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Arts and Culture

What Resilience Looks Like For A Queer Guyanese Indian Poet

Antiman, by Rajiv Mohabir

In parts of India, elders traditionally end greetings with the phrase "jug jug jiye," which means "may you live long." Versions of this exist in several languages of the subcontinent, offered as respect or acknowledgment of one another, or as a blessing.

In Rajiv Mohabir's memoir Antiman, it is one of many phrases in the Guyanese Bhojpuri language that he learns from his Aji — his paternal grandmother. In the book he recounts growing up feeling like an outsider due to the strict command his community held on his understanding of race and sexuality, and how leaning into the language of his ancestors helped him begin a journey of discovery and assurance, eventually finding his way back to himself.

When the Mohabirs migrated to the United States, they converted to Christianity, in many ways simplifying a history laden with colonization, survival, and folklore. Mohabir comes to learn about this history as he delves deeper into his lineage — which in fact, is not simple at all. He is not Indian, but rather a descendant of indentured laborers taken from India to Guyana more than a century ago. Mohabir's Aji was born there in 1921 and grew up speaking the now-dying Bhojpuri language — a tongue that mixes words from North India with words of the colonizers. Later, her son — Mohabir's father — moved the family to London, then Toronto, and then Gainesville, Florida — where Mohabir spent much of his life growing up.

Mohabir's act of translating his Aji's songs, their English versions rooted right next to their purest form, is a way of ensuring that his identity remains whole, not broken — an amalgamation of his ancestors' many truths.

So to sum up his identity as "Indian" would mean forgetting what kept Mohabir so close to his Aji. Throughout the book, whenever Mohabir asks her to sing him a song she remembers from Guyana, he writes it for us in Bhojpuri and English. His father, uninterested in the language due to his own quest for whiteness and assimilation, calls it "broken Hindi". But Mohabir's act of translating his Aji's songs, their English versions rooted right next to their purest form, is a way of ensuring that his identity remains whole, not broken — an amalgamation of his ancestors' many truths.

Aji's songs often refer to Hindu mythology. Here's an excerpt about Sita, the wife of Lord Ram in the Ramayana epic. Sita follows Ram through the forest when he is exiled from his kingdom, and she is later kidnapped by the evil Ravan:

akhiya hamar badal rukhi

kahi naahi sukhi sukhi

tinhu lok me hamesa

tohar birha se hi bhigal

My eyes are clouds

nowhere is dry.

The three worlds are forever

soaked in grief.

When Mohabir follows Aji's songs to the holy city of Varanasi, India, where he lives for a year in college, he decides to write about the relationship between Bhojpuri folk music and the Ramayana. Something about how Aji sings the tale and how his father made his mother burn her cherished copy of the book makes Mohabir want to lean into the meaning of exile. It is in Varanasi that he finds a spiritual singer — a baba — who sings to him in Guyanese Bhojpuri — the same language that Aji learned to speak years ago, thousands of miles away.

Sitting with the baba, Mohabir realizes how Sita, Lord Ram's wife, is "a servant in her own home". He writes: "Sita was eventually swallowed by the earth as final proof that she was chaste, devoted to her husband when Ravan kidnapped her." And he thinks back to the women in his life, his queer community, and his own body — how they had all been "scarred by this story." Through this journey across geography and a tale as old as time, he links his queer insecurities to his Aji's memory.

It's hard for Mohabir to come to terms with that queerness. The memoir's title "Antiman'' is a Caribbean slur for men who love men. It is the term Mohabir's cousin uses when outing him to his family. His fraught relationship with his father — who asks his son not to call him father, who is deeply ashamed of Mohabir's identity — is reflected in the book through the repetition of four lines:

You are nothing.

No one will ever love you.

You are fat and hairy.

You are good-for-nothing.

These lines show up again and again in moments of deep insecurity for the author: When a lover leaves him, when he harms himself, when his cousin outs him, when his poems are harshly critiqued in a workshop, when he finds himself in an abusive relationship, whenever he feels broken, less than whole.

Still, he rages on, reclaiming the "antiman" identity and the condemnation associated with it. He leaves Florida, finds a queer community in New York City. He learns to write poems, and teach. He breaks hearts, has his heart broken. He continues to learn and record his inherited languages — feeling closer than ever to Aji — so much so that she shows up in his dreams after she dies, strengthening his spiritual ties to his ancestry.

Back at the pivotal moment in Varanasi, when Mohabir realizes the baba and Aji come from the same "song lineage", Mohabir writes that "Aji was whole. That I was whole." He says: "I was discovering the truths about my history, that being Guyanese did not mean that I was less Indian, it meant that I was a descendant of survivors." When their time is up, the baba says to Mohabir: "jug jug jiye, beta. May you live long." It is through his resilience, his honesty, and this memoir, that Mohabir fulfills that destiny.

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