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Small Indian community has struck roots in St Lucia

india Updated: Jun 19, 2006 11:13 IST
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Jennifer Gaston and Fleming Victor Luther Salapuddi are both people of Indian origin in St Lucia - where the second India-West Indies test was played - successful professionals, people of some standing in a tiny island nation where the small Indian community has struck roots.

The difference between them is that Gaston's family came to this island over a hundred years ago, part of the indentured labour shipped by the British to man their plantations.

Salapuddi came in the 1970s, one of the first Indian doctors to come to work in the Caribbean. One is St Lucian, West Indian and Caribbean; the other is an Indian in St Lucia. It is an interesting contrast.

St Lucia is not a large island, it has an area of just under 250 sq miles or 619 sq km and a population of about 160,000.

Less than 20,000 would be of Indian origin. But, Gaston says, there is no distinct African culture or Indian culture here, like say, in Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana.

I bumped into Gaston at the Beausejour Stadium, during the second India-West Indies Test.

She is with the Local Organising Committee of next year's Cricket World Cup, a project officer handling media and communications.

In her mid-40s, a mother of two children, she has boundless energy and endless patience to answer all my questions.

"And," she adds, "my mother was married to the brother of Bernard Julien (the West Indian all-rounder of the mid-70s). As a result of that I was automatically involved with cricket."

She says she is a second-generation Indian: "My grandfather came from India, and settled in St Lucia. He was a maharaja, I think most of them were from (around) Calcutta (Kolkata)."

"My generation has not done a lot about looking at our history (roots), whether Indian or African," she says. "That history is lost."

Gaston grew up in Trinidad and Tobago, an hour's flight south from these Windward Islands, where her mother had migrated to.

"You had an idea of different aspects of Indian culture there. You had an idea of Diwali. You knew there were some holidays because of a Hindu festival, some because of a Muslim festival.

"Here, in St Lucia, we don't have that sort of a thing. There is no celebration of Indian festivals. There is only a St Lucian culture. If Indian expats celebrate their festival, they do it privately."

Salapuddi, when I met him on the public holiday of Corpus Christi, says bluntly: "There is no St Lucian Hindu.

There are 20,000 descendants (from the original indentured labour) and almost all are Christians."

Of course, he excludes people like himself when he makes the statement, people who have acquired St Lucian citizenship after arriving in these isles as professionals, on work permits.

Salapuddi is 62 years old. He looks 55, grey hair and grey moustache notwithstanding. He's short and dapper, his eyes lively and his manner of speaking professorial.

He has a private practice and is the doctor in residence for several hotels, including Rex Resorts, where the Indian team stayed during the second Test.

His is obviously a familiar face for, when a security guard fails to recognise him at the gate, he says very matter of factly, "He must be a new recruit".

His is an interesting story. As he narrates it, he arrived in Antigua in 1972, 28 years old, with an MBBS degree from Kakinada Medical School, wife and three children in tow, after his father, a police inspector, had learnt that there were vacancies for doctors in the Caribbean.

"Nobody had heard of Antigua," he says, "nobody knew where Antigua was." (This, of course, was before Andy Roberts and Viv Richards had made their cricketing starts and made that little island a household name in the cricketing world.)

But he settled well there. The word spread back home and within a year, with his help, other Indian doctors, mainly from Andhra Pradesh, arrived. They earned the respect of the locals who, he said, felt it was a "blessing from heaven for these guys to come here".

"When Indians come out (of the country), they work hard and make a name for themselves," he says. "For eight hours' salary, you put in 12 hours' work. A local puts in four."

If it weren't for political reasons, Salapuddi says he would have stayed on in Antigua. "After seven years' residence in Antigua, I would have been automatically entitled to citizenship. But after six years and 10 months, I got a letter from the health ministry saying my contract would not be renewed.

"The Antiguan prime minister at that time, the late VC Bird senior, was not too happy with Indians settling in Antigua. So Salapuddi relocated to St Lucia. Here, over the last 25 years, he has seen life become more and more comfortable for the Indian expat.

For instance, he says, "When we came, there was no white rice available, only parboiled rice. It was available in Guyana, but nobody was importing it.

"Now, everything is available," says Salapuddi. "There is an Indian factory in Fort Vieux (a town in the southernmost part of St Lucia) and it imports everything we need from Guyana. There is Zee TV. There is even a small temple in Fort Vieux."

But even in those days, he said, there were plenty of reminders of home.

"There were vegetables here familiar to us at home but which locals didn't know could be eaten, like drumsticks, it was used as fencing material. And jackfruits."

For entertainment, he says, one of the two theatres in the capital Castries screened Hindi films. "I saw Amitabh Bachchan in 'Coolie' there," he recalls with a smile. "Amitabh was very, very popular here.

"In fact, people used to sing Hindi songs here without knowing what they meant."

Now, it is not so, says Gaston. The music in St Lucia today, the songs that the younger generation listens to, those which are constantly played over radio stations, they are heavily influenced by contemporary tastes in Europe and USA.

She regrets the passing away of a culture that was folk influenced, songs that were topical and of protest, the traditional calypso, to the current trend of dance music, jumping, jumping, jumping...

"You know," she says, "Soca music evolved in Trinidad in the 80s as a fusion between Indian and African music. But now it has changed completely, influenced by American and Western dance music."

Gaston is concerned about these changes but explains, "We should not see change as bad. Everything evolves, I can't expect my daughter to lead her life like I did when I was growing up but I have to teach her my values of what is right and what is not."

What worries her even more is news items like the one in the The Star, a local tabloid, headlined: "St Lucia calls in British bobbies to tackle killings".

The report states that the island is "at the heart of the narcotics routes that criss-cross the Caribbean" and is a "perfect haven for traffickers".

It is also mentioned that the number of murders in the island has "quadrupled to record levels...37 people killed in 2004 and another 37 in 2005".

She feels the men in these islands have become more irresponsible and it is reflected in the large number of unmarried single mothers in the country.

She points to a cluster of houses in a nearby hillside and says: "Did you know that 70 per cent of the people who bought houses in that area (in Gros Islet) were single, unmarried mothers?"

"Women are wary of the Caribbean man," she says. "They know they have to take care of themselves."

Women do so in the expat Indian community, too, but in different ways. Arranged marriages are still on their minds, says Salapuddi.

And parents' approval is desired. He says his daughter waited five years to marry the man she loved, a Guyanese Indian, because that's how long it took for his wife to accept it.

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