An Extract from What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You by Sharma Taylor
Winner of the 2020 Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Fiction for ‘How You Make Jamaican Coconut Oil‘, Sharma Taylor’s debut novel, What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You, is a vivid and moving story of belonging, family, and inheritance. In this extract and accompanying commentary, Taylor outlines the layered histories of indentured workers in Jamaica, and how that heritage has influenced her life and the country at large.
Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture interrogates the lives and experiences of indentured workers, and the legacies that their communities still carry. It is now available for purchase or download.
As a little girl, my best friend, Farah, lived next door. Her mom was East Indian, and her father was Black, like me. Farah’s skin was almost as dark as mine; her jet-black hair was wavy and long — fascinating my childhood imagination. Unlike my hair, her tresses couldn’t hold a plait without unravelling, unless there was a rubber band on the end. While I was lanky (nicknamed ‘Olive Oyl’ after the girlfriend of the spinach-guzzling cartoon sailor ‘Popeye’), Farah was chubby-faced and cherubic. I loved when her maternal grandma visited from the country, because she made the best rotis and curries.
As we played with other neighbourhood kids – setting up a makeshift clubhouse, hunting for land crabs and coaxing them out of their holes, running through lanes being chased by dogs, or fishing in the mangrove-lined swamp behind our backyards (careful to avoid log-mimicking crocodiles) – I never thought much about where her ancestors, or those of my playmates of varying hues, came from. We didn’t learn about those things when I was a child. It wasn’t until history class in high school that we studied the origins of people like Farah, and I began to understand the complex histories and stories of Jamaica.
My debut novel, What A Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You, centers on Dinah, a woman whose mother is of mixed ancestry. In doing so, I wanted to reflect the rich ethnic history of my culturally diverse country, where our national motto is ‘Out of Many, One People.’ I myself am a dark-skinned Black woman, but like Dinah, I have Scottish and maroon ancestry. Together, Dinah, Farah, and I are snapshots of Jamaica’s layered past.
East Indians and Afro-East Indians currently comprise 3.4% of the population; a sizeable ethnic minority within the largely Black majority of Jamaica. The history of their immigration, however, is complex: East Indians in contemporary Jamaica are mainly descendants of the 36,412 immigrants brought to the island as indentured or contract workers for sugar estates and other plantations after the emancipation of enslaved Africans. Eager to preserve profit, planters brought in East Indians to work on the sugar plantations in place of African labour, and the first ship, Blundell Hunter, arrived in Old Harbour Bay in 1845 after a seventeen-week journey from Calcutta. 261 Indians disembarked: 200 men, 28 women, and 33 children. For the next seventy-five years, Indian immigrants – hailing mainly from the Uttar Pradesh and Bihar provinces of Northern India – would continue to arrive. One-third of the indentured labourers opted to return to India at the expiry of their contract, but the majority elected to stay. While indentured East Indians were paid fixed wages and received medical care and other benefits which local Afro-Jamaican labourers did not, the working conditions were poor, with a very high mortality rate. Post-indentureship, East Indians ended up in the same vulnerable financial position as their Afro-Jamaican counterparts.
Challenges facing this group included exploitation by their planter employers and resentment from Afro-Jamaican labourers who believed that these contract workers pushed their wages down and led to greater unemployment, given the labour surplus in the country. Adding to the economic difficulties, religions practised by East Indians were considered heathenistic, and they struggled to hold on to their beliefs, even being prevented from performing legally valid marriage ceremonies according to Muslim or Hindu rites until 1957. Many converted reluctantly to Christianity so they could undergo civil wedding ceremonies.
Yet despite the hostile socioeconomic climate, East Indian culture and traditions have bled into the fabric of Jamaica. Over time, their mystical writings influenced the practitioners of obeah — a widespread spiritual practice derived from enslaved West Africans which, among other things, centers on the use of a physical object such as a talisman or charm, oils, and casting spells. Indian spirits also found their way into Afro-Caribbean practices such as Kumina, a dance-music ritual of descendants of people from the Congo, where ancestral spirits are summoned by drumbeat and song for physical possession, help, or healing.
Even long before Rastafarianism took root in Jamaica, historians believe the cultivation of marijuana for narcotic use was a habit brought by Indian indentured labourers: the famous local word ‘ganja’ is of Hindi origin. Indian immigrants also made an indelible impact on Jamaican culinary culture, bringing traditions such as the growing of rice and cooking of curries and rotis, like the kind that Farah’s grandmother used to make for us.
Many descendants of these Indian immigrants can today be found in the parishes of Jamaica where sugar was formerly produced, as well as Kingston. The country has been shaped by the ingenuity that Indo-Jamaicans have demonstrated in preserving their unique cultural identity, while joining their aspirations and future with those of their fellow Jamaicans. Out of many, we are one people.
In What A Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You, Dinah’s maternal grandfather was a small farmer and seller of silver jewellery and tobacco. While many Indo-Jamaicans have achieved commercial success in business (starting out as shopkeepers, merchants, jewelers, makers of alcohol or landowners), some have had different fortunes: occupying lower income jobs, including becoming household servants.
The extract below, written in Jamaican patois, charts a day where Dinah heads to work as a maid.
Mi wake up this morning like mi moving under water that too green. Something mi can’t see sitting on top of mi weighing mi down. Mi nearly knock over the enamel cup on the side table next to the mattress. The same mattress that sag in the middle like a ole donkey wid a bruk back. The likkle room weh mi live in for the past twenty years all of a sudden seem strange. Like mi turn duppy – lost inna smaddy else nightmare. Is like the Lord God Almighty Himself take Him giant hand and lift mi up inna the night and rest mi down on a different woman bed.
Mama snores like dem coming from a distance, though her breath hot on mi neck-back. Mi roll out of bed on the left side. The mattress jerk and wake Mama. Mi watch her watching mi and looking ’round de room trying to figure out who mi is and where she is. I don’t say nothing but a soft-soft ‘mawnin’ and squeeze her shoulder before mi get up and leave the room.
Mi barely notice the brown and green floral wallpaper in the hallway peeling off where the pickney dem who come to the yard grab it. I buck mi toe on a old hammerhead that push against the wall. A roach creep inna de corner of the green rug that smell like rat piss when it wet. Termites feed on the carcass of the cabinet. Mi open it and take out mi tea cup. It feel like it take more than a hour to make the cup of Milo tea in the kitchen we share with the rest of the tenement yard. Mi head is on low fire.
‘Lemelemelem-ho,’ Mama chanting now. Her brain work like a mash-up bicycle – sometimes the chain break off and spin her backwards to her days as a pocomania member. When she and the others sing around the coloured flagpole in the pocoyard. Is the only picture mi have of her: a polaroid she get from one American student studying weh him call Afro-Caribbean religion. In it, she have her long hair pack up tight under a white scarf with a pencil sticking out from the tie-head beside her ear and this red woman look regal. Her bauxite-dirt skin make we think she descend from Maroons, dem who breed with Tainos in the hills; or she could be the pickney of a drunk German immigrant who rut with a Black woman in the bush. She tell me mi father was midnight-black, which is why mi look like tar. She never talk about him.
Sometimes at night she tell mi about the days in St Mary, when she was young and pretty and life had promise. She cry sometimes when she see the picture of herself on the nightstand, asking mi who that was and when she did dead. Her long fingers search the hills and valleys of mi face in the dim light, as if mi hiding truth from the cobwebbed veins under her skin. She never ask mi about the empty picture frame right beside it – that suppose to hold Son-Son’s photograph.
In her room, although she can’t see mi, Mama yelling: ‘Dinah, Dinah, Dinah, don’t look so gal, fix yuh face!’ I bathe her with water from the pan near the bed, empty her chimmy in the pit latrine and go to the standpipe to catch water to wash mi private parts. Although the house have pipes, dem real old and sometimes the plumbing give problem.
After I wash myself, I put Mama in front the TV, turn the knob so she can watch JBC when the station sign on and ask Regina to check on her every two hours to see that she eat the callaloo and bully beef I leave. I tell Mama goodbye out of habit. She not going notice mi not there. I put on the blue and white plaid uniform the Browns gimme.
I walk down the road leading out of Lazarus Gardens, past the signs on the wall with the giant painting of the Party leader in a green shirt, and posters of our Member of Parliament Wendell Simms from the last election in 1980 still on the light poles. I pass three bus stop with bullet holes in the zinc that the buses don’t come to any more. A old Gleaner newspaper page blowing in the street and catch mi legs. The headline say: 1985 Bloody Year: 12 More Dead in Kingston Massacre.
I go all the way to the bus depot a mile away. I board the bus, giving the fifty cent fare to the conductor. The other women onboard greet mi with a glance or a nod. They also on their way to the big houses where we all work as helpers. They in all kinda uniform: green and white stripe, grey, plaid, black and white, and dem sitting so stiff. Like me.
Wwe sit in silence as the bus creak up the hill, puffing black smoke. Mi look out the window at the people on the street, men on dem motorbike and bicycle, heads bobbing. Pickney with dem dusty barefoot walking and playing in the street, chasing one another and screaming. Women with basket on dem head carrying produce to or from the market, hands akimbo, chatting and laughing wid dem friend. Mongrel dogs barking as the bus pass, dashing in and out like dem want to run under the bus wheel. When mi belly start growl, I realise mi never touch the cup of Milo on the kitchen counter.
Mr Brown in him study when I reach. I only dust in there on weekdays when him at work because him don’t like to be disturbed on weekends. I hear him on the phone now:
‘Yes, Raymond. Brilliant idea.’
Through the crack in the door, I see him nodding, as if the person on the phone can see him.
‘We’ll give him great exposure at the firm. The partners and I would be happy to have him. Yes, he can start on Monday.’ He listen a moment and pick him teeth. ‘No trouble at all. Since he’s your son, I know he has the brains for it.’
After giving directions to the house and hanging up the phone, him nearly knock mi over when him burst out of the room.
‘What’s wrong with you, Dinah? Why are you loitering around here?’ Him walk off before I could say ‘sorry sah.’
‘Cindy!’ his voice boom from the kitchen. ‘You remember my old college roommate, Raymond?’
Mrs Brown don’t answer.
‘You met him when we were in DC last year. And their son kept talking like he was some kind of rapper? Woman, don’t you remember anything?’
Him sigh. ‘Anyway, he and his family will be in Jamaica for the next five months … we’ve arranged for his son to do an internship at the firm before he starts at Princeton.’
I hear her ‘uh-uhs’. Unless is spa dates or shopping trips, it hard for her to pretend interest in most things, especially when they relate to Mr B. She live to go beach, play tennis and swim in the pool. Mr B always trying to get Mrs B to pay him attention. That’s why him always restless in him own house. Him don’t have no peace. But Mrs B not a bad woman. When I dust and break a figurine, she don’t take money out of mi pay. When Mama sick and I had to stay home two days, she don’t short mi money. When I come back though, the place did messy with plenty dirty plate in the sink. Rich people just too nasty.
As for Mr B, the one good thing mi can say is that him never once put man-and-woman argument to mi and try get inna mi panty. That is more than mi can say for some bosses mi did have. And at least Mr and Mrs B don’t have no likkle pickney mi need to run behind and clean up after.
‘Ray left Jamaica nearly twenty years ago,’ Mr B saying now. ‘The son is in college. They’ve rented a car and will be here in a few hours. Make yourself presentable.’
Mi picture Mrs Brown rolling her eyes and drumming her long blue fingernails on the granite countertop.
‘What do you think they’ll want to eat?’ she ask.
‘Ackee and saltfish, bammy, oxtail and rice and peas. None of your hors d’oeuvres foolishness. Make sure Dinah finishes it by the time they get here.’
As usual, Mr Brown talking as if mi not there. Cho. Again, mi feel like a ghost – a uptown duppy – fading into the wall. I look at the titles as I dust the books in the study.
‘Dinah! It’s Saturday! What you doing in the study?’ Mi never hear him footsteps coming back. He sound vexer than usual.
Is a big kitchen the Browns have. Black and white checkered tiles and a giant kitchen island. Pretty wooden cabinets. Dem have a big white fridge and a stove weh dem get from America that mi wipe down every morning and evening. Mr Brown like things ‘spotless’. Him want to see him reflection, him say, on every surface. If him see likkle grease is a problem.
I take out the saltfish from the pantry and put it to boil. Mi sweep the whole kitchen first then take out the mop and bucket of warm water and wipe the floor. Mi wondering who is this family coming here today.
I picking out the bones from the saltfish when I prick myself. A long black car climb up the driveway.
Out of nowhere, I hear a saying Mama chant plenty time:
Ole time don’t keep,
Ole life will leak,
What was lock will open up
wid the right key.
Is like mi memory closet creak open.
Mi remember that today is Son-Son’s eighteenth birthday.
Sharma Taylor is a Jamaican writer and lawyer living between Jamaica and Barbados. She holds a PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, obtained on a Commonwealth Scholarship. Her short stories have been shortlisted three times for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and have won several prizes including the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Prize, Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize and the Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You is her first novel.
Extract, author and cover photo courtesy of Virago Press. What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You is published by Virago, 2022.
Guest edited by Andil Gosine and Nalini Mohabir, Wasafiri 110: Afterlives of Indenture explores the legacy of indentured workers across the Indo-Caribbean, and the diasporic experience. With fiction from Ingrid Persuad and Stephen Narain, a conversation between Richard Fung and Ramabai Espinet, life writing from Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and more, Wasafiri 110 is testament to the legacy that indentureship leaves, and the ways in which affected communities process and reclaim their histories.