Suriname – a simple yet powerful name that holds priceless treasures of Indian history, culture, and most importantly mixed identities. Coming to The Netherlands, I met a part of us Indians based here. They looked like us, spoke like us but still had something different and intriguing about their culture. In the quest of finding out more about the Surinami-Indians, I met an author with a vision to change the course of history. He had one goal, a goal that would make people remember what is lost – to remind the Indians about their own forgotten people.
Safdar Zaidi comes from a small city in Uttar Pradesh, India called Muzaffarnagar. He is a descendent of the Sayyid family, who is known to be one of the founders of the city. Currently residing in Holland, he spent the last five years researching and writing about the history and culture of Suriname.
His book titled “De Suiker Die Niet Zoet Was” – closely translated as: “The sugar that was not sweet”, embarks upon the journey of a young man named Raj through two time periods that help define him as a person. Married to a loving wife, he is mentally unstable due to the issue of identity crisis and battles with nightmares that change his reality. His path crosses with a Sufi saint that puts him in a trance and takes him back to his past life – a life full of separation, discovery, slavery, and unknown boundaries.
The root existence of Suriname is incomplete without the vast migration period that took place under the Dutch colonial period. The importance of such events shape the history of many Surinami-Hindustanis that exist in The Netherlands.
In June 1873, a transport ship called Lalla Rookh arrived in Suriname with hundreds of first ‘indentured laborers’ from British India. The indentured laborers were appointed to work on the plantations in order to replace the former slaves who after ten years of state control were released from their work, to do jobs for payment.
Suriname is a country on the north-eastern Atlantic coast of South America. In 1667 the Dutch, who governed Suriname as Dutch Guyana and captured it until 1975. Thus, Dutch is the sole official language but interestingly the third-most used language within the Surinamese people is Surinamese Hindi or Sarnami, a dialect of Bhojpuri.
The descendants of South Asian contract workers from then British India speak Sarnami. Deputy Mayor of The Hague is a person of Suriname origin.
One of the highlights of their presence in Netherlands is the existence of Surinamese radio channels, where Hindi Bollywood songs as well as Surinami songs are played, and the RJ converses in a Sarnami-Dutch with the listeners.
Safdar Zaidi reflectively summarized the motive behind his book as well as shed some light on the current situation in the country: “I have seen and met many Hindustani people here who are rejecting and ignoring their own roots and their own culture. They say: ‘Listen, I am Dutch and I have nothing to do with India and nothing to do with Suriname’. By seeing how they were behaving, I thought it was very important for the Dutch-Hindustani people to recognize their roots, culture and history. They should be proud of their history. They are underestimating their culture maybe because of inferiority complex and this complex is creating a block that is preventing them to move on with their lives.”
The first edition of the book was published in 2013 in The Hague and the second edition is recently published last month in Suriname. When asked how he felt about the reception of the book so far, he said: “ I am very happy with the response, specially in the Suriname. Suriname is a country where different ethnic groups live together, for example, Creoles (black people), Indonesians, Lebanese, Jews, and many more. The Hindustani community was kind of a mystery to them and this novel is providing a sort of gateway in the understanding of Indian culture and Indian people. It is the first time that some body has written a book about Hindustan immigration to Suriname.”
Zaidi looks back at his first encounter with a Surnami-Hindustani: “When I was new to this country, an old lady asked me in a typical Surinami way “Kahaa ke bate” and I could not understand her 100%. I just understood 50% of what she said. I asked her “Where are you from?”, she did not respond because she did not understand English, so I asked her in simple Hindustani, “Aap kahan ki hai”, to which she answered “Suriname”. I had never heard that word before in my life.”
A true yet shocking fact that exists in our society is that Indians have forgotten their own people. Indians living in countries like Fiji, Mauritius, Maldives and even Malaysia are known and appreciated for their own mix of culture. Sadly this is not the case when it comes to Surinami Indians. The root cause of this according to Zaidi is the lack of communication between the two nations. Another main reason is because Suriname is not a tourist destination.
“I think it is a pity that not many Indians know about their own people living in another part of the world. One thing I want to tell them through you is Surinami-Hindustanis are very different from the Indians that live in Fiji or Mauritius. The Surinami Indian people are “hybrid Hindustanis”, said Zaidi.
The term “Hybrid Hindustanis” does justice to the people in Suriname due to their high tolerance when it comes to religion and society rules. Away from all the society norms and religious rules, the migrating population broke out of the boundaries and formed a society where everyone is equal and respected.
In one Surinami family, it is normal to find Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other pupils that follow a type of religion. Other tribes and their cultures also influenced the Hindustani people, thus forming a hybrid society where there is no language of love, respect or culture. It is one hybrid community with several historic and cultural aspects that India needs to reconnect with.
Speaking to Safdar Zaidi’s literary agent and close associate Drs. J. S. Mitra Rambaran, who represents the Surinami community helped me get an insight view of how the Surinamese felt about a story that talks to and about them.
She expressed her jovial emotions by saying: “ I am very happy because no one has ever addressed the topic that Zaidi has in our community. His story is a love story between Raj and Lakshmi – a “Mohabbat ki kahani” and the message is so bright and straight from the heart that made me decide to work on it with him.”
Mitra’s great grand parents come from India to Suriname. Her father is from Nickerie, a small village in Suriname. He is the 3rd generation of the family that migrated to Suriname, thus making this whole project more treasurable for her.
“The book by Zaidi has made the story very vivid for us. A lot of my own history is written in that book. My great grand mother migrated from India to Nickerie in Suriname just like several other Indians in order to work at the sugar plantations and this book tells my great grandmother’s story”, revealed Mitra proudly.
Zaidi’s book was recently presented at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on the 8th and the 9th of January. “For me, it was an honor that the Indian Government was willing to pay for the showcasing of the books at the event”, said Mitra.
“I think it is very important for the Indian people to know about this forgotten history. We are forgotten. India bhool gaya hum logon ko. But they have to remember us now. I hope this book will make that connection between us and India.”
The book is going to be published in Hindi and English in India. This is a novel-fiction based on migration of Indians from the Eastern UP/Bihar (Bhojpuri speaking area), which started in 1873 and ended in 1916 due to the intervention of Mahatma Gandhi. Through a heat wrenching love story, the book deals with historic events, causes and consequences of this migration to a Dutch colony at that time.
We should certainly embrace our history and remember our people. This book is a tiny bridge that will help connect two nations that were once one.
“Read the story of Raj and Lakshmi. It is your story. It is our story. It is my story. It is your story. It is our connection.” – Mitra Rambaran.
Khyati Rajvanshi is a Communication, Media and Culture with Film Studies student (BA Honours) at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom.
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