Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's an Indo (hyphen) world

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Manitoba is home to more than 15,000 people who trace their roots to India. Many of them are happy to call themselves Indo-Canadians, but others, like me, find the term a little restrictive. After all, I was born in India, grew up in Zambia and spent a couple of decades in America before coming to Canada. Shouldn't that make me an Indo-Zam-Ameri-Canadian?

I might be the only Indo-Zam-Ameri-Canadian in Winnipeg, but the city has attracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of immigrants of East Indian descent who were born or raised outside India.

The search for better opportunities has taken Indians all over the world, creating a diaspora that's so large, you'd cause a riot in many cities if you banned cricket or curry. (Actually, many of us can live without cricket, but heaven help the person who messes with our curry!)

About 2.5 million people of Indian origin live in Africa, mostly in South Africa and Mauritius. Over the last few decades, scores of Indo-Africans -- as you might call them -- have sought greener pastures in Canada and other western countries.

Some, like Kish Modha, had little choice but to leave.

Though he was born in Uganda, Modha was among some 50,000 Indians expelled from the country in 1972 on the orders of the dictator Idi Amin.

Uganda's loss was Canada's gain.

About 6,000 of those expelled Indians made their way here. Modha and his wife, Divya, went to the U.S. initially, then decided to come to Manitoba, where her two sisters had settled. Modha, who once owned four photo studios in the province, is now co-owner and general manager of Mondetta Clothing in Winnipeg. He's very active in Mondetta Charity Foundation, which he and his partners created to help needy children in Uganda and Kenya, the countries of their birth.

"For us, that is the motherland," Modha says.

The "motherland" is on a different continent for hundreds of other Winnipeggers of East Indian descent. Several generations of them have lived in Guyana, a country of only 770,000 people on the northern coast of South America. People of East Indian descent are the largest ethnic group in Guyana, comprising 43 per cent of the population.

A former British colony, Guyana is considered part of the Caribbean and shares cultural ties with English-speaking Caribbean countries such as Trinidad and Jamaica.

Like Trinidad, Guyana celebrates Indian Arrival Day every May, commemorating the arrival of the first shiploads of indentured labourers from India. From 1838 to 1917, more than half a million Indians went to the Caribbean to work on sugar and other plantations.

Hundreds of their descendants now live in Winnipeg and you will see The Golden Arrowhead, the national flag of Guyana, flying alongside the Maple Leaf at many of their gatherings.

Derek Dabee, a trustee in Seven Oaks School Division, came to Winnipeg from Guyana in 1972. His great-great-grandfather had migrated to Guyana from India in the late 19th century.

Depending on the context, Dabee might call himself an Indo-Canadian, an East Indian from the Caribbean or a Guyanese-Canadian.

He's very proud of his roots in India. "My favourite music is still East Indian music," he says. "The Indian dance form is still my favorite. I'm very proud of Indian civilization and the Sanskrit and Vedas legacy."

He's also proud that Alana Seebarran, a 24-year-old Guyanese student at York University in Toronto, was recently crowned Miss India Worldwide 2012. Her talent in classical Indian and Bollywood-style dancing helped her win the title, beating contestants of Indian origin -- from 34 other countries.

East Indians from the Caribbean have managed to hold onto vital aspects of their Indian culture. Many of them practice Hinduism, teach their children Indian dance and music, and eat rotis and curry. "Our weddings are pure Indian tradition -- we haven't missed a beat," Dabee says.

At the same time, they've been influenced by Latin, Caribbean and other cultures. You can see some of that influence at the Guyanese Association of Manitoba's annual picnic, held in July at Crescent Drive Park. The main event at the picnic is a duck curry contest, a dozen or so teams competing for medals and trophies, some using recipes handed down over generations.

A D.J. plays a variety of Caribbean music, sometimes chutney with Hindi lyrics, blaring it from the pavilion to the corners of the park. And before a scrumptious lunch is served, the grass in front of the pavilion turns into a dance floor, young and old joining in.

"We can sing and dance to country music, reggae and calypso," Dabee says.

"And yet we kept our Indianness."


Melvin Durai is Indo-Zam-Ameri-Canadian freelance writer in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 0

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