People of Indian origin have been crossing the dreaded Kalapani for that distant Karmabhumi for nearly 500 years. They went as slaves, Lascars, Coolies, Jahajis, Girmits, contract or indentured laborers, and the more recent Hi-Tech indentured coolies -- all, willing or unwilling victims of a “new kind of slavery.”
And no matter how they are identified as -- NRIs, PIOs, Overseas Indians, Indians Abroad, Indian Immigrants, East Indians, South Asians, Desis, Pravasis, ABCD (American Born Confused Desi), or DCBA (Desi Children Born Abroad) – they are children of India, of Bharat Mata, and of a Greater India.
I have crisscrossed their paths many times in search of their voices. But few have expressed their feelings for India in a way that is more compelling and deeply moving than Lotus Vingadassamy -- a third generation Indian born in Guadalupe, in the Caribbean.
To hear people like her, to read their words, is to know what it means for Mother India to dwell in their soul, and in every breath they take. Which is why they put to shame many India-born Indians, for whom escaping from India is their primary goal. That is, until they realize that India is embedded in their soul.
Consider what Lotus Vingadassamy-Engels has to say about the Indian diaspora in a part of the world farthest removed from India – the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe -- to which her forefathers were taken.
“Diaspora: I take it upon myself to use in my name and in the name of all my people, particularly those from Guadeloupe where I myself was born, this word which by itself summarizes what our fathers lived in their flesh, in their blood, in their soul, and which we still live - we, their great grandchildren.”
She goes on to explain: “I choose the word diaspora for the transplantation of my community from India to the French West Indies …because it carries psychological connotations of deep sorrow and suffering, inconsolable mourning, along with the everlasting feeling of being torn inside. It conveys a mixture of emotions which are not present in the more traditional word, emigration, commonly used to designate those who, individually, choose and decide at one particular time to leave their homeland for new skies that they believe to be more clement and welcoming.
“I say ‘we’ when I speak of India, and this ‘we’ may sound strange. Technically speaking, indeed, I am not Indian. I will however maintain that ‘we’, because whatever the color of the passports I could be carrying, they would in no way explain the essence of my soul, my roots and my belonging.
“When other little girls were dreaming of Prince Charming, whose tale they were told to put them to sleep, my tale and story were that of India. Transcendental Mother, Ultimate Reference, sometimes mentioned, sometimes not, but whose name vibrated in the air, eternal present, eternally absent. India was like a secret, a promise, a sacred breath permeating life, linking beyond the frontiers of time - the past and the Future. This India, the India of my childhood dreams, which far from putting me to sleep has kept me awake, this India of my dreams authorizes me the ‘we’ that I choose to use.”
BACKGROUND TO FRENCH WEST INDIES
In tracing the history of the ‘Hindu Diaspora in the French West Indies’, Vingadassamy says that the first two boats carrying indentured laborers arrived from India in the French West Indies in 1854 – the first one landing in Martinique, the second in Guadelupe.
For the first seven years the recruitment was essentially from Tamil Nadu, before the process shifted to the port of Calcutta. Names like Henry Sidembarom and Lotus Vingadassamy reflect the fact that the earliest recruits were indeed Tamilians. Eventually it was a mixed population from the North as well as the South that came, leaving behind their families, their villages, and their gods.
What prompted this migration? First of all there were major social changes taking place, which led to widespread uncertainty and psychological distress. Then there was famine and the accompanying poverty. All of which made an ideal prey for the recruiters who went after “Brahmans and bankrupt land owners, craftsmen without work, exhausted farmers, couples running away from rigid parental authority, lovers having betrayed their caste, young people looking for change and adventure.”
While unemployed craftsmen were easily cajoled into earning a living anywhere, the sons of Brahmans were lured with the promise of immediate teaching jobs, and the landless farmer was made to believe that he would find over there, not very far from India even, in fact at the very door of Calcutta as the recruiter would tell him shamelessly, new estates that would be his in no time.
But did they know where they were being taken?
“Almost none of us could really situate these islands, nor did we know in detail what was waiting for us. The recruiters, Indian themselves, to whom the French authorities delegated the nasty task of hunting were paid by the number of immigrants they could bring back. They had therefore every interest to paint us an idyllic picture of the promising future that was in store for us. As for the rest of us, we simply knew that we were leaving with, at the end of the road, a sure way of earning our livelihood. And we would come back when the time was ripe.” Thus, says Vingadassamy, “we left with our hearts full of promises – promises based on well-concocted lies.”
There was worse in store. It was one thing to fool the gullible, but it was quite another for the recruiters to abduct individuals and kidnap entire families. That’s what happened as a result of trying to meet the quotas set by the foreign plantation owners. After they were lured, they would be locked in godowns until the boats were to depart. Sometimes the poor innocents would be invited for so called “festivities” on boats covered with garlands of light. And as soon as they had their cargo of human flesh on board, the boats would take off under cover of night.
The reasons for such kidnappings are easy to understand. Most of the people who enrolled voluntarily – farmers, craftsmen and others – left alone. Most of them were bachelors who took the temporary risk of going elsewhere to earn money, but meant to come back to their homeland when their work contracts expired. It was much more difficult to convince single women to do the same, and it so happened that the colonies also needed them and were asking for children too, preferably adolescents. It was rare for a family to leave voluntarily – hence the kidnappings.
“It is in the name of these families, these women, these men, these children, abducted against their will that I have chosen to use in our case the word diaspora and not emigration,” says Vingadassamy.
“In spite of all this, from these branches of our people cut from their original trunk – sometimes with their consent, sometimes not – a homogenous community was born. It developed and adapted in an alien soil without forgetting its roots, its memories, its deep belonging to India in its essence and eternity. The crossing of the seas became the ordeal by fire from which we came out victorious and united to face together like one man these islands where we were to live from then on. The boats became the melting pot where castes, languages, started mixing like new colors blending in search of harmony. We could have fought one another, but we chose to share, to help each other, to understand each other. Having been on the same boat linked forever people profoundly different at the beginning.”
But the Indians had barely landed on French soil when their names were “deformed to conform to French phonetics.” Moreover, Vingadassamy observes, the plantation owners expected them to “Frenchify” as fast as possible because they could not be bothered with different gods, different languages and a different philosophy of life.
“We lost a lot, but we preserved what was essential. We lost our languages. Coming from all over India as we did, we spoke different languages and communication was not easy. For practical reason we adopted the common language of the island, Creole. It served as a common vehicle between all races there – whites, blacks and mixed blood. For some time we kept using our own languages, but the new generations born on the island lost touch with them very soon. Our priests and the more educated among us did try a the beginning to teach children their original mother tongue, but several factors contributed to condemn these attempts to failure.”
WOMEN AND MOTHER GODESS
The role of the women of Indian origin in these distant lands has not been fully acknowledged. As Vingadassamy explains, “while our men were fighting to conquer for us the right to be full citizens, they (women) on their side, were keeping the flame of our Indianness alive. I find traces of their action in our kitchens, where our dishes, our smells and flavors, our masalas, have survived. This has impregnated the island unknowingly to the extent that one of our most popular dishes is called “Colombo”, which is nothing else but our traditional curry. This is explained by the fact that leaving India without quite knowing where we were going, every one of us was carrying with him a little portion of Indian soil, in the shape of seeds, spices, plans and roots. Camphor, balsam, sandalwood traveled next to betel, cloves, caraway seeds, curcuma, ginger and man other things… We planted our flowers, our fruits, our seeds, and all our other plants, and whole areas of the island became small Indias. In every house the hands of our women insured with firm sweetness the continuity of our traditions.”
What was it that linked these people who came from different parts of India? The long boat journey of 100-150 days and crossing the Kalapani was in itself a unifying force. It made them Jahajis, in a strange land linked by a common destiny.
There was a spiritual dimension too. That’s why “forgetting all the differences which could have divided us, we turned towards the essential – the Mother Goddess, the primordial force of protection, into the hands of whom we surrendered totally, entrusting her with our destiny. And it made sense. Going back subconsciously to the very origins of our religious philosophy, we were actually obeying the very essence carried by the words of the Upanishad.”
Sometimes Kali, sometimes Durga, from the very beginning, and away from strangers eyes, they built modest temples where Kalimai or Maryamma, transformed into Mariemin or Maliemin, but she remained unique. “On all the roads leading toward her and her temples, with our hands we dug directly into the stone to build small sanctuaries dedicated to her, and where every one of us, when passing by, would leave flowers. And it helped us to continue walking, working, living.”
Interestingly, forcing French culture and French names upon them also meant that they were officially converted to Catholicism. So their strategy was simple: “To avoid more problems, we went to church, but would come back to the temple to ask for forgiveness for this apparent betrayal, necessary to or survival.” And, today, if they go to church with conviction, “the same conviction leads us to go back to our temples with even more assiduity.”
Vingadassamy explains their schizophrenic existence: “As time went on the influence of the Catholic church, which until the sixties was still fighting fiercely against our so-called paganism, complained that although we went to church, we had not given up going to our temples. It was no longer necessary to convert us forcibly. We were now baptizing our children, and the new faith was taking roots among most of us. However the goddess was still alive inside of us, like a permanent though hidden vibration, and when confronted by deep pain and sorrow or unforeseen problems and difficulties, we did not go to seek advice and help from the Catholic priest, but from the Hindu priest. Religious syncretism soon became historically inevitable.”
While the Indians in Guadelupe leave the burial of their dead publicly in the hands of the Catholic Church, privately they practice the rituals that are part of India. That’s because these people of Indian origin see death as a transition point, as “a passage where physical disappearance is of lesser consequence than our concern for a reincarnation of the soul at a superior stage until final liberation is achieved.”
It is significant too that they still maintain two cultural traditions: To celebrate a birth they plant a tree that symbolizes life. And in the case of death, like the rest of the people in that country, they too bury their dead. But with this important difference: “we systematically bury them with their feet pointing towards India, where we think their souls belong.”
Despite all these years, and like elsewhere in the Caribbean, race is an important fact of life for the Indians. As Vingadassamy recalls “the blacks on their side reproach us the very last drop of Indian blood still running in our veins, while on our side we claim that very last drop as a birthright.” Thus, she says “throughout the historical development in India since the time we left, we suffered the sufferings of our fathers’ land, and rejoiced in its achievements.”
Vingadassamy says that if it were possible she’d like to address the Indian parliament “asking in our name that the same Law of Return that was voted by the Hebrews for their scattered people should be voted. In the same way we would ask Indian nationality for those of us who might wish it. I think we have deserved it.”
Vingadasamy concludes thus: “I will end by saying that for us India is an everlasting lump in our throats, carrying the urgency of an unshed tear … a place in our heart which gives reason to our lives, and our sufferings.”
(This series is dedicated to Zadie and Riya Jivan of Berkeley, California)
Next: Anand Mulloo’s ‘Voices of the Diaspora’