Reena Pereira Almeida can’t pinpoint one moment as being the one that showed her the importance of remembering her heritage. It was a series of incidents and events, coming one after the other, that did so. Two years ago, for example, she came across the story of Joseph “Kaka” Baptista, who became the mayor of Bombay in 1925 and was in office for a year. “He was a freedom fighter and was closely associated with Lokmanya Tilak,” says Almeida, “And he was the one who coined the famous slogan ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall have it’.” This fact came as a complete surprise to her. “It made me wonder what else I didn’t know about my community,” she says.
Ever since she moved to Australia after getting married in 2010, Almeida had been grappling with the question of her identity. “I’m not just an Indian, I’m an East Indian Roman Catholic. It’s a complicated identity and one that I struggled to explain,” she says. When she had her daughter four years ago, this question came back with renewed force. “I was born and brought up surrounded by the community, so I know a little about my roots, but my daughter and other children like her won’t be able to,” says Almeida.
This and other circumstances came together in her mind to form the idea of the East Indian Memory Co. (EIMC), which was established last year in August. The main purpose of the EIMC, Almeida says, is to document the distinctive history and culture of the East Indians in and around Mumbai, before they vanish into the melting pot that is modern India. To that end, Almeida set up a website and accounts on Instagram and Facebook, where she makes regular posts about aspects of the East Indian culture — from the fiery Bottle Masala to the traditional architecture of East Indian houses to the lugra, a 10-yard sari, typically made of heavy cotton, with a checkered body and the quintessential kombriche paay (chicken feet) border. As part of the East Indian Memory Co., Almeida is also selling merchandise like posters, calendars, different types of masalas and apparel fashioned out of lugras. This, she says, is only to fund the main work — which is research and documentation. “Ideally, I would like someone to take care of the selling, so that I can go out and collect stories,” she says. Her work has already been appreciated within the community and earlier this month, she was given an ‘Award of Appreciation’ by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat, which is the main East Indian organisational body.
Almeida has been in India for the last five months for research and is staying with her parents in Giriz, a village on the outskirts of Vasai town, over 50 kilometres north of Mumbai. This is where she was born and brought up and became intimately familiar with the ways of her community. “People from other parts of the country often don’t know of the existence of such a community as the East Indians. We’re often confused for Goans. But Goans have their own identity and the good fortune of a separate state where they can claim their roots. The Portuguese culture is also more ingrained in them than in us. We are more Maharashtrian,” she says.
Part of the problem, she says, is the nomenclature. While most people outside Mumbai have trouble understanding exactly how a community based in the extreme west of the country can be called “East Indian”, within the community itself there’s no consensus on the origin of the name. “Some say that we are the descendents of those who worked for the East India Company, another explanation is that we wrote a letter to Queen Victoria asking to be called ‘East Indians’ to distinguish ourselves from Goans,” she says. The accepted facts about the history, however, are that the community is one of the oldest on the seven islands that became Mumbai and that its members were among the earliest converts to Christianity in India, believed to have been converted by St Bartholomew, one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus, centuries before the Portuguese arrived.
Folded into Almeida’s larger mission is also the intention to make it clear that the East Indian identity itself comprises many different sub-identities such as the Valkars, Kuparis, Vadwals and Kunbis. She says, “We all have slight differences. For example, every one of the East Indian communities, has its own dialect. In pure Marathi, you say ikde-tikde (here-there), while Valkars say aila-taila, Vadwals say ate-thate and so on.”
Almeida believes her work is of particular importance in the present moment. “There’s so much talk about what its like to be a minority in India. Catholics in Mumbai are said to be peace-loving but we’re also passive. You will find very few of us taking a stand. We are not in any history textbooks but we are part of the very fabric of this city and we’ve helped shape it,” she says.