Sarnámi – Literature

Sarnámi Literature

**Please note that this is by no means an exhaustive list or review of the Sarnámi literature, but
serves to share an overview of literary activity in Sarnámi throughout recent decades, highlighting
achievements. Please contact Sarná in case you would like to see anything reflected.**

Sarnámi has mainly had a strong oral culture, which translated to every day speech, music and playwriting (so called ‘nataks’ meaning plays’).
The Baithak Gana music tradition has gained some renown in the Caribbean, with for example the distinction of the release of the first Indo-Caribbean music record, The King of Suriname, by Ramdew
Chaitoe in 1976.

More information about Baithak Gana and the example of a song can be found at the pages below:

Regarding the nataks – Unfortunately, the author of this article does not have much information on the history of nataks in Sarnámi. In case there is anyone out there that has more information or even
transcripts of plays and is willing to make them available online, then please contact

A condensed timeline

In terms of literature, the written history of Sarnámi starts with Munshi (teacher) Rahman Khan, an indentured laborer who meticulously worked on his memoires during a period of 40 years. Munshi Rahman Khan wrote in the Devnagari script. To date, his autobiography is the only written autobiographical record of an indentured labourer in the Caribbean.

The 1960’s saw an increased focus on different aspects of the Sarnámi language, plays were created by for instance Goeroedath Kallasingh and poems was written by the likes of Jnan Adhin, poet Bhai and Srinivasí. The latter has the distinction of having published the first poem in Sarnámi (Pratiskhá, 1968). Though these writers wrote in Sarnámi, they also wrote in Hindi and Dutch. Their versatility attests to the multi-lingual nature and realities of Suriname.

The 1980’s saw an attempt to standardize and formalize the spelling of several Surinamese languages such as Sranan Tongo and Sarnámi Hindustani. The Surinamese government commissioned working groups which published a definitive orthography. Notable is that the
orthography in the published lists moves away from Dutch orthographical conventions, similar in the way that Bahasa Indonesia did in 1972. Given that Sarnámi has not been taught at wide level, the standardization never really took hold.

The brothers Jit Narain and Rabin Baldewsingh contributed greatly to the standardization and further advancement of the written form of Sarnámi. Together with academic Theo Damsteegt, Jit Narain created the seminal Sarnámi teaching course called Ká Hál. Rabin Baldewsingh released the first short novel in Sarnámi called Stifá (1984). The brothers Baldewsingh are both still active and regularly publish poems and other writing in Sarnámi or related to the Sarnámi language.

In the 1990’s and the early 2000’s writers Chitra Gajadien, Candáni (i.a. Ghungru Toet Gail, 1990) and later Raj Ramdas published several poems in Sarnámi (Kahán hai ú, 2003).

Eline Santokhi and Lydius Nienhuis published a Sarnámi-Dutch, Dutch-Sarnámi dictionary in 2004 and a compendium of 500 sayings and expressions in Sarnami (2006).

The 2010s also saw the official appointment of Sarnámi language translators in Suriname, that could assist Sarnámi speakers in legal matters. I have not seen any written records of activity, but
would be curious to understand how this is applied.

In 2013 the first translation of the United Declaration of Human Rights in Sarnámi was published by father/son duo Dilip and Deep Mahangi.

Sarnámi Hindoestani writers and the Dutch language

Some readers acquainted with Surinamese culture might notice that the text above only covers a high-level overview of the Sarnámi literature. As mentioned, most writers active in Sarnámi have published works in other languages, namely Dutch and Hindi. In addition, there have been Hindoestani writers who have published in Dutch. Journalist Anil Ramdas was a prominent example of an acclaimed Hindoestani writer who published in Dutch and Rappa has published in both Dutch and Sranan Tongo. Several ‘Hindoestani’ writers have also been active in the writers collectives of the ‘Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren’ and ‘Schrijversgroep 77’.

Prose with the Hindoestani community as subject has also been published in the form of i.a. ‘Sarnami Hai’ (Bea Vianen, 1969) and ‘Memories of Mariënburg’ (Cynthia McLeod, 1998). One of the most recent notable additions to the ethnography of the Sarnámi communities are the works of Brispath Mahabier, whom has published a biography of his grandfather online (in Dutch).

Elsewhere in the Caribbean

Though life in each country or territory, that saw the arrival of indentured laborers, has evolved differently, there are notable parallels and a consciousness or memory of a collective story and a
common origin. Hindu and Islamic practices throughout the Caribbean are very similar, as are last names and names of dishes. One particular work of literature that actually provides an incommensurable insight into the Indo-Caribbean experience of the late 18 th and early 19 th century is ‘A House for Mr. Biswas.’ by Sir V.S. Naipaul. The main trials and tribulations of the eponymous
protagonist (Mr. Biswas) are set against an evolving Indo-Trinidadian community. Naipaul vividly describes scenes on plantations, the urbanization process of Indo-Caribbeans and that all whilst giving an insight into the Indo-Caribbean psyche and cultural practices. He also alludes several times to the language shift that is taking place in the span of the novel (from Caribbean Hindustani to
English) A recommended read for anyone interested in Indo-Caribbean history.

Beyond Suriname, the writer unfortunately does not have any record of literature published in other forms of Caribbean Hindustani. There are established and thriving literary scenes in Guyana,
Trinidad, Martinique, Guadeloupe and their respective diasporic communities, but any literature is published in respectively English and French.

In 2013, Harry Hergash did publish an Indo-Guyanese glossary (Aili Gaili – English), but to date this is the only contemporary Caribbean Hindustani publication that we have come across outside of Suriname or the Netherlands (link below).

Sources & More information:


*Note: Mauritius is a special case, as there have been a lot of efforts to promote Bhojpuri as part of its national heritage. Songs are still made and understood in Bhojpuri, but higher status languages such
French, English and Hindi or a lingua franca such as Mauritian Creole) have effectively surpassed every day use of Bhojpuri.