Migrant Tales….we are always on the move

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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11 Responses to Migrant Tales….we are always on the move

  1. Manik Ghoshal says:

    Dear Santosh,
    Your article was very interesting and related to some research I have been doing about my own family origin, to relate my existence with that of the Human Beings all over the world. About 15 years back I was visiting the Office of the Bhukailash Palace, which happens to be the oldest ‘pacca’ building in Calcutta, even older than the Town Hall. It belonged to the Ghoshals of Bhukailash (Khidderpore-Ekbalpur-Mominpur-Calcutta Docks- Watgunge-area of Calcutta). My Grandfather had informed me that we belong to that family, so I wanted to find out more. The palace itself was built/ rebuilt more than 350 yrs back, by Raja Joi Narayan Ghoshal, who had received the title of ‘Maharaja Bahadur’ from the Mughals. The head of the trust showed me an original land-deed, in Persian, which was the official language at the time, given to the Raja by the Mughals. The most interesting part is I received a booklet which showed the family tree of the Ghoshals for over 900 yrs. The Ghsohal family of Bhukailash was originally from Kanauj too, just like your owns. We are Brahmins belonging to the Vatsya Gotra. I wonder if our original name could have been something like Kaushal, which may have changed to Ghoshal in Bengal by the Locals, or Mughals or the British. I find the whole subject very intriguing indeed.
    Another thing I am going to get done soon is a DNA analysis of my genes to trace back my origin. With the help of the recently concluded Genome Project, geneticists can tell where my family, both mother’s and father’s side, migrated through. We know now for sure that the Modern Humans have evolved for a small family of Ethiopians who crossed over to Yemen around 100,000 years ago. They multiplied and populated the whole world. With the £300 worth Genetic analysis I would be able to trace back my family to Africa, with dates of crossing through the whole Asian continent West of India, I suppose. All they need is a mouth-swab to conduct the analysis.
    Manik Ghoshal

    • santoshojha says:

      Thank you Manik. I would like to have the time to do such research on my own as well! This is indeed a fascinating territory.

  2. squarecutatul says:

    It is a superbly written article, highly informative and full of stuff that I am interested in. In fact, I can say that for most of your articles.

  3. Kishan says:

    Dear Santosh,
    Am a Mauritian and was deeply touched by your article.
    There is a wonderful book wrtten by a Mauritian Author named Abhimanyu Unuth in Hindi named “Lal Pasina”.
    This book was translated in French “Sueur de Sang” and English “Red Blood” 2-3 years back and i managed to purchase the only one French version last week during my annual visit to Mauritius.

    During a short visit to Varanasi and Jaunpore in March, i was told by people that the Brits managed to forced Indians who were seen as a threat or freedom fighters to board on ships leaving for Mauritius/Trinidad and Tobago / Surinam.

    Many of them did not reach their destination. They were either killed en route.
    Many Ladies were raped.

    These people were treated more than slaves. They were not allowed to practice their religion.They were not allowed to run Bhaitka thus being deprived from education.
    Medical facility was inexistant for the indentured labourers.

    In today’s Mauritian society, we have Doctors, Teachers, Engineers , political Leaders , Pandits who are from Indian Origin people

    Glory to these people

    • santoshojha says:

      Thank you so much for your kind words.

      I do have a copy of “Lal Pasina” but I have read only half of it.

      I have visited Mauritius with my family on vacation and we loved the place, the people, the food. Ans also talking to them in Bhojpuri or Hindi. We would love to go back again for a longer stay there.

      I wrote extensively on this blog on the trip. You could read them when you click the tag “Mauritius” on the blog.

      Where are you based now?

  4. Kishan says:

    Great.Am currently in Dubai and am also half way of Lal Pasina” french version “Sueur de Sang”.It is indeed a wonderful novel.

    From your words, am sure you like Mauritius a lot.
    Indeed, it is a very good place where we managed to keep the Indian Religion ,culture and tradition.

    I miss Divali and Maha Shivratree a lot.

    If am not wrong, Mauritius is unique in celebrating Maha Shiratree. We have our Ganga Talao where nearly 500 000 people converge, either walking,by car or Bus prior to the festival to gather the holy water which will be used on that day.

    Some people walk around 100 kms.

    Ganga Talao is around 30 kms from my place and i used to walk for 18 hours.

    This is really wonderful.

  5. yayaver says:

    Read The Namesake (2003)a book by author Jhumpa Lahiri on immigrant expereince and cultural conflict.

    On the immigrant experience, I am putting a paragraph of the Review of movie “The Namesake” by Roger Ebert : “The Namesake” tells a story that is the story of all immigrant groups in America: Parents of great daring arriving with dreams, children growing up in a way that makes them almost strangers, the old culture merging with the new. It has been said that all modern Russian literature came out of Gogol’s “Overcoat.” In the same way, all of us came out of the overcoat of this same immigrant experience.

  6. Annapoorna says:

    Hello,
    The ‘Namesake ‘ is an excellent example of the migrant situation, their state of mind etc. being torn between where they are from and and where they currently are. Biswanath Ghosh has rightly described hilself as a ‘rootless Bengali’ . Being born and brought up in one state completely different in culture, language etc, from where one originally belongs . I , for one wear my rootless/ immigrant status with pride , kind of opens up your mind to a lot of other cultures , opens up to absord the whole wide country and eventually the world. Not end up being ‘kauen ka meindhak’

  7. kishan says:

    Hi, this is simply lovely.

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