I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara

Recipient of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant Award

Published by Kaya Press

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Award-winning Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir (born 1981) brings his own poetic swagger and family history to a groundbreaking translation of Lalbihari Sharma's Holi Songs of Demerara, originally published in India in 1916―the only known literary work written by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean. Sharma, originally from Chapra in the current Indian state of Bihar, was bound to the Golden Fleece Plantation in British Guyana. His poems about the hardships of "coolie" life on the island were originally published in Awadhi-Bhojpuri as a pamphlet of spiritual songs in the style of 16th-century devotional poetry.

I Even Regret Night brings Mohabir's new translation of Sharma's text together with a contextualizing introduction by Gaiutra Bahadur, who found the manuscript in the British Library and wrote about it in her book Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, and an afterward by Mohabir exploring the role of poetry in resisting the erasure of this often-overlooked community.

Listen to one of Sharma’s songs Performed by Indus Voices

Read Mohabir’s article in PEN America

Read Bahadur’s introduction in LA Review of Books

Praise for I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara

Like the soughing of wind through a canebrake, Lalbihari Sharma’s I Even Regret Night:  The Holi Songs of Demerara is poignant and compelling. It whispers faintly of the decimation of Indigenous peoples as it cogently tells the story of Indian laborers who, in search of a better quality of life, are indentured on the sugar plantations of Demerara, in British Guyana. This work speaks to the crucible of migration and the migrating cultural texts that encourage a people’s endurance of the pain of separation and the conditions of enthrallment as they mitigate the longing for home—for the beloved. Through a language of sacred myth and devotional poetry that is inflected with the wisdom inherent in vernacular speech, I Even Regret Night is a testament to the genius of Indo-Caribbean peoples and their incredible journey of surviving, continuing, and becoming.  It is a testament to the transformative power of creativity and spirituality that allows one to see beyond the illusion of empire to the truth of one’s essential and authentic reality.

Originally published in 1916 and then lost to oblivion, I Even Regret Night is recovered in Rajiv Mohabir’s English translation of Sharma’s text. When we read this firsthand account, of the only known literary work by an indentured laborer in the colonial fields of Demerara, we are reassured that there always is a witness, that no matter the attempt to forget, erase, dismiss, diminish, or reduce to a footnote the momentous and transmuting experiences of human beings who have been oppressed, exploited, violated, and subjugated, their cries will be heard and their triumphs will augment our own capacity to evolve, to transcend our inclinations toward domination and excess, and to understand that collective freedom and personal sovereignty are our inexorable destiny.

Through this book, written in the folk language of the Indo-Caribbeans of Demerara, Sharma bears witness to, validates, and pays tribute to a people’s spiritual alchemy. I Even Regret Night is the triumph of the pen over the whip. It is the triumph of the dignity and self-respect of a people over the conditions of degradation. It is the triumph of the awakened inner spirit over the unconsciousness that threatens to undermine and silence the oversoul of humanity.

- Deborah G. Plant, editor Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston

 

Aching for home is a sentiment as ancient as the history of migration in the Americas, but so is the role of poetry and song as personal antidotes to the pangs of loss and as communal vehicles for expressions of love. During these troubling times when our various communities are under siege, we comfort our aching hearts with the testimonies of strength from our ancestors who were immigrants, exiles, refugees, and slaves. What a timely arrival is I Even Regret Night! What a blessing to have a voice that rises above the burdens of indentured servitude and that graciously empowers our affection for culture, language, religion, and identity.

-Rigoberto González, author of Unpeopled Edan and Butterfly Boy

 

In his Nobel acceptance speech, Derek Walcott spoke of witnessing the annual performance, in a Caribbean village, of scenes from the Ramayana enacted by the descendants of the indentured cane cutters from India. Lalbihari Sharma is a far less celebrated, utterly obscure source. But how wonderful is this text—what a magical find! A pleasure to read him across this distance of time in Rajiv Mohabir's clear translation. Over the heartbreak of displacement and loss, what I hear, as if delivered to the accompaniment of a dhol and majira, is an energetic recitation: the mixed rhythm of faith and a newfound feeling of identity particular to the Caribbean.

- Amitava Kumar, author of Immigrant, Montana.

 

“Rajiv Mohabir is the best kind of translator: he is well aware of the ghosts—historical, linguistic, and personal—that haunt the distance between these poems’ mouths and our humble ears.”

– Kazim Ali, author of SkyWard and translator of Margeurite Duras and Sohrab Sepheri

 

Much has been written about the people who were brought— at the end of the 19th and into the early 20th century— to the British West Indian colonies to work the cane fields, but the voices of the workers themselves have been either silent or imagined by theorists and by their yearning ancestors. And if we do hear from them, it is usually, until now, about their very real tribulations as indentured labourers. Rajiv Mohabir’s important translation of Lalbihari Sharma’s poems, a literary expression that will challenge and alter our preconceptions of the early Indian worker in the Caribbean, is a rare and important glimpse into the life and mind of a man whose voice soars well above the position of labourer in someone’s else’s service. The cane field is and is not present in these poems, it is not the whole, the labourer is an individual, a learned person, humanist, poet, lover and dreamer; he is undefeated because of creativity and the richness of his mind. Mohabir's essay on how he himself came to poetry and to this work by Sharma, is itself an enlightening and delightful revelation. Thank you Rajiv, for this beautiful service to our past, and to our future.

- Shani Mootoo, visual artist, author- Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab, Cereus Blooms at night.

 

What a fortune! What a tragedy! From the ache of indenture rises this century-old manuscript, in a stunning bilingual edition adorned with images from the plantation. Rajiv Mohabir's sensitive translation, along with scholar-author Gauitra Bahadur's afterword which beautifully contextualizes it, breathes a whole new lifetime into these poems. The verses poignantly document life for the entrapped workers — “bearing hoes on their shoulders” at 5am, the sahib bearing a whip, years passing “in steady woe.” They also introduce English readers to new (to us) forms, from up-tempo odes celebrating the divine festival, to dirges mourning a lost homeland which sings out like an absent lover. This treasure establishes Lalbihari Sharma as the southernmost star in the firmament of bhakti poets, and Mohabir in the ranks of esteemed translators like Bly and Barks who have brought the mystic lover-poets of South Asia into our English.

- Minal Hajratwala, author of Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents

 

A suddenly recovered world of American spiritual folksong opens up here, in these celebrations by Lalbihari Sharma. Mohabir’s “chutney” translations make the loss, longing, and hope, sting again. It is as though Guyana's cane plantations always harbored India’s gods of the dispossessed. Here is Kabir’s tradition, here Mirabai’s, but native to the soil of the Americas: pungent, salty, hopeful, quick. These songs make your hair stand up. Mohabir gives them with a stirring account of translation as family-discovery. Gauitra Bahadur in a sharp essay tells the near-miracle of finding a lost manuscript, and with it, an all but lost history.

- Andrew Schelling, translator of Bright as an Autumn Moon: Fifty Poems from the Sanskrit

 

As the original author claims to have created this collection, “for the joy of music lovers and to purify myself,” the translator as a descendent from this tradition recreates these spiritual songs with inspired verse that continues to sing for us in English. A scholarly essay included in this collection provides much needed context, while the direct, honed lines often approach the inspiration and purification of prayer.

- Roger Sedarat, Associate Professor, Queens College MFA Program in Literary Translation, and recipient of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize

 

 

 

© Rajiv Mohabir 2019