Unlike its more famous neighbor Mauritius, Reunion Island hasn’t made a global mark as a tourist destination, even though this small French island, is teeming with spectacular mountains, volcanoes and beaches. The island is home to nearly 250,000 people of Indian origin, nearly a quarter to a third of the total population.
The Indians in Reunion Island claim a strong bond with India, even though the island is a part of France and they carry French passports. “Our nationality is French. But spiritually and culturally, we are Indians,” says Paul Canaguy, president of GOPIO (The Global Organization of People of Indian Origin) in Reunion.
Most Indians in Reunion Island lost any tangible evidence of their Indian origins and ancestry centuries ago. Their ancestors were brought to the island as indentured labor by the French after the abolition of slavery. Under a convention signed with Britain, France was allowed to recruit 6,000 Indians indentured laborers annually.
It is estimated that between 1848 to 1860, nearly 38,000 Indians arrived in Reunion Island as indentured laborers. The colonial masters wanted to ensure they could not find their way back home. So, not only were their documents destroyed, but conscious efforts were made by the French colonizers to cut off all ties with their homeland.
“Our ancestors were not allowed to have their own schools. Since most of them could not read and write, they forgot their mother tongue. The women in Reunion Island today can recite hymns from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, but they don’t know what it means,” says Canaguy. He estimates that 90 percent of the Indians on the island are Hindus of Tamil origin. But many converted to Christianity. The French constitution bars the collection of ethnic, racial or religious data in an effort to create a “color blind” society, so precise data on the number of Indians, Hindus and Muslims on the island is unavailable.
The island itself has a checkered history, not unlike its population. Called Mascarene initially after the Portuguese explorer Pedro Mascarenhas, it changed its name to Ile Bourbon or Ila Bonaparte after it was colonized by the French. It was briefly overrun by Britain in 1810, but restored to France in 1815. In 1946, Reunion Island became an Overseas Department of France and French nationality was bestowed on all its citizens. But one cannot enter Reunion Island on a French visa alone. One requires a separate authorization from Paris to visit Reunion Island.
“I am a French national on record. But I feel like I have two mothers, a biological one and an adoptive one. You know, you are always in want of something until you have found your roots,” says Serge Cestimaamatchy, who is vice president of the local administration committee and an active politician for over 30 years. Most Indians on the island recount a deep sense of belonging to India and struggle with an unnerving urge to track down their roots in India.
The winds of change have transformed the Indian community on the island. Gilbert Canabady Moutien, descendant of South Indian indentured laborers, is among the island’s wealthiest men and owns an entire township in the south of Reunion Island known as Domain Mon Caprice, which houses showrooms and stores of leading European companies. Some of Canabady’s ancestors had toiled on sugar plantations as indentured laborers on the same land generations earlier.
“I had to work very hard to own this land. It was an inner urge to show them what we are capable of, to teach them a lesson,” he says.
Canabady says he discovered account books belonging to the French colonizers, which show that under the “lesser-evil” nomenclature of “indentured labor,” Indians were subjected to abject conditions of slavery. He recently produced a film titled The Indian from Mon Caprice Estate, which depicts the history of his ancestors and his prodigious rise through the social pyramid. He is working on another film on the daily life of indentured laborers on the island.
Canabady takes a pilgrimage to southern India every year, visiting temples, reinforcing his faith in Indian culture. Canabady is a phonetic variation of Ganapathy, which might have been his original family name that was distorted as it passed from generation to generation orally. Most of the rituals and traditions that have trickled down to the community have been through word of mouth.
One of them is Cavadee, which originated in Tamil Nadu to worship the Hindu god Murugan. It is celebrated in the city of St André in Reunion Island elaborately. Residents stream into the streets in a procession wearing pink, considered to be the color of God Murugan. They pull a chariot through the city with idols of Hindu gods. Several temples have been built on the island and priests brought from India. Canaguy says, “Schools and universities now offer courses in Tamil. So the younger generation can understand what the priests say.”
The older generation, however, found work-arounds the impediment of language. Kamala Valeama, a homemaker, says: “I can’t speak Tamil but I can sing devotional songs in Tamil and Sanskrit. I like Hindi film songs too. I used to sing them for my friends in college…like those old Lata Mangeshkar songs.” She breaks into the famous song “Man dole mera tan dole” from the film Nagin. Valeama and her husband perform with a dance and theater group, Bal Tamoul, which is trying to keep the folk culture of Tamil Nadu alive in Reunion Island.
The High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora, led by L M Singhvi, noted in its report in 2000: “The Indian community is very active in promoting Indian culture…. Several PIO associations are enthusiastically engaged in sponsoring cultural programs of Indian dance and music, painting and literature.” It noted the “enthusiasm” with which Tamil New Year, Deepavali and Navratras are celebrated on the island.
Raziah Locate is a manager in a hospitality school. Her grandfather Omarjee Ismael embarked on a voyage with his wife in 1870 from Kathor, near Surat, in Gujarat. He came to Reunion Island to seek better opportunities to further his trade in clothing.
Locate was educated in Paris, but has preserved her India culture. “My daughter is now a 4th generation Indian in Reunion, but I try to teach her everything about the Indian culture,” she says. She speaks fluent Gujarati and gets three Indian channels at home. She visits her ancestral home in Surat frequently and carries no emotional baggage about her origin.
Her grandfather was one of the 40,000 merchants, traders and artisans from Gujarat who are said to have voluntary migrated to Reunion Island starting in the 1850s. Her grandfather was one of the pioneers who paved the way for other Gujarati Muslims to settle in Reunion, who have built a mosque and a madrasa on the island.
The cuisine of Reunion Island is a melting pot of the food of the diverse ethnic communities that inhabit it, including Africans, Chinese, French and Indians. Rice and curry are an integral part of the local cuisine. Curry is made using Indian spices like turmeric, cloves and ginger along with garlic, onion and tomatoes. Locate says she is fond of biryani and sweets like gulab jamun and barfi, which she makes at home.
Locate, Valeama, Canabady, Camatchy and Canaguy were part of a 33-strong delegation at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Jaipur, lobbying for PIO status.
“They ask us for evidence. Do we really need to prove that we are Indians? Our nationality is French, but our souls are Indian,” insists Canaguy.