Last month, in a rather unusual gathering at a hotel in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, nearly two score Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) all aged above 90, came under one roof. The oldest among them was 105. All had been invited by the Indian High Commission as part of its ongoing endeavour called ‘Celebrating the Elders’.
The Caribbean nation—known for its cricketing prowess—Brian Lara and Darren Ganga are from here—is often referred to as a “rainbow country”. It has a population of around 1.4 million, of which nearly 42 per cent is of Indian origin. The Indian-origin community has also given Trinidad and Tobago two of its Prime Ministers, Kamla Persad Bissessar and Basdeo Panday. The first President was also a PIO, Noor Mohammed Hassanali who was the grandson of an indentured labourer.
The forefathers of these PIOs reached Trinidad and Tobago, a country now known for its abundant reserves of oil and gas, as indentured labour. Also known as ‘girmitiya’ or ‘jahazis’ (those who travelled by ship), indentured labour from India also travelled to Fiji, Mauritius, Surinam and Guyana among other countries.
The term ‘girmitiya’ is a distortion of the word ‘agreement’ which, in turn, refers to the contract the indentured labourers signed with the British before travelling to distant lands.
During the ‘Celebrating the Elders’ event in Port of Spain, 38 people, all aged above 90, were felicitated by socio-cultural-religious organisations at the event organised by the High Commission. Besides being gifted with khadi angavastrams specially woven for them, they were also handed over personalised letters from India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.
The Indian High Commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago, Bishwadip Dey, who has been actively engaging with PIOs said it was a new form of diplomacy wherein the attempt is to tell them that their motherland is reaching out to them.
The diaspora engagement is also in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s outreach to PIOs across countries, said Dey.
As part of the outreach, two teams from the High Commission have been visiting Indian-origin nonagenarians and centenarians spread across 60 villages in Trinidad and Tobago.
Geographical distance from India notwithstanding, the diaspora has managed to keep alive the customs, culture and even the language of their forefathers. While a majority of the PIOs are from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—and the elderly among them still speak Hindi and Bhojpuri—some members of the Indian diaspora are from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu too.
Among the 100 PIOs aged 90 and above identified by the High Commission, Dey has met 60 so far. “Our philosophy is to celebrate the living. When we reach out to them they still say “out motherland is remembering us”.
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