The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In M.D. Vassanji's superb account of East African life through the eyes of local Indians, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, it becomes fairly clear that attachments to the motherland are considerably attenuated with each successive generation. The earliest immigrants hearken back to India as a beloved land of beauty and trust; their children, growing up in Africa, lose some of that varnished viewpoint; by the time of the grandchildren, India has become alien, unknown. While they look down upon the native Africans, they look up to the British. [In this, of course, they are no different from more recent Indian emigres to the West.] When India gains independence, nobody is more appalled than the East African Indian. As African nations fight for freedom, it is the rare Indian who is willing to join in on their side.

Alongside the alienation from the motherland and their fellow Africans a rampant prejudice begins: Indian Indians and Africans are untrustworthy, uncivilised, unsophisticated.

The trajectory followed by a particular caste of Gujarati Hindus, the Lohanas of Kutch, exemplifies this trend. While Indian traders have plied the seas surrounding the subcontinent for millennia (see Maddy's article, for example), the Gujarati emigration to East Africa appears to have begun only in the 19th century. Between 1880 and 1920, the number of Indians in East Africa grew nine-fold to 54,000, and included not only Gujaratis (Patels, Lohanas, Shahs and Ismailis), but also Sikhs and Goans, many of whom went there to set up trading communities, riding off the establishment of the British dominion over the area. The earliest migrants were predominantly men. Following the setting up of a successful business venture, a man might bring in his relatives - brothers or sons. Social nexuses that might have been frowned upon in India, such as those between people of different castes, were gradually built up in Zanzibar and Kenya, possibly made easier by the common language (Gujarati) and the distance from the motherland and the necessity for some sort of social cohesion whilst a small minority in an alien land.

The Hindu men would travel to India to find wives. Owing to the somewhat uncertain social and economic situation in East Africa, the women rarely accompanied the men on the journey back. Instead, they would remain in their villages, looking after the elders and raising the children. The husbands would make several trips a year to look in on the family and impregnate the women and establish mercantile connections with the community at large. And, in truth, in the first phase of Gujarati emigration to Africa, their largest trading partner was India, with millions of sterling worth of goods flowing back and forth across the Arabian Sea.

Sometimes, the wives would live a few years in East Africa before heading back to India: childbirth, especially, more often than not would occur in their mother's house. Matters of ritual purity prevented the women from staying on in Africa, although in view of the contributions their husbands were making to the local economies, many a potentate offered to help.

The sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Bargash, must have been aware of this as he encouraged Hindus to bring their wives to Zanzibar. He sent his private vessel to welcome the first Hindu woman in Zanzibar and gave her a reward of Shs 250/-. In addition, he promised to turn Zanzibar’s Old Fort into a residence for the wives of merchants and offered to equip it with water pipes fitted with silver taps to ensure that Hindu women need never appear in public.

The social and business networks of the earliest emigres was familial and international. Trust and honour drove the creation of these networks, made all the easier because not all men in a clan would go to Africa. The ones that remained to look after the ancestral businesses would maintain links with their peripatetic relatives, offering not only secure banking but also collateral in the form of real estate. These networks were periodically renewed and strengthened whenever the travellers returned home, either for marriage or to look in on the family. But once the wives began to live in the diaspora, their reasons for returning became slimmer. It was with considerable reluctance, then, that the men would make the trips home: perhaps when a relative died, or when it was time for their own ashes to be scattered in the Ganges.

A consequence of such networks was that, even if the East African Indian couldn't travel to India, he would still strive to maintain relations with the homeland. His house would aim to reproduce the joint-family structure; he would continue to speak Gujarati; he would cherish Indian traditions; he remained staunchly vegetarian. Charities and foundations were established back home. India, in other words, remained in their hearts.

Between 1920 and 1960, the second phase of this evolution played out. Initially at least there were twice as many Lohana men as women in Africa, and so the pressure to return to India to find wives remained great. As time went on, however, it became easier to marry within East Africa itself, and the loosening of purity rituals meant that marriages could take place outside the community as well. Meanwhile, the Indian textile industry began to suffer in competition with Japan and (to a lesser extent) Europe, which produced goods of superior quality and variety. Also, the general impoverishment of India during (and immediately after) colonial rule led to diminished exports there by the companies of the emigres. East African Indian companies began to close down their Indian branches, and establish trading offices in other parts of the world. It was clear to the emigres that there was much more money to be made in business with America, Europe and the Far East. (There is some evidence, however, that after the second World War, a further wave of Indians from Gujarat setup shop in East Africa, and replicated the familial networks of yore. This meant that, in absolute terms, trade between East Africa and India didn't decline by much. The contribution from long-standing East African Indian companies, though, dwindled.)

Whereas the primary education of Lohana children was at 'Indian' schools in East Africa, much of their subsequent study was done at English-medium establishments, or indeed in the UK. The new generation, therefore, found itself oriented more towards Africa and Europe than India. It became imperative that they find their spouses from among the locally raised Hindus, who knew how to handle native servants, who were familiar with the Africanised Gujarati cuisine, who could speak the local tongues.

The Gujarati community in East Africa by now thought of itself as distinct from its mirror in Gujarat. Their world-views were completely different. Unwritten contracts that once made identical sense to both parties became difficult to interpret, and misunderstandings abounded. Coupled with the weakening of India's economic power and the collapse of the family networks, business dealings began to be fraught with risk. The African Indian thought that the Indian Indian was uncivilised (not having had the educational opportunities provided by close exposure to the British) and rough and cut-throat at business dealings, while he himself was westernised, familiar with English contract law, sophisticated. Because they no longer saw themselves as part of the same community, relationships needed to be built anew, as though with strangers; it was important to establish 'good name'. India, sadly, by then had lost its reputation.

It is often thought that the adhesive that holds migrants together abroad is their attachment to the motherland, which is not easily lost. The migrants require the motherland to maintain their identities and culture. Yet, this is not always the case. For the Gujaratis of Africa, as we have seen, barely eighty years after they first left the shores of Kutch, the sundering was virtually complete.

[This piece is based extensively on and paraphrases much of G. Oonk's paper: Trust and Images in Indian Business Networks, East Africa 1900-2000 (PDF!)]


Maddy said...

Thanks for linking my blog - when i was reading about the Damon slave, i found that the first of the people who physically went from India to Africa were the Tamil & Malabar slaves. Once that small community had quietly formed, the Gujarati's started the trip. Of course one should also remember that the Gujarati's of Surat had trade with the Mediterranean & African traders as long back as the south Malabar area or even earlier. In fact for a long time, all of the western coast was termed Malabar coast!

Sunil Deepak said...

"A consequence of such networks was that, even if the East African Indian couldn't travel to India, he would still strive to maintain relations with the homeland. His house would aim to reproduce the joint-family structure" I think that describes not just Indian emigres in East Africa but in general emigres around the world that they tried to keep alive traditions with their original homelands, often over a period of decades, losing touch with those home communities that continued to change, while emigrants were kind of fixed in time capsules. I wonder with the now internet, email, mobile phone kind of technologies, if emigrants are more linked to home lands and can thus be more adventurous in adapting to their new home countries?

Fëanor said...

Maddy: Thanks for the note. Indeed, Gujaratis have been quite active in the Arabian sea for centuries, and even in the Indian Ocean - they are, e.g. credited with introducing Islam in Indonesia.

Sunil Deepak: Thank you for your comment, and welcome to the blog. I'm not sure that keeping old traditions is a general feature of emigrants. For example, many (though not all) people who moved to the US tried hard to ensure that their children would speak only English, because they felt that their native tongues would hold them back in the new world. This was a feature of, e.g. Russians, especially after the 1917 revolution. Even now, among the more educated south Indian emigres in the US, the likelihood of their children learning the mother tongue, or indeed having much to do with Indian culture (other than, possibly Bollywood and the local temple) is much less than for north Indian communities. Or, another example would be the large Chinese diaspora around the world has not necessarily maintained the Confucian principles that guided their forebears.

What do you think?

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