On Sea of Poppies and a history of Indian emigrants

When I landed in India last month, my arrival card asked me to check one of three options  – NRI (Non Resident Indian), PIO (Person of Indian Origin) or OCI (Overseas Citizen of India).

It is a fascinating acknowledgment of the continuous evolution of Indian emigrants.  The acronyms may be recent, but we have had PIOs  for centuries.

A few months back, I read “Sea of Poppies”.  It’s a great book at many levels.  I love the amount of research and historical detail that has gone into it, like the description of the Opium Factory, the setting itself – in a time and place that I wish we knew more about, and Amitav Ghosh’s writing style.   If I have one regret, it’s that the sequel would be published sooner; I cannot imagine waiting years for a sequel.


But the book shows how little we know about emigrant Indians.  Thinking about the subject also makes me realize that I am just the latest link in a chain of emigration that goes back at least to the 9th or 10th century, and possibly much earlier.  But who were all these people whose footsteps we are now following?

Which states did people emigrate from?  We know the story in patches – about Tamils  settling in Indonesia and Malaysia as early as the 9th and 10th century , about people from U.P. and Bihar and Bengal ending up in the Caribbean islands and Fiji, but it’s astonishing how much we don’t know.

What drove these people to emigrate?  Were the reasons always economic – like fleeing famine and poverty , or were they social – trying to get out of the caste system, say, or political – like fleeing an unjust king?

Was there a pecking order of preference in these destinations?  Was Mauritius preferred to Jamaica, or Kenya to South Africa? What kind of ships did they use, and what hardships did they face along the way ?

I am particularly interested in the earlier emigrants (i.e. before British times, like those Chola and Pandya era Tamils) about whom we know virtually nothing.  What did they find so compelling about the new lands that they decided to stay back?

There are books that describe the experiences of more recent emigrants, although these too are few and far between.  The history of emigration during British times is itself fascinating – you have the stories of how Sikhs went to Canada and the Komagata Maru incident, or how Indians ended up in Mauritius and the West Indies/ Caribbean as Amitav Ghosh draws on.  How much more fascinating would it be to look at the stories of Indian emigrants down the ages?

It would be great if someone could write a book describing the various sea routes Indians took over the ages, where they spread from their initial destinations, how they fared and if any returned.  Is some historian out there listening?  Can we have someone research the history of Indian emigrants, please?

I know of  one family who returned, though – mine.  Reading “The Glass Palace” reminded me of my own family history –  my great grandfather was a famous doctor in Rangoon.  The family returned to India during World War II, in a story that rivals any thriller you’ll ever read.

I’m sure many of us have more such fascinating stories tucked away in our family trees, of people who left, generations back and also much more recently.

All the more reason why we need an emigrant history edition.


25 thoughts on “On Sea of Poppies and a history of Indian emigrants

  1. Thanks for this post. Just a few observations:

    1. You asked, “What drove these people to emigrate?” and gave a few possibilities. There’s one force for emigration that could have been mentioned explicitly: indentured labor. I really wonder how much of it is really ‘voluntary’; if they knew about the hardships and exploitation (as is common even now in places like Dubai) how voluntarily would they choose to emigrate as hired labour?

    2. Vinay Lal’s “The Other Indians” is a pretty interesting book on the history of South Asians in the US.

    3. Your great grandfather’s return from Burma sounds interesting; you really ought to write about it.

    It’s interesting that your family’s return happened in the 1940’s; I hope it was not under duress.

    What happened in Burma after WW II (and especially after the military took over the government) is atrociously horrible: tons and tons of Indians — right from common folk, to small traders, to big business owners — were simply asked to leave in the 1960s. My father was a part of the Indian team that went to Rangoon to bring some of these folks to Chennai, housed them in temporary camps, prepared official documents for them, and eventually resettled them in India (with the help of their relatives and friends). Some of their stories are pretty grim.

    4. Finally, this:

    “If I have one regret, it’s that the sequel would be published sooner; I cannot imagine waiting years for a sequel.”

    Somehow, the word “regret” sounds odd in that sentence … 😉

    • Do you think they would not have gone if they knew? I’m sure there would always have been rumors of what was in store. But I’m not so sure the rumors would have stopped the really desperate. What if they were exploited back home too, by the zamindars and so on, if they were fleeing repeated famines and floods and crop failures?

      In “Sea of Poppies” too, Deeti knows what they are getting into, and at first vehemently opposes the idea saying things to the effect that they might as well sign away their lives.. so perhaps Ghosh too, believes that people knew of the indentured labor involved.

      On Dubai, I’m sure everyone in Kerala knows the risks – you could go as a maid and find an abusive family; you would work really long hours in the heat in a construction job and so on. Malayala Manorama probably prints horrifying stories of abuse every other day. But that doesn’t stop people from going to Dubai, because the alternatives aren’t much, and perhaps because they are willing to take the risks for the chance of economic gains.

      But while indentured labor was certainly what was in store during British times, perhaps it wasn’t always the case, through the ages. I don’t know, I just think it should be very interesting to find out.

      Were there, for instance, traders from the Indus valley who settled down in Greece and Italy? Was it mainly traders again who went to Kenya? I wish I knew more.

      2. Thanks for the book tip, I’ve added this to my reading list. Sounds very interesting, more so because I also just read Amardeep Singh’s review of the book.

      3. My great-grand father and his family fled when they heard the Japanese were approaching Burma. They couldn’t bring back any of their possessions, though they weren’t refugees either – they just had to come back to the arms of the family back home. It’s a fascinating story, and I realize I too, would love to know every minute detail.

      4. You are right. Not “regret”, perhaps, but “complaint” 🙂

  2. I would assume economic as a key driver, and so also bubdled out as forced labour.

    As for fleeing, a possibility, but there were enough places within India to resettle elsewhere, more so since not every place was under a single ruler that you wanted to escape from.

    • You’re right, they could have fled to another kingdom, and some of that did happen, not just with farmers but also the higher classes/ castes like Brahmins. Which brings me to the question of which classes of society emigrated. We tend to assume it was mainly landless laborers, but did traders and doctors(hakims/ vaids) and priests too emigrate? Surely the new communities would have needed them?

  3. Another book on this topic is Peggy Mohan’s Jahajin which deals with migration to the West Indies from Bihar and U.P. in the late 1800’s. One interesting angle in that the book is that it deals with the lives of single women who made that journey.

    • Thanks for that tip. I went over to read about the book and some reviews, and it does sound fascinating. What made these single women undertake such an arduous journey? Did they hope that they would have more freedom in the new place? Was it driven by a shortage of eligible men in the village? I wonder.

  4. I loved Sea of Poppies – felt it should have won the Booker that year. I also loved Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Beautifully written, and a most unusual story.

    I can’t wait to read about your great-grandfather’s journey! Who better than you, to tell that story?!

    • Actually, I would rate The Hungry Tide #3 of the 3 books I read. It wasn’t bad, but the other two were better 🙂

      I think I should interview my grandmother and her sisters to write that story. It should make a great book. Someday, perhaps?

  5. Speaking of Kerala, isn’t it ironic that the state with the highest education levels for *both* men and women cannot offer employment to its people within the state, or create opportunities for them?

    • Isn’t it the other way around? I’d have thought that the State would be the largest employer in Kerala, what with private enterprise getting so stifled. Can anyone from Kerala tell me if I’m right?

      I wouldn’t blame the State as much as I would blame ideology 😦 It’s strange that people who are willing to work so hard elsewhere do not/ cannot do the same in Kerala.

  6. Try Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India. She focuses on her Gujarati family’s emigration patterns, but she’s got relatives on all five continents, so it’s not as narrow as it would seem. Hajratwala’s a journalist, not a historian, and the book is as much personal narrative as overview of the Indian diaspora, but I think you’ll find (at least partial) answers to many of your questions.

    • Thanks for the tip. Yes, her book does seem a fascinating narrative. I particularly liked what she says here – “So the relatives who come in from South Africa and the relatives who come in from Fiji and the relatives who come in from Toronto still speak the same language and eat the same food and like the same spices and follow the same sets of rituals for things like weddings. So there’s a way that culture is both preserved and changed constantly. ” That’s another feature of emigrant Indians – of course, the flip side is that they are usually stuck in the mores of the time they left the mother ship.

  7. Pingback: Global Voices Online » India: Longing For The History Of The Indian Emigrants

  8. The Sea of Poppies is brilliantly written. I had the added pleasure of reading it in Kolkata, where much of the story is located. Yes, the sequel needs to be published soon:)

  9. Lekhni: Seconding and thirding everyone about that post/book on your family’s “Burmese Days”.

    Our (Indian) pasts so very poorly understood.

  10. Try “Discovery of India” by Pandit Nehru. It touches a lot upon early emigration and immigration in ancient (??) India.

  11. Hi, I am Indian and not an emigrant. Still very much living in India. You have touched upon an interesting subject. I have read a point of view by the late Isaac Asimov that immigrants almost always anywhere comprised essentially the poor and dispossessed and were the most likely to move countries. My belief is this is largely true of Indian immigrants till the 1960s and perhaps the early 70s. Its probably a different story now.

    I am reading with interest the reaction to the piece by Joel Stein. While I am not qualfied to talk about the state of Indian immigrants in the US, my perception, and by extension belief, is that Indians perhaps tend to underrate themselves in any alien situation and do not step back to take a more balanced view of that situation. I did get tangled in one of the Indian gatherings in NJ a few years back, and to me it looked like they were are still trying to determine where they wanted to fit in.

  12. Also, my own grandad was one of those who trekked out from Burma to Kolkata. He was untraceable for a while and then the family got news that he was found in a Kolkata hospital with malaria.

    Apparently, it was a pretty adventurous affair, with just rice puffed over makeshift fires for food, and avoiding all kinds of wildlife, including robbers, soldiers and the like.

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