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Between Two Cultures

by Sharin Ali

A: So, let’s see. I don’t know if you can – so, right here, that’s my grandmother, and then here, that’s my great-grandmother, so my dad’s dad’s mum. And then up here is my dad’s dad’s father. So, I could scan those for you, yeah.

Q1: That would be excellent. Is the boy in the middle your dad?

A: No, that’s actually one of my cousins. So yeah, that’s a cousin down here, and then I believe – I know it’s a family member. I used to call her Grandma, ‘cos she used to take care of me, but I don’t know – in Indian culture, you just kind of call, you know, Auntie, Uncle, but you don’t – like you’re probably some sort of, you know, like distant relative kind of thing. But I do have a picture of his – my dad’s parents. So, here, that’s my grandfather, and that’s my grandmother. My grandmother actually lives with me right now. My grandfather did live with us, but he passed away in 2010 from emphysema, because he was actually a lifelong smoker. Apparently, he started smoking when he was about twelve. Yeah, and for him too, he was one of the older siblings in his family, I think out of like eleven siblings, and unfortunately, you know, he didn’t go to school very long either, and he became a carpenter when he was twelve. So, you know, what I gather from my family, like, life was really rough, you know. You know, as soon as you were at a working age, you were out there and working. So yeah, it was rough. And I mean, I kind of see that with my dad and the way he was raised too, because he grew up with his grandparents, and my grandmother, in broken English – like she doesn’t know very much English, obviously, because she came to Canada later in life, but in broken English, she’s told my mum, she wasn’t treated very well by her in-laws, and, you know, I believe that’s from being, you know, indentured slaves, you know, because they were treated poorly. And, you know, when people aren’t treated really well or – I don’t know, in a way it kind of reminds me of indigenous people in Canada, you know, going to residential schools, and they were beaten and that kind of thing and, you know, all that trauma. You know, if you have all those traumatic, you know, incidences, you don’t know how to react or interact with people once those, you know, things happen. So, I know that, when my grandmother was living with her in-laws, they would be really cruel to her, and apparently she was like beaten and that kind of thing. And my dad also as well was beaten growing up. Like it sounded like there wasn’t a lot of… What would I – how would I say it? Sorry. I actually wrote some notes, so I’m going to flip through. Like there wasn’t very much affection. Like he wasn’t shown very much love and that kind of thing. And, you know, apparently, one of my uncles said that he was beaten once to the point where he like blacked out. So, like, there was a lot of violence like that went on. And I believe like – again, to go back, I believe it’s from, you know, how indentured slaves were treated, you know. Because once you’ve been through something very traumatic, and you don’t deal with those – you know, like the really heavy, you know, feelings, you don’t deal with them yourself, and then you – you know, the cycle of intergenerational violence, then you – you know, like you beat your kids, and then, you know, it just keeps going on until somebody like – yeah, it’s a cycle. So, you know, me sitting here and talking about my history, I’m stopping it here, you know. Like I don’t plan on, you know, doing corporal punishment. Yeah, so, but what I know from my grandparents is, you know, there’s a lot of violence, a lot of pain, and I’d see it in my family when I was growing up. So, a lot of my family actually immigrated from Fiji to Canada. Everybody’s migrated everywhere. They live in like Australia, New Zealand, and some family members are in, you know, the US, so like we’re everywhere now. But a lot of the family that did come here when I was growing up, racially, like, they just – they were really cruel to me too because I’m half Indo-Fijian and half European-Canadian, and I feel like they internalised, you know, all the colonialism, you know, and all the stuff that happened, but we’ve never talked about it in my family. Like it’s just completely swept under the rug, and that’s why I don’t really have, you know, like solid information. And I know, growing up, like it was such a heavy undertone in my family when I was growing up, like I was never really referred to by my name. I was always called Whitey, or in Hindi the term is [Gori 0:20:39]. So, like, they’d be like, “Oh, she’s just a white person.” So, like, I was always like the outcast in my family because – you know, being half. But like when I got older, as I got older and I started looking more into my history – because I didn’t know much about my Indo-Fijian heritage other than, you know, I’m Indo-Fijian [laughs], so I started looking into it and I was like, oh, urgh, like, you know, there’s some slavery back here, you know, and colonialism, and – and I see this in my family, and nobody’s really dealt with it. And now I’m like, okay, I need to deal with this. I need to delve into this and figure out, you know, what happened, why, you know, just so I can heal for myself, but also like heal for my family, you know. So, yeah [laughs]. I don’t know, hopefully that’s not too much of a tangent, but I can go like more specifically into like some dates if you’d like that.

Q1: That would be excellent. I think actually the question of trauma and how we deal with it, and how it affects future generations, is a huge thing, and I think that’s probably worthy of a project in its own right. And maybe one day we’ll come to that.

A: I’m hoping so too.

Q1: Yeah. I would say you’re not alone. There are lots of people like you, who are between two cultures. I have a friend called Umi who’s written a book about – and her dad was Indian, her mum was English, and she’s always felt not quite belonging. She wrote a book called Belonging. And actually, you know what, you’re the biggest growing racial group in the world, people who are in-between.

A: Yeah.

Q1: So, you’re the future.

A: Yeah [laughs]. That’s what they say. We’re going to be beige one day. We’re not going to be white, right [laughs].

Q1: So, you know a little bit more about your dad’s dad’s side than your dad’s mum’s side.

A: Yeah.

Q1: Were there any stories they told about the overseers, about the conditions, about how they made the journey? Was there anything, anything?

A: None. I tried. I kept asking. I kept asking, and everybody was like, “We don’t know anything. We just know we’re from India.” And, you know, so – but I assume like conditions were not great and like, from the like violence and abuse that they suffered, probably that’s what – you know, they probably were being whipped and, you know, like getting up really early and – you know, just like kind of the things that happened to people in residential schools, I’m sure – yeah, ‘cos I live in Canada, so like we kind of have similar parallels. Like I can’t say like we exactly had the same situation, but there are parallels, you know, due to colonialism, yeah.

Q1: Well, thank you very much, Sharin, for sharing that, and I hope it’s been some use to you as well as to us.

A: It actually – it has been. You know, like it’s been hard. Like I haven’t had like a place to kind of share this, you know, yeah.

Q1: Yeah, mm. Do you have anyone else that you can talk to – I mean, apart from your cat, that you can talk to about this?

A: Actually, quite a few of my friends, I’ve talked to about this. My best friend’s actually – she’s Indian but she’s from – like she’s Punjabi, so like she kind of like understands some of this stuff. And I follow a couple of people on social media, like, who are like Guyanese-Indian. They actually live in Britain. One of them told me about this project, so.

Q1: Oh excellent.

A: Yeah, so I’ve been talking to her about it, because there’s parallels, you know, because Guyanese-Indians have similar, you know, histories, yeah.

Q1: Yeah, oh [laughs], do you think we could have their email addresses? She knows about the project already, but the other ones, are they in the loop?

A: I’m not 100 percent sure, but I can ask her.

Q1: Yeah.

A: Yeah.

Q1: And if they don’t – if they’re not already wanting to give their oral testimony, we would love to get in touch with them.

A: Okay, sounds good. Is it okay that they’re like Indo-Guyanese, or does it have to –

Q1: I think we’re looking for the Girmit system. It’s the indentured system.

A: Yeah, okay.

Q1: But I think the Guyanese connection might be interesting.

A: Yeah, I can see. I mean, I’m not close to her, but like I mean I might be in passing like, “Hey, so I just finished the interview with, you know, the organisation you told me about, you know, and I told them about, you know, you. Would you be interested?” Couldn’t hurt, right? [Laughs] Yeah.

Q1: Okay, well, thank you very much, Sharin, for your time this morning.

Q2: Do you want to share – you said you’ve got some dates and things. Do you want to share those with us, Sharin?

A: Oh yes, yeah, I forget. But yeah, just like when my grandparents got married and that kind of thing. ‘Cos I know you asked for a couple dates and I was like, “Okay, I’ll try to dig out whatever I can.”

Q1: Yeah, if you just read out all the information on those certificates, that would be absolutely brilliant, thank you.

A: Okay. So, my grandparents got married in 1964, so that was December 26th, 1964. My grandfather was 2016 at the time, and my grandmother was sixteen. And I believe my grandmother, her parents were married in 1940 and then they had her eight years later in 1948. And when they married, they were – so, my – I believe – so, my grandfather – or my grandmother’s dad, his name was [Yaseen Dilwar 0:26:29], and he was twenty-five, and my grandmother’s mum, her name was [Raymon Basir 0:26:36] and she was twenty-two. So, I mean, the ages weren’t like too young, but like my grandmother was like really young when she was married, yeah. And so – and as for the names of my dad’s dad [laughs], his name was [Noor Ali 0:26:56], and my grandfather’s mum’s name was [Jayna Bibi 0:27:01]. And as for like ages, like I couldn’t find any birth certificates or records on them. So yeah, it’s like the paperwork is like almost non-existent, yeah. And then my dad was born in 1968, so – and then he had three siblings, but one is deceased. He passed away really young. He had gangrene from – like he was diabetic, because a lot of, I don’t know, Indo-Fijian or Indo people have diabetes. So, he had diabetes. You know, the healthcare’s not that great in Fiji. You have to pay for it. He ended up getting gangrene. He had his leg amputated, got gangrene, and then he passed away because, you know, the infection spread, so. But his sister’s still alive. She lives in Fiji.

Q1: Brilliant, thank you very much.

A: Sorry, it’s not like much of a story, but I know like even a little bit of a story is still a story, right?

Q1: It’s a jigsaw puzzle and it’s one piece.

A: Yeah [laughs]. And I’m pretty sure, when you interview other people, like maybe like some other things – you know, you might be able to piece some sort of – you know, because history – no history is like perfect, and everybody has a different – everybody’s history, like they have a different recount of it, right, so yeah. As long as you get the story down, that’s, you know, the important part.

Q1: Yeah.

Q2: Can I just ask you one question, Sharin? When was the first time someone spoke to you about indenture, or the first person to sort of mention it if it wasn’t spoken in your family? If your relatives didn’t want to speak about it, where was the – who first talked about it to you?

A: I can’t really pinpoint a moment, but I went to college and I did a bachelors degree in something completely unrelated. I’m actually a recreation therapist, and we learn a lot about disenfranchised people. So, I work with people with disabilities, you know, like all walks of backgrounds, and I think at that point I started looking at my family history. Because, you know, I took like electives too, so like I took electives in women and gender role studies and that kind of thing, and, you know, like topics like that would start coming up, and then I started looking at my own history. So, I’d have to say my early twenties, that’s when I slowly kind of got interested and started to really look into it and went, oh my god, my ancestors like very – like I’m like the third generation now. So, you know, in my lineage, like it’s still raw, you know. So, I feel like that’s when I kind of really started looking at the indentured slavery. And then now, you know, like talking on – you know, connecting on social media with other people around the world who are, you know, Guyanese-Indian, and I have a friend who is like Ugandan-Indian, you know, and just, you know, meeting other people, and I’m like – and then it just kind of like started snowballing.

Q2: Great, thank you.

Q1: Thanks.

Q2: Your lovely little cat making an appearance [laughs].

A: She’s like, “Why aren’t we in bed right now?” [Laughs]

Q1: Well, we’ll probably – the organisation will probably be sending you a form, which is a sort of declaration that your material can be used in – you know, they’ll take a snippet from it and it will be available in an archive. And the form is basically allowing copyright for the organisation to use that. It doesn’t mean that you can’t use it, if you’re thinking of writing a book, for example, about your family. But if you’ve got any questions about that then get in touch with the organisers.

A: Okay, yeah.

Q1: I think that’s it, is it, Laura?

Q2: It is, yeah. I’ll email over that form for you.

A: Okay, sounds good.

Q2: And then you can keep that, and then you can send it back to me and I can pass it on if you like, if that’s easier.

A: Okay. And then would you like me to scan the photos and then send them to you, Laura?

Q2: Yes.

Q1: Yes please.

A: And then I can like try and label – like I don’t know everybody in the photo, but I can just say like, “This is my grandmother,” you know, like yeah.

Q2: Perfect.

Q1: I think the sense for me is that indenturing fractured your family.

A: It did.

Q1: You know nothing about what happened – you know, your whole heritage back in India, woomph, it’s like [zero 0:31:25].

A: Yeah, it’s essentially how it feels. Like I know I’m Indian, but I know nothing about it, yeah. Whereas my friends – you know, like I have a lot of friends – ‘cos we have a big, you know, Indo-Canadian – like it’s big here in Canada, and they know – like they know their family. They go back to India. And I know nothing. All I know is I’m Indian [laughs], and I celebrate some Indian holidays. That’s about it, so.

Q1: Well, thanks very much for your time.

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