The two branches of Indo-Caribbean poetry, as I see them sparkling toward their afterlives, come from two very different and distinct genesis stories. I look at my grandmother’s generation of mostly unlettered women living in rural Guyana without access to Western education. My grandmother, a forgotten grandchild of racialized Indian indenture that lasted from 1838 to 1917 and displaced over one million South Asians, stood at a sangam—a meeting place—of three worlds: Guyanese Hindi / Bhojpuri (which she called Hindustani), Guyanese Creole, and British English. Her body was the ecotone that prophesied a transition of systems. So that her children could escape poverty of being used and refused by the British sugarcane machine, she was compelled to sacrifice the Guyanese Hindustani/Bhojpuri language to the colonial gods. Attrition crawled slowly, a story of social prestige and access to resources: The more we aped the British, the closer we got to financial security. For an economically ruined people, this ensured our survival.

Indo-Caribbean culture and history—and indeed the culture and history of the Americas—are birthed out of slavery and indenture, replete with the hegemonic pressures of extractive, dehumanizing colony. The most recognized literature from my familial community is the literary creation written on paper. The anthology They Came in Ships: An Anthology of Indo-Guyanese Prose and Poetry (Peepal Tree Press 1998) chronicles our English-language literature emerging in the 1930s that mimicked the poems of British Romantics: Shelley, Wordsworth, etc. In my father’s case Wordsworth’s daffodils represented Empire’s sophistication: everything he was not. In the community of descendants of bonded laborers from India, in their land grants from stolen Indigenous peoples, no daffodils bloomed. Just their ghosts evoked what the colonizers thought of my ancestors and their culture: stupid coolies. This phrase, hurled as a curse, still haunts my family.

The less remembered branch of Indo-Caribbean literature is of Bhojpuri folk singing meeting Afro-Caribbean beats, descending into the Creolized avatar of chutney music. My grandmother did not read, but she sang sacred and profane epics from heart, herself a vast library of aural, Creolized literary knowledge.

The less remembered branch of Indo-Caribbean literature is of Bhojpuri folk singing meeting Afro-Caribbean beats, descending into the Creolized avatar of chutney music. My grandmother did not read, but she sang sacred and profane epics from heart, herself a vast library of aural, Creolized literary knowledge.

The chutney poem I derive is baptized in both these streams: the aural and the written. The poems themselves bring a postcolonial history to a form of writing that continues the aural traditions of chutney music, the written traditions of Caribbean greats like Mahadai Das and Rajkumari Singh, and the music of Dropati and Sundar Popo. I wanted to create a form that used all of my familial languages and rhythms to bear song-poems that my grandmother could hear and ascribe her own internal knowing to.

The Guyanese Bhojpuri language is one that was wrought on the plantation—an Asian American language forged in the West. When the jahaji laborers landed in the Americas they spoke a mix of North and South Indian languages including Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, Bengali, Telegu, and Tamil, to name a few. As the indentured laborers learned to communicate with one another, their language developed into a lingua franca—the linguistic term for this kind of language creation is called the process of koineization. This became my grandmother’s first language; she also spoke Creole that evolved from the pidgin that was spoken in the colonies by the descendants of enslaved Africans. The development of Guyanese Creole was one of forging something new out of the profoundly dehumanizing system of colonial rupture that displaced more than twelve million continental Africans from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century.

I am a descendant of these linguistic histories: English, Creole, and Guyanese Bhojpuri—each one indelibly marking the other and in my own speech community inseparable and mutually dependent on one another. As such the chutney poem is of Indian, African, and European descent—a chutney itself of cumin, mango, and salt.


The Barbadian poet and scholar Kamau Brathwaite, who died in 2020, opened up the possibilities of our Creoles and koineized literatures as viable, distinct, and raging. In his consideration, kaiso and calypso forms—types of music that break down the pentametric form by using dactyls—connect the body of the poet to the sound differently than the pentameter does. Caribbean literature is derived from oral traditions linked to the written throughout the poems of reggae artists and poets like Claude McKay and John Figueroa. In History of the Voice: the Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry (New Beacon Books, 2011), Brathwaite says that oral tradition is “total expression” that unites breath to the word with intonation.

It is because of his thinking, his concept of nation language that validated the tonality of our Caribbean creoles and patois, that I dreamed up my own linguistic and poetic experimentations. His books The Middle Passage and History of the Voice crashed upon me with their tidalectics, causing me to consider my family’s linguistic heritage as necessary and valuable after generations of believing it to be “broken.” Singers like Sundar Popo and Dropati, Rikki Jai, and Rasika Dindial were still composing verse in the plantation-wrought Caribbean Hindi. Now I could too.


Kaise Bani
By Sundar Popo

                      / u u u / u u u / u u u / u u u
Chorus:         Kaise bani, kaise bani, kaise bani, kaise bani

                      u / u u / u / u u /
                      phulauri bina chutney kaise bani

V1                  I went Sande Grande to meet Lalbihari
                      I pull out me kudari and shave out he dardi

                      / u u / u u / u u u /
V2                 Me and meh darling we’ flying in a plane

                     u / u u / u u u / u u u /
                     De plane catch a-fiyah an’ we fall inside de cane

V3                 I beating meh drum an’ I singin’ meh song
                     De only thing a missing is meh bottle of rum

V4                Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water
                    Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after

V5/melodic deviation

                        Little Jack Horner sat in a corner, eating his Christmas pie
                        He put in his thumb and pulled a plum, and said what a good boy am I

                                                                                                     How is it made / how can you eat
                                                                                                     Phulauri without chutney?

Looking specifically at the song “Kaise Bani” by the Trinidadian singer Sundar Popo from his 1979 album, Come Dance With the Champ, I traced a form the song adhered to—it was five verses and one chorus. The chorus goes:

                        / u u u / u u u / u u u / u u u
                        Kaise bani, kaise bani, kaise bani, kaise bani

                        u / u u / u / u u /
                        phulauri bina chutney kaise bani 

This couplet is written in Caribbean Hindi, which is a big feature of the song in the way that the language acts as a signifier pointing to a specific community and experience. The “phulauri” that he sings about is an Indian-descended food specific to the Caribbean.

The repetition of the phrase “kaise bani” four times in the first line fits the music that it winds into. The sixteen syllables are followed by a twelve-syllable realization and final and fifth repetition of the phrase. Literal meaning is obscured or deferred for those who don’t speak the language, but the meaning’s cadence is undeniable. The language calls us to remember our own tongues.

The verses blend Creole and standard English to produce a three-tiered poem that stands on the nexus of three different cultures: the Indian, the Caribbean, and the British. Popo continues in verse two:

                         / u u / u u / u u u /
                        Me and meh darling we’ flying in a plane

                        u / u u / u u u / u u u /
                        De plane catch a-fiyah an’ we fall inside de cane

In this couplet the lines are eleven syllables / thirteen syllables, given the cadence and music of the Creole that Popo composed in. The references are particular to Caribbean space. There are no daffodils here. Rather, there is a recognition of a landscape that is an archive of labor and a history of backbreak. It also shows, through the use of Creole and Bhojpuri, the contact between the formerly colonized and bound people.

The language and the rhyme (plane / cane) shows an attention to sound—the familiar and returning, an oral literary device to help the singer recall what comes next. Another notable device is the assonance with “flying / inside.” So it is with the refrain that allows the singer a moment to pause and recall what comes next.

Thinking about the prosody of this couplet, I am reminded of what Brathwaite says about the characteristics of nation language and how it works against the pentameter of colonial education. His alluding to intonation also relates that the performance of the poem is indelibly linked to its shape. I think about East Indian aurality in this cultural milieu and how chutney music plays with these structures adding into it the chaupai and chautaal structure of populating a line of music with four main beats. Above, I have marked how these work in concert with the chorus in the scanned portion of the Popo song—these produce in my mind the perfect hurricane of South Asian Caribbean music: syncretic and novel.

Rhythmically, the couplet, while marked with calypso and kaiso structures, alludes to the chaupai structure from Awadhi and Bhojpuri accounting, wherein the unstressed syllables cluster around the four main structural beats of the line. The difference in the chaupai and Western meter here I understand as the allowance of music, orality, accent, and, yes, intonation. The prosody of the couplets makes more sense when they are allowed the hybridity of Western, African, and South Asian shape, intonation, and rhythmic structures, as Brathwaite points out, “But in its contours, its rhythm and its timbre, its sound explosions, it is not English, even though the words, as you hear them, might be English to a greater or lesser degree” (7).

The most peculiar and perhaps slyest move in this song is the end when Popo slips into reciting the nursery rhyme of “Little Jack Horner” with Indian instrumentation. There is even a musical deviation that happens at the beginning of “Little Jack Horner” that fits with the melodic structure of the song but bridges the nursery rhyme into Popo’s own musical soundscape. I read this as a sly measure of civility (to borrow from Homi Bhabha), a Trinidadian steups—a sucking of teeth—at the British educational system. Following this is the chorus repeated several times in Caribbean Hindi. The juxtaposition of languages and registers performs magic that causes the listener to laugh while reflecting on the history of colonial education.


In an attempt to come to a form that fosters my own deeply personal poetics—be they Caribbean South Asian heritage or of queer subjectivity—I began to create the chutney poem in 2011 as a formal experiment that grew into the book Cutlish (Four Way Books, 2021). I wanted to be like Popo: to also resist; to not disappear into the American poetry scene where I have never seen my own self reflected.

I am grateful for the piloting of this kind of work by U.S.-based poets Kimiko Hahn and Agha Shahid Ali. To Hahn for her experimentation and perfection of the English zuihitsu, and to Ali and his ghazal rooted in South Asian literary-musical tradition. Both of these Asian American poets migrated non-Western poetic forms into American poetry. I am also grateful to Jericho Brown, of course, who developed his own formal constraints in the duplex. I have found that creating forms and/or transmuting them echoes my history: something wrought and galvanized from aural traditions, written traditions of previous generations with a forward- moving velocity.

Because of poets like Brathwaite, Ali, Hahn, Brown, and many more, I used my own affinity for chutney music, a specifically Indo-Caribbean form of music woven of Indian instruments, a Caribbean Hindi refrain, and Creole verses. In the place of end rhyme, I use assonance to give a haunting of the sound that came before—an unsettling familiarity without complete realization.

I needed my poems to bear and bare the history of my family as well as my own current, queer moment. I grew up speaking to my grandmother in Creole and was able to learn her Guyanese Hindi/Bhojpuri through recording her and also speaking with her in this language from the age of sixteen. In the choruses of the chutney poems, the mukrdas, I use my own reconstruction of this language, filling in the gaps of my tongue with Indian (Benarsi) Bhojpuri and standard Western Hindi.

And as for the aspect of sly civility, or to allow for a postcolonial interruption, I forge these poems into fourteen lines, adding one more couplet than the aforementioned song “Kaise Bani” to achieve this. In this configuration: a sonnet that has been chutneyed—mixed with ingredients it can now never be separate from. Think trying to separate the mango from the cumin in the popular condiment of this music’s namesake. Impossible. Including my languages in American poetry in the age of anti-brown-immigrant sentiment is my mobilizing what Stephen Dunn calls crucial speech—and what I see as the trajectory of the chutney poem in its being more honest, more threatening.

As I look backward through time, I see the potential for this language to liberate my own sense of poetics, whether through the negative capability of listening to chutney music or through a rigorous connection with my ancestors who sang me into life. My sincerest hope is that since there are not many Indo-Caribbean poets publishing in the United States, the younger generation of poets rising up from a history of bondage and American racism and anti-immigrant sentiment will see themselves and our musics enlivened in this new kind of poetry whose roots reach deep into the lives of the jahajis we come from but also extend out into the leaves of a possible future that allows for complexity and multiple belongings.


Works Cited

Brathwaite, Kamau. History of the Voice: the Development of Nation Language in Anglophone Caribbean Poetry. New Beacon Books, 2011.

Popo, Sundar. Come Dance With the Champ. Windsor Records, 1979. CD