Why I Will Never Celebrate Indian Arrival Day

indo caribbean indian arrival day

This post was originally published on AAWW’s “The Margins,” and republished here with permission.

Each year on May 5 Guyana celebrates “Indian Arrival Day,” commemorating the arrival of Indian indentured laborers to the Caribbean. On May 5, 1838, the S.S. Hesperus and the S.S. Whitby arrived along the shores of Berbice and Demerara in Guyana. Together they carried 396 Indians, referred to as “coolies,” from Chota Nagpur, then Bihar, 300 miles from Kolkata. Since slavery had recently ended and African-descended people had been emancipated in the British colonies in 1833, the British were in need of cheap labor. They looked to India, the jewel in the Empire’s crown—a jewel that became a sugar crystal.

The first Indian arrivals to the Caribbean were part of the Gladstone experiment: a continuation of forced migration from the Indian subcontinent to see if Indians would be an adequate and strong enough replacement for Africans and African-descended slaves. The British had already been practicing indenture in the Indian Ocean in their colonies in Réunion and Mauritius. Each coolie was bound by a renewable contract to serve on the British sugar plantations for a period of five years. Lured away from their homes by the promise of riches, their passage across the sea at the hands of the British was brutal, followed by the degrading dehumanization that occurred on the plantations. Even though they were “paid” a wage, it was seldom enough to buy any kind of freedom from the plantation economy, except for rum that dulled the pain of its hellish conditions.

National governments across the Caribbean also celebrate the beginning of Britain’s reinvention of slavery—an observance that spills over into Indo-Caribbean diasporic spaces. Trinidadians mark “Indian Arrival Day” on May 30 to commemorate the landing of the Fath Al Razack in 1845 that brought the first 227 coolies to the Gulf of Paria. The meaning of Fath Al Razak (Fatel Razack) is “Victory to Allah the Sustainer.” I pray this prayer too. Presumably the idea behind acknowledging this day is to pay tribute to Indians in the Caribbean—to say, yes, the Caribbean is an ethnically diverse place and our Indian heritages are colorful and important. Our presence in the Caribbean is indelibly marked in the food, language, music, and literary world of the Antilles.

[Read Related: Photo Series ‘Masala No Chai’ Showcases Indo Caribbean Culture]

My family came to the Western hemisphere as laborers in need of sustenance. But while my family’s migration story might sound like it began with agency, this narrative devolves into one of dispossession and terror, with the lingering effects of colonization haunting us today. This familial haunting, this legacy leads me to ask myself and my community, why should we celebrate the beginnings of our oppression in the Caribbean while we still feel the effects of violent colonization?


The first ancestor of mine to arrive in the Western hemisphere was indentured in 1885 and labored for more than ten years. He crossed the pagal samundar, the maddening kala pani, “black water,” into the Caribbean Sea and landed in Guyana. My ancestors remained and built their lives in Georgetown, Lusignan, New Amsterdam, and Crabwood Creek. In lieu of return fare to an India that would not take them back, they accepted land grants from the British government—land stolen from indigenous people—and hacked settlements in the periphery of the Amazon rainforest.

I recorded my Aji (paternal grandmother) telling me the story of how her own father’s father was tricked into crossing the kala pani, the black sea, to Guyana and how this pain birthed us. I quote her in Newtown Literary:

“Beta, India mein dis side ke people, de English, de white man from dis side say, ‘Leh abi go Guyana.’ or ‘Abi go Trinidad, or anywhere da side. You know, a-you get job an’ a-you go de good. An one-two year aftah a-you go come back.’”

“So de fool dem people an’ bring ‘em come. How de catch ‘em? De been tell dem that abi go nuddah country an’ a-you go get plenty job, a-you go get ‘nuff money from cut cane, a-you go live happy. An’ India mein dem been a-punish. Wuk tiday you get food tiday, an’ you know tomorrow dem starve. So dem been a-haunted ti come away. An’ when dem bring ‘em dem na get house, dem na get nutin’, dem a-cut cane. Dem a-punish bad. But wha you go do? When me family been come dis country dem been very poor. All India-man been poor. None na been rich.”


We have touched the flame of Empire and have been scarred. Looking at us, what can anyone tell of the ills of having our bodies exploited for Empire’s gain? How does the body hold psychic devastation? Global economics at the time created an illusion of choice: some people were forced into migration because of starvation; some were kidnapped and shipped to the colonies; some Indians agreed to take the journey without actually understanding what it meant; some went willingly looking to make money.

[Read Related: Indo-Caribbean Author Krystal Sital Gets Personal in ‘Secrets We Kept’]

Indian arrival into the Caribbean marked the beginnings of my family’s origin story, but it was also the beginning of serious disease, dependencies, prejudices, and ills that plague us still today. I present a list of ills—a postcolonial fallout—that I see as a legacy of indenture, erased by the celebration of Indian Arrival Day. Together, these ills informed my decision this year to not celebrate this holiday.

Domestic violence

Written about at length by Gaiutra Bahadur in her ground-breaking book Coolie Woman: the Odyssey of Indenture, the fact that women are often hacked to death in Guyana today is not surprising. According to Bahadur, this violence is also a colonial legacy. When the British began importing people into the Caribbean, the proportion of women to men was imbalanced. With fewer women there was greater competition among men for their affections. This included plantation owners and magistrates who preyed on the vulnerability of Indian women in their colonies. Indian men retaliated against women’s “infidelity” with machetes—that tool of indenture.

But this violence is enduring. In 2009, Jahajee Sisters worked with Sakhi for South Asian Women (two Queens-based organizations) to create a safe space for survivors of domestic violence. They conducted poetry workshops and published Bolo Behen! Speak Sister!, a collection of poems by Indo-Caribbean women protesting the violence of a male-dominated society, now in a second diaspora.

A quick Google search will turn up innumerable accounts and reports of present-day domestic violence in Guyanese homes. A recent article in the Guyana Chronicle tells of Ravindra “Birdie” Badhu’s murder of Indrawattie “Sharda” Somwar of 77 Village, Corentyne Berbice on March 8, 2016—International Women’s Day. Using a machete he hacked her to death.


To me, chronically ill with diabetes—me get sugah—the greatest irony is that my ancestors were contracted to cultivate sugar on another people’s indigenous land for the British and their Empire, and what we are left with is diabetes—a disease that disproportionately affects South Asians and other people of color, making it so we cannot eat sugar, or that sugar imbalance will eventually kill us. Diabetes has claimed limbs on both sides of my family. It is so commonplace that when I told my friend that I was diagnosed at 32 he wasn’t shocked by the fact, but rather replied, “Already?”

According to a recent study compiled by the NYU School of Medicine, people of South Asian descent are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than any other group. I see this as fallout from a colonized diet, of having aata (a more complete grained flour) replaced with refined white flour. My ancestors were slaves to the sugar industry and dehumanized; in me they call out, reminding me of the ills that they suffered.

[Read Related: Indo-Caribbeans Share Their Journeys to the Creative Arts]


Anti-black racism in East Indian spaces is rampant. I understand this as a colonial haunting. When the British brought Indians to work the plantations, it was as scab labor. Slavery was recently abolished and the British would rather pay Indians fractions of what they would pay Afro-Guyanese, shaping the relationship between the freed people and the newly imported labor. Members of my own family like to say things like “we were never slaves” when the truth is we absolutely were; we have more cultural commonalities and values with Afro-Guyanese than we do with anyone from the Indian subcontinent. India is not “home”—it is only a mythological homeland.

In her essay “The Indo-Caribbean Experience: Now and Then” Elizabeth Jaikaran writes about this parallel racism between ethnic Indian and African descended people that plagues Guyanese spaces. This racism, she writes, was a way for the British to keep two major ethnic groups divided so that they would not unite against their common oppressor:

“Do not speak to the Indians,” said the British to the Africans. “They are vile and carry diseases.”

“Do not speak to the Africans,” said the British to the Indians. “They are vile and carry diseases.”


It’s not a family event without rum. Friends and family will chuckle in agreement. They laugh knowing we dance on a demon’s mouth. Rum claims lives through addiction and has its roots in the plantation economy: it allowed workers some psychic relief from the trauma of labor, all the while re-investing the money earned by the laborer in the same system that kept them poor. Toil, drink. Punish bad bad, suck rum steady.

Dreams of escaping this hellish loop of a colonial past and a neocolonial present endure today in the music coming from Indo-Caribbean performers. In his hit “Rum is Meh Lovah” singer-songwriter Ravi B sings about deadly dispossession:

Rum kill me muddah, rum kill me faddah
rum kill me whole family;
rum kill me bruddah, rum kill me sistah
now it want to come an’ kill me
but ah don’ really care wha people say

It would be joyous if it weren’t so personally harrowing. I have an uncle who died from complications from alcohol, and other family members of all generations who suffer/have suffered from alcoholism in silence.


Documented in ship records made public by Gaitura Bahadur from the 1898 voyage of the S.S. Mersey, a ship surgeon caught two men, Mohangoo and Nabi Baksh, having sex. As punishment Mohungu had to holystone the deck from 6 am to 6 pm and then have his penis scalded as a preventative cure for this variety of homosexual intercourse.

The Criminal Law (Offenses) Act of Guyana and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code inherit their oppressive homophobic language—almost word for word—from Britain, illustrating how this homophobia, touted as one of the worst in the world, originated in white, colonizing minds and religion.

recent article by Suzanne Persard shows the connections between Jamaican homophobia and colonization. We cannot understand the way that homophobia arises in Caribbean spaces without first considering the suffering of the colonized at the masters’ hands.

[Read Related: Keeping Indo-Caribbean Traditions Alive for the American Generation]


Last night I dreamt of my mother. She too lives by the sea, in Florida—far from Chennai, Bihar, Georgetown, or Lusignan. Since her divorce she has become a painter and is drawn to the poetry of the waves. Without her work, she feels as though she would fall into a dark space—a holding space. This anxiety, of constantly needing to work, is part of the mythology that makes my family human. She is drawn to the sea: that original place of trauma—hoping, longing, for the return of wholeness. A return “home” wherever that may be.

We are haunted by the specter of this unfulfilled promise. Would my ancestors have left if they knew what would become of their progeny?

Like my mother, I am drawn to the sea. It can hold complexity and paradox in its blue throat. As a poet, I like to believe it is because I have a deep, abiding connection with history and motion. That my own rooted place in this world is to journey. I like to believe that I inherited not only the damage of being enslaved but also the seafarer’s heart, sturdy and craving motion. I want this motion to be what unmoors me from the damage, to use it as one would fertilizer, something breaking down and inspiring new life.


May 5th 1838

briks ke dole par hamar potiya jhulai
abse ham toke bulawe jahaaj-bhai

Ash applied evenly fertilizes the field.
On those first ships did they know they would seed the earth?

We are wreckage, broken planks, history’s skipping
record—repeating the migrant strain again

and against kalapani ke twist-up face while
the rakshas of erasure licks its lips. What’s born of death—

here we grow wild. In Queens, see clumps of bora
long beans twist feral by fire hydrants.

We sow bits of ourselves in all corners:
flags on bamboo posts, milk poured into the sea.

My daughter will swing on the tree branch,
we will all call you Brother of the Ship.


Why the hell should I celebrate colonization? To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the beginning of our slavery sentences. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the damage wreaked upon brown bodies by white systems of colonial violence. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate the cause of each ill: diabetes, racism, alcoholism, homophobia, and domestic violence. To celebrate Indian Arrival Day is to celebrate death.

In a conversation I had with Toronto-based artist and sociologist Andil Gosine who works to inscribe this history into his art, he lamented that when we celebrate Indian Arrival Day, “we are implicitly erasing the history and actual experiences of indentures.” He continued:

Indians didn’t arrive: they were merely the cargo of the system of Indentureship, and it is ridiculous that we would celebrate the beginning of bondage … most people have no idea when Indentureship ended in the Caribbean because there has not been fair acknowledgment of that system’s brutality.

He also acknowledged the potential that celebrating a state holiday like this could have in continuing a narrative of dis-unity in the Caribbean. Such divides, he claims, play into “entho-nationalism” as a way of “over-differentiating” Indian- and African-descended communities, a colonial inheritance itself that keeps communities divided.

I will never celebrate this “arrival” as a holiday, a washing clean of British torture. Frantz Fanon writes in “The Wretched of the Earth”:

Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverted logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it.

This past month I remembered my ancestor’s struggles, my parent’s struggles, and my own struggles that result from indentureship. I celebrated the end of indenture and human trafficking on this global scale. I celebrated survival. I celebrated that I am here today writing this essay, writing my poems, that white hands did not erase me. I will not allow my ancestors’ stories—my own stories—to be disfigured by the hands of the state. We have survived colonization, slavery, and dehumanization. But surviving does not equal healing. There is yet a long open swath of sea left to cross.

By Rajiv Mohabir

Rajiv Mohabir is the author of "The Cowherd's Son" (Tupelo Press 2017, winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize; Eric Hoffer … Read more ›

Chef Devan Rajkumar: Bringing Indo Caribbean Flavors to South Asia and Beyond

Chef Dev

Passion is something many claim to have, but few truly possess. Whether it’s hobbies, professions or romances, it’s the secret ingredient we all crave but is quite difficult to come by. But on meeting Chef Devan Rajkumar — aka Chef Dev — it takes just a few moments to understand true passion. For the Indo Guyanese chef from Toronto, passion has always been food and its power to connect, nourish, excite and represent. 

[Read Related: 5 Indo Caribbean Food Experts you Need to Know This Winter Season]

It was there, as a child, when he followed his mother and grandmother around the temple, getting daal stains on his kurtas

Today, he’s used it to become a TV personality on Canada’s “Cityline” and Food Network Canada’s “Fire Masters,” to collaborate with renowned caterers The Food Dudes, develop his own line of signature soups and host pop-up events around the world. 


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Whatever the outlet, Rajkumar feeds his mission to be an ambassador for modern, West and East Indian cuisine. I recently sat down with him to talk about this and the experience of bringing Indo Caribbean flavors to South Asia and beyond.

Feeding a passion for food

“The sights, the sounds, the aromatics. The excitement of the kitchen has just always appealed to me,” he began. “Food moves me in a certain way. I want to nurture and nourish. I’ve just always wanted to do for others.”

As he sat back in a ‘Guyana vs. the world’ tank top, Rajkumar’s energy was palpable.

“I’ve always lived and breathed food, all day, all night. Like I’m talking about food right now. I’m constantly talking about food.”

To Rajkumar, food is education — one of the best (and most enjoyable) ways to learn, teach and explore the world — and he credits his older brother Jai for inspiring this mindset. Jai was the first to introduce him to different cuisines, teach him to be curious about the world and show him how to challenge the norms of a “typical brown kid.”

Despite this encouragement, however, a culinary career wasn’t Rajkumar’s first instinct. The son of a businessman, he initially jumped around universities and career paths. He also struggled with substance abuse and grief after Jai’s passing. Through all the challenges, food remained a constant, and the sense of community it created was a powerful draw.  

“At a very young age, I recognized how food made me feel if I was in a bad mood and how it made others feel,” he shared. 

He’s always looked forward to sitting around a table with friends and family, enjoying a nice meal, and how everybody could share their stories or just forget their troubles.

“Food is a very powerful vehicle for transporting someone.”  

In 2009, Rajkumar finally followed his passion and joined a culinary school. He realized he had a knack for creating this experience for others.

“I realized I had the power and the gift to nourish and nurture someone else in this way,” and it became irresistible. 

A cook with no boundaries, Rajkumar didn’t want to limit the number of people he reached to just those in Canada. 


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For many, success in the culinary world is having a thriving restaurant, but after spending six months opening one with The Food Dudes in 2015, Rajkumar realized this route wasn’t for him. 

“I wanted more culture,” he explained. “I wanted to learn and not so much get my ass kicked, but to be a sponge. I knew I needed to travel to broaden my horizons.”

So he did. Rajkumar spent months cooking in India, London, Peru and Dubai. He shared his experiences on social media and people back home took note.

“When I returned to Toronto,” he continued, “that trip had established me as a cook who had no boundaries. As someone who wasn’t afraid to explore and get out of their comfort zone.” 

And get out of his comfort zone he did. 

“From catering to a pop-up abroad to filming ‘Cityline and speaking engagements, every day is different,” he explained. “I’ve had my bouts with imposter syndrome, but ultimately, I’ve gotten to make more of an impact than just opening a restaurant.” 

That impact has especially been prominent in South Asia. 


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“Mad Love” in the Motherlands

Rajkumar embraces not only his Caribbean culture, but his South Asian roots as well. 

The temple he grew up in was a blend of Guyanese and East Indians, so he knew foods from a typical Guyanese household like alu curry and saijan but also East Indian favorites like dhokla and malai kofta

“Ultimately, we came from India,” he declared. “I embrace the culture and I am very comfortable leaning back and forth into it. It’s in me. It’s who I am.”

In fact, Rajkumar noted his career became much more defined and successful when he really began to identify as not just a chef, but as an Indo Guyanese Canadian chef. 

Hearing this, it was no surprise that Guyana, India and Pakistan stand out as some of  his favorite destinations. 

“Guyana is hugely impactful for me,” he shared, having visited his parents’ homeland frequently. “As soon as that door opens [at the airport], you smell Guyana. You smell the sugarcane burning from rum factories. I have all these wonderful sights, sounds, smells and flavors from those trips.”

His sentiments for India are similar.

“Incredible India is incredible India,” he referred to the country’s tourism slogan. “Every 100-200 kilometers, the menus can change completely. I can live in India for the rest of my life and never see it all.”

Pakistan, however, is in a class all its own.

“There’s something special about Lahore,” Chef Dev explained. “I was told Lahori hospitality rivals the best in the world and I got to experience that. I was interviewed on national television by Mustafa Shah. I explored Old Lahore with Ali Rehman. I got to cook my own chicken karahi at Butt Karahi. Anything I needed, I had. I’ve never met kinder people in my life.” 


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Rajkumar’s first trip in 2020 was only nine days long, but its impact stayed with him. 

He couldn’t have been more excited to return for a month, earlier this year, and host what his friends there dubbed the “Mad Love Pop-Up,” after one of his signature sayings. 

He filled the menu for the 18-day event with global dishes like ceviche and scotch eggs but infused them with West and East Indian flavors like masala, jerk and cassareep — a rich extract of the bitter cassava native to Guyana. Before he left, he even prepared Guyana’s national dish of pepper pot, a hearty meat stew, for the staff meal. 

“My whole thought process was ‘let me give these people — my family there — an experience they’ve never had before,” he detailed. “Any time I give someone pepper pot or cassareep, they’re just so shocked. It’s so unique.”

Rajkumar is always excited to share the flavors and culture of Guyana with new people, but with his roots in South Asia, bringing them to Pakistan was that much more profound. 

“In India, maybe it’s different, but in Lahore, most people don’t know about Guyana or where it is. That’s another reason why I did this. That’s why I do all the things I do. That’s why I’m wearing this tank top — to raise awareness about my culture and how beautiful it is,” he said. 

Time in South Asia has also helped Rajkumar gain a deeper appreciation for the origins of many Indo Caribbean dishes and reinforced his love for them.   

“Guyanese cuisine doesn’t just have Indian influence, but so many dishes in some way, shape, or form come from there. Like when I’m eating sada roti, I can tie it back to which type of flatbread it came from in India. I feel like a better-equipped chef at the end of the day. I’m more connected to my Guyanese roots and to the culture overall.” 

Rajkumar wants to foster a deeper understanding and relationship between both heritages. He wants his food to build connections, not disparity. 

Bringing the world back home

Rajkumar has visited over 20 countries, but Pakistan remains one place he’ll cherish his entire life. He is grateful not only for the opportunities he’s had there, but also for the chance to offer a fresh, alternative view of the country from what is often shown by the media.  

Chef Dev Rajkumar
Chef Devan Rajkumar wants to use his culinary skills and experiences to bring people together.

“When people saw me posting content from Lahore, they were like, ‘Oh my God, this is Pakistan?’ This is not what we expected. This is not what we thought we’d see.’ They were shocked at how beautiful, kind, and welcoming everyone was.”

Reactions like these are Rajkumar’s ultimate goal.

A cookbook is due next year. He has aspirations of launching merchandise and cookware, traveling to South East Asia, and continuing his pop-ups, but ultimately, he concludes,

“I just want to stand for something. I want to continue to learn, remain humble, represent my Western and Eastern cultures and spread mad love. I want to be an ambassador to that world and be someone who’s dedicated to his craft, bettering himself and those around him.” 

“I just want to continue to grow as a person,” he added with sincerity as he touched on his sobriety and what it’s taught him about achieving your goals. 

“That might sound cliche, but it’s new to me. I’ve spent the last two years learning about myself and being vulnerable about how I feel, my healing journey and what I’m going through. If I excel and continue to invest time and discipline in that arena, everything else around me will flourish. I believe that goes for anyone.”

Rajkumar is going far literally and figuratively, but no matter where he lands, you can be sure he’ll bring something back for his supporters, whether it be a new view of the world or a concoction like a ceviche pani puri on one of his menus. 

“That’s my travels to India, Pakistan and Peru all in one bite!” he exclaimed. 

Chef Dev’s journey has not always been an easy one, but it’s a powerful example of the success one can taste with hard work, embracing authenticity and following true passion. 

To learn more about his work visit his website or follow his Instagram for real-time updates, recipes, and all the ‘mad love.’ 

Photos Credit: Alec Luna

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By Ramona Sukhraj

With a B.S. in Marketing from the UCONN School of Business, Ramona has made a name for herself publishing over … Read more ›

Fireside Chat With Debut Author Sophie Jai

sophie jai
sophie jai

 I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. — Sophie Jai  

“Wild Fires” by Sophie Jai is a story about one Trinidadian family’s journey through grief, identity and memory. Jai’s debut novel takes readers on a journey of a past Trinidad and present-day Canada. 


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In conversation with Jai, we talk about Caribbean stories, the psychology of a house and what makes a family. The following answers have been abridged and edited for clarity and concision.

[Read Related: Author Kirtie Persaud on Representation for Indo Caribbean Girls, Motherhood and Balance ]

 What inspired you to write “Wild Fires?”

I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.

When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?

It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.

Did you always want to be a writer?

I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.

How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?

Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community. 

Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?

My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience. 


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Is the rest of the book based on a true story?

It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my  life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.

The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?

I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.

One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?

For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.

Why explore the psychology of a house?

It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.

What makes a family?

I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.

The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?

Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.


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What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”

I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of  these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.

Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.  

“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.

Featured Image Courtesy: Sophie Jai

By Usha Sookai

Usha Sookai is an undergraduate student at New York University, studying Journalism and Social and Cultural Analysis. With a passion … Read more ›

Indo Caribbean Actress Saheli Khan Lands Role as Young Anna in Disney’s Musical ‘Frozen’

Saheli Khan, young anna in disney frozen
Saheli Khan

From singing and acting to drawing immaculate figurines, Saheli Khan, 11, has made her debut in the North American Broadway tour as young Anna in Disney’s musical “Frozen.” As a first-generation Indo Caribbean, with roots in India and Pakistan, she continues to pave the way for young people with similar backgrounds.

[Read Related: Rebecca Ablack: The Guyanese Actress Talks Netflix’s “Ginny and Georgia” and Indo Caribbean Representation]

Khan has always enjoyed entertaining those around her and she continues to have the motivation to pursue her passions. In school, she always sought to lead her class in songs and she was encouraged by her parents and teachers to enroll in music and acting classes, even at a young age. These ventures fueled her passions even more.

Continue reading to learn more about her journey!

What do you like about acting the most?

I like to portray different characters. Specifically, I like playing characters who have strong personalities and those who portray a sense of bravery, especially during problematic occurrences.

As a first generation Indo Caribbean actress, how do you feel about your journey as a young Disney princess? Do you feel that you are paving the way for other Caribbean and South Asians who want to pursue similar paths?

Diversity has always been important to me, but in today’s society, I feel that most people would like to be accepted and encouraged. As a Disney Princess, I am simply helping to broaden the field for all young people to see that skin color should not matter.

Saheli Khan
Saheli in Hidden Folk outfit| Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan


What do you like about your character, Anna? Is there anything that you may dislike?

Young Anna is a ball of sunshine! She is happy, funny, and a delight to be around. Despite having a troubled childhood, she grows up to be just as joyous, but she is also courageous as she goes on a journey to find her sister. I love everything about young Anna and she truly embodies who I am as a person.

Who is your inspiration and why?

My parents are my inspiration. My mom is beautiful, loving, and she works hard without ever giving up. No matter the task, she finds a solution and keeps on going with a smile on her face. She always tells me, “Whenever you feel overwhelmed, remember whose daughter you are and straighten your crown.” And my dad is my best friend. He’s insanely funny, caring and knows all the best places to eat! My parents are exactly how I want to be when I grow up.

If you had a magic wand, what show would you do next?

I would love to be Annie on Broadway or play the lead in a series or movie. 

What is the one last thing that you do before you step out on stage and the curtain goes up?

There are many things I do before I step on stage. I do fun and silly things quietly with my “Frozen” sister, Mackenzie Mercer, and play with my Anna pigtails for good luck.

What are your other passions?

I love to sing, act, and spend time with my younger cousin, Ayla. I also love to draw and color since it makes me feel relaxed. I was told I have a great ability to draw and make figurines ever since I was a child. And I love exploring new cities and eating at great restaurants with my family.

Saheli Khan
Saheli dressed in her “Young Anna” costume | Photo courtesy of Saheli Khan

What advice do you have for young people who are just starting their careers, specifically within the field of musical theater?

To have a positive mindset, practice diligently, and enjoy every moment within the journey. I have learned that there may be some occurrences that may not take place the way that you want them to, but there’s always an opportunity to learn from them.

 Aside from your career, how do you balance your schoolwork and acting?

I attend school virtually, which is essential when I am on tour. Each day I have scheduled school hours that allow me to focus and complete all school assignments. Once that is done, I have most of the day to work on extracurricular activities, go on outings, and hang out with my friends. Though performing takes a large chunk out of my day, it helps that I enjoy it, so it doesn’t feel like work.

What types of roles do you see yourself playing?

I love to play humorous characters such as young Anna from “Frozen.” I truly enjoyed this role as it captures who I truly am.

What are your plans for the future?

To be the best version of myself regardless of what career path I choose.

[Read Related: Nadia Jagessar Talks Finding Love, Not Settling and Shines Light on her Indo-Caribbean Roots]

Khan’s debut marks the start of a budding career. With her array of talents and future goals, we are bound to see more of the young actress in the future and more representation of Indo Caribbeans in mainstream media. If you would like to purchase tickets for Disney’s “Frozen,” click here

Feature Image Courtesy: Saheli Khan

By Anita Haridat

Anita Haridat is the owner of the wellness website, Healthy Spectator, which is a platform to help people find inner-balance … Read more ›