Review: India Moving by Chinmay Tumbe

Updated on Sep 14, 2018 09:05 PM IST

Erudite and thought-provoking, Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving shows that the ongoing Great Indian Migration Wave is the world’s largest and longest voluntary migration episode in migration history

Old ties; new roots: Supporters of Seewoosagur Ramgolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, before he spoke for Mauritian independence during a constitutional conference at Lancaster House, London, on July 19, 1965.(Corbis via Getty Images)
Old ties; new roots: Supporters of Seewoosagur Ramgolam, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, before he spoke for Mauritian independence during a constitutional conference at Lancaster House, London, on July 19, 1965.(Corbis via Getty Images)
Hindustan Times | By
285pp, ₹599; Penguin
285pp, ₹599; Penguin

Narayanan was 14 when he left his home in a remote Kerala village in 1943. During dinner table conversations decades later he spoke about riding buffalo through verdant fields, about trudging 15 km one way to school in the nearest town, Shoranur. He rarely spoke about his own father, whom he escaped along with the suffocations of rural life when he ran away to join the Royal Navy. For the next 26 years, even as he sailed the oceans, became an officer, and was one of the many men in the armed services who participated in building independent India, he sent home money every month to ensure that his younger brothers and sisters – there were six – were fed, clothed and educated. He married my mother at 40 and died a month after I turned 18. My father was a punctual man.

I thought of him a great deal, of the travels of my extended family to the Middle East and to the US, and of my own years growing up in Mumbai, the city that hosts many sub-national diasporas, as I read Chinmay Tumbe’s India Moving.

An outstanding volume that looks particularly at the many migrations that Indians have undertaken in the modern age, it, in the author’s words, “shows how 25 million people who traced their roots to India in the past three centuries were dispersed across the world from Japan to Jamaica.” It stresses that the country “currently sustains the world’s largest and longest voluntary migration episode in migration history”. The author has labeled the phenomenon, which doesn’t seem to have a terminal date, “the Great Indian Migration Wave”.

While touching on everything from Udipi restaurants and the most famous Bunts in Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai and Shilpa Shetty, to Khoja Muslim enterprise, Odias in Surat, and areas that have historically seen high rates of migration, India Moving also examines the mass migrations caused by the Partition of India in 1947, the refugee crisis that pushed the country to get involved in the Bangladesh Liberation War, and the forgotten refugee crisis that accompanied the Japanese invasion of Burma. Flashback to photographs of children in frilly frocks posing with Burmese ayahs in the albums of now-dead relatives; to their stories of eating leaves as they trudged from Burma to Manipur.

The history and experiences of Indian communities across the world vary: While Idi Amin drove away Indians from Uganda in the 1970s, tensions in Surinam led 100,000 Surinamese Indians to move to the Netherlands in the 1970s, and Fiji continues to have a fraught relationship with its Indians, Singapore and Mauritius host vibrant, ever-growing communities, and curry-eating UK has been fundamentally changed by the subcontinental influx, Brexit notwithstanding.

Read more: Excerpt - India Moving by Chinmay Tumbe

For the insider-outsider, Tumbe’s observations on sub-Indian diasporas are particularly interesting: “Using census data on languages, I conservatively estimate the internal diasporas of ten major languages – Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, Odia, Kannada, Telegu, Malayalam and Tamil – that are spoken by over 90 per cent of the Indian population to collectively stand at over 60 million people, more than double the size of India’s international diaspora.” He looks at internal displacement as a result of development projects and violence and observes that “more than 40 million people have been displaced within India due to development-related projects since Independence.” He states that the more privileged castes have historically been more mobile, that “The lack of substantive spatial mobility continues to disempower the lowest-ranking castes of India”. This is due both to the lack of capital that allows only for short-term migration and to the absence of “informational networks”.

“The migration networks fostered by priests, warriors and merchants over centuries gave their descendents a major informational advantage over the SCs and STs that is as important as the economic advantages in grabbing new opportunities,” Tumbe writes, adding elsewhere that these factors have also “stunted” the development of the diasporas of the Adivasis and the Dalits. India’s villages might have moved beyond shadow pollution and hopefully also from Ambedkar’s view of them as sinks of localism and dens of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism, but caste continues to impede migration in many cases.

Chinmay Tumbe’s work is valuable because it opens our eyes to these inequalities even as it dazzles us with cheerful factoids about Indian migration: Marie Rozette, a freed slave of Indian origin was one of the richest women in Mauritius in 1790, Punjabi indentured labourers built the Uganda railway in the 1890s, the Goan diaspora in Portugal includes ‘twice migrant’ people of Indian origin from Angola and Mozambique, erstwhile Portuguese colonies, and recent emigrants to Barcelona are drawn from the Ravidasias of Punjab.

A faculty member at IIM(A), Tumbe has the popular professor’s talent for interspersing pages of what could have been dreary text with unexpected bursts of understated humour. So in a section on migration from Ratnagiri in coastal Maharashtra, an area also justly famous for its Alphonso mangoes, the reader is informed of the legislative debate in the 1930s “on how passengers were being displaced by mango parcels in the month of May” on the packed steamers plying between Mumbai and the Konkan.

Penguin (Chinmay Tumbe)
Penguin (Chinmay Tumbe)

Here he is on Charles Darwin in Mauritius in 1836 just as African slaves were being replaced by indentured labour from India: “When he (Darwin) did get to see Indians for the first time on the island, he keenly jotted down his observations, as he had done only a few months earlier on the finches in the Galapagos Islands that would eventually lead him to theorize on the evolution of species…”

And then there is the hilarious picture of a Dr M Ramaswamy, only his head emerging from a wooden cupboard transformed into a steam chamber by an attached pressure cooker (ah, that appliance beloved of every Indian!). The caption states the good doctor ran an Ayurvedic centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia, to help WW2 veterans overcome depression.

What does the future hold? In the 21st century, as the southern states of the nation experience greater development, Tumbe foresees an influx of northern migrants and perhaps the growth of nativist movements against them. Indian women, who have mostly moved only after marriage – with some exceptions like the skilled Malayali nurse -- might move in larger numbers as education levels rise; climate change and its attendant devastation might lead to more Bangladeshis moving to India, and as the Indian economy prospers, more Europeans and North Americans too might seek employment here.

 Watch: Books & Authors - Interview with Chinmay Tumbe, author of India Moving; A History of Migration (full)

“If the major ideological battle of the 20th century was between capitalism and communism, in the 21st century it is likely to be between cosmopolitanism and nativism,” Tumbe says.

This is an exceptional book not just because of the research and thought that has gone into it but also because it leads the reader to understand recurring patterns in the life of this nation and its many linguistic, religious, and caste communities, and to grasp afresh that, for Indians, family ties have always been a binding force. It also gave me a deeper understanding of the motivations of a long-departed parent. And for that I am grateful.

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