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Indian Diaspora, a many-splendoured marvel
Every year the Pravasi Bhartiya Divas is held in January. It evokes in me memories of some exotic encounters I have had with members of the far flung Indian Diaspora. This year's chief guest Mr. Antonio Costa, Prime Minister of Portugal, traces his origins to Goa.

On business in 1994, when I landed at Lisbon airport, the immigration officer asked me if I was from the 'Colonies'. I spoke no Portuguese, but in broken Spanish told him, I was from India. 'Oh, Goa!' he responded. 'No, Bombay', I replied. It dawned on me during my halting conversation with the taxi driver, that the 'colonies' meant Mozambique, Angola, Macau etc.

Many Goans were working in these colonies as civil servants, who on retirement settled in Portugal, and received their pensions. My hotel was owned by a person of Goan origin and all radiated a feeling of kinship and curiosity. Goans are mostly settled around Lisbon and Porto, many connected with hospitality industry. Portuguese have 'Fado' songs, which I could easily relate to our 'ghazals'. Our hosts took us to one of the many restaurants, where only Fados were sung, in a very soulful manner - the longings of separated lovelorn.

On my flight from Lisbon to London, the 'Indian' sitting next to me was a 'Gujarati' from St. Kitts Island. He informed me that in the Caribbean islands, the electronic appliances business was in the hands of Gujaratis. Then I met a 'Sindhi' lady from Bahamas, who informed that all over the West Indies, the Sindhis owned the duty free shops.

I further learnt from her that the descendants of the indentured labourers spoke Bhojpuri dialect and were even today referred as 'coolies'! Their Hindi was a shade different from latter arrivals. An 'Indian' student in Delhi from Surinam (earlier Dutch Guyana), told me that our Satyanarain ki Katha sounded so much different from theirs! Cheddi Jagan was the President of Surinam, at that time. How does Indian language get morphed when spoken by an ex-'Indian' who is many generations removed and away from place of origin?

In Hawaii, we have a researcher friend, who hails from Tonga, an island Kingdom in the Pacific. He had his schooling in Fiji, the nearest centre for education, largely run by Indians. The Fiji Indians in turn mostly go to the UK, India, Australia, New Zealand and USA for studies. In Honolulu, the Indian store is run by a Fiji Indian Bori muslim! The cook at the local Hare Krishna temple is a Fiji Bengali. These descendants of the indentured labourers are known as 'Girmityas', an abruption of 'Agreement', under which their ancestors came to work the sugar plantations.

In Tonga, most of the shops and eateries are run by Fiji Indians, our Tongan friend told us. Ditto for other Pacific islands!

Once while cruising the Pacific, we met a Filipino crew member with surname 'Singh'. She explained that her grandfather was a Punjabi money lender in Manila. It is quite common to find in erstwhile Indo-China (Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) money lenders to be Chettiars from South India. Their ancestors arrived when the adventurous Cholas, a great maritime power spread its wings across South East Asia. Image of Ganapati on some Indonesian Rupiah notes, is just one small example of their imprint.

'Punjabi Sikh Mexicans': Large scale voluntary migrations from India to North America started in 1900s; thousands of farm hands went mostly to work on farms on the west coast. Laws in the US gave them no status or privileges, like finally settling down and acquiring American nationality. The Chinese also came in droves, but they worked on the railway lines being laid, from coast to coast.

Mostly being bachelors, they were not allowed to go home, get married and come back with the bride. So over the years, they developed relationships with migrant Mexican farm women and started marrying them.

Indian and Mexican temperaments are quite similar. Over the years this mixed community grew in numbers and was officially labelled as 'Punjabi Sikh Mexicans Americans'. This was over 100 years ago. Both the partners retained their religions. While churches were around in plenty, there were no Gurdwaras. So they improvised the same, but none looked like our Gurdwaras.

When the offspring came, strange names like Quadros Singh or Jacienda Kaur started appearing. The hard working community became prosperous, spread over Canada, US and Mexico. Presently, prosperous community members are mostly located around Yuba City, California, and it has emerged as a Sikh pilgrim centre for North America. I happened to meet such a Sikh Mexican couple on the outskirts of Mexico City. Our team had gone on a weekend to a Sunday native crafts market.

A photographer's and a curio collector's delight, we did not realise that we were famished and dehydrated. We just dashed into the nearest sign of an inn. To our surprise, we entered something of an Indian 'aangan' like courtyard. Wonder of wonders, it was an Indian menu, starting with Jal Jeera and rasam, to rabdi, kheer and payasam, etc. South Indian food was served on banana leaves and North Indian food in 'thaalis'. Gulping down chilled beer with spicy home food was paradise! God bless the Diaspora!

Diamond Trade a Gujarati Monopoly: For more than a century, diamond trade in New York was a Jew monopoly. Now, it is all in the hands of Gujaratis. If you go to Antwerp, Belgium, you will not have any trouble finding a vegetarian restaurant, serving only Jain food. Antwerp, the world centre of diamond trade is all in the hands of Palanpur Jains. The Belgium government has frequently honoured them with 'Legion de Honour' for their service to the nation.

Mumbai's Lilavati Hospital is also built by Palanpur Jains of Antwerp. In New York, the roadside newsstands were run by Italian cartels. Now it's our Gujarati brethren. Not only this, they have introduced the door to door 'radiwallah' business. My American friends were thrilled. 'Gee, this guy not only comes home to collect my trash, but also pays me for it.' And in today's context, how very green!

Every year an elderly Gujarati British national comes to Mumbai, to winter it out in our residential complex. He was a Customs officer in Nairobi, Kenya before he retired to London. Others were driven by Idi Amin out of Uganda and they were largely responsible for turning around the ailing British economy.

A few years ago the Indian government had released data, to show that Indians had settled in all countries in the world, except one small country in Africa. Once at our Rotary meet in Mumbai, I met a certain Dr. and Mrs. Shah from northern Norway. They lived in sparsely populated icy wind blown Bodo, close to the arctic. Pray, what were they doing in such a remote inhospitable place?

Well he was a fish pathologist and fisheries were a vital component of Norwegian economy. In close by Lapland in Finland is the official residence of Santa Claus. Last I heard, one of hotels for Santa seekers was owned by a Swedish Bengali. For me the Indian Diaspora is a many-splendored encounter, where wonders never cease!

(The above are just a few of my personal ramblings. They may or may not align with the vast formal literature on the extensive subject)

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