Enamoured neither of travel nor mega gatherings, in the case of some Indian diaspora events, I rouse myself to participate every decade or so. They do allow renewal of acquaintances and keeping tabs on life-trajectories. My first was the “East Indian Diaspora Conference” at Columbia University in 1988, which commemorated the 150th Anniversary of Indian Arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Up to then, I had been plodding away in corporate America, and as the Indian-Guyanese community grew in Queens, becoming involved in religious and social activities there.
The Conference brought together Indians from across the Caribbean in general, and academics in particular. I discovered academics were more political than politicians. Maybe it was that infighting to get tenure? The Indians from Jamaica and some of the small islands – especially Martinique and Guadeloupe – were a revelation, and brought home both the facticity of our adaptation and retentions of our originating culture in our new circumstances. Lifelong friendships were born.
The following year, I became an organiser of the First Global Conference of People of Indian Origin, (GOPIO). It was at one of the joint organising meetings that a Pandita from Trinidad and I insisted we were “People of Indian Origin” and not “Non-Resident Indians” (NRIs). That experience brought home the distance we had travelled culturally and religiously since our ancestors had left India in the previous century. But there were still commonalities.
The Conference itself, at the Sheraton in Mid-Manhattan, and the “Political Participation Panel” I co-chaired corroborated my initial reaction that the PIOs from the “indentured” countries and the NRIs marched to different drummers. We organised a break-out session with leaders from Fiji, Trinidad and Guyana who, not so coincidentally, had all been removed from office. All were to be returned to office within the next decade. My biggest takeaway was an impromptu “mauj” session at my home in New Jersey, when Bollywood filmi songs and dhall/rice and bhagee bridged all differences! Lifelong friendships were sparked, and I learnt a new word from the Indian Fijians – Girmitiya, people of the agreement (the indentureship contract).
Returning to Guyana and deciding to remain after the 1992 elections, I worked with youths in the Hindu community. In 1993, I attended the 100th Commemoration of Swami Vivekananda’s attendance at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago. The Commemoration was held at the Washington Sheraton, and drew thousands of delegates from India and the Diaspora. Vivekanand was respected by all. One Narendra Modi of Gujrat, with whom I shared a panel, was just another face. More lifelong friendships were sparked.
I went to India in 1997, and spent 21 intense days in Bangalore discussing and analysing Hinduism and its relevance and applicability in a world that had been differentially conscripted by modernity – with hundreds of individuals from India and the diaspora. The differences and commonalities in religious practices between the Girmitiyas and the Indians were again highlighted. On this trip, I practically circumambulated India. More lifelong friends.
Out of contacts made at the 1993 event, the World Hindu Conference was held in Trinidad in 2000, and brought together several old friends once again on the same platform. Narendra Modi was there, came over and stayed at the Tower Hotel, and asked to see a symbol of our sacrifice here. I took him to the Enmore Martyrs Monument. With our sacrifices, he said we had made Guyana our “Punya Bhumi” or Sacred Land, while India was our “Matri Bhumi”, or “Mother Land”.
After a trip to Europe in 1991 with some NRI GOPIO Executives, I decided my field of activity was different from theirs, and moved on. When, in 2003, the BJP Indian Government initiated the annual “Pravasi Bharatiya Divas” (Overseas Indian Day), I never attended, even though I had met several of those who were now in Government back in 1997. The event was too much like a Mela – too may photo-ops and awards, and not enough discussion and debate on Girmitiya issues.
Until the PBD 2017, organised by now PM Narendra Modi. This was more substantive, and with focused discussion groups, the perspectives of the PIOs were slowly becoming recognised outside of the developmental potential of the NRIs. The same at the World Hindu Conference in Chicago in 2018.
A family, yes. But with its inevitable idiosyncrasies.