A Queer Relearning Hindustani
An Essay Written by: Rajiv Mohabir
Sunday June 4, 2023
I have always been haunted by the traumas of my creation story. I come from an East Indian, Guyanese community that was colonized, indentured, and forcefully displaced by the British colonial machine from 1838 to 1917. The story of the overseer’s whip still cracks, still torments my family, albeit in steadily modernizing ways now that we live in the United States. One trauma is the gradual forgetting of our language and the taking of English as Eucharist. Our poetry recedes into the darkness of obscurity. I relearn my Aji’s language to heal my white scars, to join the broken earth of my body with queer light.
Like many West Indians, I did not grow into a family that spoke a South Asian language consistently. My ears, however, were attuned to the phonetic structures of the Hindi and Caribbean Bhojpuri of the music that scratched its high pitch across our living room. My parents did not speak much of it and only mimicked the Ram Ram and Pranam that they learned from their own parents, who were fluent in a culture that my parents’ generation ran away from, packing their suitcases filled with collections, British poetry, Western clothes, and rum. On Saturday mornings nostalgia and longing for back-home, despite their earlier abandonments, smote their hearts with its hurricane force winds.
I grew to learn the words to Hindi songs like “He, Neele Gagna Ke Tale” before I knew the meaning: Beneath the blue sky…
Beneath the blue sky my parents quickly packed their Coolie-ness into the attic, dawned British and American accents, converted to Christianity, and wanted to assimilate as quickly as the red fox jumps over the lazy brown dog. The hope was to reduce our family’s difference; to lessen the burden of brownness for my brother, sister, and me. But we lived in a racist Central Florida. How wrong they were. Pushed into lockers, mocked, and spat upon, I grew into a white world unaware of my Aji’s magical tales; alienated from epics and legends that proved my humanity.
The first real interactions with South Asians from the continent left me wondering about exactly what makes me Indian. What about me is particularly South Asian? It wasn’t country of origin: Guyana is not India, it wasn’t community: otherwise my parents would answer these questions directly to the classmate who posed it. I was estranged from too much, being Indo-Guyanese and the only one at my high school.
I began learning Standard Hindi as a way of exploring my own poetic inheritance, at fifteen I read R.K. Narayan’s The Ramayana and saw in its pages familial names matched letter for letter. Doing so I learned to communicate to my Aji in her two languages, in her two worldviews, learning Caribbean Bhojpuri the further along the path to Standard Hindi I tread. I learned about the concept of kin and time that bound us together. I learned the right way to greet my elders; how to remove the evil eye of unkind aunts; what songs to sing at the birth of my siblings’ children; how to pray for the dead. I learned that there are folk traditions and songs for every aspect of life, and that as a poet I was able to transpose these into new contexts, given my migrations from London, to Florida, to New York, to Honolulu, to Auburn, to Boston, and now to Boulder.
Identity Assemblage/Intersection: A Queer Coolie Poetics
My parents are survivors. Or at least the equation that was instilled in me was:
I’ve had to learn how to see myself when I’m painted out of the pastoral scene: to read myself into the quick definitions of others to prove that I exist; to see the Coolie in the Asian American label; to hear the queer voices in the chutney music that is home.
And that’s the thing about diasporic consciousness for me, at least—that my multiple belongings and exclusions happen simultaneously. I like to think of this as a piece of white paper divided into eight sections.
Fold a piece of white paper into eight equal parts and make heavy creases that will act as different sections. Now color each rectangle a different shade with some kind of paint: acrylic or oil. The colors should be distinct and not necessarily connected to one another by any logic of the color wheel—just through the global economics of a paper that binds them together. Fold the paper again into the sections.
Red for Coolie
Sienna for Queerness
Yellow for America
Mauve for England
and the list goes on.
Now take the folded paper and tear it in half. You will notice that in every tear some bit of every color grabs the eye. Now from this cross-section try to remove all the blue without removing or damaging any of the other colors. You will have a hard time doing so as the paint all seems to blend together to form a new color composed of many different ones.
I like to think of this as how a queer diasporic consciousness works: where time, place, queernesses all occur simultaneously without the ability to be separated.
I am too North American, too Coolie, too immigrant, too queer, too old to stay silent and to use silence as my means of survival in this racist, queer-hating country. I cannot separate any parts of myself, these aspects happen simultaneously.
Who Gets to Learn a Second Language?
From 2003-2004 I studied Hindi and Bhojpuri through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College Year In India program based in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh and then again in 2011-2012 in Jaipur, Rajasthan. For so long Hindi language was the object of my own “Indianization” as I had been admonished to learn “the language of your people” by white folks that dreamed their exoticist fantasies about the Orient. Who told me about my own family based on what they thought they knew of India, hearing all kinds of accents in our voices, knowing better what kinds of clothes we wear and what our religions are. I remember trying to tell a cisgender white heterosexual man about the fact of my not actually being Indian, nationally. His reply: But look at your eyes and skin. You are clearly Indian.
I took this deep. I was a text to be read. I was an Indian book read by a straight white man. I would be dishonest to say that it did not validate my colonized mind.
My Aji was looked down on for speaking her “broken” language in Guyana as well as in North America. There was queerness in her speech: she did not fit the image of what society demanded of her. In order to receive an education in Guyana my father and his family had to convert to Christianity—to take Christian names. Along with this came hatred of all things Coolie, Hinduism and Muslim. My father calls daal, “split peas” when he tries to erase his accent to the white congregation members of his Lutheran church in Central Florida. He no longer celebrated Diwali or Phagwa. Only Christmas. He believes all of his ancestors are burning in hell.
I was thirsty to know what his generation tried so hard to forget. I wanted to learn how to say my own name with the correct cadences and inflections. I wanted to undam the river and undamn my ancestors. Like the king Sagar who performed many lifetimes of tapasya to bring the Ganga to flow. I wanted a boon from Shiva. I wanted to be able to speak to my grandmother. I wanted to be easily legible.
When I speak Hindi in public folks turn their heads and look me up and down, reading my skin, eyes, beard, and non-English language. I don’t have to write about xenophobia—it’s evident. It’s also evident that Islamophobia shapes the kinds of racism that I encounter while I’m engaging in everyday tasks. Some things I’ve been called: terrorist, Paki, sand n—…the list goes on.
I have been told by my parents to never speak Hindi or Bhojpuri while I’m at the airport or on an airplane and that I should be careful about the books that I have available. Once I carried a book about Islam with me and my father refused to board the plane to Buffalo until I tucked it in my bag and promised not to read it while on the flight. We don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea, his words echo still against the tarmac of my present flights.
I noticed that when white people learn Hindi through programs like the ones I did, there is a kind of awe and respect given to them by brown folks and other white people. They are able to understand THEM while still being the American US. They get respect and jobs at universities teaching people Hindi and about India; they teach people like me, the descendant of indentured laborers who had our languages stripped from me by British and global hegemonic powers. Coolies were colonized into the savage know-nothings that the British wanted us to believe we were. We justify their colonization daily through this kind of self-hatred that I suckled on as a child. We have none of the social prestige for learning our own language, for inviting the rivers of ourselves back into the banks of our tongues and palates.
Broken Hindi, Broken English
When we came to the Western Hemisphere we were Coolies from the rural and poor parts of India, a region now known today as South Asia. We spoke various languages: Tamil, Telegu, Adivasi languages, Punjabi, Maithili, Awadhi, Bhojpuri, and Urdu. In the distopia of the cane field, when we lived in the logies, or barracks, given to us by our colonial masters we developed our own language, a koine language based on Bhojpuri. Later this language we would refer to as “broken Hindi.” This reflects a deeper damage, a deeper brokenness. We have become “broken” people. According to Surrender Gambhir’s 1980’s study in my father’s own natal village of Crabwood Creek, he notes in his dissertation, “The East Indian Speech Community in Guyana: A Sociolinguistic Study with Special Reference to Koine Formation,” that when local Indo-Guyanese started to watch Bollywood films, exported to the colonies, they faced a kind of linguistic insecurity that fragmented them, reified the British admonition to forego Caribbean Hindi for English as they believed it was not a real, legitimate language.
I imagine my own father going to the Maya Theatre in Skeldon with his brother and friends to watch Shammi Kapoor croon against the film screen “Aaja Aaja Meh Huu Pyar Tera.” I imagine his interaction with his own parents:
“Pa—what does Aaja Aaja mean?” my sixteen-year-old father would ask.
“You na know dat? Aja mean you faddah ke faddah,” he would reply in his Creole, assuming his son was speaking Bhojpuri and not Western Standard Hindi.
In some ways Bollywood, while offering overseas Indians and survivors of the Indian Labor Diaspora some connection with an imagined home culture, was deleterious to local ways of understanding ourselves as belonging to a tradition. We became English ducks, quacking out our love for Pat Boone, mimicking his saccharine vibrato.
The English Creole that developed through hegemonic contact with the masters and magistrates acted as a vehicle through which we would be able to negotiate contracts, to follow the instructions for cane labor, to understand their voices when they told us that we would never go back to our families even if they would have us back, and to settle down into the grant land that they allotted us down the river.
This language too, we call “broken.” When we call our languages “broken” we admit the superiority of other, of the British. When we call our languages broken, we call ourselves shattered, incomplete, lesser.
We have internalized the colonizer’s lens and are erasing ourselves. No one has ever studied the Bhojpuri poetics of the songs my ancestors brought with them to the Caribbean, choosing instead to focus on English and Caribbean Creole English as the main vehicle for a Caribbean aesthetic.
I have always known someone in my family who spoke Hindi or Caribbean Hindi—usually the elders. I was able to understand the lyrics of songs after a quick telephone call to my Aji or any of her sisters. When I started to translate for myself did I start to see the beauty of the tradition that I belong to, albeit tenuous and displaced. For me translation then becomes a way of kicking down the doors—letting the Coolies back into poetry of their ancestors. We are not a broken people but a people who are survivors of indenture and trauma. We are not a cultural time capsule. We are not fragments of what we once were. We are creatives. We are altogether new.
For me translation begins a healing. I no longer call my languages “broken.” I name my languages amalgamative, creative, the product of syncretism and diversity. I invite it back into my mouth, its poetry back into my lungs and pharynx.
The importance of learning, speaking, and maintaining our language is necessary and immediate. We are being erased. We are being erased by history books, color blindness, Bollywood, and mass media. We are forgetting our stories and our heritages. We are forgetting the taste and feel of hot daal and rice in our fingers. By allowing others to treat our customs and languages as "broken" or as inferior because that's how we see ourselves, indeed that's how we've been taught to think of ourselves from the hegemonies of colonial, imperialist Britain, is to allow ourselves to become erased.
And that shit is so last century.
I leave you with a queer chutney song—or the lyrics I wrote to be put into the music of chutney song. I challenge you to put this to dantaal, dholak, and harmonium. Voice this queer chutney.
कइसे हम जाइबे तोहार हाथ थामके
kaise ham jaibe tohar hath thamke
बाबा के यहाँ (१)
baba ke yaha
कइसे हम जाइबे तोहार हाथ थामके
kaise ham jaibe tohar hath thamke
हमार मुलुकवा में (२)
hamar mulukwa mein
ब्राम्टण नगरिया में इ बतिया ना चलेला
Brampton nagariya mein ii batiya na chalela
भैलवा गइया के बाड़ा में जाये उ हटाई हमके (१)
bhailwa gaiya ke barda mein jaye uu hatai hamke
बाबा के मकानवा में इ बतिया ना चलेला
baba ke makanwa mein ii batiya na chalela
बकरवा बकरिया के झुंड में जाये उ हटाई हमके (२)
bakarwa bakariya ke jhund mein jaye uu hatai hamke
नू याक नगरिया में इ बतिया ना चलेला
New Yack nagariya mein ii batiya na chalela
मुरगवा मुरगिया के पिंजरा में जाये उ हटाई हमके (१, २)
murgwa murgiya ke pinjara mein jaye uu hatai hamke
Me cyan go an’ hole you han’
de at me sasural
How me go go tek you han’
in me country
Bamptan mein dis na deh
de bull must go wid de cow
dem go run me from hiya
Me sasural mein dis na deh
de goat does go wid de gyal goat
dem go run me from hiya
New Yack mein dis na go deh
a cock go in de fowlhouse
dem go run me rass from hiya
How can I go holding your hand
to your father’s home
How can I go with you hand in hand
to my own country
In Brampton this does not happen
the bull must enter the cow’s pen
they will drive me out
In your father’s house, this does not fly
the buck must go with the doe-goats’ herd
they will drive me out
In New York this cannot be
a cock must enter a henhouse
they will drive me out
Image courtesy of Bryan Kamaoli Kuwada
About the Author
Rajiv Mohabir is the author of three collections of poetry including Cutlish (Four Way Books 2021) which was awarded the Eric Hoffer Medal Provocateur, longlisted for the 2022 PEN/Voelcker Prize, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Books Award. His fourth book of poems Whale Aria is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2023. He also authored the memoir Antiman (Restless Books 2021) winner of the Forward Indies Award for LGBTQ+ Nonfiction, and was a finalist for the 2022 PEN/America Open Book Award, 2021 Randy Shilts Award for Gay Nonfiction, and 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography. As a translator, his version of I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara (Kaya 2019) won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2020. His fourth poetry collection Whale Aria is forthcoming in September 2023 from Four Way Books. In the fall he will teach in the MFA program at the University of Colorado Boulder.