grandmother claimed no husband, she did list coordinates for home. The pass pointed to it precisely, almost like a map to some mythic location with hidden riches. X marks the spot: the state of Bihar, the district of Chhapra, the administrative block of Majhi and the village of Bhurahupur. There rested the past, buried. And here we were, just a few kilometres away, more than a century later, hoping to excavate lost history.