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Award-winning Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir (The Cowherd’s Son) 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.
The text was originally published as a pamphlet of spiritual songs in the style of 16th century devotional poets in a the Bhojpuri dialect. Sharma, originally from the village of Chapra in the current Indian state of Bihar, left his home and was bound to the Golden Fleece Plantation in British Guyana. The poems in this book address both the daily hardships of “coolie” life on the plantation, and the aching feeling of separation from a spiritual Beloved, that could be read as God, lover or even a distant homeland. “From abroad Piya sends no word. / I’m listless in the month of Phagun without my love. // I’m overcome by this distance between. / He stole away to another country without telling me.”
A major historical and literary discovery, I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara gives us first-hand insight into the emotional lives of the indentured servants that the British brought from India to the Caribbean/Latin America in the late 1800s. Mohabir, whose own ancestors were contracted for work in Guyana in 1885 and 1890, allows his knowledge of the language, culture and folk structures Sharma was working with to infuse the poetry and in a powerful Translator’s Note, turns this collection into a major stand against the erasure of this often-overlooked community. An Afterword by Gaiutra Bahadur (Coolie Woman), who came across the manuscript in the British Library and passed it onto Mohabir, gives important historical context.