Sunday, 12 June 2011

Land Ahoy !

The call had come to the village. The ship had come. It was anchored in the deep seas, some distance away. Where it was sailing to, nobody knew. Even if they knew, it would have meant little; world geography wasn't their strong point All they knew was that it was going far far away. And that the white sahib was promising work for any able bodied man or woman who was willing to sail.

The terms were simple. Or at least, this is what they understood. The white sahib would feed them and house them. He wouldn't charge them for the ship journey. They were to work for about five years or so. They wouldn't be paid any wages, but they would be given food and shelter. After five years they were "free" ; could come back home (they would have to pay for the trip) or stay or whatever.  This was to be their "contract". When they landed , the white man would thrust a paper in front of them to that effect. They were to sign the contract. Of course they didn't know to read or write ; the thumb impression had to do.

Between the late 1800s and the early 1900s, this was the story of some in India. The story of indentured labour. People were in plenty. But , in the village, there wasn't much to do. Famines were common. And all over the British empire, across the world, labour was needed. Maybe for plantations. Maybe for laying the railways. Maybe for building roads.  So large numbers of people went and therein started the spread of the Indian diaspora across the world.

The main regions where Indians were taken were Africa, especially South Africa, the Caribbean, The Pacific Islands, especially Fiji, and Singapore/Malaysia. It all depended on where the ship that you went to was sailing - pure chance. If it went to Singapore/Malaysia, there was a chance of you coming back some day. But if it went to Fiji or the Caribbean, then distance ensured you never came back. South Africa was different; it was close enough to come back, but apartheid and the global sanctions ensured that they were marooned there.

Imagine their thoughts when they first landed. In a completely strange place, they hardly knew where. Completely shut off from their families back home - neither side would even know if the other was alive or dead. No chance of communication of course. Life was hard. But they survived. Married amongst themselves. Built a community.  Collectively they became true Indians - divisions of caste, languages, etc vanished. They even evolved a common lingua franca sometimes - thus came Fijian Hindi to being.

Slowly the link with the homeland became weaker and weaker. Their children and grandchildren slowly went native. They spoke English. They saw themselves as Malaysians or South Africans or Fijians. But the link remained. There was still an Indian touch to their food. They still married largely within the community. And of course, in recent times, there has been Bollywood. Even if they couldn't understand Hindi, song and dance was in their genes.

This is a small tribute to those magnificent men and women. For those times, what they did, was positively trail blazing. Today there are some 24m persons of Indian origin worldwide. Recent migrants have been the educated and the elite, to western shores, but the large majority trace their origin to the indentured labour of old. They've created magnificent communities in every country they have gone too. They were truly a pioneering generation.

PS : While reading about this topic, I came across an interesting post on the indentured coolie by Capt Ajit Vadakayil here. If this issue interests you, this will make disturbing reading.


  1. kiwibloke12/6/11

    Touche! My neighbors on either side in my firts house in Auckland were Indians from South Africa and Fiji! The Fijian Hindi is quaint. What really touched me despite Monisha's (my neighbor) five generation of absense of contact with the 'motherland' and despite their only image of India was through Bollywood was the endearing affection for India and a goal to see India atleast once in her lifetime. She came home with some desserts one fine morning and I was clueless about the occassion. She gently reminded me it was 15th August!

  2. same applies for pulam peyarntha tamizhargal..tho they are born n brot up in MYS or SGP..they talk as if they are natives of TN..the pride with which they associate themselves to the happenings of their granpas native is amazing..even the localites wont feel such a bonding. distance DOES adds enchantment to the view i guess

  3. Knowing what our previous generations went through during their period is a constant reminder of one thing: We take too much for granted.

    There is a statue near the Raffles river here, potraying an Englishman issuing orders, a chinese/malay making deals and an Indian coolie loading a bullock cart....First time I saw that it fumed. Only later did I come to know of this 'import' of cheap labour from India. But still, whenever I go through that statue, there is this very bitter feeling within me. I cannot even come to think of what they would have gone through when they first reached the destinations. Such harshness...

    There is a programme in the local Tamil channel here: 'Uravai thedi'. The fourth/fifth generation move to the homeland and meet with their kins. It is such an emotional moment when they share stories of the past...

    But, I still feel we are still like the coolies of the west, even if the conditions are not very harsh, aren't we? And I think it will be so until every one of us have an unfailing faith in our roots, and count on our strengths, instead of admiring everything foreign....

  4. Sorry for the typo in my previous comment...And I think it will be so unless every one of us have an unfailing faith in our roots, and count on our strengths, instead of admiring everything foreign....

    I have read this post thrice now, Ramesh. Thank you for such a warm (sounds so to me) post....

  5. @kiwi - Indeed. Many want to come to India at least once. And many remember India's special days as much as we do. Didn't we see it in abundance in South Africa.

    @gils - Distance does indeed breed enchantment. Whenever I lived outside India, I felt even warmer about our country.

    @RS - You can probably relate to it even more living in Singapore. Much of the construction there has been done by India labour. Similar in the Middle East. Uravai thedi is probably possible for Singapore Tamils, but for the others - practically impossible. I know of a number of South African Indians who tried to trace their roots and didn't succeed at all. But I also knew of one who did trace and published a whole family book - possibly a hundred descendants owe their current life to the decision of one man to get aboard a ship. Awe inducing.

  6. I could soo relate this post to the days i lived in different countries of gulf region. still a modern kind of same contract is in practise for the construction labours who migrate to gulf.the sad part is these injustice are supported by few indians. many dont get what was made in contract. fittest learns to survive but others struggle. labours take loan or sell their property to get visa but after entering their job there waits a huge shock.

  7. @Venkat - Very true. What often happens in the Middle East is a form of indentured labour indeed.

  8. The narrative by the captain is mind boggling. Great post Ramesh.
    This narrative is to be given to the millions of Indian childrne in schools. Atleast we can have the next generation who will proudly say that they are from India - not scorn at everything Indian; not scorn and run away to a far off land immediately after graduation or PG citing that this place does not recognise professionals etc., etc., Not for a moment saying that things are very good here but is this a way out of a problem?
    It pains to see a land that boasted of excellence in art, architecture, literature (even as early as 5th & 6th century AD), which can happen only if the basics are taken care, is today so devoid of self esteem and confidence. Pazham perumai pesi iruthal podadu but at the same time, let us not look down on our past and look up to all that is 'phoren'.

  9. Sandhya Sriram13/6/11

    Each person connects to this post differently.

    For some one who is away from home its like a familiar pain (though much smaller in magnitude and much more predicatable in outcome). for some one who has gone thru this and returned, it is a feeling of accomplishment.. having got over.. kind of, for some one who is reading this as a reader, a recreation of an experience that one has not lived but just able to connect to it by your livid writing...

    you really need to attempt fiction... a fiction which relates back to reality in your own inimitable narration style but with a tinge of your creativity and imagination. just imagine what a treat it can be for us readers :-)

    Pls pls pls - next sunday post - pls pls pls

  10. Read Captain Ajit's article with a lump in my throat. My heart always goes out to these people, especially women and the young ones. Have read gory stories about what happens to some of these so called indentured labourers.
    Very nice of you to pay a tribute to them in a great narration.
    God bless!!

  11. K.Vwenkataraman13/6/11

    As told to me in later years. This seems to have happened Circa 1924. A person has disputes and quarrels in the family. Revolts and disappears. Not traceable for months or almost a year. Elders come to know later through mutual friends he has gone to Singapore, a far off land in those days. No "twice born" Brahmin was to cross the high seas or oceans and get polluted. Elders in the family kept saying he had gone to Karachi in search of a job. Nobody at that time had any idea where Karachi or Singapore was. Knowledge of geography was not their forte. At last returned when the person returned to to India, he had to do penance and go through certain rituals. The community in which he was was wanted to uphold the traditions. A fatwa was issued that he should go through a dip in the sea at a sacred place and go through some rituals. Some what a rebel in those days, he wanted to escape from going through all these mumbo jumbo. The priest who was to lead him through was his best friend. So he tried to cajole him to lie to the elders and say the rituals were adhered to without going through them. For this simple act the priest was promised a some of Rs. 20 or 30 a princely sum in those days. May be bribery, greasing the palm or payments under the table unlike the big scams now was unknown in those days. His friend shuddered at the thought of falling a prey to any such inducements and flatly refused to oblige. He seems to have said any such divination from the beaten path will finish his career once and for all. So there was no escape and the person had to go through all. Nowadays anybody who has not gone abroad is a second class citizen.

  12. I have read about this Fiji indians in "Thulasi dhalam" , a blog site by a elderly women, who everyone calls teacher.

    Its so inspiring what these ppl have done, yeah on the other hand the situation they have been thrust into is so disturbing.

    I think this is what makes most of the indian ppl to migrate for better oppurtunities, its in our history.

  13. @Viji - The indentured labour were in part driven away from India simply because of famine and lack of opportunity here. The best way to serve our people is to create economic activity and jobs.

    @Sandhya - So true. Even if you didn't come back but built a good future for your children in the adopted country, there has to be a huge sense of accomplishment.

    Fiction ?? Little chance milady. You need imagination and creativity for that as you say - what chance a dry business writer (allegedly) has of that :)

    @Hema - It was just another form of slavery.

    @Venkatraman - Yes; so I heard. Thankfully, at least, he wasn't indentured. And the great thing was that he came back.

    @Sri - Would love to go through that blog. Couldn't find it Sri - would you mind emailing the link. Thanks

  14. This post re-affirms one of my thoughts that what we have gained in this life is much more than what we have lost. Indeed, God has given us a beautiful time and great society to livr far away from the hardships as mentioned by you. To survive such hardships and emerge as a winner fills the heart with optimism. Great stuff Ramesh... No wonder Rohan Kanhai sounds like a name of a person living somewhere in India.

    @Kiwi - wonderful comment! I loved it.

  15. U knw I just finished reading MK Gandhi's 'The story of My Exp with truth' where he explains in many parts of the book abt the same elaborately. I've read it before but each reading gives me more glimpes of the reality[then] & perpective. Its hard to remain untouched.
    Its a beautiful post Ramesh....thank U!!!

  16. @Vishal - We are indeed privileged. Not to know famine - can there be a greater bounty than that.

    Rohan Kanhai indeed - Look at the West Indies team in the World cup - Ravi Rampaul, Devendra Bishoo, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Shivnarain Chanderpaul .....

    @Reflections - The autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi - one of the most touching of books. That era was so very different.

  17. Doff hat to this wonderful post. :-) They are indeed a lost link with us and remind us of a difficult past. The linked article by Capt. Ajit reminds us of the pain.

    Burma also comes to mind, but the intent there of Indians was predominantly business and the world wars forced Indians to abandon all their estates and run with whatever belongings they could salvage and the stories of the long walk to India. (Reminded of Bridge on the River Kwai)

  18. @RamMmm - Burma too. I remember going to a town called Moreh on the Manipur Burma border many years ago. Lots of people there speak Tamil. Descendants from those who were persecuted and deported from Burma but chose to stay on the border. Amazing. They even have a website here


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