One year ago, when I met Leela Sarup in Mussoorie, she told me about this project to have a memorial in Kolkata. I was obviously very happy but thought it would take ages to make it concrete. So I was very surprised when she told me last summer about the installation of the commemorative plaque to be organised in January 2011. Surprised but thankful as I was waiting for this moment for years now.
My family left India 150 years ago more or less to work in the sugar cane fields in Guadeloupe, French West Indies. They could not go back home despite the 5 years contract and settled down in this island, around the sugar factories. My parents came to France when they were adult, I was born and I built my life in this country. I’m of the 4th generation of descendants born outside India but since I was a kid, I was aware of my Indian origins and my dream was to meet my family, to reconnect with my culture.
I read lots of books about the indentured migration and found out that people were recruited from all over the country and when I did my family trees, I learnt that most of them were “Calcuttas”. In Guadeloupe, “Calcuttas” was the name given by the Indian community to those Indian workers who came from North India. When I was asking to some elders about my great grand mother’s origin, they used to reply that she was not from Pondicherry like them. She was a “Calcutta”.
Our people left their country to work in a foreign country without any knowledge about the language, cultures. For most of them, it was a survival act.
We heard testimonies of their sufferings and with Leela’s books, it is officially confirmed. But far from making them “victims of History”, this memorial is a way to honour them, to touch their feet, and keep their memory alive.
After several years of research, I can say how difficult it is to find documents, books, traditional music recordings, etc. By chance, with internet, it is easier now but it is necessary to have a place where all documents related to those immigrants, to the way they settled down abroad would be stored.
Our ancestors brought many traditions that are no more in India and fought to keep them as it was their only link to their culture. But if we don’t want to lose them, we need to write about them, to make movies, to protect this cultural heritage. For Indian people, it can also be a way to know better their customs from the past.
I know many people in Guadeloupe who are proud to have Indian origins but they have never been to India. Some have such an idealistic image of India that they don’t want confront it to the reality. Some feel too westernised to adjust to Indian life. Hopefully, I meet more and more people who wish to discover India but who are too impressed by its immensity to make the move. They don’t know from where to begin, the need to visit and to meet their roots merging and melting together. Coming to the Kolkata Memorial will be a good start. They can celebrate their ancestors and get all the strength needed to travel in India, not to visit it as standard tourists, but to experience their country of origin.
Last but not least, this memorial is a good place to meet each other. Except during the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and GOPIOs events, it is quite difficult for Indian people from Guadeloupe to meet Indian people from South Africa. And they should meet because their ancestors were maybe from the same village, they travelled in the same boat, they may have the same name, who knows, but definitely they share a common history. This networking is important for our growth as it creates opportunities to develop ourselves and at the end, that’s what the soul is