“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots” -- Marcus Garvey
Among those settled abroad, you usually find two kinds of Indians. The first kind are those who wish to never return to India. And then there are people who get up each morning and say to themselves – now I must get home. The ‘Indianness’ the latter kind of Indians carry with them is not an obligation but a yearning to stay connected with their roots, their soil.
I am the latter kind. Before I decided to come back to India, I was settled with a loving family in Trinidad, and had a world full of opportunities. There was everything the heart desired, except my roots and a sense of belonging.
Determined to discover my roots and ancestors’ past, I embarked on a virtual odyssey. After hours of poring over Google Maps, and contacting people I hoped would be able to help me, I managed to trace my forefathers’ home town to a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh.
My family was among the thousands of Indian families that had been taken by the British to the island nation of Trinidad, in the late 1800s, to work as indentured labourers.
After the emancipation of African slaves
in the British Caribbean in the year 1838, estate owners in colonies like Trinidad
faced a grave labour shortage. So, the British started their lookout; and India, given its vast majority of people used to agricultural work under tropical conditions, was a happy hunting ground. Since India was already under the British rule, there was no need for a negotiation with foreign authorities, either.
The fact that Indians in the nineteenth century were already suffering the onslaught of famine, resulting in economic hardships and even death, only made the idea of a movement away from the country less painful.
Those taken to work in the fields of Trinidad
in 1890, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are now referred to as Trinbagonians or Indo-Trinidadians. And now, if I look at the likes of me, we might well be more Indian than those living in India. Not only did we take with us our tradition, cuisine, habits, customs and Hinduism, but we continue to practise those to this day.
At heart, most of us still belong to India. While we Indo-Trinidadians insist on our commitment and loyalty to Trinidad
& Tobago, we take genuine pride in our Indian ancestry. My parents were born in Trinidad
and we still have a family business there. The island nation was always very good to us. But in 1969, my family moved to Canada and set up another business in Ontario.
Nine years ago, I visited India for the first time. I wanted to see my relatives – distanced by generations and places, but with common bloodlines. But I could not; I had no idea where I would find them.
Unlike most other migrants, my family or I had not been able to maintain a contact with relatives. I remember my great grandfather would write letters to his cousins, who would write back to him. But that link somehow broke over subsequent decades.
During one of my digital expeditions to locate my roots in India earlier this year, a Google query on Basti district of Uttar Pradesh sprang up a name that sounded familiar. Eventually, after some more searching I located a journalist who was familiar with the village named Hariharpur in Basti, UP. I rang him up, introduced myself, and asked him if he knew the Pandeys from Hariharpur. In what seems rather miraculous when I look back, he got me in touch with my relatives.
Soon after, I packed my bags and was on a flight to New Delhi. A little bit of more travel and I was in the village where my ancestors lived – my village – for the first time ever.
The house that my great great grandfather built was still there. Setting my foot in it was a beautiful feeling – I was happy, sad, relieved, anxious, all at the same time. All my blanks had been filled. I had closure. I had also found a new beginning.
I moved to Delhi along with my wife, Gunjan and our five-year-old daughter, Ahren. Like most Indians in Trinidad
and other countries, we had lost our language. We knew no Hindi, and it was important for me to bring my daughter here so could learn it.
Having returned, I can look back and say that my family benefitted from moving to Trinidad.
So did others who were made to migrate – the families I know have all done well for themselves and are now in a position to come back home. And, they can truly give back to India. That’s what I wish to do – for my forefathers’ place, my roots.
As told to Surbhi Gloria Singh
Neel Maharaj is CEO of Ahoy Systems, an internet-of-things (IOT) company focusing on smart cities, LoRaWAN and e-surveillance systems to improve the operational efficiency of companies, cities and countries