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Those Nights In Nairobi

From early seafarers to a globalised people, overseas Gujaratis are etched as a distinct type

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Those Nights In Nairobi
Getty Images (From Outlook 02 June 2014)
Those Nights In Nairobi

Seafaring Gujaratis are known to have engaged with the outside world for centuries. Gujaratis have had trade links with the ancient Romans, Persians, Chinese and Egyptians. It may have been a Kutchi sailor, by the name of Kanji Malam, who escorted Vasco da Gama from the Kenyan coast to India.  So, as the era of colonialism began, a Gujarati was best qualified to be there at the inauguration. This zeal for outbound trade has taken them, in recent times, to far ends of the world. Even so, it might make eyes pop, in India and beyond, when we are told that rock star Freddie Mercury, actor Ben Kingsley, conductor Zubin Mehta, Pakistani wri­ter Bapsi Sidhwa, the statuesque Persis Khambatta and acid-jazz singer Asha Puthli are Gujaratis or have some links with Gujarat. An impressive diasporic roster, yes—but you do not expect it, even in a jocular aside, to be stretched up to the doorstep of the British royal family. If reports from June 2013 are to be believed, Prince William and his brother, Andrew, have links to Gujarat.

Here’s the back story. Trace William’s matriliny, via Lady Di, all the way to seven generations back, and you reach Eliza Kewark. Of Armenian-Indian origin, Eliza was the hou­sekeeper of Theo­dore Forbes, a Scottish merchant who worked for the East India Company in Surat. Thus, dna research has offered reason for Diana and her sons to be smuggled into the bulging pantheon of Non-Resident Gujaratis (NRGS)!

Not that this roster needs any burnishing. The larger story of the high-achieving Gujarati diaspora is one that reaches deep into historical time, with unknown sailors making off from the manufacturing and trading hubs in Gujarat from the days of the Indus Valley Civilisation, and this involved cultural goods like printed textiles, a connection that endures.


Pravasi Gujaratis: The Bhai And Ben Who Have Conquered The Globe

Zubin Mehta Renowned conductor, music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra   Ben Kingsley Born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, the actor is known for an Oscar­­winning role in Gandhi. 

Dilip Doshi The man for Mont Blanc and ex-India spinner is a UK businessman and friends with Mick Jagger.   Erick Avari born Nariman Eruch Avari, he is an actor known for his roles in science fiction films

Persis Khambatta Hollywood actress with striking looks, none more so than this shaven head in a Star Trek movie.   Bapsi Sidhwa US-based author and playwright from Lahore, known for collaborations with Deepa Mehta

Hashim Amla One of the world’s best batsmen, this South African’s family is originally from Gujarat   Deepak Patel Played 37 Tests and 75 ODIs for New Zealand. Born in Kenya, moved to the UK in 1968.

Freddie Mercury The frontman of iconic supergroup Queen was born in Zanzibar, Tanzania, as Farrukh Balsara    Javed Miandad One of Pakistan’s best-known cricketers, his parents moved from Palanpur in Gujarat to Karachi


No wonder Gujaratis have had no qua­lms in crossing the ‘kaala paani’, traditionally proscribed for savarna Indians, and it shows in the lives of many of them. Gandhi’s two decades in South Africa are rather well known. Dhirubhai Amb­ani, founder of Reliance Industries, spent part of his formative years in Aden, including as an attendant in a gas-filling station. And Freddie Merc­ury was born in Zanzibar—a factor of the Gujarati settlements in British-held parts of Africa since the 19th century, being everything from ordinary shopkeepers to trading in gems and spices.

The story of the Gujarati diaspora, in this sense, differs largely from the migratory patterns of other Indian communities. Indian-origin people to be found in the old colonial holdings, especially from eastern UP, Bihar, the Chhottanagpur plateau and parts of south India, were largely taken as indentured labour. Gujaratis, on the contrary, launched themselves into the outside world voluntarily, in the quest for commerce and expansion of mercantile links. “Gujaratis have long been part of the Indian Ocean trade networks and have looked at the global economy as an opportunity rather than a threat, quite unlike their counterparts in the east,” says Devesh Kapur of the University of Pennsylvania.

True, with a 1,600-km long coastline,  it’s also natural that these links with the outside world through trade were fostered by local hubs of great importance on the medieval Indian map.  The Gulf of Cambay, bang in the centre of flourishing, old sea trade routes that stretched from China at one end and linked up with Persia, Aden and the Euro­pean civilisations via the Red Sea in the ancient days, allowed the port cities of Lothal, Bharuch, Cambay and Surat to develop over two millennia. A deep Gujarati engagement with West Asia, East and South Africa, and South­east Asia on the other side, and openness to a certain multiculturalism, was a concomitant development.

But are there special traits Gujaratis have that distinguish them from others in the Indian diaspora? “The very strong family ties and deep cultural roots that helped build trust and networks distinguish Gujaratis and have in turn been critical for their entrepreneurial success,” says Kapur. As a leading expert on the Indian diaspora and author of Diaspora, Development and Democracy, he poi­nts out that the provision of access to cre­dit within the network rather than having to seek recourse to the formal banking system also allowed Guj­a­ratis to succeed and sustain business expansion even during times of crises. Other commentators have noted that the community’s global renown in business matters was such that a bill of credit issued by a Gujarati merchant would be honoured as far as 5,000 miles away.

However, there was a marked acceleration in migration from the late 19th century, when Gujaratis began to go to East and South Africa and parts of the Gulf. The destination seemed to change towards the West after World War II and Independence. From the 1960s on, large number of Indians, including many Gujaratis, went to the UK and the US. It included droves of Gujaratis from East Africa, particularly from Uganda when dictator Idi Amin expelled Indians who controlled the country’s commerce.

Experts feel the expulsion from Uganda had an impact on Gujaratis, especially those who went to the UK and later to the US (the Indian government was reluctant to take them back). As they bounced back through sheer resilience and talent, the West allowed Gujaratis to break away from many of their typical professions. Thus, the ‘dukawalas’ or shopkeepers in Africa and UK and, later, the Motel-Patels in the US, tried their hand in other businesses and professions. Now, non-resident Gujaratis are one of the most affluent and influential sections among nris, and many from these sections were actively invo­lved as a strong diasporic element providing momentum (and funds) to the Modi campaign.

“There was a lot of Gandhian idealism in my grandmother’s generation. Then my mother’s generation turned more consumerist. Then came globalisation in our time. It is the most globalised community in India now,” says Vibhuti Patel of Mumbai’s SNDT University. Truly, in a globalised world, the image of the stereotyped Gujarati is challenged by those in politics, arts and entertainment, medicine, information technology etc.

This section constitutes among the str­ongest Indian lobbies in the US. Their aggressive lobbying dur­ing the 1999 Kar­gil war forced the US to pressurise Pak­istan to vacate Indian territory. The irony is that, after the 2002 riots, the Gujarati diaspora lobbied with their gov­ernments to deny Modi a visa. Later, a key section supported him in a bid to end his interna­tional isolation and did their bit to reach out to Japan, Singapore, China and Rus­sia, ped­dling the ‘Gujarat model’ as a viable plan to engage with investors.

Many in the Gujarati diaspora will now naturally ramp up their voluble support for Modi and bask in the glory of Gujarati pride, but we should not be surprised if some of them continue to be against his visit to the US. For in 2014, overseas Gujaratis are a disparate lot.

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