It was about 10:30 am, and we had just wrapped up our visit to the Taj
Mahal. We exited from the south gate onto a street of noisy vendors who
beckoned us into their shops, waving magnets and snow globes and other Taj
paraphernalia. We wandered the streets looking for a quiet and moderately
priced cafe. It should be noted that on the way there we encountered a
monkey who attacked Faith for the bright, round orange she was holding,
leaping onto her and driving her into a telephone pole. It was pretty scary
when it happened but we were able to laugh about it later! After that
ambush we found a cafe and had a snack. It was a family run place and the
kitchen looked like it lead straight back into the house. As we were
leaving, we saw that some of the staff were gathered outside, and began to
talk with them. They asked us the conventional stuff, how we liked Agra, if
we’d visited the Taj, etc. Eventually they asked me if I was Indian, which
is actually a question I rarely get. I explained a bit of my family
history, telling them that my Dad’s ancestors left India in the late 19th
century to become indentured servants in the West Indies. They were
originally from Uttar Pradesh, I specified. They were low caste- Chamar.
They all perked up at that word.
“He is also!” One of the guys pointed to his friend, who stepped
forward to shake my hand. He was smiling at me as he reached his hand out…
It was such a funny feeling- my heart went soft, I was filled with warmth,
I almost felt tears welling up. All for this tiny detail, an aspect of my
identity I had only recently discovered, a vestige from a far off time. It
wasn’t all that unlikely, given that we were in Uttar Pradesh and Chamar is
a very large dallit subdivision. All that considered and yet- I felt I was
shaking hands with a long lost brother. His name was Soni. The guys asked
me if I knew which place in Uttar Pradesh my ancestors were from.
“Farrukhabad,” I told them.
“Fruck-a-bad?!” They echoed, visibly excited.
“You know it?” I asked.
“It’s not far. Three hours maybe.”
I had first learned the name earlier this year when I got in contact with a
relative in Canada who has gathered a wealth of family records and history.
Amongst other stories and artifacts, she sent me the handwritten
autobiography of great-great-great grandfather Henry Laltoo, the man who,
at the age of five, came to Trinidad and Tobago to begin a new life. The
opening lines read:
“In my early life and birth I have to fall back on memory and gather what I
can. I am a native of India, born in an interior district of Furrakabad.”
It had originally been our plan to go straight from Agra to Farukahbad
before continuing further north to Rishikesh. We had planned to stay two
nights with a friend there, so that we could have time to see the city. I
knew full well it was in the middle of nowhere, and that there was not much
to see or do. It was a sort of pilgrimage, an attempt to bring things full
circle after 130 years. However, due to some unforeseen obstacles and too
many unknowns, we decided to cut the segment from our trip. It was a
disappointment but I knew it was for the best.
“We’ll can take you there,” Soni offered.
I was in disbelief. I looked at Faith, who seemed just as shocked as I was.
I told her that there was a reason we had not made solid plans for this
afternoon. When the universe offers an opportunity like this, you can’t
turn it down. After agreeing on compensation for Soni’s time, we hopped in
We arrived at a dusty bus stop under a highway entrance ramp. Large crowds
had gathered and bus after bus came rolling through. These couldn’t be
found on google maps, nor booked online- they were not made for tourists.
After some time we got on our bus. The seats were hot and caked with dust,
and every time we hit a bump, the vehicle rattled so violently I felt it
would just come apart, but it didn’t matter. I was actually going to make
it to this place.
The initial excitement didn’t last long. We passed through city after city,
none of them notable. They were miles of dirty grey buildings, loose wires,
and cracked open earth. The air was hot and the dust stung my eyes and
throat. This ride was going to be a lot longer than expected.
About two hours in the landscape began to change. We left the main highway
and were on gravel backroads. What started as proper farmland slowly became
a fragmented agrarian landscape. It was a twisted collage. Creeks seemed to
stop and start out of nowhere. Huge tracts of land lay neglected and empty
next to swatches of jungle-like growth.
The day pressed on. It was nearly 5:00 when we reached the outskirts of the
city. Suddenly the land became covered in brick structures. There were
piles of unused brick lining the roadside, huge incinerators spouting black
smoke, and homes stretched out for as far as I could see. Some were clearly
being lived in, while others were still under construction. Soni mentioned
that the city had been expanding in recent years and that these were middle
class homes. Once we crossed the train tracks we entered the proper city.
After five long hours, we had arrived.
We didn’t have much time. The sun had already begun to set and Soni told us
that all the buses for Agra would leave within the next hour. Plus, it
wasn’t safe to be out at night. We disembarked and began to walk down the
main street. There was nothing. All of the street vendors had huge stacks
of papad topped with a bulbous red onion to hold them down. I had chai
from a clay mug. Soni told the chaiwala why we had come, he just gave a
raspy laugh and took my cup. He also confirmed what we had already
suspected: We were the first foreigners he had seen in the city.
I don’t know what I expected to find there. There was no house or family to
return to, no notable landmarks to visit. Henry hadn’t left me any more
clues. I saw only that street- it was lined with bare white trees and smoke
and unfamiliar faces. I was lost.
It was only thirty minutes before we were back on the bus. The sunset was
gentle and quick, and then darkness seemed to swallow that world. I felt a
storm of emotions in my heart. I felt foolish that even subconsciously I
had expected some miracle, some revelation. I was sad we were leaving so
soon, and yet I did not want to remain there. There was a heaviness that
weighed down on me. I thought back to another section from Henry’s
autobiography- the one which most intrigued me first reading it:
“In taking a bird’s eye view of my past life I feel that Jesus is still on
earth and ready to work miracles where it is a need. I feel that I am a
living miracle. I was born in the dark part of India surrounded by the
belief in the divinity of stones, trees, etc. If the distribution of the
kind providence of God was not favorable to me, I might have been
worshiping stone in place of the true and the living God. In due time God
brought me to the island of Trinidad where I received education of the love
of God in Jesus Christ.”
Besides Henry’s strong faith, this passage makes something else perfectly
clear: for him and his family, India was not ‘the ancestral land he was
stripped from’ and it wasn’t a place he remembered fondly. His world here
was dark. His religion was the means of his misfortune and oppression.
India was simply his birthplace, and it was by the “kind providence of God”
that he was brought elsewhere. I wonder, if he knew I had come back, if
he’d be proud and understand- or if he’d just find it strange and laugh!