The Suriname connection

My neighbour Lizzie from the Czech Republic is a true yoga fanatic ...

By Raksha Chandnani

I sometimes wonder if my grandparents had ever dreamt of their next generation to be classified as NRI’s when they left their hometown in Sindh for Chennai due to the partition. Their 5 children were born there and learnt to speak Tamil alongside Sindhi. My father is one of these 5 children who left his parents’ home at the age of 19 and moved to Suriname for pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams. He was preceded by his older brother who invited him to join this adventure abroad. I was raised in Suriname from the age of four. My only memories of India as a child are that of my daada tickling me with his beard, and the ones of my daadi feeding me with her hands, while she told me stories of animals while she fed me by the window. Still, I was fascinated to hold an Indian Passport and be different from the rest of my classmates. This passport was my proof of belonging to a community, despite living abroad and not having a province to actually call my own anymore.

Although they were proud of their rich Sindhi heritage, my parents did their best to integrate into the local culture. My father made local friends while working and he started reading the local newspapers to learn Dutch, which he mastered in two years’ time. On the side, my parents also did their very best to preserve and retain their culture even though they had migrated. As members of the Indian diaspora, they tried their utmost to imbibe in us their language, customs, traditions, values and (religious) beliefs. My mother used to prepare vegetarian Sindhi food at least 4x a week, and the rest of the three days we had our “integration” meal days, as Suriname is famous for its multicultural cuisine. Since my father was born in Chennai, South-Indian food made it to the table regularly as well.

We were encouraged to learn the language of the country we lived in, and were sent to local schools. When I told my classmates that I ate vegetarian food for at least 17 days in a month, they used to gape at me in disbelief. “Where did I come from? What was India like? How did I survive here?” they asked. I explained about India, the partition, the fact that my parents had ambitions and that we were used to vegetarian food as it was coupled with religious occasions. The concept of vegetarianism in the west was not so wide-spread in the early nineties, so it still came across as a great shock. At home, my brother and I were only allowed to speak Sindhi, whereas English and Dutch were reserved for socialising and education, respectively. My brother took to learning the Tabla at the Indian Cultural Centre, whereas I learnt singing Hindi songs and Bhajans at home from my father. The emphasis on being part of the Sindhi community was visible: We participated in Diwali and Cheti Chand performances and went to Sindhi gatherings almost every week. We attended Satyanaran poojas each month and watched Hindi movies at home, avidly renting them to get our Bollywood fix. The Ramayana, Mahabharata and Vikram-Betaal were among the many books I read, and Amar Chitra Katha were my all-time favourites. Technology was not as advanced, so my father used to record our voices on audiocassettes for my grandparents to hear us utter our first words in Sindhi. It gave my parents great pride that we spoke our own language, even if we couldn’t read or write it due to the lack of Sindhi language schools. Later, when long-distance calls became available and affordable, faraway family members became more accessible. Still, we had to shout on top of our voice to hear the other side speaking. It was funny yet frustrating at the same time. That was life as part of the diaspora for me.