—Sayantan Chakravarty

Destiny has a curious way of keeping tryst with its inheritors. The historic Kolkata Memorial, lined up for inauguration on January 11, is proving so.

Millions of overseas Indians whose ancestors left the shores of India 100-170 years ago will, finally, have a memorial dedicated to their forefathers, at Kolkata. For the overseas Indians there will rarely come an occasion more momentous—one that officially forges the bond (with a plaque in place) between adopted homeland, and ancestral motherland.

The background, a subject of several books and films by renowned and distinguished overseas Indians, is stimulating. In the 19th century, shortly after the ignominious practice of slavery received a final nail in the coffin, the colonies found themselves hugely short of workforce. The freed slaves would have nothing to do with the sugarcane fields. They abandoned them wholeheartedly to rejoice in the merry sounds of centuries-old shackles coming apart. Suddenly, a colossal vacuum needed to be filled, and the (British) Empire, ingeniously as always, devised the indenture system.

So to far away outposts of the British Empire (and also to the French and Dutch colonies) were shipped from India, men, women and children, able-bodied mostly, that could once again produce enough to sweetly turn the balance inside the financial coffers of London. Indentured they were, but variously they have been referred to as coolies, and also as girmitiyas (stemming from ‘agreement’). Remember those were times of oppressive caste profiling in India, and frequent famines ran riot, mainly not due to inclement weather, but because food was taken away to other parts of the world from India’s productive northern belts.

Those impoverished Indian villages ironically turned out to be fertile hunting grounds for a battery of touts and agents who descended swiftly on them. They wheedled the gullible and the desperate into giving up what they had, in return for what they could get.

Now to get a whiff of that nostalgia, of a home once lost, of an ocean long crossed, of a larger family forever abandoned, of a choice once made, the overseas Indians of today can visit Kolkata. And walk on the harbors from where hope once sprang.

A string of lovely articles capture the feelings of these overseas Indians. It is a time to reflect and rejoice with them.


December 2010

click here to enlarge

 >> Cover Story
 >> From the Editor