This post was written by one of our participants, Savitha Suri on her visit of Dharavi Island with local expert Mogan Rodrigues. You can find the original post here.
Imagine for a moment, that you woke up one day and found that you have forgotten your native language, food and attire. And to your horror, you are at your home that is filled with strangers who feel more at home than you do.
What if you found that your family – and your community – is in the same predicament as you?
What is your social and cultural identity then? Who are you really? Where will you go – if you wish to – to reclaim your identity?
Will you give up and forge a new identity? Or pick up pieces that still survive and cling to them hoping that they will lead you to your roots?
I am guessing the answer to that would depend on how vulnerable, threatened, insecure, motivated or inspired you are by your past and present.
Now imagine an entire community seeking answers to these questions.
The pieces of the East Indian community’s history lie scattered across a vast region; from Bandra to Vasai crisscrossing through villages such as Manori, Gorai, Uttan and Culvem – which are part of Dharavi.
That’s right. Dharavi. But not the sprawling urban slum that springs to your mind. Dharavi Island.
It is home to a community that was created out of the native Hindu population when they converted to Christian Catholicism during the Portuguese rule.
A community who chose to be called thus as a way to differentiate themselves from the migrant population that was encroaching their land.
Proclaimed East Indian by royal charter, the community’s members lie scattered all over the world. Their early exposure to European powers and their steady anglicisation meant that their traditional ways of living slowly receded into the mists of time.
Dharavi island remains one of the last bastions of the East Indian community and their traditions.
You will find it in the lugda they drape, in the jewellery they wear, their distinct East Indian Marathi (which has a few Portuguese words as a throwback to the Europeans who forced a new religion on them), their script, their Indo Portuguese cuisine and even their names.
A community that got it’s members from all castes of the Hindus, the East Indians were by no means immune to the Indian Independence movement. It was after all, an East Indian – Kaka Baptista who coined ‘Swaraj is my birthright and I shall fight for it’ made popular by – and often incorrectly attributed to – Tilak. He also represented Tilak and Savarkar during their incarceration.
The tiny museum named after him attempts to put together pieces of a not so distant past. It’s shelves are filled with clay ovens, pans, serving dishes, ladles, musical instruments, jewellery and books that are poignant reminders of a community that is clinging to remnants of their traditional lifestyle.
They wage lonely battles to prevent their quaint villages from being over run by modern monstrosities like amusement parks, SEZ zones and waste management plants that serve as a grim reminder of how vulnerable they are.
Their relative isolation from the megapolis is a double edged sword. And if it has to swing in their favour, they need their stories shared, valued and appreciated.
Walk down the lanes of their villages or run your hand along the ruins of the first church that was built.
Read the names on the memorial plaques at another ancient church or look up at the quarry where the stones for the Bassein Fort came from.
Gaze into the vast sea whose shores have a memorial for Brother Herman who rid the village of witchcraft and made it habitable again or tuck into an authentic East Indian meal at one of their homes.
And when you leave their shores, you will find yourself sending a silent prayer to the heavens that they succeed in forging a stronger identity that is built on a judicious foundation of their rich history.
The Kaka Baptista East Indian Museum mentioned in the post is run by the Mobai Gaothan Panchayat (www.mobaikar.com) and is open for visits on weekends. It is located at Theresa Villa on the Manori-Gorai Road, five minutes from the jetty at Manori.
It is a stop on the East Indian Heritage Tour run by Swadesee with local expert Mogan Rodrigues.