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.