My mother Sarjoodai Persaud passed on to what she hoped would be a “good” rebirth this Monday morning in New York City. She survived my father Anirood Persaud by a dozen years after sixty years of marriage. My surname “Dev” and not “Persaud” is a signifier of the official “married status” they were denied after their marriage by Hindu rites in 1945. My father’s name “not stated”, even though it was he who registered my name.
While history has been dominated by the “great men” perspective or of impersonal “historical forces” unfolding, of recent, there has been an attempted rectification of this jaundiced historiography by some historians who take a “subaltern” perspective. That is, to look at the contributions of the ordinary folks, in effectuating change – independently of the men on horseback and other elites. I look at my mother’s life through these lens.
Born in 1929 at De Willem, she grew up on Plantation Uitvlugt during the depression that drove down sugar prices and wages of the workers. She was ten years old (and remembered) when four workers were shot at neighbouring Plantation Leonora for protesting their working day which had stretched far beyond even that of the indentureship period.
She left school after Standard 3 (Grade 5) and at 16 married my 19-year-old father in 1945. It was not an “arranged” marriage and she had “seen” my father who took care to pass by her home daily. They were given a room in the same logie at the “Letter A” section of Uitvlugt in front of the “Bajan quarters”. I was her third child born there before they moved to the house they built at “Ocean View” Uitvlugt in 1952, one of the earliest housing schemes built through loans offered by the sugar producers. My remaining seven siblings were born there.
A remarkable change occurred with her generation: with the recent eradication of malaria and better sanitary conditions, her family of twelve was the average during the fifties. It created a bulge in the population that was to have a significant political effect later. At the age of seven I was sent to live with her parents, my Nannie and Nana, when my aunt and their last child was married and left them alone. Even though we had a running banter until her death about her “giving me away”, I had a unique opportunity to observe her life during my visits.
Most of the women of her generation on the sugar plantation did not go to work in the cane fields as their mothers had. They had to be tremendously hard working and exceptionally creative to raise their large families on a single meagre salary. Most of the responsibility fell on them. A “good husband” such as my father was, would give his paycheque to his wife, sans a small deduction for his “entertainment” and she was expected to literally “deliver the goods”.
She and her children raised chickens, turkeys, goats in addition to cultivating a vegetable plot behind their house. They planted and reaped by hand the two acre “rice bed” passed down by her grandfather’s from the exchange of his return passage to India. She learnt “sewing” to make her children’s clothes into their teens. She learnt embroidery to create “window blinds”, table cloths, bed-sheets from well washed cotton flour bags.
She and my father vowed none of their children would work in the cane fields and through tremendous sacrifice, and the opening of free secondary schools during the first PPP Government of the early sixties, they managed to keep their promise. They all went on to be successful adults. Her secret, I believe, were the values she passed on to them from their culture especially from the Ramayan. This narrative of family life and the fulfilment of duty offered the intellectual framework for the living example my mother and father offered.
She was very proud that they emigrated to the US at an age when their peers had retired and were yet able to own their own house and see their dozens of grandchildren and great grands at the annual reunions. She was particularly proud she visited India in search of her ancestral village.