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Clearing the Mists of Time: In search of a missing link in the Caribbean!

May 12, 2019

An interview with Dr Lomarsh Roopnaraine

In my many ongoing conversations with Mr. Praveen Gupta who is a former CEO as well as a  freelance writer I understand that he wishes to find that missing link from his mother’s side of the family. He came across one of my references on the Indian experience in Caribbean at the British Library, London – last year. I am moved by the thought that this gentleman has been trying for years to find and connect with his family, and in particular his mother’s uncle, Dr. Ramnaraine Sharma, a medical doctor by profession, who had out-migrated from India. He was assigned to the Caribbean islands to provide medical and other services to indentured labourers. Indeed, a small number of Indians and small groups like Kabir Panthi went to the Caribbean on their own accord but somehow they were connected to the thousands of indentured Indians providing various independent services like religious and medical.

In some ways, the search for “lost ones” have become a norm driven by the facet and force of globalization which makes the idea of “lost” not so remote but a possible “find”. I am also trying to locate a son of an indentured Indian Balgobin Persaud from British Guiana who went to study in England in 1917 but traces of him remain obscure. The case commonality of Mr. Praveen Gupta, from India, and myself Professor Lomarsh Roopnarine from Guyana, to find interesting individuals has inspired me to do this interview. Who knows we might be biologically related.

Lomarsh Roopnarine (LR): What has inspired you to embark on this journey to find your mother’s uncle Dr. Ramnaraine Sharma?

Praveen Gupta (PG): I am interested in finding my mother’s uncle on two levels: one is to learn from history – so you need to discover history, and/ or two, invent or create history. I may need to embark on both options to find more about the missing relative. As I said if I am not able to discover the facts of this history, I shall have to, basis my research, create a fictional account on the life and times of Dr Ramnaraine Sharma. So some 22 years ago my mom’s late eldest sister (‘mausi’ in Hindi) and her late husband (mausa’ in Hindi), both doctors in Jaipur, shared the story on how efforts were ongoing from the very early days to trace the whereabouts of Dr Ramnaraine Sharma. All that the family knew was the destination of his travel. There were no links with the Caribbean or West Indies.

Then most miraculously, my aunt’s husband on a visit to New York, in 1950, bumped into Herman Sharma at an Indian Association event. Thankfully thereafter a regular connection with Herman was established. Herman was very young when his father passed away – so there was very little that he could share about his father. The late Herman Sharma and my own late uncle (‘mausa’) who discovered him and could have been secondary sources of insights into my research – are sadly no more around.

LR: Can you share some personal information of your family history?

PG: My mother’s family hails from the city of Jaipur. Two of her uncles were educated as medical doctors from Lahore (now Pakistan).

LR: What can you tell us about Dr. Sharma?

PG: The younger of the two – Dr Ramnaraine Sharma was deputed to British Guiana on behest of the Parmanand Mission to look after the Indian indentured labour. While taking care of them he was very upset with the exploitation meted to the workers, he reportedly organized them to protest against their masters. Not only were they brutally punished for their actions, Dr. Sharma was banished from British Guiana to Trinidad. I understand there were shoot at sight orders were he to return.

Dr. Sharma mysteriously passed away (1920 is what Herman indicated) at a young age.  The source of this sketchy story is late Herman Sharma, the son. Herman’s life story is truly remarkable. Growing up in the British Guiana, he eventually moved to the USA and eventually ended up becoming a space physiologist at NASA.

With Herman and Grace Sharma at their Houston residence in 1984: A quick stopover!

LR: Can you share with us what might have inspired Dr. Ramnaraine Sharma to go to the Caribbean?

PG: Dr. Sharma is one of those several unsung freedom fighters who fought the colonial masters to free India of its yoke. He moved his theatre of action from the shores of Indian mainland to a distant exotic locale. His selfless work to uplift the living conditions of the maltreated indentured laborers and standing up to fight for their cause by putting his life at peril inspire me as a student of History. I wish to bring back his lost voice to the mainstream.

LR: This is a rather interesting and impressive philosophical thought and take on finding someone. But what about your own personal feelings, any thoughts there on the urge to find your mom’s uncle?

PG: Twenty two years ago my late aunt concluded the narrative by saying to her late husband that after us it will be only him who would really be interested in taking this story forward. That has become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy for me. My own mother who is now nearing ninety years of age has been full of stories (word of mouth) about Dr Ramnaraine Sharma and his elder brother- who was a freedom fighter based in India. Again, I struggle to find any insights into his works either. Perhaps he was the one who influenced the younger brother to defy colonialism. It is too compelling a story to be not unearthed or for that matter re-scripted.

LR: If I go back and I ask: what is the Parmanand Mission?

PG: The indentured labour literally replaced the slave trade and continued to be ill-treated by the colonial masters. In the meantime with the burgeoning freedom movement, at home in India, there was growing rallying for the wellbeing of Indian indentured workers, as well. I believe the Parmanand Mission took it upon itself to ensure that the ‘sugar slaves’ were looked after, too. The Ghadar Movement for instance was unifying overseas Indians wherever they were in large numbers. Dr Ramnaraine Sharma being a doctor volunteered to travel to BG and fend for the Indian diaspora.

LR: What makes the family think that he went to British Guiana as opposed to some other Caribbean islands?

PG:  Herman Sharma was born and brought up there by his mother’s family. So there is clear evidence.

LR: As you know, British Guiana was a British colony comprised of three counties or regions: Demerara. Essequibo and Berbice. You also know that I a descendant of indentured Indians born in the county of Berbice, home to a majority of Indians in now Guyana. Do you know if Dr. Sharma went to the country of Berbice?

PG: Well, according to Herman he was born in Berbice. It should, therefore, be very probable that Berbice is where his father made home or was stationed.

LR: What do you think is the significance of finding the lost uncle?

PG: The family was delighted to reconnect and establish ongoing ties with a branch lost for a generation. Regrettably, it’s been almost 100 years since Dr Ramnaraine Sharma passed away in distant Trinidad – virtually leaving no known trace of his life and times. Broadly this and a bit about his marriage and the two children – is all one knows – thanks to Herman. The rest is like dotted lines – the challenge, therefore, as I said – is for me to either discover or invent. The character is too important – not just because he is my mother’s uncle but more importantly an unsung hero – whose heroism deserves not to be left to fade into the mists of time!

LR: Thank you!

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2 Comments
  1. Sunita Gupta permalink

    Discovering an Unsung Hero.! A Great Job indeed!!

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