The Pride of belonging to the Indian Diaspora

The shrill call came straight from New York. The depression of the previous weeks, arising from the arrogant talk of a return to 1982 with a 60-0 victory of the “ène sel lepep ène sel nation” sega-intoxicated crowd, and the attendant dismantling of our Rainbow Nation together with the vandalisation of its relics and its archives, and the threat of the wiping out of whatever remains of our languages and our cultures, all dissipated at one fell swoop on hearing the call.

When the Sun beckons, who cares about the gravitational effects of a few minor oddly-shaped asteroids tumbling about in inter-planetary space, unsure of which planet to crash into and more likely to collide with one another and disintegrate into dust at any moment? I am now convinced that the economic pressures that have led our Indo-Mauritian brothers and sisters in the rural, and eventually even in the urban, areas of the Island to abandon our ancestral mother tongues in favour of the concoction that is Creole to ease up. Our primary school teachers will come to shed the sense of embarrassment that they have been cornered into feeling about using the mother tongue with their pupils. Let our Bhojpuri language activists, foremost among them sister Sarita Boodhoo and brother Jagdish Goburdhun, take heart!

“Come all ye children of Mother India, wherever ye may be, and join me in our forward march across the world, with heads held high, to reclaim our dignity and our pride in our origins and in our great, ancient civilisation.” This clarion call came all the way from Madison Square Garden, New York, where Shri Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, was addressing the thousands of the Indian-origin people gathered to greet him in a never-seen-before display of enthusiasm for and solidarity with a visiting Indian Prime Minister. These events were amply covered in Dr N Gopee’s excellent article in MT’s issue of 3 Oct 14 (‘The Force is In Narendra Modi’); here I first wish to celebrate my own pride in being a Person of Indian Origin, a holder of the PIO card, and then, perhaps more importantly, to tell readers about the opportune celebration of the Diaspora Miracle taking place outside of New York but timed unintentionally to take place around the same time as Shri Modi’s visit there, in the shape of a major publication about the diaspora by our own Shri Chit Dukhira entitled ‘Indians in India, Mauritius and South Africa’.

The PIO card was first introduced by the previous BJP government under the unforgettable leadership of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee; under Shri Modi it will be rid of the bureaucratic irritants that have come to be attached to it, and it will eventually be merged with the OCI card issued to Overseas Citizens of India.

The moment I could do so, that is to say early in the last decade on my return to the country after a prolonged absence overseas, I rushed to the Indian High Commission in Port Louis with the prescribed supporting data and my thousand dollars and claimed my Person-of-Indian-Origin card – a lifelong ambition fulfilled! We, that is to say my family, both on my father’s and mother’s side, had suffered severe trials and tribulations, rising to remarkable heights for those days, and falling therefrom to absolute zero, and striving to rise again but, like most other Indo-Mauritian families, had never given in to pressures to change our religion, culture and language for economic advantage that would have changed our lots substantially. Pride and firm belief in our rich history and culture had never been lacking – my indendured great-grandfather had landed with a manuscript version of the Ramcharitmanas – but my own generation, coming as it did after the passage of the Mahatma in the country and the long, fruitful stay of Shri Manilal Doctor, was specially blessed by opening its eyes in its infancy to the Hindu revival movement launched by the learned Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyalji.

The overriding memory of my primary school years remains the attendance at prachars by Panditji where we children were made to march singing “Eka dina yahan para Hindu ka zamana hoga”, “Auma ka jhanda ata hai, sone valon jaag chalo”, and “Jati ko jivan do Bhagawaan”. On the occasion of one of the numerous fasts by Mahatma Gandhi, when it was feared that he might not outlive the ordeal, the first word of the last song was changed to “Gandhi”, so that the song became “Gandhi ko jivan do Bhagawaan.” Panditji’s speeches would always begin by a recall of the Mahatma; he would say “Mahatma Gandhi ki…” to which the crowd would enthusiastically respond: “Jai ho.” In later years he mentioned both Mahatma Gandhi and Sant Vinobha before launching out in his mesmerising torrent of words. (Has the rising generation even heard about Sant Vinobha Bhave? He did indeed think about us. When Shri Sookdeo Bissoondoyal visited India as part of a parliamentary delegation in the sixties, he made it a point to visit the Sant; the latter informed him that he had given up sugar in his younger days when he had heard how Indian workers in Mauritius were suffering in the process of its production.)

In my pre-SC secondary school years, I was privileged with having Panditji as teacher for Hindi; not only did I learn the language from him, but also a great deal about Indian history and culture. It is to him that I owe my abiding interest in languages and philology, in Grimm’s law about correspondences between the sounds of words of European languages and Sanskrit. From him it was that I learnt the about the so-called “discovery” of Sanskrit by East India Company official Sir William Jones and what he had to say about it, about the eruption of interest about Sanskrit in Germany which ended in their appropriation and distortion of the Swastika symbol by the Nazis, about the fact that Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of European Linguistics, had been a Sanskrit scholar and teacher in Germany before setting up school in Switzerland, about the fact that the scientific organisation of the Sanskrit alphabet (and therefore of the alphabets of most Indian languages including Hindi) had so impressed European linguistic researchers that when they founded the International Phonetic Association, they grouped the sounds of their languages in a parallel if reverse method, bypassing the Graeco-Roman alphabetic order of A, B, C, etc.

He also taught me what Leonard Bloomfield, the father of American Linguistics, had to say about Sanskrit and about grammarian Panini, and about the manner in which Shri Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the eminent Sanskrit scholar, had apprised Lord Bertrand Russell of the great Indian contribution of “zero” to the science of Mathematics, a fact which quite astounded the great British philosopher, as a good deal of his philosophical effort had centred around accurately defining Zero, an effort which culminated in the monumental work “Principia Mathematica” jointly authored by him and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. The statements of Sir William Jones and of Leonard Bloomfield can be made available online, but they would make this article too long for the print edition of this paper.

I have to thank you Panditji for bestowing so much of your precious time and attention to the inconsequential boy that I was in those days, the more so that, on moving into Form VI, my attention drifted totally towards Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics, abandoning totally all interest in not just Hindi, but also English and French – to the extent that a few months before the exams, I feared I would fail the compulsory General Paper which of course is all about written English, and which because of my last-minutes efforts I just scraped through. My interest in English, and later French, returned only when they became essential tools in my job. I have had no such luck with Hindi.

Jana Gana Mana

Mauritian Labour leader Guy Rozemont used to say, I was reliably informed in my younger days, that the miniscule drop of French blood he carried in his veins would shoot forth and cause him to jump up the moment he heard La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. The same is true of persons of Indian origin when they hear “Jana Gana Mana Adhinaayaka Jaya hai Bhaarata Bhaagya Vidhaataa”, the national anthem of India; it is certainly very true of me. The song also reminds me of the proudest moments of my life, moments which I lived in company of my wife Renuka now sadly deceased. In the year 1999, my last full year of employment overseas, I had to proceed to Montreal on mission for one week, and I seized the opportunity to take a week’s leave in New York, taking Renuka along. I spent most of the time in the New York Public Library looking up technical information about the Earth’s geodetic system and its relationship with GPS, the satellite navigation system, leaving my wife to do window-shopping; but I did take two days off, on one to take her to the Niagara Falls from the American side and on the other, to visit the Statue of Liberty. This monument is located on a small island at the entrance of New York harbour, and obviously one has to go there by boat.

The tourist bus collected us early from our Times Square hotel, dropped us off at the quayside. There must have been two hundred or more tourists ahead of us in the queue and we were walking slowly towards the boat, Renuka gorgeous as ever in her colourful, flowing sari and me just in a normal tourist outfit when, lo and behold! a lone violinist appeared, looked around, decided to walk towards us and accompany us, just us – we were the only two Indian looking people in the queue – and started playing the tune of guess what – Jana Gana Mana! For the entire walk to the boat, which must have last five minutes or more, he kept pace with us, playing the tune all the while, for our benefit and to at least the surprise of the numerous other tourists.

We had never felt so honoured and so proud in our lives before; we felt like a royal couple on a state visit! There was no other musician; we were overjoyed that the idea of India could be so honoured, to the exclusion of all other countries, in New York in this manner. At the end I gave him as good a tip as I could muster. I can now understand what Guy Rozemont would have felt if he had been treated to La Marseillaise in New York in this manner. To those who think that the tiny frog’s well of an Island is going to set the world on fire by its demonstration of solidarity with the idea of “ène sel lepep ène sel nation”, I will add that I have had to travel widely across America in connection with my work, from the east coast to the west coast, calling on the way at Dallas and other cities; I have often been taken for an Indian national; on some occasions, when I said I was from Mauritius, I was asked which part of India was that? It was only in Dallas that I was taken for a Mexican, and even addressed in Spanish by Mexican passers-by.

 ‘Indians in India, Mauritius and South Africa’

All this leaves me with very little space and time for addressing the main purpose of this article, which was to introduce Chit Dukhira’s major book ‘Indians in India, Mauritius and South Africa’ – the more so that this book is a whole library by itself. First and foremost, this book is about us and about our brothers and sisters in South Africa, about our origins in India, about the struggles of our ancestors in that country, about the heroes of those struggles, about our struggles as indentured labourers in Mauritius and in South Africa, about our political struggles for emancipation from the dark days to modern times, and about details of the stories of prominent persons and families. Practically everything I have heard in my life of eighty years concerning Indians, their saints and heroes, their struggles, their cultures, religions and languages in India, in Mauritius and in South Africa is to be found in this book, and a good deal I had never heard about as well. How could one man do so much research and put it into a single book, albeit a heavy one, too heavy for bedside reading! Hats off, Chit! We did not know you had so much in you! Every Indo-Mauritian should be proud to have the book on his shelf at home, readily available for consultation whenever the whim seizes him.

Everybody you can think of in our history, whether here or in India, is mentioned in the book. But special mention is made of the greatest Indian this side of the Moghul Empire – Mahatma Gandhi. Chit devotes the very first chapter to him, setting out in details his life and philosophy. Such information used to be readily available in numerous books imported from India in my childhood days, and I used to spend hours reading them. But they were on poor quality paper, and they have now disappeared. This book would be worth its price just for that single chapter.

I apologise for returning to a personal matter – the chapter does mention the very great reverence which Pandit Basdeo Bissoondoyal had Mahatmaji went to the extent of his arranging for a temple to be built where he could deliver his sermons about him, inclusive of a life-size statue of the Mahatma. The temple with its statue was built in Palma, and the complex is still popularly known today as the Gandhi Temple. The task of buiding the temple and the statue was entrusted to none other than my own late father, Shri Ramkaran Soobarah, a man I revere as much as I do the Bissoondoyals and the Mahatma, not just for the temple, but for the upright life he led. I wish I were a worthier son. Thank you Chit for bringing that up.

* Published in print edition on 24 October 2014

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