S African Indian seeks roots in Bihar

Girija Sani Singh who is in Bihar, is determined to trace his roots. The catch is, he doesn't even know the name of his ancestral village.

india Updated: Dec 22, 2006 13:14 IST

He is not the first South African of Indian origin to come to Bihar to trace the roots of his forefathers. But he is different - because he does not even know the name of the village his ancestors came from.

But Girija Sani Singh, 67, is in Bihar with his Gujarati wife Urmila Singh, determined to trace the truth nevertheless.

The couple is not finding that easy because they don't know Hindi.

"I know it is not an easy task, I am trying to do everything for it," said Girija Singh, dressed in a flower-patterned colourful shirt and trousers.

"I was simply overwhelmed and turned emotional when arriving in Bihar because of my blood connections with the land. I felt something special, something unique," he said.

Girija Singh said he was associated with former South African president Nelson Mandela during the fight against apartheid and was in prison for 11 years from 1963 to 1974.

According to him, his grandfather migrated from a village in Bihar in 1910 to South Africa and worked as a labourer in a sugar factory. He later settled in Durban.

"I have little information about the name of my grandfather's village and its location. But it is in Bihar," Girija Singh said.

He has approached government officials who have assured him necessary cooperation in his mission.

Girija Singh said he felt embarrassed at his inability to speak Hindi. "I am sorry I cannot speak in Hindi - the language of my forefathers. It is due to the cultural transformation over the years."

But the couple love to watch Bollywood films and mentioned "Lagaan" and "Mangal Pandey", both starring Amir Khan. "I was impressed by both films," Girija Singh said.

Urmila's family hails from Gujarat. They migrated to South Africa in 1912. But she is in touch with her people in Ahmedabad.

When South Africa won the battle against apartheid in 1990 with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years, Girija Singh was invited by Mandela to serve in the new government led by him.

He joined the South African police intelligence and retired from the service last month. He got married in 1992.

This year, a few Indian-origin people managed to trace their family roots in Bihar, thanks to the efforts of the ministry of overseas Indian affairs (MOIA).

A large number of people from Bihar migrated to Fiji, Mauritius, Trinidad, Surinam, South Africa and other countries in the 19th century to serve as indentured labour on sugarcane and rubber plantations.

Many descendants are now eager to locate the families of their forefathers in India.

Last year, the Bihar government launched a special tourism package called 'Root Tourism' aimed at helping people of Bihar origin wishing to retrace their roots and visit their native villages.

There are over two million PIOs in the Caribbean islands - over 500,000 in Trinidad and Tobago, around 400,000 in Guyana, over 60,000 in Jamaica and over 2,000 in Barbados. Mauritius is home to 700,000 PIOs while over 300,000 PIOs live in Fiji.

First Published: Dec 22, 2006 13:14 IST