There is a change in outlook, professions and mobility among the new generation of Indian diaspora: Johurdas Singh and Devi

People of Indian Origin constitute more than 68 % of total Mauritian population. Though an overwhelming of them are from Bhojpuri region of Bihar, there are people from other parts of India too that includes Gujaratis, Punjabis, Telugu, Tamils etc. Indian diaspora in Mauritius is perhaps most closer ties with India as compared to Indian diaspora elsewhere. We met Mr. Johurdas Singh, his wife, Devi and his granddaughter Ishika over  breakfast to discuss about their generational journey from indentured labour to transnational professionals, diasporic links and many other themes. Mr. Singh who worked as a Block Development Officer (BDO) in the independent Mauritius is closely associated with the transformation of Mauritian economy and society for last five decades. His wife whose roots are in Bhojpur region of Bihar is a school teacher. In an interactive discussion with Singh’s family,  Sadananda Sahoo and Ajay Mahurkar explored their journey to success and transnational ties. This is the first interview by GRFDT to link with the common people and explore their diasporic link. 

How did your forefathers come to Mauritius?

My dada (grandfather) came to Mauritius in 1890s as indentured labour from South Africa, where he worked few years earlier. Jokingly he mentioned that “those days South Africa had both gold and copper coins. My grandfather used to be very clever,and he exchanged his copper coin with gold coin with the native African as he knew the value of gold is more than the copper He wanted to come back to India and settle after earning so much gold coins. However, his dream was not realized. The gold coin became a matter of problem as his family back home somewhere in Bijapur, Pratap Nagar near Gwalior became jealous and wanted to share that wealth. His next venture was to again go to South Africa but it could not materialize as there was a war in 1899 called Boar war. For the time being he did not know where to go. One day he boarded a ship to Mauritius without knowing anything about the land and people. He got some work at Boischeri, a tea village which meaning is “Darling would you like to drink something?”. This is how he settled in a new land and with his hard work he became a successful person, purchased land and built his own house subsequently and settled permanently.

Do you maintain any relation with India? If so how do you maintain it across the generations?

Two of my Mausi (mother’s sister) are married in and living in Amritsar, Punjab. My maternal side came from Punjab and the linkages are still strong. I visit them occasionally and vice versa. The new generation however prefers to maintain their marriage in Mauritius and elsewhere. There is a change in outlook, professions and mobility among the new generation of Indian diaspora. My daughter is in Australia and chose not to marry. Being parents, we don’t wish to interfere in their personal matter unlike earlier generations.


Tell us something about festivals and how does it is similar or different from the practice in India?

Divali is a national festival in Mauritius. Even the Church puts the lights, distributes sweets. We distribute Mithai (sweets) to all our non-hindu neigbours. Thus the festivals brings new spirit and promotes cultural exchange and good wills. Similarly Muslims distribute  Sevai on the Eid. Chinese too bring their festivals to us. Mauritius is  very liberal and promotes cohabitation.  

What reasons you attribute for this cohabitation among different religious and ethnic groups?

One of the main reasons is that a group of labour bought their land together and lives in the same village together. They also shared similar fate while struggling to survive in a new land. The cohabitation and cultural exchange is really very well embedded among all Mauritians. It is very common to see Chinese families watching Hindi movies and so also we watch Chinese movies. The movies have subtitles in English or French so people from other languages and culture can understand. Our lingua franca is creole- a mixture of French as base language and some from Hindi as well as many other African and Asian languages.  

We see that the media also created a strong diaspora and homeland relations. It provides not only entertainment but also engaged people in the social issues with the homeland and vice versa. Other than movies the Television Channels have created their own constituency.

While Ishika, the granddaughter of Mr. Singh mentioned that there are about 13 Television Channels in Mauritus catering to the needs of the multicultural and multiethnic people in languages such as Bjojpuri, Creol, tamil, Marathi, telugu, Hindi etc. Mr. Singh added that the Mauritian Broadcasting corporation  (MBC) also broadcasts programmes in these languages. Besides this some in Mauritius have also started producing films in Bhojpuri and Creol. Thus there is a very interesting panorama in Mauritius so far as the Television audience is concern. 

Mr. Singh you have mentioned that your maternal side is from Punjab. What is the profile of Punjabis especially Sikh diaspora in Mauritius? 

There are about 10 Sikh families in Mauritius and one Gurudwara.  They are a very vibrant community.

As a Block Development Officer, you must have witnessed how the Indians transformed their life from marginalized labourers to prosperity.  

Development of People of Indian Origin is related to colonial history. Earlier Indians use to construct their houses in areas surrounding the sugarcane plantation. One, two, three, four...and the number of houses surrounding the sugarcane plantation gradually made it a village. Gradually some of the Indians became small planters. They were supplying sugar cane to the plantationss. This is the initial foundation for their economic growth. A block Development Officer like me looks after 2-3 villages and the entire country had about 40-50 BDOs in approximately 90 villages in Mauritius. BDOs looks after the agricultural development providing skills to the people to grow their vegetable and fruits so that Mauritius will be agriculturally self sufficient. The political leaders of that time wanted to provide the best infrastructure to the Villages. Those days the houses were made up of straw and mud. Government gave allowances to people to make their houses- gave them iron, wood and construction materials. People became part of the their own development with the support of Government. 

What do you think of the relations between Non Resident Indians (NRIs) and PIOs in Mauritius?

The new comers from India (NRIs) are mostly professionals.  Two NRIs have also rented the first floor of my house and we enjoy their company.

How about the religious links with India?

The Arya Samaj, a prominent socio-religious reform movement from North India is very active in Mauritius. Mauritians also come in large numbers to India to visit the ashram of Sai Baba. 

What are your hobbies?

I and my family watch a lot of football. When Ajay (Mahurkar) and his wife were in Mauritius in the 1990s we together watched a lot of world cup matches drinking hot cups of Ovaltine late in to the night as the timing of the matches was scheduled around that time.

Thank you

* Picture Mr. Johurdas Singh with his family on a Heritage walk to Kashmiri Gate, 24 Nov 13 — with Niti Deoliya and Ajay Mahurkar

Interview Date:   Sunday, May 18, 2014
Person Name:   Johurdas Singh

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