Monday, September 22, 2008

The roots beckon again.

Talking about the ‘call of the roots’ in my previous post brought back memories of another incident that happened 15 years back.

While in Australia for a sales conference, I bumped into one of our dealers from the Fiji Islands. He was of Indian origin and was quite prosperous. In the course of a conversation he mentioned that he was planning a visit to India- his first- later that year. And, would I help him trace his ancestral village?

All he knew was that his grandmother, when a small girl, had been put on board a ship that had set sail for the Fiji Islands, where the British required some cheap labour. As they were Telugu speaking, he suspected that she must have started her journey from Vizag. She never went back to India. His parents had toiled hard, and when he grew up, he had invested a small sum in a hotel, and this eventually grew into a big business.

Like Alex Haley, he wanted to trace his roots now.

He came down to India as promised, and I put him on to my colleague who was located in Vizag. Ads were placed in all Telugu papers seeking information on the ship that had carried the workers off to an unknown destination, sometime around 1920. One tip led to another, and soon, my colleague was accompanying the dealer to the very village his grandmother had been born. More probing resulted in someone pointing out that there lived a 92-year old lady in the village who might remember, and they rushed over to her hut. The old lady, though quite senile, miraculously remembered the tragic event in which most of her kith and kin, were bundled together and shoved aboard. What’s more, the dealer’s grandmother turned out to be the old lady’s cousin. Hearing which, the dealer broke down uncontrollably, hugged the old lady, pulled out a wad of 500-rupee notes and handed it over to her.

Later, while walking away from the place, he pointed out the irony. This old lady who had escaped the deporting, actually thought that a great tragedy had befallen his grandmother’s family, while it was in fact a blessing. The deported lady’s descendant was now wealthy enough to fly down all the way and gift her cousin who had stayed behind, a fat bundle of 500-rupee notes, in her miserable hut. That’s life for you.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

v.s.naipaul had a similar experience when he visited india. in his 'india - a dark continent' he narrates a scene when he visited his ancestral village in bihar.

the poor barren villagers who were his distant relatives, had only this to say to him 'why it took so long for naipaul's folks to send money for passage to west indies, and remove them from this squalor'

Sagarone said...

A very touching tale indeed. Most migrant Indians would face the same irony when they trace their roots and come face to face with reality.

Sat said...

:)
It must have been one helluva moment for this person, to have been able to locate his long lost roots...but then the fact that he was indeed able to trace it in itself is nothing short of a miracle

Raj said...

anon, Naipaul's relatives seemed to want to get away from roots!

sagarone, why Indians. Any migrant, I guess.

sat: Yes, it was a long shot, but he made it. Who knows, the old lady may have pulled a fast one on him and taken the 500-rupee notes.

bulbul said...

I have been a silent admirer of your blog posts. Finally a comment now.
It is preposterous to suggest that the old lady would have lied for a bundle of notes. Did she expect to be paid before she spoke about the voyage her cousin had taken?

Amitav Ghosh's book 'A sea of poppies' talks on this subject of migration. It is interesting to know how the isles in the Indian ocean have been peopled by people from India in the 18th and 19th century.A touching book indeed.

Raj said...

bulbul, thanks for stepping out of the shadows and commenting. Where have I suggested that the old lady was lying?