Orlando, Florida — When we ask who we are, we often think in terms of where we come from. Who is our family? What are our traditions?
What is our place in the world?
Our stories are generations in the making. Sometimes the origins of our story are clear. Sometimes everything is foggy–even the present.
This is the story of four generations of women– each influenced by where they come from and where they’re going.
This is a story of family. And it all starts in Madras, India at the close of the 19th century with the birth of Mary Narsama.
Memories of Madras
Madras, known today as Chennai, was a bustling town. It served as the seat of the Madras Presidency, one of four administrative provinces of British India. Its location on the eastern coast of the subcontinent gave the city access to the sea and its wealth.
Though records are scarce and memories muddled, it’s likely that Mary Narsama was born into an affluent family in Madras.
“My mother uncle was the postmaster general in India [sic],” Josephine Fatima Khan, Narsama’s daughter, said in her musical Caribbean accent.
With this sort of relation, Narsama probably enjoyed a comfortable life amidst the palm trees and ever-growing colonial infrastructure of Madras.
One day, that all changed.
“My mother leave her state with a friend to go visit the friend family,” Khan said. “Coming back, the friend tell her, ‘I have a little place I want to take you, dear.’”
Narsama’s friend, Khan recalled, went into a building while Narsama waited outside. Little did she know, her friend was selling her into indentured servitude.
“A lady came out and tell her, ‘Come we want you in here,’” Khan said. “So she went inside and the lady said, ‘Well this is a bed you have to sleep.’”
“My mother said, ‘What is this going on?’”
“They say, ‘Well the lady came and she sold you to us! So we’re in charge of you.’”
After abolishing slavery in 1834, the British set up a system of indentured servitude to move labor throughout their empire. Legal code required indentured servitude to be voluntary. For Narsama, it was not.
“My mother lost all contact with her family,” Khan said.
“They just basically put them [indentured servants] on the boat and then they never knew,” Salima Ali, Khan’s daughter echoed.
On the Island of the Trinity Hills
Narsama arrived in Trinidad and was stationed in the southern part of the Island in a city called Princes Town. Like other indentured servants that the British brought to the Carribean, Narsama worked in the sugarcane fields.
“Indentured servants [came] to work for ‘x’ amount of years and then they were allowed to go off and live on their own,” Salima said. “There were people who were brought from India, from Africa, Pakistan, China, Syria.”
Narsama made a new life in Trinidad. She married a man who had also come to Trinidad as an indentured servant from Hyderabad, India.
Life on the island wasn’t easy.
“It was difficult because they were brought to work and so they had to I guess get creative,” Salima said. “Right, but they never forget the tradition– the cooking, the way, the utensils they use and everything,” Mary Afrose Singh, Salima’s older sister, continued.
In 1920, Narsama gave birth to Josephine in Princes Town, Trinidad.
Fifteen years later, Josephine married and started a family of her own.
“They were very young when they got married,” Ali said. “And then you had to figure out a way to support a family.”
Josephine’s husband started out as a bus conductor and joined the army as his family grew and the British needed soldiers in World War II. As a colony of the empire, people in Trinidad were encouraged to enlist in the British army.
“After he got out he had to help support his family,” Ali said. “The only thing he could really do is food.”
So he taught Josephine how to cook West Indian food and together they started their own business.
“They would cook and take the roti, which is like homemade bread, cook the curry and wrap it like a sandwich and put it in a can and go around selling it on his bike.”
As he sold at the racetrack, in the park and on the street, he called out his slogan: Get Hungry!
Though their parents worked a lot, Ali and Singh still learned the importance of family.
On Sundays, the large family– Ali is the youngest of 13 children– would head to the river or the sea. They’d fish and swim and on special days, they’d camp there for the night.
Though they loved Trinidad, Josephine and her husband wanted more for their family than the island could offer.
“My parents started coming back and forth from like ‘65 from Trinidad to New York,” Ali said. “They wanted to make a change and a life for their kids to get an education.”
On Church Street
Josephine’s husband moved to New York first. Once he had established himself there, Josephine joined him and they opened a restaurant in Brooklyn. When the couple got their green cards, they began sponsoring their children to join them in the city.
It wasn’t long before New York felt like home.
“My brothers and sisters were coming and then they got married and they had children. Then the grandchildren came along so…our community was our family,” Ali said.
They also got to know a lot of people through the restaurant.
“In Brooklyn, the businesses are on the bottom and you’ve got the two stories on top,” Ali said. “Basically we lived on the top and the restaurant was on the bottom.”
Church Avenue was a main street and became popular with doctors and nurses because it was only blocks from King’s County Hospital.
“West Indian food was not very popular at that time so they were introducing a new cuisine,” Ali said. “There were a lot of West Indians moving to the Brooklyn area.”
Singh was already married when she joined her family in New York in 1974. Her four kids grew up there and soon she started a restaurant of her own.
Ali, the youngest child, finished high school in the city and went to college where she met her husband. They were married in 1982 while he was finishing his residency in Queens.
Two years later, they moved to Florida. The rest of the family soon followed.
In the sunshine state
“When we first came to Florida we drove around. We went to North Florida, Jacksonville, Palm Coast. We just drove,” Ali said. “We decided on Orlando because it was growing. It just seemed like it was a young community.”
Since they were the first in the family to head south, Ali and her husband found friendship and community through their faith.
“When we first came in ‘84, there were very few Muslims,” Ali said. “The mosque was basically like a little house next to a big oak tree.”
They began to meet weekly with other young families to discuss stories and lessons from the Qur’an and share dinner together.
When Ali’s daughter Ruqayyah was born in 1993, this community became her extended family.
“That’s my memory of growing up,” Ruqayyah said. “I remember going to the class and being small and we have pictures and videos from when we were little. We all used to celebrate Eid together.”
That community grew as Ali’s extended family began to move to Florida. New York grew too cold for Singh. “Here I am with my mom and sister and brothers,” she said. “All of us are here. Enjoying it.”
Though the restaurants have all been sold, both in Brooklyn and Orlando, cooking is still a very important part of the family.
“If it’s one thing that they pass down,” Ruqayyah said. “If it’s one thing I can do if I fail at everything else in life, I can cook.”
But, Singh notes, even though all the grandchildren can cook, they all say that their grandma, Josephine, is the best.
“It’s true ‘cause like I mean even when I ask mom something she’s like, ‘Well I’m not sure,’ we’ll call grandma,” Ruqayyah said. “We write it down now because eventually you know grandma is the wealth of knowledge. If we can’t ask her then all those things are gone.”
For now Josephine, at 95 years old, remains the keeper of family recipes. Just as she’s passed down her knowledge of roti and curry, she’s passed down an unshakable strength and sense of family.
And so, from indentured servant Mary Narsama, a woman who lost all touch with her family, came generations of tight-knit siblings, cousins and children. Mary stands as proof that home is a spirit that we create with each other rather than a physical place.
By | Hannah Doksanksy and Samantha Harrington