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Rajiv Mohabir reads century-old poetry, now translated, to mark Holi

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Poet Rajiv Mohabir speaks at an event on Wednesday, March 24, 2021, hosted by the UNC Asian American Center in celebration of Holi.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article included incorrect spellings of Shivam Bhargava's name. The article has been updated to reflect the appropriate spellings of Bhargava's name. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for these errors. 

Over 100 years after a book of poems about indentured servitude in the Anglophone Caribbean was written, Indo-Caribbean poet Rajiv Mohabir translated and brought these words into the modern day. 

Mohabir read the poems on Wednesday as part of an event hosted by the UNC Asian American Center. The event was a celebration of Holi, which occurred this year on Sunday. Holi is the Hindu celebration of the beginning of spring and the story of Prahlada. 

Throwing brightly colored powders, scented water and building bonfires are traditions of Holi. Mohabir’s poetry reading served as a reflection on music related to the holiday.

Mohabir is an assistant professor of writing, literature and publishing at Emerson University. The book he translated is called "I Even Regret Night: Holi Songs of Demerara." According to the UNC Asian American Center website, the novel is "the only known literary work by an indentured servant in the Anglophone Caribbean."

The poems in the book were originally written as a collection of spiritual songs in a dialect Mohabir calls Plantation Hindi. During the event, he explained that Plantation Hindi is his shorthand for the extensive mixing of North Indian languages caused by forced relocation and indenture by the British after Britain’s abolition of slavery. 

Mohabir decided to translate the book after it was discovered by Gaiutra Bahadur, who found it in the British Library. Mohabir traces his ancestry to the Anglophone Caribbean, specifically in British Guyana, and he intends for his work to preserve that history.

“My work is a mark of my passing, and including the languages encourages others to not let them die,” Mohabir said.

The poems serve as a reminder of the painful history of Indian indenture in British Guyana, oftentimes ignored in modern studies of Western transgressions.

Shivam Bhargava is a campus engagement team member at the Asian American Center. He enjoyed the poetry reading, especially because it showcased Mohabir’s diverse voice. 

“It's not often that you see South Asians in the academic spaces of poetry and writing, so it was really refreshing to hear about his passions and interests,” Bhargava said. 

Mohabir feels that in modern culture, focus is taken away from the skills of BIPOC artists and instead shifted toward the influence of the past on their work. In his translation of "I Even Regret the Night," he said the bridging of past and present was prescient, but not the entire story.

“I think that BIPOC are often asked about the markedness of their work, or the differences between their craft and the cultural mainstream,” Mohabir said. “The BIPOC folks are often asked matters of content whereas white folks are asked about their craft, but I like to think of the content as the craft.”

Bhargava also appreciated how Mohabir's poetry reading encompassed the essence of Holi. 

"Rajiv Mohabir sharing these poems educated more people about what Holi is and the history behind it," Bhargava said. "It's very easy to celebrate Holi without understanding the cultural and religious significance behind it, but Rajiv's poems add historical and cultural context to the celebration so that more people know what they are celebrating." 


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