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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

The Things We Carried

A reflection from our Archival Creators Fellow
By Gaiutra Bahadur |
JANUARY 22, 2020
1965 issue of True Detective
Archival Creators Fellow Gaiutra Bahadur reflects on the motivations for her project documenting Guyanese descended from Indian indentured laborers, and what she's hoping to explore through her work. The Archival Creators Fellowship Program is made possible with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

November 8, 1981, the day my family arrived in the United States of America, is my Groundhog Day. My youngest sister tells me that I’m stuck infinitely reliving it. Born in the U.S.A., some five years after the big day, she wasn’t around for it. This might be what fires her ironic wit––that she never got to “come to America,” that she’s left out when the rest of us revisit the immortal day in indulgent detail. My mother remembers what she wore: her first pair of jeans ever, bellbottoms she bought for the airplane ride, also a first. My other sister, at the time a toddler, was too young to remember anything, but we remember for her. On that never-curtained stage of memory, she still has her role to play: she had an ear infection, and she shrieked for hours during the flight.

My own memories of the journey are vivid. Before our dawn flight to New York City, we stayed overnight in Georgetown, the Guyanese capital, at the home of my father’s cousin Patty. Our own home was rivers away, in the remote countryside, far from the airport. The grown-ups talked long into the night. Patty gave me a can of V8 tomato juice. I’d never tasted it before, and its earthy tartness will forever be, for me, the taste of coming to America. To keep me occupied, Auntie Patty also gave me a picture book based on Grease, with stills from the movie and word balloons, as in comic strips. I’ve since found online images of this “foto-novel,” wildly popular when it was published soon after the movie’s release in 1978. The book cover gives us Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sitting side-by-side in a car, gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes. She leans in, sighing, “Oh, Danny!” It’s the end of the movie. Once an ingénue fresh off the boat from Australia, she has by then assimilated into American cool, signifying her transformation through skin-tight leather pants, teased hair and a cigarette stubbed out beneath her stiletto heel. Grasping the steering wheel, Danny coos back, “Oh, Sandy!”
What I made of this scintillating dialogue on November 8, 1981, three months shy of my seventh birthday, I cannot say. Over the years, once in America, I watched Grease a disturbing number of times on our static-haunted Zenith TV set. Perhaps I was captivated by Newton-John’s character, hazed for being earnest and pure, a Sandra Dee lookalike who ultimately reinvents herself as sexy, self-assured and a little brazen, brazen enough to look a man provocatively in the eye and command, “Tell me about it, stud.” Perhaps she was for me an early feminist beckoning, run through the diffuser of American pop culture, like so much big hair. Or, the repeated viewings may have been a kind of ritual reenactment of the moment of coming to America.

My sister was right, in any case, to challenge my fixation with November 8, 1981. That date is not when our American story truly begins. It starts sometime in 1965, when an aunt reading an issue of the racy pulp magazine True Detective chanced on an ad from the Jersey City Medical Center. The hospital was looking for nurse trainees, and at the time, she was working as a midwife for the sugar estate nearest our village. She tore out the ad, applied and, a year later, became the matriarch of our migration. Already a mother and wife, she came by herself and forged a path for many dozens of other Bahadurs to land in Jersey City over the next decade. Now one of most diverse cities in the United States, and rapidly gentrifying, then it was post-industrial, working-class and overwhelmingly white. The Immigration Act of 1965, informally known as the Brothers and Sisters Act, because family reunification was its core working principle, was responsible for the demographic changes in the city and across the country. My aunt lived in a dorm at the Jersey City Medical Center complex with other foreign nurse trainees paving the way for their families, women from the Philippines, South India and the West Indies. I remember seeing the hospital on the ride from JFK to the shared apartment where we would live, a block away, for our first months in America. The Depression era stone high-rises, now a luxury condo complex, seemed impossibly tall to my six-year old eyes; in our history, they certainly cast their shadow.

My aunt was the first person I interviewed for my SAADA archival creators fellowship, and among the many impressive features of her story was its tangible, material quality. Her memory of departure and arrival was distinguished by the objects, the artifacts that surround it, just as my own was. I am on a hunt for the 1965 issue of True Detective that carried the ad that changed our lives. I wouldn’t mind laying my hands on a Grease foto-novel from 1978 either. We did not bring this printed matter with us physically, but I’ve decided to make the things that people carried when they left Guyana for the United States the organizing principle of the archive I’m creating. The approach was inspired by Remnants of a Separation, Indian oral historian Anchal Malhotra’s award-winning book on partition. I’ve done three interviews thus far, each of them pairing a younger person with an older relative, and I’ve come away with some evocative examples of things that people carried: a three-old’s suitcase, a child’s collection of dolls from around the world, a boy’s Islamic skullcap, an indenture-era necklace made with the sovereigns that plantation workers were paid in, a brass lota (an article of Hindu worship) brought from India in the 19th century, my aunt’s midwife certificate from Guyana. In creating an archive of material memory, I am interested in the meanings these objects hold for the people who carry them, but I think there’s a richness and poetry in the objects themselves, without interpretation. I’d love to hear from others whose memories of leaving and arriving are also anchored by physical objects and artifacts. Please reach out and let me know what things you carried and what things haunt your own memory of departing and arriving.
Gaiutra Bahadur, author of Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. Her Archival Creators Fellowship project focuses on documenting within Guyanese communities descended from Indian indentured laborers.