Clinging on and lovin' it

Clinging on and lovin' it

 Indian locality in Birmingham. Pic by author

When I catch her last on FaceBook, English girl Rosalind Broomhall is carrying samosas and onion bhajees to a family bash. Though she admits that she will probably stick to ham sandwiches, there are others who are sure to savour her contribution. Ros has a painting of Krishna hanging in her flat and can even tell you what role Hanuman played in retrieving Sita.

Far away, in Mt Roskill, Auckland, media consultant Julie Middleton is comfortable rattling off names of languages like Gujarati, Kannada, Punjabi and Tamil, that staff use at the Mt Roskill Medical and Surgical Centre. She has worn a Kanjeevaram sari and a clasp-on nose pin to a formal dinner and doesn’t mind that an Indian friend calls her ‘jhintak’ for her flashy taste.

Reverse osmosis? No chance!

A Nigerian friend once told me that he has seen the Hindi film Dus Nambari (which I haven’t) and another from Kenya could discuss the differences he finds between Gujaratis (‘more miserly’) and Sikhs (‘extravagant’). On the flip side, even if I scratch my head really hard I cannot say if Nigeria even has a film industry. Neither can I name any two Kenyan communities, leave alone point out how they are perceived by people. I can do an impressive list of English writers and poets but that’s only because my grandfather believed the English descended directly from heaven to rule over us, and made me spend time in his library. But ask me what Maori have to do with New Zealand and I will need to do a sly Google. Migrating Indians have obviously been leaving a mark on the world. Whether we are allowing the favour to be returned, needs further exploration.

General view of shoppers on Belgrave Road, Leicester. Pic courtesy Leicester MercuryIf I could, I would like to know what is it about us Indians that takes us almost anywhere in the world in search of better opportunities, but doesn’t let us let go of our culture and beliefs. What makes us cling together in a world we create in a new land so that we are constantly reminded of the one we willingly left behind? What keeps us insulated from the natural process of imbibing the ethos of the new land we have set camp in?

We wear Sai Baba pendants and sindoor and encourage kids to speak the language we (and not they) grew up with. We snip ends off ladyfingers even in Silicon Valley stores to reassure ourselves of their freshness and buy pre-fried onion from Pak stores to mix with canned chana for that weekend treat of chole. We build gurudwaras and temples and erect statues of Indian leaders (Leicester, with 26 per cent population of Indian origin, recently had a £20,000 statue built of Mahatma Gandhi that beat local campaign to have one of England’s football captain Gary Lineker instead). We want the opportunities that a host country can give us but are not able to put down those bags that we’ve been carrying for generations sometimes.

In Leicester, there are Gujarati ladies who came with their husbands in the 70s, when Idi Amin forced Indians to leave Uganda. Many of them landed at Heathrow in saris and chappals. Many still favour the same wardrobe. They still don’t speak English or eat from a plate that has been used to serve non-veg food. I find myself in a taxi with a Sikh driver who tearfully tells me that he and his wife will never be able to go back to their village and will eventually end up in an old people’s home, because their son would be too British to live with them.

  In Leicester, ethnic minorities create more than 50 per cent of the population. “Superficially, we rub along well together although most people stick to their own communities and live in their own areas,” says Rosalind, adding that some people might be more accepting of Asians if they were “more like us — just with brown skin”. 

In Birmingham, I find Balti triangles that serve masala fish and naan and bhangra pop blares from local radio stations. I find Brummie English mixing with eardrum-scalding Punjabi slang and old ladies in Punjabi suits shopping for adrak and palak ka saag at local grocery stores. I also find young Sunny, who sports a turban, spends Friday evenings at the pub with friends and dreams of  marrying a Punjabi girl (from Bhatinda or Patiala), who will work to help pay for house mortgage while also be willing to look after his ageing parents.

In Auckland, there’s my old friend Rahul who left Delhi seven years ago in search of better opportunity and now runs a swank photo studio. He loves the work culture there, the refreshing honesty, local empathy towards migrants and appreciates the efforts made by his sons’ teachers to break language barriers and make the children feel comfortable. Something “unimaginable in over-crowded Indian classrooms”.

However, he confesses that he still struggles with the Kiwi concept of ‘partners’, single mum families and frequent divorce. At least in the earlier years, he says he made a conscious effort to look for people, shops, temples etc that reminded him of “home” though “it’s lesser now”. He misses India during festivals like Diwali and enjoys  social get-togethers with other Indian friends where they often discuss how the Indian cricket team can be made the best in the world.

Little India, everywhere

Which brings us to the question —  do Indians, more than migrants of other nationalities, try to create a little India in countries where life takes them?

“Absolutely,” says Mahendra Negi, an NRI who migrated to Japan 23 years ago. “Indians are very insular, preferring to keep their identity even after generations.” Silicon Valley based Jhoomar Nimkar finds this more in the previous generation of Indian immigrants i.e. the Indians in Singapore and Fiji. “They have clung to traditions that existed hundreds of years ago in India. I know a Fiji Indian who performs havan in his garage every day and a friend in Singapore who refused to remove her toe-rings that would cut into her flesh when she wore her shoes.” “The Chinese also behave similarly,” says Santosh Singh, who has lived in four countries as varied as Ireland, Cuba, Sri Lanka and England. Rahul agrees.

Mahendra attributes two reasons to this behaviour: “Resistance to change, and a strange superiority complex because most Indians think their values are superior to the country they desperately decided to enter.” Malaysia-based media studies student Prateek Panwar feels that when a group of people is forcefully displaced from their homeland (like the Tamils who were brought to Malaysia by the British as bonded labour) they tend to cling to their traditions because that’s the only thing they are left with.

Santosh’s reasoning is different “I feel these are old, strong and deep-rooted cultures with profound philosophies. This plays on our psyche and we feel the need to be part of that culture, irrespective of where life and its necessities take us,” he says.

Personally, I feel, Indians also have a very strong sense of family. These ties are so binding that distances and years don’t easily affect them.

Often, a generation that would like to let go of some of its excess baggage is not able to do so because it is emotionally tied to someone back home. The suitcase passes on. But it surely gets lighter.

Some of us do finally put it down one day and, like my friend Julie says, decide to celebrate differences without letting these build walls around us. It is then that we actually live up to the age old concept of Vasudhaiva Kutumbhkam. Of course, that’s there in Indian culture too!

(Note: Some names have been changed to protect the identity of interviewees.
Vasudhaiva Kutumbhkam means the earth is one family.)

Melting pot

There are more than 160 ethnicities represented in my home suburb of Mt Roskill. But it’s the sights, sounds and tastes of Indian culture that predominate. Indians first settled in New Zealand in the late 1800s, most of the early migrants from Punjab and Gujarat.

Between 2001 and 2006, the number of people of Indian heritage living in New Zealand rose by nearly 70 per cent to the current 105,000; about 20 per cent of these are New Zealand-born, and the number of Indo-Fijians leaving their coup-plagued nation has risen sharply.

There don’t seem to be any numbers on how many people in Mt Roskill are of Indian background or birth, but we do know that the suburb has the country’s highest proportion of Hindus (12 per cent) and Muslims (7 per cent).

At the Mt Roskill Medical and Surgical Centre, the languages staff speak include Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi Tamil and Kannada.

The Bikanervala on White Swan Road is always packed and there’s constant stream of newly-engaged young women in jeans (their mothers and grandmothers in saris) checking out wedding fabrics in the shops on Stoddard Road. A Dosa Plaza opened this year on Dominion Road, which connects Mt Roskill to the city centre 7km away. The suburb will even host the country’s first Bank of Baroda by the end of this year.

Julie Middleton
Mt Roskill, Auckland, New Zealand

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