India taking destiny in own hands

Sadly, my Amma passed away before I could spoil her with a trip to India when I started working. Since her passing, I have visited India on a few occasions with the last two trips allowing me to see our ancestral villages through her eyes

Selvan, Sanrashnee, Vaisham and Saraniya Naidoo at the beach outside the Subramaniya Swamy Temple, Tiruchendur

Published Feb 18, 2024


THE ancestral flame danced on the wick of our Kamachi Vilakku, while my Amma sang the Namasivaya Maalai as my grandmother, Amrutham Varden, took her last breath.

Goddess Kamatchi Amman of Kanchipuram is the central feature of the Kamachi Villakku (god lamp) symbolising light over darkness. Like the Kamachi Vilakku, the Namasivaya Maalai, a song sung during bereavement or prayer, holds an emotive connection to generations of Indian South Africans.

For my beloved Amma, just saying the name ‘Kamachi’ rendered her emotional - for it connected her to her great-grandmother, 29-year-old indentured worker Camachee, no 3297, who arrived in South Africa from Madras, India, on board the Saxon in 1864.

Worshipping Kamachi Amman connected us to our ancestral indentured labour catchment villages, that of Kanchipuram, Vellore, Chittoor, North and South Arcot, Thiruvannamalai and others in Tamil Nadu, from where two-thirds of Natal’s 152 000 indentured workers came to grow an ailing colonial economy in the 19th Century.

Despite not being able to afford to go to India, Amma always wished to one day see Kamachi Amman of Kanchipuram, Arunachalesvara of Thiruvannamalai, and Muruga Peruman’s Arupadai Veedu.

It was through my Amma that I learned of Tamilkam, the Cholas of Thanjavur, of Thiruvalluvar, the Saiva Nayanars, of Veerapandiya Kattabomman, of Subramanya Bharatiya, of Periyar, of Rabindranath Tagore, and Kumari Kandam.

Sadly, she passed away before I could spoil her with a trip to India when I started working. Since her passing, I have visited India on a few occasions with the last two trips allowing me to see our ancestral villages through my Amma’s eyes.

My last trip, last month, was emotional because my children got to see the ancestral lands their Paarti (granny) yearned to see.

Over these visits spanning a period of 24 years, most visible in this last visit, India has stoically transformed herself into one of the leading nations of the world, ranking as the fifth-largest economy by nominal GDP and the third-largest by purchasing power parity.

The rapid transformation has witnessed blossoming first-world developments in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, and Chennai. The ubiquitous Hindustan Ambassador car that we travelled with, on our first trips, was nowhere to be seen. Instead we were greeted with the spacious Innova Cresta and Uber driving three-wheeled Tuk Tuk drivers armed with cell phones attached to their consoles.

We landed in the city of dreams, Mumbai, late at night, driving through the incredible 5.6km long, 8-lane wide Bandra-Worli Sea Link bridge, making our way to our hotel on the Queen’s Necklace, Marine Drive.

The Mumbai that we had seen years before, pulsates amidst the rush and roar of life to a new song of humanity’s finest city in the world. A world that saw American pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton and Andy Warhol on the walls of the new Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in a first-of-its-kind exhibition in India.

Venturing out from Gateway of India to the rock-carved UNESCO Elephanta Island, we were serenaded to the classic tunes of Bollywood songs on a 90-minute return ferry on the Arabian Sea.

One song reminded me of home, Pardesi, pardesi (foreigner) Jaana nahi (don’t go), Mujhe chhod ke (don’t leave me)…

The song’s deeper resonance reminded me of India’s close relationship with the pardesi diaspora of my great-great-grandmother Camachee and the 30 million people, who left the eastern seaboard of India in search of a better life between 1840 to 1940. One of these pardesis was Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, who never relinquished his Indian passport despite living in the United States for most of his adult life.

My month-long visit to Bharat, diplomatically coalesced work commitments to include a family holiday. The late Enuga Sreenivasulu Reddy, an Indian-born diplomat at the United Nations and Chairperson of the UN's Special Committee Against Apartheid, was the reason for my visits to Mumbai and New Delhi.

In Mumbai, the ES Reddy Festschrift that I co-edited with Professor Jairam Reddy, chair of South Africa’s 1860 Heritage Centre’s History Society in Durban, was launched in Mani Bhavan, Gandhi Sangrahalaya.

In Delhi, the launch was held at the prestigious India International Centre where the work of the 1860 Heritage Centre and the unknown story of Indian indenture to South Africa was extolled as we paid tribute to Padma Shri and Order of Companions of OR Tambo recipient, ES Reddy.

At the launch in Mumbai, leading columnist and aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sudheendra Kulkarni, reminded the audience of India’s role in never forgetting her Pardesis and ensuring that India’s development trajectory cannot be separated from Africa’s development.

Fishing colony vendors at Marina Beach, Chennai

On our last days in Mumbai, we were treated to a traditional and sumptuous Maharashtrian home-cooked supper at the Kulkani’s, a home that pays more reverence to the art of South Africa and the heroes of South Africa’s freedom struggle than many a home back in South Africa.

The panoramic city view of Mumbai’s seven-island Metropolis from Kulkani’s flat overlooks a bustling city that sees the construction of a subway and the Rs 12 770 crore Coastal Road Project aiming to reduce Mumbai’s maddening traffic of 21 million people.

Leaving Mumbai, we travelled to Thiruvananthapuram, seeing one of the world’s greatest mandapams (hallway) at the glorious Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The next part of our journey saw us travel on ancient Tamilkam lands with a day trip to pay tribute to Amma’s beloved Tamil poet, Thiruvalluvar at Kanyakumari.

We then ventured to the seaside abode of Lord Muruga, Thiruchendur. Both Thirunelveli and Thiruchendur were ravaged by extensive flooding seeing large tracts of agricultural land being destroyed with little help arriving from the government outside of the PRO photographic branding exercises that we too become accustomed to in South Africa.

Archival files on indentured Indians that came to Natal at the Chennai Archives in Tamil Nadu, India

On this latest trip, we unceremoniously got to learn of the forbidden use of cell phones inside the temple. A welcome policy given that the deeply spiritual experience inside each temple is far more rewarding than any Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok post. Thankfully, TikTok is banned in India.

From Thiruchendur, we made our way to the ancient city of Madurai. The breathtakingly beautiful Meenachi Amman Temple with its towering gopurams (gateway towers) ranks as the finest example of Dravidian architecture seen anywhere in the world.

From Madurai we visited Muruga’s abodes at Palani, Thiruparankundram and Pazhamudircholai, moving on to the seat of culture in Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur, the centre for Tamil religion, art and architecture.

The UNESCO world heritage Great Living Chola temple, Brihadisvara forms the heartbeat of this ancient town. Brihadisvara and the art and architecture throughout ancient India must lead the decolonial revision of education across the world, taking its place alongside Global North Classical antiquity studies, rather than in glossary studies of the exotic.

Beyond Thanjavur, we visited the lost wax bronze sculpture artist’s town of Swamimalai. From here we drove for four hours to the holy town of Thiruvannamalai in anticipation of seeing the red mountain of Arunachala. My eyes welled up as I saw Amma’s face guiding us to the lotus feet of Arunachalesvara. So holy is the divine Hill, that it is believed that just the mere thought and sight of Mount Arunachala is enough to grant a devotee liberation.

After immersing ourselves at Arunachala we headed to the 1 000 temple city of Kanchipuram. On route to Kanchipuram, I sensed the connection to the area where many of our indentured ancestry would have come from. Kanchipuram is close to Vellore and Arcot (from) where a large majority of indenture Indians left for Natal. It was here that we finally got to see the beloved Kamachi Amman in her resplendent glory.

From here we drove to Thirutani, completing our Arupadai Veedu pilgrimage; arriving at Chennai late in the evening. Chennai drums to the energetic beat of the parai drum seeing people working late into the night. Beyond the headache endured by our credit card and my Manavi’s (wife’s), Imelda Marcos-like love for saris at T Nagar and Pondy Bazaar, I got to spend valuable time at the Tamil Nadu Archives where much of our primary research on indenture to Natal lies in wait.

With this year marking the 75th anniversary of India’s constitution signing, while South Africa marks 30 years of our democracy, we witnessed great parallels between the BRICS partners.

Inequality runs riot in both countries, a hurdle that cannot be ignored if both countries hope to lead the world to lift the economic stranglehold of the Global North. As India hurtles toward (becoming) a global superpower, South Africa can learn from India how it enables all her people to get affordable data. We paid a mere R222 for an entire month’s supply shared between the four of us. We can also learn how to elude load shedding for a country of 1.4 billion people.

A Muslim family enjoys a picnic on New Year’s eve on the temple ground of the UNESCO world heritage great living Chola Brihadisvara Temple

As I toured India, taking all my Facebook friends on a grand virtual tour, one of the world’s finest scholars of cultural history and social theory, Director of the Centre of Indian Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Dilip Menon, posted on Facebook about a phenomenal movie, 12th Fail. A movie that reminded him about the perils of his father to land a much sought after government job. I got to see this remarkable movie on YouTube a week after my trip to India; a movie that resonantly captures the essence of my experience of the ancestral land, my Amma yearned to see.

12th Fail foregrounds the will and resilience of the working people of India, of pardesis like my great-great-grandmother Camachee and millions of others who choose never to give up, resiliently pursuing a better life.

For the faceless indefatigable masses that drive the juggernaut that is modern India, their dreams and aspirations to succeed in the face of incredible odds is a victory for the entire nation when even just a few from the ‘herd’ succeed. This resilience is epitomised in the lyrics of a movie song from 12th Fail that typifies the spirit of people like Camachee and millions of others, Haara wahi jo lada nahi! A zero is what you make of it... An end, or a chance to #Restart

Restart Jeero se kar restart

Start from zero…

Jeero dass ko lakh banaye

Zero turns 10 into 1 lakh,

Jeero se kya Darna bey

Don’t be afraid of zero,

Jeero ke pahiye banake Tu aage aage badhna bey,

Move forward using zero as a wheel,

Badhna bey badhna bey

Keep moving forward.

Ganapati ko Jake biti Rath Rasta nadekhe koi aaj

If you can’t see any way at night

Batti jala raat bhaga

turn on the lights and drive away the night,

Pasa Palate Board Ulate Phir baaji le aapne hath

Change your ways, change the board, and take your destiny into your own hands.

Selvan Naidoo is the director of the 1860 Heritage Centre


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