The Jumbie Bird: From East to West Indian

James Ferguson on Ismith Khan's 1961 novel, The Jumbie Bird, the tale of an East Indian family's journey of identity in pre-independence Trinidad

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In the late 1860s the well-known British writer and social reformer, Charles Kingsley, visited Trinidad and reported enthusiastically on the new system of Indian indentureship. Since 1845, thousands of labourers and their families had migrated from Uttar Pradesh and other Indian provinces to fill the labour vacuum left by the abolition of slavery in 1834. Observing the “coolie” villages around the sugar plantations of the Caroni Plain, Kingsley praised what he saw as the Indians’ thrift and industry, as well as the far-sightedness of the British Governor, Sir Ralph Woodford, who had introduced the scheme. All seemed well, concluded Kingsley; the Indians would work out their five-year contracts and return home with their savings, while the planters would be assured of a constant pool of workers.

It was not to happen quite like that. In the 70 years that indentureship lasted before its termination in 1917, some 140,000 Indians made the crossing over the “dark waters” between the subcontinent and the Caribbean. Of these, only a small minority returned. Most had not saved enough from their pitiful wages to go home again, and in 1890 the right to a free passage back to India was withdrawn. Many thousands of indentured labourers were marooned on an island halfway across the world from their native Hindustan. Then, in the 1930s, the Great Depression swept through the Caribbean, sending commodity prices plummeting and bankrupting the already ailing sugar industry. The first to lose their jobs and homes were the Indian plantation workers, many of whom arrived, destitute and desperate, in the capital, Port of Spain. As second-class citizens, derided as “coolies”, many descendants of the original indentured laborers found themselves in the direst of circumstances.

It is this grim situation that forms the background to Ismith Khan’s novel, The Jumbie Bird, first published in 1961, the year before Trinidad’s independence from Britain. Written in the turbulent pre- independence period, the book explores the social, political and ethnic tensions prevalent at that time through the lives of an Indo-Trinidadian family of three generations.

But this is no ordinary family, for the dominant figure is Kale Khan, an aging patriarch and grandfather to the novel’s main character, the adolescent Jamini. A formidable figure, Kale Khan is a Pathan, one of the much-respected and independent mountain-dwelling people whose traditional homeland straddles the territory that is now shared between Pakistan and Afghanistan. These fierce people fought off the British for many decades, earning themselves a reputation as warriors that later would- be- invaders such as the Russians were forced to endorse.

The fictional Khan represents not only that generation of migrants born in the subcontinent, but also the growing and militant “back-to-India” movement which grew out of the hardships of the 1930s. Khan, we learn, is also a veteran and hero of the infamous Hosay riots of 1884, the bloody disturbances which took place when the colonial authorities tried to restrict the celebration of one of the main religious dates in the Indian Muslim calendar. As a man who came to Trinidad not as an indentured plantation labourer but as a free and independent jewellery craftsman, he is proud of both his ancestry and social status – which in turn are respected by the Indian community at large.

The underlying theme The Jumbie Bird is the conflict between the patriarch’s indomitable sense of his own Pathan identity and the process of acculturation that has shaped both his son and grandson. For while Kale Khan dreams of a return to his homeland, his son, Rahim, brought up in Trinidad, knows no other reality and feels no ancestral link with his father’s birthplace. Instead, he experiences the painful rootlessness felt by many second-generation migrant, made worse by fears of bankruptcy and poverty. “What goin’ to happen to us?” he asks. “We ain’t belong to England, we ain’t belong to Hindustan, we aint belong to Trinidad.” Rahim, in turn, has a son, Jamini, and it is largely through his eyes that we witness the growing conflict between the old and the new, the dream of return and the reality of staying.

What is at stake is the painful transition from the past, as epitomized by Kale Khan’s strict code of Pathan manliness, through the present, symbolized by Rahim’s anxiety, to the future, personified by Jamini. He, like his father, is dominated by the charismatic and unyielding Kale Khan and is instinctively  drawn to the romantic concept of a distant Hindustan homeland. Yet, growing up in colonial Port of Spain, his adolescent interests and experiences belong to a different world. TheJumbieBird, according to superstition the harbinger of death, haunts this divided filmily with its sinister nocturnal cry.

This conflict is brought into sharp relief by the elderly Kahn’s last- ditch attempt to provoke the colonial authorities into organizing large-scale repatriation by using the visit of the Indian High Commissioner to draw attention to the suffering of the Indo- Trinidadian population. Galvanising large crowds of discontented ex-labourers, he hopes to embarrass the authorities into agreeing to send his people back to what he considers their home.

But herein lies Kale Khan’s great delusion and the central idea of the novel. For the High Commissioner flatly rejects the idea as an anachronism, insisting that the future of Trinidad’s Indian-descended people lies in Trinidad and not in the utopian dream of a return to India. The revelation comes quite literally as a death-blow to Kale Khan, who throws himself into a last, and fatal, stick fight in the Hosay festival:

” . . . he could hear the Commissioner’s voice of the evening before, saying he was not sent to Trinidad to revive old quarrels, that the past was dead and over, that India was no longer at odds  with the British, and that India wished that they would settle here and try to make this place their home. And when the meaning of his words struck Kale Khan, he felt a great physical jolt that sent him spinning, plunging into nowhere . . . ”

With the symbolic and somehow inevitable death of Kale Khan dies the dream of an Indian homeland and, conversely, the rebirth of Rahim’s sense of purpose and optimism. This new understanding is shared by Jamini, who, after a period of adolescent drifting, also seizes the chance to put down lasting roots in Trinidad by continuing his education and abandoning the notion that his everyday life is some sort of exile. In this sense, Jamini represents the all-important transition from being an East Indian to being a West Indian, an individual with a stake in the future of his native island, but one who also draws on the cultural wealth of his forebears.

Much of this finely crafted novel is autobiographical. We know that Ismith Khan, like Jamini, lived on Woodford Square, had a Pathan grandfather named Kale Khan, and was educated at the prestigious Queen’s Royal College. The story of Jamini is hence, to a large degree, the author’s. But the book’s significance is much wider than the purely personal. In dramatising the conflict of a single family, it also spoke for an entire community and a whole generation who, in Trinidad’s case, have successfully made that transition from East to West Indian, from weakness to strength, from the past to the present .•

James Ferguson is the author of The Traveller’s Literary Companion to the Caribbean (In Print/Passport Books/Ian Randle Publishers)