25 June 2022
#WeekendReads

Poem | Odysseys From India: A Tribute

Memories of journeys and voyages across the oceans, cultures and continents.

Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: Shutterstock

We traversed continents,
he and I, over thirty years,
to lands far and near, tinged
with great joy, adventures,
a few regrets, yes, a few
at distances away from home.
Seasons came, years flew by
in a flurry of experiences.
Then in quiet solitude,
ancient journeys beckoned.
The unwavering tales of Resolution,
the Voyages of the South Asian Pioneers.

Travel with me across the oceans
to the isthmus of Panama.
Few survived the tumultuous seas,
the fury of thunder, lightning, and rain.
Hark! Trace the turbans in the murals
adorning the Visitors Centre at Mira Flores.
Trail those photo memoirs taken in 1904,
Men who hailed from the Punjab, Gujarat
and Sindh, to help build the Panama Canal.
Countless lives lost to Yellow Fever,
harsh work conditions, rough living spaces,
yet they toiled on, and on, determined souls.

Come sail to East Africa, embark
on journeys towards mapped ports of call,
recorded from the early first century,
in the ‘Periplus of the Erythraean Sea.’
Voyages to Aden, Zanzibar and Dar Es Salaam.
I can see them, in my mind’s eye,
bid farewell, to Family and Friends,
leave the shores of India , prayers on their lips,
in the 1800s, in search of good fortune.
The Furies swept them off course, alas!
Shipwrecked on unfamiliar shores, some awoke
in Mozambique, unthwarted, set sail again.

Over two hundred years later,
descendants must weep to hear
“those karanas” whispered derisively
in the interiors of Madagascar.
Many remain stateless still.
“They came in dhows”
the locals whisper in Kenya,
eyebrows raised, unmindful
of the 32,000 indentured labourers
brought to lay tracks on the ‘lunatic line’
in Tsavo, thirty-five carried away
by a pair of man-eating lions.

Their voices remain ghosts, yet see
in the coat of arms of the national flag,
Harambee, ‘pull-together’ in Swahili.
Clubbed a peg below the white settlers,
the mzungu, are those of Indian origin.
The muindi in Uganda toiled with due diligence
acquired reputations as astute businessmen,
daring into interiors of the land
others feared to tread, yet once derided
as the ‘other’ Jews of Africa,
they remained Stoic, in their resolution,
fortified with nerves of steel.

Thousands died from disease, mishaps,
undaunted by arduous labour,
whatever the work, wherever they sailed,
they chanted together, shoulder to shoulder,
Fearless Pioneers from South Asia.
True legends of bravery and hardship
are narrated in many foreign lands.
I embraced these tales with pride and sorrow.
Let us revere them, their intrepid voyages,
resilient bodies, indomitable minds.
Wipe away the tears that mingled
with falling raindrops on ashen faces.
Hush - hear their pitiful silent cries,
prayers and longing for loved ones.

Invincible Pioneers from South Asia,
Immortal memoirs etched in Gold.

Jayshree Misra Tripathi has been a consultant, educator and examiner in English Language and Literature, for the Diploma of the International Baccalaureate Organization. Having lived in diverse cultures for over thirty years with her late husband, a career diplomat in the Indian Civil Service, her short fiction and narrative verse dwell upon journeys through the diaspora, highlighting women’s “voices” and cross-cultural conversations.