Neil Armstrong reached moon in July 1969. The whole world was watching him as he took his first steps and uttered famously, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. The legend goes that the TV cameras did not capture the next scene. Neil said, “I am tired, I need a drink.” Before Budweiser, Coke, et al, could chip in, an Indian appeared. “Neil, saar, have some coconut water.” The ubiquitous Malayali coconut-seller was there already, even before the arrival of the “first-man-on-the-moon”!
Now that is, of course, a joke, but stories about migrant Indians are many. And nearly all of them true. Indians taking small steps, and over millennia, these small steps result into giant distances.
I live in Bangalore now but I was born and raised in Jamshedpur. I am a migrant.
My father was born and raised in the western part of Bihar. He migrated to Jamshedpur, some 600 km South of where he was born, about sixty years ago. He built his career as a teacher there and settled down, raising his family and building his house. His forefathers came from Kannauj. They crossed the Saryu river (and hence were called Saryuparin Kanyakubj, Kanyakubj the Sanskrit for Kannauj) and migrated to the Eastern parts of the country. Their forefathers, in turn, came from the North-Western parts of India who migrated along the Gangetic plains. And their forefathers would have come from somewhere from Eastern Europe (as some historians believe). Some of their kinsmen would have dropped off in the region now called Indo-Iranians, while my forefathers became what is now called Indo-Aryans.
All in my family tree are migrants.
Around 150-170 years ago, there were hordes of migrants sailing their way to distant lands. Some went to Fiji, some to the West Indies islands (Trinidad, Surinam etc) while some travelled to Mauritius. They were from India, more commonly from Eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They went as indentured labourers, the British answer to the abolishment of the slavery system. The Brits still needed cheap labour for their sugar-cane farms. Among the migrants there was a large contingent from the parts of Bihar where I trace my roots to.
Over a period of time, these lowly laborers saved enough money to buy some land of their own. And then they slowly began asserting themselves politically. In Mauritius they got rid of the British rule and began ruling the country. The migrants ruling the land they were transported to. The Gandhi of Mauritius, Seewoosagar Ramgoolam headed the first government after the colonial rulers and over the period of a few decades, we now have his son- a qualified medical practitioner- as the prime minister of the country. The migrants who were the oppressed are now the rulers.
And, it is said, Seewoosagar Ramgoolam’s forefathers came from our village.
I stay in Bangalore, Karnataka, home to thousands of Tibetans who have been settled in a town called Kushalnagar in Coorg district. Tibetans from Lhasa and thereabouts escaping into India to Himachal Pradesh and then getting settled into lands deep into south of the country. Not quite migrants, probably refugees. But now settled in India. They preserve their language, customs and religion in a distant land.
Let us get a bit more esoteric even while being confined to South India.
The last Congress Chief Minister of Karnataka was Dharam Singh. Now you will wonder what this surname Singh is doing in this Southern state. Well, D. Singh’s family migrated to North Karnataka from Rajasthan several millennia ago. Rajput warriors migrating Southwards in search of a living.
What about the Saurashtrian weavers moving into Madurai some thousand years ago? Troubled by the invasions of Mohammad Ghazni in the 13th century, these weavers moved southwards and were eventually rehabilitated by the King of Madurai, Thirumalai Naicker.
And the trading community from Andhra (Settys) in Tamilnadu? They speak the Telugu language even if they have been living in TN or Karnataka for the last few centuries.
The Peshwas of Maharashtra enjoyed the Maratha supremacy and branched out all over West India. So you have the Scindias in Gwalior, Holkars in Indore and in Baroda, the Gaekwads.
The pundits of Uttarakhand were migrants too. Bahugunas came from Bengal. Apparently, the Bahugunas were Ayurvedic doctors from Bengal and after being cured by one of them, the king of Garhwal anointed them as Bahuguna (“of many qualities”). The most famous of all Bahugunas, Hemwati Nandan, was the Chief Minister of the undivided state of Uttar Pradesh. His daughter, Rita Bahuguna now presides over the UP Congress Committee.
Some came from the Western parts of India, like the Pants.
The legendary Ganguly brothers, Ashok Kumar, Anoop Kumar and Kishore Kumar were migrant Bengalis who had settled in Khandwa, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. The Bengalis even have a specific word for Bengalis of this variety- “probashi Bangalis”.
The famous Nehrus from the Kashmir valley who settled in Allahabad and made the dusty plains of the province of UP their playground- and stranglehold.
And the ubiquitous Marwari traders settled in all corners of the country from the furthest corners of the East to the Southern corners in Tamilnadu.
There is a whole horde of Chinese people who came to India in the early years of the last century. I am sure many of us have had our shoes made by the Chinese shoemakers, enjoyed Chinese cuisine at their restaurants and had our teeth (or dentures) attended to by Chinese dentists.
What about the Afghan Kabuliwallahs who settled in India and carried on their money-lending business?
We are all migrants, some may be conscious of the fact, some may not be. Aren’t you one?
Think about it.
I will return later in this blog and discuss some of the migrants mentioned above.