Rajiv Mohabir is an Indo-Caribbean-American poet who has published several collections including Cutlish, the son of the herdsman and The taxidermist’s cut. he translated I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara by Lalbihari Sharma which was released in 1916 and contains songs in Bhojpuri by a contract servant in what was then British Guiana. His latest work, Antiman: a hybrid memory, is a mixed work – memoirs, translations, poems – in which Mohabir examines his Indo-Guyanese heritage and his experiences with race, writing and sexuality in the United States.
The book is trilingual (Bhojpuri, Creole, English) and each page shows how forced migration, servitude and loss shape language. At the same time, the story plunges the reader into the pain of the cultural and psychic rupture caused by forced migration, which is transmitted from one generation to the next. Additionally, the tale delves into the poet’s experience with the family’s rejection of being queer and the South Asian community of not being Indian enough. Interwoven with this pain and rejection, the poet pays homage to his loving grandmother who sang songs in Bhojpuri that had been passed down from generation to generation in Guyana and which linked him to his roots near Varanasi, India.
Mohabir tells us about his family’s migration from Guyana to North America with some members living in Florida and others in Toronto. His father’s aspirations as a model minority lead to his rejection of all Guyanese, including religion, mythology, music and language. The poet speaks of struggling both against his father’s cultural aspirations and his aggressive heteronormativity. The title of the thesis derives from a derogatory term used in the Guyanese community to describe gay men and the story explores how the poet fights homophobia. Although her father criticizes the grandmother’s Hindi as broken, the poet admits that she speaks Bhojpuri, a dialect, and that her songs are what remains of their family’s history in India.
As a graduate student, the poet learns Hindi and travels to India to seek Bhojpuri songs from the Ramayana to trace the links with his family. Her stay in India deepens her bond with her grandmother while also taking her to the village, which may be where her ancestors came from over a hundred years ago. However, the historical records live in faint memories and many remain ambiguous until he hears a local guru sing the same songs his grandmother sang for him.
If language and ethnic identity are part of the poet’s journey, the other is his struggle to find a place within the South Asian immigrant community as an Indo-Guyanese gay man. With a community dominated by migrants whose roots can be traced back to contemporary India, the descendant of indentured laborers encounter class and caste barriers within the Indian community in the United States and on their travels to India. Migration to the Caribbean erased caste distinctions as people formed families across religious, linguistic and caste lines as they bonded through the shared experience of committing and crossing the world. kala pani (black water). The Indo-Caribbean community is hostile to queer members, and the poet discovers that other queer men in the South Asian community bore their own identity scars from being adopted transracial or locked up. His relationship with such men only increases cultural violence and pain.
What fascinated me as a reader of this book are its many trilingual passages where the poet presents a poem in Bhojpuri, Creole and then in Standard English. As someone who reads and speaks Hindi and can stumble upon Bhojpuri and Creole, I have found myself engaged in big questions about how we determine what is a standard language and what is ‘broken’ (Bhojpuri versus Hindi or Creole versus English). The lines that differentiate are less about language and are more the cracks of class, caste, race and power. I have also found myself reflecting on the heterogeneity of the South Asian community in North America, and the struggles of those who find themselves marginalized multiply due to their caste, language, religion, sexuality, gender or national origins. Mohabir’s mixed-gender memoir is one we all must read for its frankness and brilliance.
Rajiv Mohabir will be at the Tasveer Festival on October 20 at 5 p.m. in conversation with Nawaaz Ahmed and Chandan Reddy. The event is virtual and free. More information at tasveerfestival.org/horaire/